04.13.10

Speed Read Kitty Kelley's Oprah Bio

From alleged daddy drama to faking sexual abuse and tears for ratings, The Daily Beast reads the notorious biographer’s 10 most far-reaching claims about Oprah so you don't have to.

Kitty Kelley, the gossip girl of biographers, has chronicled the lives of some of the most famous people on earth. This time around, she's turned her attention to talk show empress Oprah Winfrey. The 525-page unauthorized biography is already shooting up the bestseller lists and stirring up controversy to match the scandalous nature of the content. According to Kelley, the media has blackballed her, and she has been unable to discuss her book or Oprah’s life on major talk shows.

Though the bulk of what Kelley has assembled (and she is insistent upon her due diligence, detailing the precise number of interviews upon which she drew: 850) is public knowledge, there are a few interesting revelations and eyebrow-raising admissions from family members. The juiciest nugget in the tome is Kelley's assertion that she was told the true identity of Oprah's biological father (oddly enough, this comes in the form of a footnote), and that Oprah begged a relative of hers to reveal his name, but to no avail. Read on for this and other choicest morsels from the book:

Who’s Her Daddy?

Katharine Carr Esters, Oprah’s first cousin who helped Vernon Winfrey (the man listed on her birth certificate as her father) raise her, and whom Oprah calls “Aunt Katharine,” says that Oprah had begged her to reveal the identity of her father: “She put her head on my shoulder and cried,” said Esters. “‘I know it’s not Vernon,’ she said to me. ‘There is nothing of Vernon in me. I know that and you know that...You know the whole story; you were there. So, Please, Aunt Katharine, tell me who my real father is.’” Kelley writes in a footnote that she knows the identity of Winfrey’s birth father, but will not reveal his identity until Winfrey’s mother, Vernita Lee, tells her daughter: “On July 30, 2007, Mrs. Esters told the author the name and family background of Oprah’s real father on the condition that the information not be published until Vernita Lee tells her daughter the entire story.” (Page 174)

book-cover---oprah
Oprah: A Biography. By Kitty Kelley. 544 pages. Crown. $30. ()

Re-Opening the Closet Door

Around the time that Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet, rumors started swirling that Oprah was set to make a similar move. Her very close relationship with Gayle King didn’t help: “I’m just saying, listen, if you ask me, that’s a [gay] couple,” openly gay Rosie O’Donnell said of King and Winfrey. In response to the fervent speculation, Oprah released a public statement denying that she was a lesbian: “I am not in the closet. I am not coming out of the closet. I am not gay.” (Page 301)

Motherly Hang-Ups

According to her Aunt Katharine, “Oprah does not love her mother at all...She gives her a great deal financially but she does not give her the respect and affection a daughter should...” Kelley told The New York Times that Oprah has not given her mother her own phone number, and that her mother must go through her assistant to reach her daughter. (Page 175)

An Ex-Lover

In the 1970s, Kelley says Oprah dated and lived with John Tesh, a local news anchor in Nashville, Tennessee. Tesh reportedly left Winfrey suddenly, unable to contend with the controversial nature of interracial relationships at the time. An ex-girlfriend of Tesh’s whom Kelley interviewed told her: “He said one night he looked down and saw his white body next to her black body and couldn’t take it anymore. He walked out in the middle of the night. ... He told me he later felt very guilty about it.” Tesh has very recently confirmed the relationship with the New York Daily News, saying that he and Winfrey lived together. (Page 71)

Crying Wolf on Sexual Abuse?

Did Oprah lie about being sexually abused? According to Katharine Esters, the sexual abuse of Oprah’s path was fabricated: “I don’t believe a bit of it,” Esters told Kelley. “Oprah was a wild child running the streets of Milwaukee in those days, and not accepting discipline from her mother. She shames herself and her family to now suggest otherwise.” Esters added: “That story helped launch Oprah and make her what she is today...Her audiences may believe her stories. Her family does not.” (Page 34-35)

...And Crying Pig On Being Poor?

Esters wants to set the record straight about Oprah’s upbringing. “Oprah wasn’t raised on a pig farm,” she says. “Oprah makes her first six years sound like the worst thing that ever befell a child born to folks just trying to survive. I was there for most of that time, and I can tell you she was spoiled and petted and indulged better than any little girl in these parts.” Esters says she has asked Oprah about her hyperbole. “Oh, I’ve talked to her about this over the years. I’ve confronted her and asked, ‘Why do you tell such lies?’ Oprah told me, ‘That’s what people want to hear. The truth is boring, Aunt Katherine. People don't want to be bored. They want stories with drama.’” (Page 21)

Hooker, Line, and Sinker

In 1993, Patricia Lloyd, Oprah’s half-sister revealed that when the talk show host was a teenager she began “trading sexual favors for money.” Lloyd says in Kelley’s biography: “She invited me over during the day while my mother was working. Her boyfriends were all much older than her...Whenever a guy arrived at our door, Oprah would give Popsicles to me and our younger brother Jeffrey and say, ‘You two go out on the porch and play now.’” (Page 34)

Climbing Her Way to the Top

Oprah may not “do” stairs, but she seemingly does refer to herself in the third person. One of the more egregious displays of diva behavior Kelley documents in the revealing biography is an occasion in which, after arriving late for a viewing, Oprah allegedly exploded at gallery owner Peter Colasante. As the story goes, she was across the street from his gallery, late for their appointment, and berating another shop owner. Colasante attempted to lead Oprah to his gallery when she reportedly responded, “Oprah does not walk.” After cajoling her into doing so and offering to show her paintings assembled for her upstairs in the gallery, Kelley claims Oprah said, “Oprah does not do stairs.” (Page 342)

Crying For Ratings

In 2007, a former employee commented on Oprah’s ability to manipulate—err, communicate with the public: “She’s like Ronald Reagan... he was a magnificent communicator on television, with just enough acting ability to appear sincere. Oprah is the same way. She knows how to cry on cue. She once told me that every tear is worth half a ratings point, and she can cry on a dime.” The ex-Harpo worker told Kelley that most of Oprah’s big announcements or revelations came around sweeps weeks, because “ratings are everything to Oprah.” (Page 123)

Fat Chances

Winfrey has long struggled with her weight and promoted self-love and positive body image. In the '80s, however, she wasn’t so warm and fuzzy. In a People magazine interview from 1987, she said, “Women, always black women, 300 to 400 pounds, waddle up to me, rolling down the street and say, ‘You know people are always confusin’ me for you.’ I know when they’re coming. I say, ‘Here comes another one who thinks she looks like me.’” (Page 161)

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