|Purchase: Amazon | Chapters|
Published: 2010 (my edition is 2011, updated & revised)
Pages: 478 (minus Notes & Index)
Start Date: Mar. 6, 2011
Finished Date: Mar. 10, 2011 (5 days)
Where Found: Chapters-Indigo
Why Read: General interest; this is the most prevalent biography on Oprah
Summary: A comprehensive, highly critical and equally subjective biography of the most powerful, rich mogul/TV host/businessperson, and many people's personal guru/reason for living.
If this book had been written a few years earlier, my 4th year seminar professor would have been ecstatic! The course was "The Oprah Effect," a seemingly easy but actually quite aggressive look at Oprah in celebrity culture and her Midas touch on business, TV, American pop culture, and philanthropy. This professor was so psyched to teach the course that she bought not one but two copies of Oprah's 20th anniversary box set. If this book were around then, it would definitely have been required reading.
The book starts off startlingly with Oprah's claims of childhood sexual abuse, reflected by a large number of shows she has done on the subject since her show debuted in regular syndication in 1986, which I felt was a bit odd as usually the first chapter of a biography builds a foundation for the entire book, and this topic was only part of the whole story. From there, it proceeds chronologically with Oprah's childhood in Mississippi, the man she knew as her father but turns out not to be, her distant relationship with her mother, and her clamor to greatness that she often claims to be the will of God.
The book cannot help but be fascinating. Even if half of it is accurate, it brings to light a number of issues. Firstly, how her show has evolved from the triangular sex-oddball-newsmaker topics that strarted out as a feminized Jerry Springer (without the chair beatings and hair pulling) to a cycle of celebrity-product-New Age spiritualism. Secondly, how Oprah's personality, health, and relationships have been represented on her show versus encounters from former employers, Harpo employees (who have either escaped or remained anonymous lest they break the full non-disclosure agreement they sign upon being hired), distant family members, and others who have served her needs over the years. And the last big issue is the "Oprah Effect" on the public from her book club, her magazine, her "Favourite Things," her girls' school in South Africa, and her endorsement of often highly controversial, sometimes dangerous, and often contradicting products, ideas, and views, which have recently been brought to light in the book Living Oprah by Robin Okrant (another book my professor would have loved to assign us), who attempts to follow all of the Queen of TV's advice.
Kelley, known for her controversial, sensationalized biographies of Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Nancy Reagan, Frank Sinatra, the British royal family, and the Bush family, welcomes scandalous, tabloid-worthy tidbits of celebrities as a means of trying to uncover the "true" identity of the celebrity off-camera. Of course this means a lot of "he said, she said" games and claims of misappropriation by interviewees after the book goes to press, which sure helps sell books. Obviously, you cannot believe everything Kelley concludes about Oprah, but she certainly makes her case a number of times with quotations from interviews Oprah gave much more freely in early years that contradict several biographical elements she has shared with the public.
So, what is my take on Oprah? I think she is still very much a closed book, as she has every right to be, and while I sometimes tune into her show, I am far from a follower. I sometimes find myself rolling my eyes at the simplistic drivel that gets applause & adulation from her 99% female audience. And I have to sometimes dial down the volume on my TV when she uses that very annoying, deep-throat yell to introduce guests, and her bad (very un-journalistic) habit of interrupting guests to change direction or add an often useless two cents to the topic. I do think she has good ideas on the surface for philanthropic missions but deep down, money and fame is fueling her and has since her show debuted 25 years ago.
As for Oprah: The Biography, it still leaves me wondering about the authenticity of celebrities (not an original thought, I know), and journalists who make tidy conclusions from conflicting accounts of the truth.
Rank: (B)- Very Good, Recommend