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books Melinda and Sandy and Oprah

Fresh from her remarks at the Golden Globes Awards ceremony, Oprah Winfrey is being touted in the mainstream media as a potential presidential candidate in 2020. Whether it's a passing fancy or the start of a serious draft effort, now is a good time to look back on celebrity journalist Kitty Kelley's 2010 biography of Oprah, which the reviewer in an essay alternately caustic and refreshing, credits Kelley with "a very powerful understanding of what makes a modern celebrity. She gets the journey, to use a favorite Oprah word, but she also gets the cost of the journey."

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Oprah: A Biography, Penguin Random House

‘Free speech not only lives, it rocks.’ When she was growing up in Mississippi, little Oprah couldn’t have known how much she would come to hate that statement. But Kitty Kelley, giant-killer, stalker of regrets, was born to tell her. In doing so, she draws on the deep reservoirs of self-pity and victimology that Oprah has been wallowing in for 25 years. The two of them were made for each other, with their love of confession and ‘personal revelations’. Each, in her own lucrative way, has coarsened the public’s understanding of real pain, corrupted the meaning of self-respect and annihilated reticence, and it all keeps the tills ringing, the audiences clapping, the advertisers happy and the mind empty.

Kitty Kelley’s books arrived in my life when I was quite young. They seemed almost dazzlingly competent, frighteningly readable, partaking of the same notions of glitz and sex, power and money, falsehood, revenge, hubris and comeuppance that had characterised an earlier kind of bestseller, airport novels written by celebrity authors who set out to show that the lives of the rich and famous were swamps by day and by night. No great imaginative leap was required to get from Valley of the Dolls or Harold Robbins to Kelley’s first entry into the lists of homicidal biography, Jackie Oh!, the story of a quiet widow who turned out to be a money-grubbing whore. The new breed of celebrity (and celebrity-monger) that birthed in the 1980s, also girthed in the 1980s, and Kelley loves a ‘battle with the waistband’, something that gave her hours of fun with Elizabeth Taylor. But her place in the sun came with His Way: The Unauthorised Biography of Frank Sinatra, which raised Sinatra’s hoodlum status to the point where she was sued for two million dollars. Sinatra dropped the action, and Kelley’s book went to number one, but she was now singled out as an author who would reach for the very ceiling of credibility to prove her subject’s monstrousness. The word ‘unauthorised’ was key: it defined a bestseller. Many of her quotes were unattributed, much of her research was vague, though, in Sinatra’s case at least, she seemed to get somewhere close to the nub of what he was like. Still, she was alleged to have played fast and loose with the dates and the references, claiming for example to have conducted an interview with Peter Lawford, the English actor and member of the rat pack, on a date some time after his death.

Kelley is not just mean, or dangerous: she has a very powerful understanding of what makes a modern celebrity. She gets the journey, to use a favourite Oprah word, but she also gets the cost of the journey. Modern politicians, even decent ones, cannot become successful in today’s terms unless they have nipped and tucked their consciences on the way. But politicians get the benefit of being held in generally low esteem: people don’t expect them to tell the truth. Stars have no such luck. Early on, Kelley discovered that the best way to crucify a person who has been long in the public eye is to quote their own words back at them. If you look at enough interviews – and, for the new book, Kelley claims to have read well over 2000 given by Oprah since the early 1980s – you can see a pattern of avoidance and self-dramatisation, of myth-making and contradiction. Celebrities change as their fame grows, and so does their language, their sense of themselves, their willingness to divulge or to open up. Indeed, they often come to have a very different way of interpreting their past, and Kelley’s method has been to dive into the inconsistencies and molest the lacunae. Oprah: A Biography doesn’t describe the distance between any two statements – the book is disingenuous that way – or describe the material circumstances under which a thing was said (in an emotional moment, for instance, or in confused circumstances) and so we discover that on every occasion the subject can be made to look like a liar, a manipulator, an egotist and a monster. Kelley adorns all this with ribbons of comment from a plethora of present-day ill-wishers, each of whom has grievances to air or scores to settle.

Oprah: A Biography
By Kitty Kelley
Crown, 608 pages
Paperback:  $11.25
April 13, 2010
ISBN 978 0 307 39486 6

The story of Oprah is the story of a culture talking to itself, and one from which the hero cannot emerge well. But it isn’t her savage biographer who has set her up so much as the culture of self-help she has flowered in: Oprah’s journey is no less at risk of delusion than Judy Garland’s was. More at risk, you might say, because Oprah was a genuine first, and her bid for success surfed on some pretty heady generational idealism: she is a black woman who became the most powerful media figure in America, a billionaire, a hero to tens of millions of people, maybe the prime example, before Obama was Obama, of what strides a black person might have made since Civil Rights. A thousand tiny deceits could flutter around Oprah, or escape like a colony of bats from some subterranean cave, but they would not alter her position as a public phenomenon. She’s escaped her past. She has lived the dream. She has a $64 million house in California, first called Tara II and now renamed The Promised Land, and she doesn’t have to care. Oprah sees herself, and is seen, as a modern-day prophet, a woman who brings people out of the darkness into a place of virtue. She needn’t care what is said, what is written, or what contradictions are thrown up.

