Image Credit: Amy Sussman/Getty ImagesKitty Kelley has gone where most biographers have been too afraid to go before: She wrote the life story of the all-powerful Oprah Winfrey. Kelley spent four years of her life researching the talk show maven for her new unauthorized biography, Oprah (hits shelves tomorrow). We got the author on the phone today to talk about her research and the secrets she discovered in Oprah’s own autobiography, which was withdrawn before publication. (Kelley claims that was probably because it contained reveals regarding Oprah’s life as a “teenage prostitute,” among other secrets)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You wrote that you had met Oprah years ago. At what point did you begin thinking about writing about her?
KITTY KELLEY: Decades later. I had absolutely no intention or idea at the time. It just was one of those coincidences. And I remembered it so well. It was in 1981, and I was promoting a book in Baltimore. But I didn’t decide to write this book until 2006.
What started to get you interested in writing it?
I didn’t think I’d do another one. And I’m going to tell you now I’m never going to do another one. But I just thought her life story from the little I knew of it was absolutely fascinating. But I told my agent that that’s what I would like to do, and he said, “There is no way. Nobody is going to publish this book.” And I say, “In my contract, I have to go back to my publisher.” And we went back to my publisher, and they said no. But Crown Books thought it was a fabulous idea. And they saw it the same way as I saw it. I thought the life story was unbelievable. She’s so powerful and she’s had such an impact on our society, that I thought a biography that would tell people more to understand her would be great. So that’s how it came about.
So this is indeed your last book?
It will probably be the last biography. However, I do have to tell you, I do say that after each book. It’s like coming off a bender.
Was this the toughest book you’ve done? How did you get around the confidentiality agreement Oprah makes her employees and guests sign?
There were a lot of people that said no. But thank god, there were a lot of people who said yes in exchange for absolute confidentiality. So you hate going with anonymous sources, but for this book, most of the sources are on the record with the sole exceptions of the past and present employees, and also publishing sources.
It took you four years to write the book. Did it take you a long time to gain access to your sources? Were they at all hesitant at first to talk to you?
I went to Kosciusko, Miss. for three days. And I spent that time with her Aunt Katherine. And you are right – over a period of time, I felt that she did trust me. So much so, that I got hauled into the secrets. I say that that was the biggest surprise to me, that this woman who seems so outgoing and spontaneous and uninhibited on the air is really shackled by her secrets. And I found myself [included in the secrets] when her Aunt Katherine said, “Oprah has begged me for years and years to tell me who her father is,” and then she told me and said, “But you cannot tell. You simply cannot tell. Because it’s not our place. Oprah’s mother has to tell her.” So I didn’t, of course.
And Oprah doesn’t know who her father is.
She knows that Vernon is not her father. She gives him full credit, which I feel he deserves, and she gives it to him rightfully so, for raising her and giving her a chance at living a good life. But he’s not her blood father.
So you’re not releasing that secret.
That’s just one more secret that Oprah is having to deal with within her own family. The one that she told that I think is really her signature issue and she deserves such credit to bring forward the shame and taboo of sexual molestation, because I think by telling that secret, as much as she did tell, helped so many people. But in her autobiography, which she later withdrew, she was finally going to get rid of some of those secrets. And she was going to tell all the three people who had sexually abused her, who the father was of the little boy she had, and also the teenage promiscuity that led her to be what she called herself, “a teenage prostitute.” Which was a little harsh, I think, for a young girl who had gone through what Oprah had gone through. But she started to do that, but then she pulled back. So the secrets still govern her to this day, in a way.
Did you expect a lot of shock to come from the prostitution revelation? That’s a big one.
It’s a big one, but no. I think people [who want to hear the shocking revelations] are going to say, “What’s wrong with you? You didn’t out her!” If I interviewed 850 people, 800 of them must have said, “So, okay, what’s the deal with Gayle?” And her sexuality is a part of this book, because she’s made it a part. She has issued a press release saying she’s not a lesbian, and I take her at her word. I think she’s asexual.
