Twenty Questions For Oprah
No, not really. I had been up most of the night reflecting about the long journey to that moment. I wrote in my journal, "I wonder if my life will change…. I thank God for the opportunity." I was very much aware of the magnitude of the moment.
Like most people, I get nervous only when I'm out of my element or I'm uncertain about the outcome of a situation. Speaking in front of people is like breathing to me. I've been nervous three times that I can recall on my show—for Sidney Poitier, Diana Ross and Nelson Mandela, because they meant so much to me personally.
If a guest is promoting a movie, I've seen the movie. If they're promoting a book, I most likely have read the book or enough of it to have a discussion. In some cases, I've been more familiar with a book than the person promoting it—that's very annoying.
I've lost my temper a couple of times in discussions about the abuse of children. I don't regret what I said but the way I said it. It's never good to lose control on the air.
I try not to have any conversation during break. I learned the first year out that you want to save it for the air. But on that particular show, Tom was so jazzed , chatting it up with the audience and me during commercial breaks. He'd just been to the Legends event [the party Oprah threw in May], so we talked about that. No, he did not offer to clean the sofa, and aren't I glad. Now we can auction it for the Angel Network and make a lot of money.
Rarely—unless it was something so fun that I want to feel it all over again, like the car giveaway show . We were all so absolutely high from the experience that about 20 of us came up to my office and watched it again. Same with our "Favorite Things" for teachers show. The joy for me is seeing grown people—mostly mothers who are used to taking care of everyone else—get so excited.
I used to say I have no celebrity friends. Then one day, I had a dinner party, and there was John Travolta and Julia Roberts at the table, and I was looking at my phone callback list, and there was Halle Berry, Stevie Wonder and Diane Sawyer all on the same day. I had a real aha moment: I guess I do have celebrity friends. When you're sitting around a table eating fried chicken with your fingers, nobody's thinking, "Oh, gee, we're celebrities." But, yes, all of those relationships started as TV interviews.
It's much harder for me to interview a friend, because with friends there are no boundaries. Television requires boundaries. So it's about finding the balance: defining that line between respecting our friendship while remaining spontaneous and truthful.
I spend an hour in the morning getting ready. I wear what I feel like wearing; I never coordinate with the guest.
I always wanted to interview Jackie Onassis and Elvis Presley, but there is no living person. What I really want to do is have an impact on major issues: putting child molesters away for life so that a person who's harmed a child will never have the chance to do it again, having free education available to every African child by 2010, using television as a channel for empowerment—telling stories from around the world about the plight of women and children who have no one to speak for them.
I first give them a chance to get straight. "Really?" I'll say. "That's not what I read, heard, or what my producers told me." Then if they continue to blather, I just say, "I don't believe you."
I usually tell a story about myself that relates to what they're trying to say.
Recently people have wanted to talk about bras and bowel movements. After our bra show, everywhere I went women were showing me their new bras, lifting up their shirts. After Dr. Mehmet Oz was on showing body parts and talking about how bowel movements should look like an S, strangers were thanking me for talking about the S.
I don't do any guests who represent the dark side: Satanism, the KKK, etc. I realize everything is about energy. Dark energy—whether it's called Satan or not—creates more of its kind when given a forum.
It's happened several times over the years. When Cheryl Richardson first appeared and talked about how women should put themselves first on their priority list, most women in the audience were outraged. They didn't believe she could even suggest they be that selfish. "What about our children who need us?!" they shouted. It was visceral. Some actually booed. That I won't allow. I said to the audience that Cheryl was suggesting you fill your own well so you will have more to give to your children. It's the oxygen mask theory: Put yours on first so you're alive to save your child. That calmed people down a bit.
In the course of a segment, a man mentioned his book 26 times. The 27th time, I stopped the interview and said, "Do you think we don't know the name of the book? Audience, what's the name of the book?" They all said it simultaneously, and I said, "Now, can we continue without your mentioning the book, sir?"
In the early days, audience members were guests—that's how we booked the shows. We would go out beforehand and ask for stories. If someone sounded good enough, we'd put that person onstage or build the show around them. You could never trust that method today.
During our shock mode in the late eighties, a husband appeared with his wife and mistress together. We were live on the air, and he told his wife that his mistress was pregnant. I didn't know it was coming, and neither did his wife. The humiliation and pain I saw on her face changed forever the way I handled my job. I thought no one should ever have to experience being surprised by pain in front of an audience. I couldn't take that moment back, but I could do everything in my power to ensure it didn't happen on my watch again.
I'm proud of how we evolved from a TV show to an hour filled with purpose and intention. The show is a force for good. Good information. Good entertainment. Goodwill.
The one about Forsyth County, Georgia, where they didn't allow black people in the town, stayed with me for days. Also the one about a town in West Virginia that tried to ban a young man with AIDS in 1987. This summer I told that story to the press in South Africa. I said, "Less than 20 years ago, we were as ignorant in some parts of the U.S. as you all are now. But you can turn it around with education and information." I have a lifetime of stories still living in my heart.