But she does care. Caring is her business. And change is her mantra. There isn’t a day that passes when she doesn’t want to explain, as she asks America to explain, the meaning of her life and the focus of her ‘journey’. ‘Rather than seek psychotherapy to deal with her wounds, she sought the salve of public confession,’ Kelley writes of the early self-revelations that set Oprah apart and made her everyone’s best friend on television. It was Victim TV, with Oprah as the chief victim, the über-abusee, the woman who understands degradation from the inside, the whippings, the insults, the crown of thorns, and who daily advertises her own salvation. Oprah is the standard-bearer of a new ethos in contemporary television: I Invent Myself, Therefore I Am. The world’s most famous television personality is an advertisement for the power of fiction, which is, perhaps, why she dislikes the Kitty Kelleys of the world, who interrupt the flow of her narrative, and the James Freys of the world, too, who make her anxious about a difference she has struggled with all her professional life, the difference between what’s real and what’s much more useful than reality. She insists on the distinction when it comes to others, but for herself, for Oprah – she is special.

In the book itself, a work in which deceitful and self-deceiving habits pirouette to centre-stage from both ends of the question, Oprah and Kitty come together in a formidable danse macabre. Immediately we see Kitty purring Lolita-like, aiding and abetting the criminal act, designing the terms of every outrage, then nailing it to Oprah’s name. Not that Oprah makes a very distant target. Fibs propagate like mayflies in the story of her early days, where the legend of her struggle with poverty and molestation is seen to pupate, grow wings and (literally) take to the air. In the Oprah formulation of life, early abuse is both heinous and self-forming, so long as you one day find a platform public enough to vent it from. ‘Shame’ is something to experience and ‘let go’, Oprah implied as soon as she was famous, though she’s been efficient at covering up her real shame and its occasions. The conundrum is not new and not atypical, but in Oprah’s case it might be called spectacular, a fact that Kelley exhales in puffs of psychobabble:

Her personal victimisation would shadow her shows for the next 20 years, influencing her choice of topics and guests, her book club selections, her charities, and even her relationships. She was forever trying to come to terms with what happened in her mother’s house. She used her sad childhood to try to help others as she tried to help herself, but without therapy, her struggle was never-ending, showing itself in a constant battle with weight – losing and gaining, bingeing and fasting. Her excessive need for control, plus the immense gratification she derived from being the centre of attention, applause and approval, had its roots in her adolescent sexual abuse. The need to climb out of that sordid hole would drive her toward unparalleled success, which brought the rich rewards of an extravagant lifestyle, a healing balm to growing up poor.

A great deal of American media storytelling – including the public understanding of foreign policy – is basic fairytale stuff. The Taliban are the evil goblins, Saddam is the cruel giant – and Oprah is the black Cinderella, the abused girl with the broom who one day takes over the castle. But how poor was Oprah? Dirt-poor and fatherless, according to her own story, but Kelley sets out to undermine this sweet litany of underprivilege. ‘I never had a store-bought dress or a pair of shoes until I was six years old,’ Oprah is quoted as saying to a reporter. ‘The only toy I had was a corncob doll with toothpicks … I had only the barnyard animals to talk to … I read them Bible stories … We were so poor we couldn’t afford a dog or cat, so I made pets out of two cockroaches … I put them in a jar, and named them Melinda and Sandy.’ Members of Oprah’s family say it was never as bad as the cockroaches. ‘She … had a white cat, an eel in an aquarium, and a parakeet called Bo-Peep that she tried to teach to talk,’ according to her half-sister Patricia Lloyd.