So you don’t buy into the rumors?
No, I don’t.
It’s interesting you wrote so much about people who tried to write books about Oprah, but were turned down by publishers, or intimidated to the point where they withdrew. Yet you managed to eke one out, which seems a feat.
Yes. YES. I don’t say that immodestly. I say that as a survivor.
And now I’ve seen that you feel you’ve been blacklisted by Barbara Walters, Larry King, and Rachael Ray?
I don’t think that Oprah got on the phone. She doesn’t have to do that. But it just shows you the immense power that she has. Barbara Walters said she absolutely wouldn’t [have me on], and Larry King…he’s somebody who loves celebrities, I think. And [with] the last book [2004’s The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty], he wouldn’t have me on because he was emceeing George H.W. Bush’s 80th birthday party. So I’m not surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised.
Has Oprah contacted you since you finished writing?
No. Her publicist, I wrote her several times, and her publicist called me finally after about my third or fourth letter and said, “Ms. Winfrey asked me to call you. She declines to participate at this time.” And I thought, ooh, at this time! Maybe there’s hope! So I asked her, “Is there hope? The reason I ask is because I have to be accurate. I have to be fair, but I have to be accurate.” I said, “Could I send her questions? Could I send her a list of facts?” And she said, “Well, if you have questions or a list of facts, you can reach out to me. Call me, and I’ll be happy to answer anything.” And don’t you know, every time I called, she didn’t pick up.
Do you expect to hear from either Oprah or her publicist?
So then you had to rely on Oprah’s own interviews for information. Did her interviews change over the years? Did the way she spoke change?
Absolutely. When I finally realized she wasn’t going to talk to me, I spent about a year gathering all the interviews she’s ever given in the English language to newspapers, radios, and so forth. And it took a long time to put them all together in a way that made sense. But it was fabulous because I had her own words talking about things, her thoughts at the time. So it was great. But I did see a huge difference. Not so much the confidence, which seems to be something she had from the very beginning. Immense, immense confidence. But the change you see in her happens about 1994. It’s what the Chicago reporters told me they called “The Dawn of the Diva.” Up to that point, she was very open and accessible, she’d sit for every single interview, she was open to reporters, she courted publicity, she gave things to the tabloids, provided them pictures. But by 1994, she had made substantial money, and she decided she wasn’t going to be tabloid anymore. And that’s when she started her new-age spiritual quest, if you will. She became more and more aloof, so that now, today, she doesn’t even give interviews.
There’s an interesting passage near the beginning about Winfrey’s father’s memoir, which he claimed would not be about Oprah, and how she got him to withdraw the proposal before publishers began to bid. I know you talked to Vernon — did you have a chance to read the proposal?
Yes, I have the proposal. You know something? Vernon Winfrey was telling the truth. He said to me, and he said this is what he said to Oprah on the phone, “This is not your book, it’s my book. I want to write about my life.” And I said to him, “Well, Mr. Winfrey, what did you want to write?” He said, “You have to understand, I’m part of the Moses generation. I was there when Martin Luther King was starting to march for civil rights. Oprah’s part of the Joshua generation. She’s on the come-up.” I thought that was so interesting. He said, “She can quote all of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, but she wasn’t there. I was, and that’s what I want to write about.” Well, when I got ahold of the proposal, he’s absolutely right. He did write about Oprah, there’s no question, but he wrote about his family, about growing up one of 10 children, growing up in white America. It was very interesting. And I happened to mention it when I went to Kosciusko and talked to her Aunt Katherine. And she gave me a book that she had written. And I read it. It was fascinating. And I said, “Ms. Esters, why didn’t you give this book to Oprah?” She said, “Oh, I did. I just hoped Oprah would bless my book so it would be profitable, and I could leave some money to people here in the community. But Oprah said my book was too boring.” It’s very sad. But as far as her father, I said, “So what happens to your book now?” And the proud part of this man said, “Well, I still want to do it.” And I said, “Do you think you will?” And he said, “Publishers are now saying I have to have her permission.” So I don’t think we’ll ever see Mr. Winfrey’s book.
