03.20.11

Oprah Buries the Hatchet

In her frantic final hours on network TV, the talk queen is mending fences with ex-friends (Whoopi, Roseanne). In this week’s Newsweek, Allison Samuels says it’s great television, but is it genuine?

When author Iyanla Vanzant picked up her phone one afternoon earlier this year, she was stunned to find the Queen of Daytime on the line. Vanzant had good reason to be surprised. She’d once been a regular guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, doling out spiritual wisdom and practical advice on love, life, and personal growth. But when Vanzant accepted an offer from Barbara Walters to host her own show in 1999, the friendship blew apart, with bitter feelings, unspoken words, and a call from a lawyer making it official.

Now, after 11 years, the feud has ended, with Vanzant and Oprah airing their differences last month in front of a rapt audience of millions. “We were deeply connected spiritual sisters and then things fell apart. That needed to be fixed,” says Vanzant, who since leaving Oprah’s universe suffered her third divorce, foreclosure on her home, and the death of her only child (all of it detailed in her new book, Peace From Broken Pieces). Oprah is burying a lot of hatchets these days. With her show set to end May 25, she has attempted to mend fences with such famous former friends as Whoopi Goldberg, Roseanne Barr, and Rosie O’Donnell. Of course, these tearful makeup sessions are all being conducted on Oprah’s stage, in front of a live studio audience. But that’s part of being Oprah’s friend, and besides, it makes for some great TV and even greater ratings. Still, you can’t help wondering why Oprah is even bothering to air her dirty laundry. Is it really just for the ratings? Is it because she now has a cable network, OWN, and needs a lot of chatty, familiar faces to fill the endless hours of programming? (It’s worth noting that O’Donnell is already producing documentaries for OWN. Or is Winfrey really hoping to teach her audience a lesson about friendship?

“We can’t forget Oprah remains, in many ways, America’s chief therapist, and she knows that,” says Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, host of his own show on NPR. “In her last season on television, Oprah wants to model for her audience of millions the art of coming to grips with the uneasy business of repairing torn relations.” Fans are lapping it up. “I really thought someone like Oprah, with all her money and fame, wouldn’t care if people were mad at her or didn’t like her. I mean, she’s Oprah,’’ says Audrey Mason, 33, a private nurse from Cleveland, Ohio.

With the clock ticking, who will she pass the peace pipe to next? Will be it rappers like Ludacris or Ice Cube, who lashed out at her for regularly refusing to have them on, even when they had big movies or TV roles to hawk? Will it be Aretha Franklin, who is said to have ticked off Winfrey when she chose to open up about her cancer diagnosis on Wendy Williams’s show first? Or maybe it will be Halle Berry, who’s been oddly absent from her good friend’s stage. Those who work with Winfrey are playing it close to the vest.

Of course, these tearful makeup sessions are all being conducted on Oprah’s stage, in front of a live studio audience. But that’s part of being Oprah’s friend, and besides, it makes for some great TV and even greater ratings.

“I can’t tell you what is going through Oprah’s mind, or the reason for her calling me to be on the show. But I can tell you Barbara Walters sure hasn’t called,” says Vanzant. “I think Oprah took a big chance in reaching out to me and putting me on air like she did. She didn’t know what I was going to say.”

The show with Vanzant, which aired in two parts, was so intimate and raw, it was painful to watch at times. The two women went back and forth explaining each other’s side of the disagreement, with Vanzant tearfully and humbly apologizing several times. Oprah said she was never that angry, and recounted how Vanzant had come to her saying God had told her it was time to leave The Oprah Winfrey Show. “I didn’t want to interfere with what God told you,” Oprah said.

The host’s exchanges with Barr, Goldberg, and O’Donnell have been less emotional, but just as revealing. It turns out the misunderstanding with Barr began during the 2008 presidential election, when the comedienne publicly questioned why Oprah was supporting Barack Obama instead of Hillary Clinton. “I thought you were wrong, and I said that in public,” Barr said on Oprah last month. “I figured that made you mad.” Oprah claimed she was unaware of their rift, and explained that she’d invited Barr to be on the show in part because “I wanted to understand what you were talking about—because I had no idea.” As if on cue, Barr proclaimed that she now realized Winfrey had been right all along: Obama was indeed the right leader for this moment. Winfrey beamed at the affirmation of her wisdom.

As for Whoopi, Oprah revealed that she felt Goldberg had had issues with her ever since they appeared together in The Color Purple in 1985. But she proudly informed her audience that they had just reunited over collard greens at Tyler Perry’s house. Goldberg has said in interviews before that she and Oprah see the world differently, but has always declined to elaborate and wouldn’t comment for this story. Still, when Goldberg appeared on Oprah as part of an A Color Purple reunion, both women mistily professed not to know why they hadn’t stayed in touch.

Will these renewed friendships last once the cameras are turned off? “I’ve spoken to her once since the show,” Vanzant says. “She’s a busy lady, so I may not hear from her again, and that’s OK. We worked out some important issues, and now if we never speak again, hopefully we both have peace with it.”

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Allison Samuels is a senior writer at Newsweek. Her work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, O, Essence and Vibe magazines. She's also the author of Christmas Soul, published by Disney/Jump At the Sun, and Off The Record, (Harper Collins/Amistad).