Thursday, May 20, 2010
OPRAH: A BIOGRAPHY
OPRAH. A Biography by Kitty Kelley. Crown; 2010.
You might want to set a couple of hours or three aside when you start this book, because you may not want to set it down until you're done. Oprah is a fascinating look at the talk show queen, actress, and billionairess, Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey emerges as a terribly human human being, with both good points and bad, someone who's done good for many and is beloved by many more, and has also ticked off those who find her unintellectual, cold and phony, super-egotistical, or simply unbearable in all respects. Who's right? Probably everyone.
Winfrey is one of those celebrities who says she always felt she was destined for greatness. Of course, this is often said in hindsight -- the world is littered with wannabees who were equally sure they were destined for greatness but it just didn't happen. Failures like Native Son and the Brewster Place TV series [not the mini-series] prove that everything Winfrey touches doesn't always turn to gold. Winfrey doesn't seem to think that luck or timing might have had anything to do with her success, but the fact is that if she had come onto the scene ten years earlier or ten years later, none of the good stuff might have happened for her. This doesn't take away her energy or whatever hard work she may have done. Nor that is is amazing and a little wonderful that it happened to a black female. Oprah gives the woman credit for her good works and charitable donations, although Kelley also notes that Winfrey -- like Bob Hope -- makes sure everyone knows exactly what she's done. And her gifts to charity seem rather small up against her tremendous income.
Some of the book's most interesting passages are quotes from members of Oprah's family who were interviewed by Kelley [and she's got the pictures to prove it]. You get mixed emotions reading some of these passages. Some of her relatives are right to be annoyed by the way Winfrey casually distorts, even lies about, her early life and background, yet you also sense that Winfrey was completely right in getting away from some of these narrow-minded bible-thumpers. Although Winfrey remains religious, her views have broadened on many topics, such as Gay Rights. Her relatives can't forgive her for essentially "living in sin" with her companion, Stedman. Yet, conversely, much of what they say about Oprah sounds like simple common sense.
The book shows the journey Winfrey took to become the person she is today, and also examines certain interesting aspects of black culture. It shows how Winfrey became increasingly private and paranoid the bigger she became, with even guests on the show forced to sign confidentiality clauses. Oprah certainly illustrates the notion that "power corrupts." But can any human being in this superficial, celebrity-driven world become a wealthy, influential power, a brand name, like "Oprah" and remain merely human?
One debit: There isn't very much in the book about the sex scandals embroiling Oprah's school in Africa, possibly because they happened too recently. Maybe in the paperback?
Verdict: Both fans and detractors should eat it up. ***1/2.