by Kitty Kelley
“When I received my PhD in 1985 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Oprah asked me where I was going to work,” said Jo Baldwin in the summer of 2010. “I said I would be applying for a position at Ebony magazine as a copy editor. Oprah said she did not like Linda Johnson Rice [owner of Ebony] and I should come to work for her instead. So I did.
“I was to work for her for three years, but she fired me without notice after two years… I heard from someone later that she got rid of me because she got tired of me talking about Jesus all the time…Oprah preferred the teachings of Shirley MacLaine’s books, such as Dancing in the Light and Out on a Limb, which Oprah made me read but I didn’t think much of.”
Jo Baldwin, a tenured professor at Mississippi Valley State, is also an ordained minister and pastor. Deeply religious, the Reverend Jo, as her parishioners call her, feels her famous cousin has lost her way and is mired in godless New Age mumbo jumbo.
Baldwin’s feelings, like many in Oprah’s family, stem from resentment over the way she has been treated. The power of Oprah’s vast wealth makes most of her relatives quake. They want to be part of the luxurious life that she offers on occasion (her lavish Christmas presents, her birthday checks, even her hand-me-downs) but they chafe at the way she has dismissed them since becoming famous and they know that she does not cherish them as family. She prefers instead her celebrity friends. Oprah holds Maya Angelou as the mother she should’ve had; she sees Sidney Portier as her father, Quincy Jones as her uncle, and Gayle King as her beloved sister.
Jo Baldwin became estranged from her famous relative who continues to put distance between herself and her blood relations. Oprah will not give her mother, Vernita Lee, her personal phone number. If her mother needs to call Oprah, she must call the studio and talk to Oprah’s producers.
“The family is tangled with so many secrets and so much fear,” said Baldwin. “I admit I was afraid of Oprah for 20 years. Absolutely terrified. She’s powerful and dangerous. She told me if I ever opened my mouth [about what I know] she’d sue my pants off.”
Baldwin, who spoke to me for the paperback publication of Oprah: A Biography, feels the main reason she is not close to Oprah is because of the differences in their religious convictions.
“Mainly, Oprah wanted to shame me for being a follower of Jesus as if to say, ‘What is He doing for you that’s so great?’ Oprah inflicts emotional wounds that could lead to physical illness, if they aren’t healed. My faith has kept me from getting sick [over her].”
(Photos: Jo Baldwin courtesy of Jo Baldwin; Oprah in 1987, Kevin Winter/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Cross-posted from Gawker
by Kitty Kelley
It always happens. The day after your book is published you meet someone who says, “Oh, I wish I’d known you were writing that biography. I could’ve told you about ….” Fill in the blanks here with some hair-raising incident you did not have in your book, despite years of research and hundreds of interviews. Never fails.
Shortly after the paperback publication of Oprah: A Biography, I received an email from a man, gently chiding me for my vaunted investigative skills. “How come you didn’t find me?” he teased. “I was Oprah’s lover back in the 1980’s and lived with her for four months before Stedman came on the scene.”
Ordinarily, such an email would be tossed into the crank bin filled with letters from felons, proclaiming their innocence. But this particular email had too many specifics to ignore. So I responded with pertinent questions to see if this Haitian film maker, Reginald Chevalier, was the real deal. Turns out he was. I called Oprah’s publicist to double-check his information but my call was not returned.
Not that I needed to add any more lovers to Oprah: A Biography. She had had several over the years, including the muzak musician John Tesh, when they worked together in Nashville, and retired radio disc jockey Tim Watts, the married man who was the love of her life for years in Baltimore. There was also a brief fling with Randy Cook, who lived with Oprah for a few months and described himself as her drug procurer.
Reginald Chevalier said he met Oprah when he appeared on her show in 1985. “She was doing a segment on look-alikes and at the time I looked like Billy Dee Williams. She later confided that she instructed her producers to keep me backstage after the show. She threatened to fire them, if I got away. She took me to lunch at the Water Tower restaurant and ordered stuffed mashed potatoes for both of us.”
