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Oprah's ubiquity may have its limits.



Kitty Kelley is making the rounds of the talkshows to hustle her new book, "Oprah"--well, not all the talkshows, because the folks at ABC and CBS don't want to mess up their relationships with the Queen of All Media. Neither does Larry King.

After all, Oprah's empire is wealthier than an emirate. Apart from her TV show, magazine and book club, Oprah will also launch her own 24-hour channel in January, thus expanding her ability to instruct her rapturous followers on what to read, eat and buy and, now and again, how to vote.


As her friend Maya Angelou once said, Oprah occupies a "spiritual position." But now that Oprah will become even more ubiquitous, can she dial down her didactic rhetoric? Can Oprah the Shrill find a way to chill?

So why would Kitty Kelley tread upon holy turf?. For one thing, she feels she has a story to tell dealing not only with Oprah's formidable achievements but also her foibles and fears. Kelley has previously invaded the sanctums of Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra and she found Oprah's friends and associates to be as uniquely fearful as Sinatra's.

Oprah herself has had contradictory attitudes toward revealing details of her past. She has termed Kelley's book a "so-called biography." But Kelley reminds us that Oprah suddenly withdrew her memoir in 1993 despite a massive promotion and 750,000 first print order. According to Kelley, the memoir listed those family members who had sexually abused her, as well her description of a period during which Winfrey allegedly referred to herself as a teenage "prostitute"--revelations that were urgently opposed by Oprah's close advisers.

Overall, Kelley's distinctly unauthorized biography veers between respect and snark. Oprah's show itself is a 25-year TV legend, though her audience has declined from 9 million viewers in the 1995-96 season to about 6.5 million this year. Apart from her clout at launching books and products, she also has propelled the likes of Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray and Dr. Oz to stardom and is now banking on design maven Nate Berkus to strike syndie paydirt for her Harpo Prods.

As Oprah's worth approaches $3 billion, Kelley suggests that a pattern of erratic behavior is setting in. In creating her channel (in concert with Discovery) she has gone through a succession of executives and delays. Her adventures in South Africa in setting up a girls school were both idealistic and disastrous.

Kelley alludes to Oprah's complex sexuality, reminding us that she never got around to marrying longtime fiance Stedman S. Graham ("a prison guard-turned-escort") and quotes associates suggesting a nuanced relationship with longtime friend Gayle King--"a prism of lesbian rumors," Kelley says.

In researching her book, Kelley encountered a web of fear among Oprah's friends. Those associated with her companies are chained to confidentiality agreements that bar them from talking about either Oprah or her businesses.

Answers to the larger question about the Oprah phenomenon--the source of her unshakeable connection to her audience--are more elusive. Initially her appeal was rooted in her by-the-bootstraps story of overcoming adversity. And she still projects a kind of earthiness (albeit the billionaire brand), even as her devotees seem to yearn to touch the hem of her garment.

Kelley's conclusion: Oprah is both "magnanimous and deeply caring but also sometimes petty, small-minded and self-centered. There is a warm side to Oprah and a side that can only be called as cold as ice."

Maybe all that goes with being as rich as an emirate.
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Title Annotation:Oprah Winfrey; first look
Author:Bart, Peter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 26, 2010
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