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
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.
“Sure, that pissed her off,” said Letterman. “Not everyone likes horse play.”
True, Oprah is not one for pranks at her expense but that was not the only reason she didn’t speak to Letterman for sixteen years.
On May 2, 1989, the night after Oprah hosted a devil-worshipping show that almost capsized her career, she appeared on Letterman’s s how. She was unnerved by the comedian’s quirky manner. The interview was awkward throughout, although Letterman did not go near the subject of Oprah’s show the previous day in which she had introduced a deranged guest named “Rachel,” who said that her family worshipped the devil and made sacrificial offerings of babies.
“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.
No. 9 Do what I say or I’ll make another movie
No. 8 Funerals and meetings with the Pope: Occasions not to use “You go, Girl.”
No. 7 While you’re reading this, I made 50 million dollars.
No. 6 The night I nailed Deepak Chopra.
No. 5 The million-dollar bill: A convenience that’s long overdue.
No. 4 My love affair with Oprah, by Oprah.
No. 3 You suckers will never know what it’s like to live in a solid gold mansion.
No. 2 Ricki Lake’s home phone number and how she hates 3 a.m. calls.
No. 1 The time I had to wait 5 minutes for a skim half-decaf latte.
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:
No. 6 Unknowing guests gets between Oprah and the buffet
Top Ten Least Popular Tourist Attractions:
No. 3 The Grand Ole Oprah
Top Ten Death-Defying Stunts Robbie Knievel Won’t Perform:
No. 8 Screwing up Oprah Winfrey’s lunch order
Top Ten Things You Don’t Want to Hear from a Guy in a Sports Bar:
No. 1 Oops—time for Oprah.
Top Ten Things Columbus would Say About American if he were alive Today:
No. 6 “How did you come to chose the leader you call Oprah?”
Top Ten Dr. Phil tips for Interviewing Oprah:
No. 4 Grovel
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:
No. 10 She is producing a Broadway musical, The Color Purple, across the street
Nos. 9-1 See No. 10
“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.”
An estimated 13.5 million people stayed up to watch that night, giving Letterman his biggest audience in more than a decade. The next day Washington Post TV writer Lisa de Moraes observed: “Letterman had become that which he once mocked. An Opraholic.”
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….”
Not so long ago the National Enquirer ran a cover of Oprah looking haggard and bloated with a headline that blared: “Oprah’s Booze & Drug Binges! Fed Up Stedman Walks Out—For Good! She’ll Pay $150 Million to Buy His Silence.” This prompted the always cheeky Letterman to announce:
The Top Ten Signs Oprah Doesn’t Care Anymore:
No. 1 Her last three guests were Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam, and Jose Cuervo.
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
Oprah Winfrey has just announced that Oprah’s Angel Network will no longer be accepting donations. She’s also discontinuing the Network’s grantmaking program. Oh, Oprah. Say it ain’t so. But her quiet announcement on the website of Oprah’s Angel Network makes it clear that her Angel giving has come to an end. Por que? Oprah does not say.
In 1997, she formed Oprah’s Angel Network to collect donations from her viewers. “I want you to open your hearts and see the world in a different way,” she told them. “I promise this will change your life for the better.” She started by asking for spare change to create “the world’s largest piggy bank” to fund college scholarship for needy students. In less than six months her viewers had donated more than $3.5 million in coins and bills to send 150 students to college, 3 students from every state. Even the White House contributed, and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to Chicago to appear on Oprah’s show with a piggy bank full of coins she had collected from employees.
Oprah had been deeply affected by the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and wanted to assume Diana’s humanitarian role. “We are … grieved by Princess Diana’s death,” Oprah said on The Today Show, explaining Oprah’s Angel Network, “and the world was talking about what she did charitably–and I wanted people to know, you can do that yourself in your own space where you are in your life…. You can be a princess … by taking what you have and extending it to other people.”
Oprah partnered her Angel Network with 10,000 volunteers from Habitat for Humanity to build 205 houses, one in every city whose local television station broadcast The Oprah Winfrey Show. When Habitat for Humanity built a house for Oprah’s Angel Network, they called the project Oprah’s Angel House, and after the tsunami of 2004 and the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Oprah Angel Houses sprang up like mushrooms. She took her show to New Orleans, pledging $10 million of her own money, and from 2005 to 2006 she raised $11 million more through her Angel Network for rebuilding. She paid the operating expenses of Oprah’s Angel Network so that all donations went directly to the charities she selected. By 2008, her viewers had contributed more than $70 million to 172 projects around the world that focused on women, children, and families; education and literacy; relief and recovery; and youth and community development–all selected by Oprah and donated in Oprah’s name. She fully understood the goodwill that accrues to those who give, and so when she gave, she did so very publicly. Her philanthropy was not quiet or anonymous.
“She certainly makes an effort to do good deeds,” Steve Johnson wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “even if there is often an accompanying effort to make the effort known.” It is true that most of Oprah’s giving was followed by an Oprah press release, plus mentions on The Oprah Winfrey Show, but perhaps she was setting an example for others to follow and not just being self-aggrandizing.”
Now with her syndicated show in its last year of operation, Oprah is discontinuing “the world’s largest piggy bank,” which is dismaying to a needy nation, especially those in the Gulf of Mexico experiencing horrendous disaster from British Petroleum’s oil spill. Oh, Oprah. I hope she reconsiders and keeps galvanizing her legions of angels to continue giving.
She’ll soon be starting OWN (OPRAH WINFREY NETWORK) and have potential access to 80 million viewers, ten times the number she’s attracting now. Think of what Oprah can still accomplish.
Cross-posted from Huffington Post