Their affair began that day.
I remember how she loved taking candle-lit baths before going to bed. We took lots of them together. We spent many nights together in her new condo which she loved so much. I would be watching TV and she would be working on her next day’s show…. Besides going to restaurants for lunches and dinners, to stores to buy gifts for employees and friends—Oprah is generous with stuff—we would go to the Bears games because I was friends with one of the players. We occasionally had dinner with Michael Jordan and his wife, Juanita, or with Danny Glover, [Oprah’s co-star in The Color Purple.]
I noticed a few times she would bring up the subject of marriage and ask me if this was something I believed in. I think at that time Oprah was ready to take the plunge, and I was the chosen one…but I wasn’t interested in getting serious…. Oprah took me to her mother’s house for dinner in Milwaukee and that’s where I met Jeffrey, her gay brother [who died of AIDS in 1989]. Oprah said to him, “You stay away from this guy. He’s mine.”
Chevalier was 25 years old then and Oprah was 32, but he said the age difference didn’t matter to either of them. He accompanied Oprah to the Chicago premiere of The Color Purple. “Oprah bought a purple mink coat for the occasion and wanted me to wear purple mink as well but I just couldn’t do it.” Their photo appeared in the Chicago newspapers. “If you look carefully, you can see part of Gayle King’s face in the lower left of the picture,” he said. “Gayle was always around. Everywhere we went she was there. She was Oprah’s shadow.”
Chevalier has fond recollections of his time with Oprah, although he admits that she’s a much more reserved, calculating person off-camera than the warm, embracing person she presents on her show. “Things came crashing to a halt in April 1986,” he recalled. “I had been out of town on a modeling assignment and when I returned to the Water Tower condo, my key wouldn’t work. The concierge informed me that the locks had been changed. Oprah had left a box for me filled with all my belongings. On a yellow envelope she had written: ‘Sorry, things aren’t working between us. Oprah Winfrey.’ That was it. No phone call. No good-bye. Nothing. She was as cold as ice…. A few weeks later Stedman was on the scene— full time.”
(Photos courtesy of Reginald Chevalier.)
Cross-posted from Gawker
by Kitty Kelley
In researching Oprah: A Biography I spent several days in Kosciusko, Mississippi where Oprah Winfrey was born and lived until she was six years old. I spent time with Katharine Carr Esters, Oprah’s first cousin, whom she calls “Aunt Katharine.” Mrs. Esters, 79 at the time, was my guide to the formative years of Oprah’s life in Mississippi and later with her mother in Milwaukee where Mrs. Esters said, “Oprah ran wild on the streets.”
During our days together Mrs. Esters talked about the strained relationship between Oprah, her mother, and the man who had fathered Oprah. “It’s not Vernon Winfrey,” said Mrs. Esters, “although he’s the one who stepped forward to take responsibility of her when Oprah needed it most.”
Mrs. Esters told me the name of Oprah’s real father but insisted I not publish the information until Oprah’s mother told Oprah the truth. When my book was published in April 2010 Mrs. Esters, obviously feeling the pressure from her powerful relative, backed away and denied what she had told me.
A few months later I received a call from Mrs. Esters’ daughter, Jo A. Baldwin, who had once worked for Oprah in Chicago as V.P. of Harpo. I had tried to interview Baldwin at the time but she would not talk. “I was too scared of Oprah,” she said. “Oprah told me if I ever talked she’d ruin me…. But I can talk to you now.”
“Why now and not then?” I asked.
“Because I now have tenure and Oprah can’t take my job away from me.”
Jo Baldwin is associate professor of English and director of the Writing Center at Mississippi Valley State University and pastor of Greater Disney Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Greenville, MS. Her friends call her Rev. Jo.
“I know now that you wrote the truth when you wrote about mom telling you the name of Oprah’s real father,” she said. “My son, Conrad, [who lives with Mrs. Esters], told me he heard mom say it.” Jo Baldwin agreed that when my interviews with her mother became public, Mrs. Esters became afraid of what Oprah might do to her, and backed away from what she had told me.
