Until they invent Trivial Pursuit: The Oprah Edition, it’s hard to conjure a reason to slog through Kitty Kelley‘s Oprah: A Biography, a mind-boggling amount of detail that lasts for 525 pages, including the index and author’s skimpy half-page bio.
The book spans Oprah Winfrey‘s life from her birth in rural Mississippi to her current day success as a one-named star. There is only one Oprah. Just say the word and she appears in your mind. This is reason enough to write a biography of her. But in this volume, sheer quantity is not enough to keep your attention on the page.
What will the reader learn in this book? That a young Oprah was often a foolish Oprah? That today’s Oprah is a powerful, empire-building, one-gal branding machine? This is well known. A book like this from a writer such as Ms. Kelley must present new, not nuanced, shock and awe to succeed. That formula dances about but never comes to light in Oprah.
For example, why does Ms. Kelley include a morsel such as this from a fellow contestant who spoke about Oprah’s ambition to win the 1972 title of Miss Black Nashville? “She was the first black person I ever saw to eat yogurt. We just didn’t eat yogurt in those days. But she did and she lost a bunch of weight.”
This style of reporting is enough to give you brain freeze. The narrative in Oprah chugs along uploading such conversations from yesteryear with insistence on their importance. Whether Ms. Kelley is splitting hairs over how poor Oprah really was as a child, her teen pregnancy (more sad than revealing) or her ever-sharp elbows as she scaled the ranks of local TV; reading this book is like listening to an old biddy at the kitchen table drone on.
Remember Vernon Winfrey‘s wild child daughter who had the baby at 15 and was so hard to control and got into debate club and got all the way to the Tennessee State Forensic Tournament and on to the nationals but then she lost and then went into show business? …Well, she’s famous now.
Ms. Kelley also interjects her opinion in so many of these soft rallies that it is hard to see her as a serious journalist. Her publisher calls this a balanced biography. But lines like this, (about Oprah’s show topics early in her TV career) make Ms. Kelley lose her equipoise: “In the process she fostered an image of herself as anti-male, because so many of her shows presented men as pigs.” Oink.
The accompanying background material also cites Ms. Kelley as a “master investigative biographer,” which sounds like something Nate the Great might say. (Certainly you’ll never hear that description applied to Robert Caro.) And she justifies her intentions by saying that as “titans of society,” her subjects are more than celebrities and their lives demand exploration.
Put it this way, it’s like an archeologist rushing in from the sands of Cairo shouting “Look what I found: dental floss from CVS!” Not the findings we were hoping for. Ms. Kelley uses rehash as enterprise reporting. She includes here all aspects of O’s life, like the abuse scandal at her Leadership Academy and the failed 2004 “Favorite Things” car giveaway, then outlines how Ms. Winfrey addressed it all publicly. Where is the news here?
Previous books by Ms. Kelley have included tomes on the Bush Family, the Royal Family, Jackie Onassis, Nancy Reagan, Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor. The problem then in Oprah is that unlike the others, Ms. Winfrey lives her life out in the open, relatively speaking, five days a week and in O, her monthly magazine. The supermarket checkout stands have blared endlessly about Oprah’s weight struggles, her friendship with BFF Gayle King and her relationship with boyfriend Stedman Graham. None of this has kept the faithful from the O bandwagon. Lots of people like juggernauts irrespective of evidence, just look at Wrestlemania. Oprah’s millions of fans–the intended audience for the 575,000 copy first print run–have clearly opted in.
As a publishing product Oprah may fall between stools in sold ‘units,’ the term used by the industry’s bean counters when tabulating net sales. Ms. Winfrey’s loyalists are hep to headlines about their star. People who neither watch the show nor traffic in tabloid gossip won’t gravitate toward a compendium of the comings and goings of a mega-celebrity. It will be curious to see who comes out to buy the book and if there is a middle ground of casual readers wishing to absorb vats of Oprah factoids. Otherwise, most sane people have already concluded that people on the screen–big or little–are not the same in real life. So the news that Oprah’s personal life is a luxe affair is not surprising, and neither is the newsflash that billionaires (as a rule of thumb) do not trust anyone but select confidants.
Many of the bombshells, or the would-be bombshells, do not detonate. The biggest one being the identity of Oprah’s real father, as the man who co-raised her, Vernon Winfrey, was in the military in 1953 when Oprah was conceived. Ms. Kelley supposedly knows the name of the father but has sworn, like any good master investigative biographer, to keep this on the QT until Oprah’s mother Vernita pulls back the curtain.
The real bombshell? That Oprah Winfrey, a CEO of self-promotion and solipsism, is an ace prognosticator. As a child back in rural Kosciusko, Mississippi, she foretold her stardom. She proclaimed this to everyone she met and stayed on message from cub TV personality until her full emergence as La Oprah. She was right as rain. Thatâ€™s one way to read Oprah as a roadmap of a self-Svengali or an untapped meteorologist.
P.E. Logan is communications professional and a writer in New York. She has worked at various adult trade publishing houses including Random House, Putnam, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster for almost three decades. She now works at The New York Times. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and other periodicals.