Interview with Kitty Kelley on her new book on Oprah

April 19, 2010, by Rodney Ho

Author Kitty Kelley likes to tackle tough subjects: she's spent years digging into Nancy Reagan, the Bush family, Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor. Now she's delved into the world of an American pop culture icon: Oprah Winfrey.

Kelley admits she didn't unveil much in the way of shocking revelations about Winfrey that hasn't shown up in the past in tabloids or from the talk-show host herself. The scoop many press accounts honed in on was a passing reference to Winfrey's brief liaison with New Age musician John Tesh when she was 20.

But Kelley certainly went deep, interviewing more than 800 people connected in some way to Winfrey (including the man who raised her and a cousin who claims to be the family historian in Mississippi). Without Winfrey’s cooperation, she culled liberally from interviews Winfrey has done in the past.

Her goal, she said, was to give fans a more nuanced view of Winfrey beyond what viewers see every day on her talk show.

“She’s a biographer’s gift,” Kelley said in a phone interview earlier this week before her Borders Buckhead book signing Thursday. “She’s had a fantastic life story, a real American dream. And that’s why I wanted to do it. It wasn’t easy to get the book sold nor was it easy to get the book written.”

But that's what Kelley specializes in. She relishes the challenge. She also wasn't surprised so many media outlets (David Letterman, Larry King, "The View") said no to her simply because they wanted to stay in Winfrey's good graces.

Kelley said she entered the project with respect for Winfrey and left it with even more respect for what she has accomplished.

“I am more cognizant of her vast power,” she said. “I know there’s a certain level of discomfort with examining the life of someone who has so much good. But I think her story is so much more inspiring when you know the truth.”

She examines Winfrey’s tough childhood, which included sexual abuse and a teen pregnancy. Kelley goes over Winfrey’s drug use, her relations with a married man, her weight issues, and her rise in broadcast TV from Nashville to Baltimore to Chicago. Now, she’s one of the wealthiest women in the world.

“She’s not a perfect person. She shows that all the money in the world doesn’t make your personal relationships easier or your eating habits better or your lifestyle free and uninhibited.” Yet, Kelley notes, she has arguably more influence than many large institutions and individuals.

As a result, she said many close associates and family members closed their doors on her. She had to beg frequently to get cooperation.

“Everyone is feeling the pressure of Oprah Winfrey,” she said, with a sigh. “I just hope some of the family members don’t recant what they said.”

The book references Georgia a few times. Oprah was offered a job at WSB-TV in the mid-1970s, according to the book. (page 72). [Monica Pearson wrote this to me:"Don Eliot Heald, the late general manager of the station always told me and so did Oprah, that Oprah, Jane Pauley and I were finalists for the anchoring job at WSB TV…they were going to add a woman to the 6 p.m. news for the first time in the market. Mr. Heald told me I won the job and that’s what Oprah has always teased me about..”getting her job.”]

She has a huge scholarship fund for Morehouse College students that has helped hundreds of people over the years (page 166). Her notorious 1987 episode in Forsyth County featuring white racists was chronicled as well. (pages 192-93).

Book signing:

Kitty Kelley

Author, “Oprah, A Biography”

Thursday, April 22, 7:30 p.m., free

Borders Books & Music, 3637 Peachtree Rd. NE, Atlanta