Over a period of weeks Rev. Jo and I spoke on the phone several times and exchanged numerous emails. I’ve included much of her information in the paperback of Oprah: A Biography (published January 18, 2011) but the story below is one she sent me after the paperback had gone to press.
Jo A. Baldwin has a B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), a M.A. in Creative Writing from UWM, a M.A. in Speech Theatre from Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a Ph.D. in English from UWM, and a Master of Divinity from United Theological Seminary, Dayton Ohio. Baldwin is the first black American to earn a Ph.D. in English from UWM. She is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at Mississippi Valley State University, Itta Bena, Mississippi, and the first in the country to modify Shurley English for college students, a method for teaching Basic English grammar that she revolutionized with her own poems and songs. Her REFERENCE MANUAL FOR Shurley English MODIFIED FOR COLLEGE STUDENTS will be available pending obtaining a trademark on her intellectual property. She is the Pastor of Greater Disney Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Greenville, Mississippi, and the first to author a book on “Tuning” which is a form of Preaching in the Black Tradition entitled Seven Signature Sermons by a Tuning Woman Preacher of the Gospel published by the Edwin Mellen Press, “An International Scholarly Publisher of Advanced Research.”
by Kitty Kelley
Jon Stewart appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman a few nights ago and Stewart asked Letterman why he was always feuding with Oprah. Letterman laughed but Stewart probed he who will not be probed until Letterman told him about the day he decided to have lunch on Oprah. Both were eating at different tables in the same restaurant. Letterman told the waiter that Oprah wanted to pick up the tab. Dave waved to her and she waved back so the waiter assumed it was legitimate. Dave left and Oprah got stuck with the bill.
Stewart giggled. “That can’t be right,” he said.
“And this is a—does everyone else think it’s a nice Jewish family?” asked Oprah, introducing “Rachel’s” religion. “From the outside you appear to be a nice Jewish girl…”
“Rachel” allowed that “not all Jewish people sacrifice babies…”
“I think we all know that,” said Oprah. Then she added: “This is the first time I heard of any Jewish people sacrificing babies, but anyway—so you witnessed the sacrifice?”
The phones at Harpo jangled for hours with irate callers objecting to Oprah’s blithe acceptance of “Rachel’s” claims, but Oprah was not too concerned. The next night she appeared on Late Night with David Letterman in Chicago. Letterman, who may have been drinking more than coffee, had a rowdy audience which wasn’t all that impressed with Oprah. Things became uncomfortable when someone yelled, “Rip her, Dave.” Letterman grinned his gleeful gap-toothed grin and said nothing. Years later he said, “I think she resented the fact that I didn’t rise to the occasion and, you know, beat up on the guy. Which I probably should have, but I was completely out of control and didn’t know what I was doing.”
A couple nights later, Letterman told his audience that he felt ill because he had eaten four clams at Oprah’s restaurant, The Eccentric. That iced it. Oprah slammed the door on Letterman and did not open it for sixteen years.
The following year Letterman hosted the Academy Awards show and did a play on the names of Uma Thurman and Oprah Winfrey. “Uma, Oprah; Oprah, Uma” misfired and Oprah, highly sensitive to her public image, was incensed.
After she launched O, The Oprah Magazine in 2000, Letterman took another poke at her by announcing “the Top Ten Articles from Oprah’s New Magazine”:
No. 10 P,R,A and H, the four runner-up titles for this magazine.
By then the world seemed to be divided into Opraholics and Winfreaks who wanted nothing more than to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Among them was David Letterman, who started an “Oprah Log,” begging for an invitation. Oprah ignored him but he persisted. “It ain’t Oprah ‘til it’s Oprah,” he told his audiences night after night. Soon his fans began holding up signs in front of the Ed Sullivan Theater, in airports, and at football games: “Oprah, Please Call Dave.”