You talked to a whopping 850 sources. What percentage of them spoke favorably about the talk show host?
Let’s just start with her family. They really prefaced our interviews with they do love Oprah, they do admire her for her good works, but they have a very complicated relationship. And I think they resent the fact that she’s created a celebrity family for herself and dismissed them. So it was mixed. When I interviewed Alice Walker, she said she loved Oprah, she admired her, she considered her a gift to the planet, but she didn’t understand the remove that Oprah put between them. They weren’t all negative and they weren’t all positive. Erica Jong loved the Oprah she met in the early days. She said she was sweet then. Not so sweet now. It was that kind of thing.
Did you fear a lot of your sources just held grudges against Oprah, and that’s the reason they spoke unfavorably?
No, because I really tried to put it in context. I really tried to let the reader know what I was doing and where the person was coming from. Katherine Esters — and she had said this in her book too — said, “I believe in telling the truth, snakes, spiders, and all.” And boy, she did. And I was having lunch with Ms. Esters, and she was talking about Oprah’s lies. “She tells lies!” And I said, “Well, are they really lies? They’re more colorful stories.” And Mrs. Esters is saying, “No, those are lies. There weren’t pigs on the farm. There was one pig. She said she was raised in abject poverty. Oprah said she never had a pretty dress until she was successful. She was beautifully dressed as a child. She said she grew up barefoot. Well, look at this picture here.” And when she was done, I said, “Is that the most important thing?” And she looked at me and said, “No, the most important thing is that we were poor folks down there. But she was raised as an only child, and she had the full and undivided attention of all of these adults who spoiled her to death. And that was the reason she was so precocious and successful.”
What was the key to her success?
I think that has a great deal to do with it – the fact that she was precocious as a young child. She got a great deal of attention, and I think it just absolutely went from there. Oprah herself says for the first 10 years of her life, she wanted to be a white child, because they got more and they had more. But once she saw Diana Ross on The Ed Sullivan Show, she decided she wanted to be Diana Ross. And she just aimed that way. She has said that Diana Ross was the first black woman she ever saw wearing real diamonds.
What was the biggest scoop in your book, in your opinion?
To tell you the truth, I don’t know. For me, as somebody who spent all this time writing her life story, the fact that she is so shackled by secrets. It knocked me over. The secrets that she kept, and the secrets she still binds others to. With her confidentiality agreements, telling employees that they can’t go out in public and mention her name — they have to refer to her as Mary — [and] you’re not allowed to take your cell phone around her because you might take pictures. She wants to be in the news, but she needs to control it. She now sees herself as a brand. She doesn’t like her picture taken unless it was staged. And if her picture is taken by a photographer, and she doesn’t like it, she will buy up all the copies.
Was that the thing that most surprised you while writing?
It was the secrets thing. First of all, when I was down South, and I absorbed what it was for a young black child to grow up in Mississippi, and then to live in Nashville, I wasn’t surprised by the interracial love affairs that she had, but I was surprised by people’s reactions, even in the 21st century, saying it’s no big deal now, but then it was a big deal. But I guess what I was surprised about was she had put all the secrets down, or a lot of them, she mentioned the three men who had sexually abused her, as well as the prostitution, and she was ready to put that in her autobiography. And then she withdrew it.
Was it just too much for her to take at the time?
Yeah, absolutely. And I think the people she showed it to said, “Whoa. It’s one thing to talk about sexual abuse. You were a victim. You were victimized. But you don’t go out there and say you traded sex for money and you were a prostitute.” I think they felt she established herself on such a high pedestal, she couldn’t afford to do that. And as we are talking now, she is now, according to Good Housekeeping’s latest poll, the most admired woman in the world. That means more admired than Mother Teresa and Eleanor Roosevelt. That’s a feat!