But teaching creatures to talk has been an Oprah speciality. Inventing your past, adding arms and legs to it and giving yourself a bright new name used to be a Hollywood rite of passage. But Oprah changed the nature of public self-consciousness in America, by incrementally revealing more terrible things about herself and so becoming the Western world’s most popular soap Oprah. She revealed she had taken drugs; she accepted that she had slept with men in, shall we say, an attention-seeking way (her half-sister says she was a teen hooker); and after being forced out of silence by the tabloids, she admitted that she had given birth to a baby who died. Each time, the story of O was the occasion for a mass coming to terms, a mass outpouring of innards, an increase in sales, and a growth in the sense that Oprah spoke very directly to the hidden pain of the nation. She had historical grief, too, over racial prejudice, which she exorcised not only on the show but in her work as an actress (see, or rather don’t see, The Color Purple), and she established a link between racial disadvantage and the private stuff of her own ‘struggle’ that America has found compelling. It is an all too human seeming nexus of underprivilege and overindulgence, where every excess is seen to be a symptom of something suffered, and every concealment is seen to be evidence of a pain that lies too deep for tears. At every turn, Kelley is there to map the truths, the legends, and the wild conflations of the two: the private gluttony and the public purging; the sexual indefiniteness; the cult of disclosure v. the manic clampdowns; the distance between her early low-rent ‘carnival of freaks’ and her new evangelistic mode; the charity work v. the mad shopping; the Christian love of meekness v. the inveterate star-fucking. It’s not merely that Kelley has a low opinion of Oprah Winfrey. She hates distinction. She hates preferment. And she hates every kind of manipulation except her own.

Redemption’s the name of the game, but there is apparently no hell deep enough to contain Oprah’s self-deceiving horribleness. (Or that of anyone Kelley has ever written about.) One of Oprah’s mottos is Live Your Best Life; it is Kelley’s contention, embedded in her hysterical narrative, that nobody so conscious of their own goodness was ever so close to badness, and the litany of accusations – vanity, greed, lies, and several hundred abominations not known to biblical wisdom, including seeing Jesus Christ as a ‘prosperity teacher’ – never stops. For reasons that must have to do with Kelley’s pertly blonde vision, Oprah is nothing but a case of affirmative action gone crazy, a woman for whom the cult of confessionalism conceals a multitude of dark secrets. Our biographer is not always wrong, by the way, but maybe a tad self-excluding from the festival of self-serving behaviour she so avidly describes.

Just as Oprah has become a mistress of selective self-revelation, her biographer is now an acknowledged don of selective journalism. She merely takes what she wants to take to build her case, persistently catching her subjects at their worst and then leaving them gasping in a pit of their own accusability. The sorest charge, and the most controversial, goes to the heart of America’s recent wish for a fairytale resolution of the black conundrum. (The ugly sisters, in the shape of the Tea Party Movement, are ready and waiting in the corner to resume normal programming.) Oprah may have changed the status of black women in the media, but her trouble, a trouble she can’t quite dismiss, may put her a generation behind those heading for a truer Promised Land. The charge runs counter to the notion that the road from the bus station in Montgomery led directly to Obama’s White House. The world’s greatest pop entertainer, Michael Jackson, was moved to bleach his skin, and many argue that Barack Obama might well have failed to galvanise the love of his voting countrymen had he been even two degrees darker. Oprah, black sisterhood incarnate, with her Go Girl catchphrase and her long purple driveway up to her glorious Southern-style mansion, has evidently spent much of her life wishing she was white. That, perhaps, is the secret Oprah could never quite face, but she nonetheless revealed her anxiety over the years. ‘I suppose that her wanting to be white makes her see things the way she does,’ Oprah’s cousin Katharine Carr Esters said. ‘I stopped wanting to be white when I was ten years old and saw Diana Ross and the Supremes perform on the Ed Sullivan Show,’ Oprah claimed on one occasion. ‘I was too black-looking,’ she told a reporter when looking back on her struggle to get into television. ‘A lot of producers and directors were looking for light skin, tiny noses, small lips. It was a heartache for me and a source of anger as well.’

Well, she overcame the anger – made that overcoming of pain a part of her act, which then became part of the daily American project – and left the likes of Barbara Walters in the shade. As for Kitty Kelley, she would probably like to be a better writer, but her animosities are too high, her culture is too low, and, anyhow, she doesn’t stand a chance of getting any of her books on Oprah’s Book Club.

Author Kitty Kelley's previous books include chronicling the lives of the Bush dynasty (The Family, 2004); the British royal family (The Royals, 1997); Nancy Reagan (Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, 1991); and Frank Sinatra (His Way: An Unauthorized Biography Of Frank Sinatra, 1986), each debuted at # 1 on the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction bestseller list. Her other biographies, Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star (1981) and Jackie Oh! (1978), also were New York Times bestsellers. Her books have been published in 36 foreign languages.

[Esayist Andrew O'Hagan is a Scottish novelist, nonfiction author, and currently a creative writing fellow at King's College London. O'Hagan was selected by the literary magazine Granta for inclusion in their 2003 list of the top 20 young British novelists. His novels have been translated into 15 languages. His essays, reports and stories have appeared in London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, Granta, The Guardian and The New Yorker.]