After eighty-two nights, Phil Rosenthal advised Oprah in the Chicago Sun-Times: “This is a call you have to make…. Every night… he is making you look like a humorless, self-important diva who spouts all kinds of New Age platitudes about forgiveness and positive thought but stubbornly clings to grudges. He’s not the one who looks bad in this. It’s a funny bit, and so long as you refuse to play, you’re the butt of it… You’re simply digging in your heels, being stubborn, petty and stupid.”
Oprah did not make the call. She was still steamed about Letterrman’s jokes over the years:
Top Ten Disturbing Examples of Violence on TV:
Top Ten Least Popular Tourist Attractions:
Top Ten Death-Defying Stunts Robbie Knievel Won’t Perform:
Top Ten Things You Don’t Want to Hear from a Guy in a Sports Bar:
Top Ten Things Columbus would Say About American if he were alive Today:
Top Ten Dr. Phil tips for Interviewing Oprah:
Rapprochement came on December 1, 2005 when Oprah finally agreed to appear on Letterman’s show and then allowed him to escort her to the Broadway premiere of The Color Purple, prompting People to surmise:
And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Top Ten Most Likely Reasons Why Oprah Winfrey Ended Her 16-year Rift with David Letterman and Agreed to Appear on His CBS Late Show:
“At last our long national nightmare is over,” said The Kansas City Star.
Letterman behaved like a star struck schoolboy. “It means a great deal to me, and I’m just very happy you’re here,” he gushed to Oprah. “You have meant something to the lives of people.”
Grateful as Letterman was to be in Oprah’s good graces he did not remain her love puppet. When she publicly announced in 2006 that she and her best friend, Gayle King, were simply best friends and not gay lovers, she once again became fodder for his late night monologue: “I hear that and I go hmmmmmm….”
The Top Ten Signs Oprah Doesn’t Care Anymore:
Letterman vs. Winfrey will never reach pay-per-view because these heavy weights know the limits. She is accustomed to genuflection and he can’t bend a knee—for long. But both know their so-called feud serves them well, especially when they appear together on Super Bowl commercials. So let’s stay tuned for the next roumd.
Cross-posted from Huffington Post
By Kitty Kelley
The name of Oprah Winfrey, the world’s first black female billionaire, was conspicuously absent from the Midas list of do-gooders released this week by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who have dragooned their billionaire brethren into promising to give away half their fortune. Mr. Buffet has said he intends to call Ms. Winfrey about making a public commitment to this philanthropic endeavor, and while I’m sure the conversation will be more than cordial, I’ll wager that the lady in question, whose net worth is $2.4 billion, will be unresponsive.
Yet, unlike some of the Buffet-Gates givers, she has publicized her philanthropy over the years through press conferences, interviews and her daily talk show. Her giving in the early years of her career was minimal—less than 10 percent of her incredible income—but in 1998 she began increasing her charitable contributions and making more sizeable donations to her charitable foundation:
Her biggest contribution is to her $40 million school in South Africa, The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, which she supports through the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. She has said that school will be her legacy. She decided long ago to make her philanthropic investment in South Africa rather than America, where she said poor children did not appreciate education.
While many applauded Oprah for opening her heart to young girls in South Africa, some criticized her for not investing in the youth of America. “I find it interesting that white people are concerned about me educating black girls,” she said. When the chorus of carps continued, Oprah spoke sharply to all her critics in an interview with BET: “To hell with your criticism,” she said. “I don’t care what you have to say about what I did. I did it.”
As you can see from the chart below, Oprah contributed 7.75 percent of her income over the last few years to her school:
To date Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have received commitments from 40 people to sign “The Giving Pledge,” eleven of whom are not even billionaires or listed on the Forbes list of 400 Richest Americans, but are well-known for their philanthropy. Oprah, who has made every money list imaginable, and is revered for her good works, has yet to sign. Perhaps Mr. Buffet will be able to persuade her to join philanthropist David Rockefeller, New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, entertainment executive Barry Diller, Oracle’s co-founder Larry Ellison, energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens, media mogul Ted Turner, film director George Lucas and investor Ron Perelman. But odds are that this is one club Oprah does not want to join.
Cross-posted from Huffington Post