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Internationally Acclaimed Investigative Biographer Kitty Kelley Tackles Her Most Fascinating Subject Yet—a Woman of Unparalleled Power and Influence in American Society
by Kitty Kelley
For the past three decades, master investigative biographer Kitty Kelley has made her mark by writing penetrating examinations of living cultural icons, without their cooperation and independent of their control. Each of her four previous books—on Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, the British royals, and the Bush family dynasty—was a number one bestseller and made international news. Now with OPRAH: A Biography (Crown Publishers; April 13, 2010) she tackles her most fascinating and formidable subject yet, delivering a comprehensive, rigorously researched, and compulsively readable portrait of a unique American personage who transcends celebrity and who has left an indelible imprint on our society, even as she has sought to change it.
Rising from the humblest of origins, Oprah Winfrey has become one of the most admired women in the world. Adored by millions for her many good works, she is an exemplar of black achievement in a white society, an African American who broke the barriers of discrimination to achieve unparalleled success. The first black female billionaire, she is idolized not only because of her net worth of approximately $2.4 billion, but because she has built her fortune herself, without benefit of marriage or inheritance. The most influential media personality of all time, she has branded her wildly successful television show as a confessional for celebrities and news makers, coaxing her guests to bare their love lives, divulge their deepest secrets, admit their transgressions, explore their painful pasts and personal tragedies, and confront their demons in a form of public therapy that has come to be known as “Oprahfication.”
Yet as much as Oprah is loved, she is also feared. Even as she has won millions of devoutly loyal followers by presenting herself as a warm and embracing “everywoman” who shares the same struggles and preoccupations as her predominantly female audience members, she has become increasingly wary and mistrustful of those around her. Fiercely protective of her name and image, she has stopped giving interviews and responds to the press mostly through publicists rather than directly. Since 1995, she has required all her employees to sign confidentiality agreements, swearing never to reveal anything about her, her business, her personal life, her friends, or her associates to anyone at anytime. Almost everyone who enters her realm must sign these agreements, and the prospect of being sued keeps many—but not all—people silent. Others are afraid to talk simply for fear of offending someone famous or of losing a coveted opportunity to sell their products on her show or in her magazine.
Penetrating her subject’s carefully guarded public image, Kitty Kelley offers, in revealing detail, an intimate look at every aspect of Oprah’s dramatic private life: the truth behind the legend of Oprah as a dirt-poor, fatherless black child neglected by her teenage mother; her complicated feelings about race and her own skin color; her constant battle with her weight; her dysfunctional romantic relationships with men and her close friendships with women, including Gayle King; her enigmatic and passionless life partnership with Stedman Graham; her lavish spending on herself and her friends; her heavy drug abuse during her twenties; her family’s many secrets, including the identity of her biological father; and her conflicted relationships with her mother, her siblings, her father, Vernon Winfrey, and her cousin Katharine Carr Esters, who admires her accomplishments but abhors what she calls “Oprah’s lies.”
With empathy and insight, Kitty Kelley examines Oprah’s early childhood in rural Mississippi; the sexual abuse she suffered as a girl; the tragic circumstances of her unwanted teenage pregnancy; and her adolescent promiscuity, which, as Kelley reveals for the first time, led Oprah to describe herself as a prostitute in a 1993 autobiography that she withdrew from publication. Taking readers beyond Oprah’s own carefully staged personal confessions, she explains how Oprah’s experience of being sexually abused, coupled with her feelings of being unloved and deprived as a child, have fueled not only her drive to achieve unparalleled success, but also her excessive need for control and her insatiable hunger to be the center of attention and to be approved and applauded.
During more than three years of research and reporting, Kitty Kelley obtained court records, birth certificates, and financial and tax reports. She conducted interviews with 850 sources, including family, friends, classmates, coworkers, employees, and professional associates of Oprah, many of whom have never previously spoken about her for publication. And she gathered every interview that her subject has granted over the past twenty-five years, creating 2,732 separate files, enabling her to use Oprah’s own words with surety and to build an uncompromisingly accurate psychological profile. “Sometimes,” writes Kelley, “her public reflections did not jibe with the private recollections of others, but even the truths she shaved, as well as those she shared, added dimension to her fascinating persona.”
The remarkable woman who emerges in OPRAH is more complicated and nuanced than the carefully tended myth of her persona allows. Her philosophy of life, as presented in her eponymous magazine, is a curious mix of unapologetic materialism and uplifting spirituality. She can be generous, magnanimous, and deeply caring, but also imperious, small-minded, and self-centered. Capable of great warmth and openness, she can be closed, calculating, and cold as ice. An effective champion of victims of abuse who has helped countless women begin to heal and recover their lives, she delves into the realm of sensation and exploitation and, in so doing, challenges the boundaries of good taste. She has done an extraordinary amount of good, but also backed products and ideas that are not only controversial but considered by many to be harmful. Despite the softening of her show’s ratings, her influence remains undiminished, and she can never be underestimated, for the pilot light that fired her ambitions since childhood still flames.
A closely observed, exhaustively researched, balanced, and psychologically insightful portrait of one of the most fascinating, powerful, and influential public figures or our time, OPRAH will be a must-read for anyone who seeks a greater understanding of Oprah’s extraordinary life and career and of her important place in American cultural history.
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by Kitty Kelley
April 13, 2010
Also available as an eBook and as an audiobook read by the author
About the Author
Kitty Kelley is the internationally acclaimed bestselling author of Jackie Oh!; Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star; His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra; Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography; The Royals; and The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty. The last four titles were all #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Kelley has been honored by her peers with such awards as the Outstanding Author Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for her “courageous writing on popular culture,” the Philip M. Stern Award for her “outstanding service to writers and the writing profession,” the Medal of Merit from the Lotos Club in New York City, and the 2005 PEN Oakland Literary Censorship Award. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, People, Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her physician husband, Jonathan Zucker.