The prolific and controversial biographer Kitty Kelley has written unflattering tell-alls about some of America's most famous figures — Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and both George Bushes among them.
Now she's taken on a subject who has long been seen as perhaps the most untouchable of all: Oprah Winfrey.
The talk show queen comes into America's living rooms every day, and she's famous for landing the hard-to-get interview. (It was Winfrey to whom Elizabeth Edwards first opened up about the extramarital affair her husband, John Edwards, had while he was running for president.)
But while she's known for the famous people who line up to talk to her, Winfrey is also known for making sure it's not easy to talk about her. Her strict nondisclosure mandates are legendary. She no longer gives interviews that she can't control. When I asked for comment on Kelley's book, a spokeswoman for Winfrey's production company, Lisa Halliday, e-mailed me the same one-line response that has been given to everyone else who inquired: "Oprah hasn't participated in or read Kitty Kelley's book, so she is unable to comment." Follow-up questions were ignored.
So Kelley was faced with a considerable task when she decided to put together an unauthorized Winfrey biography. But then the challenge was part of the allure.
"I didn't just jump into this project," Kelley says. "I really wanted to do a full-dimensional project, and Oprah Winfrey was the only story I wanted to do after the Bushes."
Getting her publisher to sign on wasn't easy. After all, the Oprah Winfrey Book Club has been a crucial shot in the arm for the publishing industry. An Oprah endorsement can sell millions of copies. (And it's not just good for books: She stumped for Barack Obama, then a long-shot presidential candidate, in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, though she was careful to say that "I really don't know" what her backing might mean.)
Kelley got a green light for the book eventually, but like her other celebrity subjects, Winfrey wouldn't agree to be interviewed. Her presence, though, makes itself felt pretty strongly in the 524-page book.
"I spent about a year assembling every interview the woman ever gave in the United States and in the United Kingdom, in the English language," Kelley says. Thousands of public utterances, "on radio, television, [in] newspapers and magazines."
"I interviewed 850 people, and although I did not personally interview Oprah Winfrey, the biggest source of information ... and the best source of information was Oprah herself," Kelley says.
Kelley says she also persuaded two of Winfrey's family members to speak to her at length: Vernon Winfrey, who raised Oprah as his own but says he's not her biological father, and Katharine Carr Esters, an older first cousin who helped Vernon raise Oprah in Tennessee and whom Oprah calls "Aunt Katharine." (The author had photos of herself taken with them and included in the book to bolster the claim.)
Oprah: A Biography doesn't contain any explosive revelations, but it does flesh out some details about things Winfrey has discussed: the sexual abuse she says she endured as a child, a traumatic adolescent pregnancy, a heavy flirtation with drugs and the nature of her relationship with best friend Gayle King.
Taking A Pass On The News?
Although Kelley did do a two-part interview with the Today show's Matt Lauer this week, Random House spokesman David Drake says there's truth behind those rumors that other media outlets have passed on interviews with the writer. Drake won't name names, but ABC reportedly is one such outlet.
Perhaps that's not surprising, given that ABC's parent company, Disney, is partnering with Winfrey on several of the new shows she'll present on the Oprah Winfrey Network. But it is troubling to some.
"If they're deciding the merits of a book's newsworthiness on the basis of whether or not it might offend one of their corporate partners, it's an abdication of the primacy of letting the news value dictate the news," says David Folkenflik, NPR's media correspondent.
Folkenflik says such a decision would be both troubling and a sign of how interconnected many of the modern media are. He says Winfrey's stature has made her untouchable to many in the broadcast media.
"She is clearly an unparalleled influential voice," he says — one that "presidential candidates, Oscar candidates, people who have a message that they want to get out ... are desperate to have the good graces of."
Random House is betting that readers will be braver than some media outlets have been: Their initial run of Kelley's Oprah book is 550,000 copies.