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Interesting, but needed structure
on 1 May 2010
Kitty Kelley has written an interesting but highly disjointed biography. There doesn't seem to be any coherent structure and no particular arc or themes emerge. Chapters start off seeming to be about one topic, lurch onto another and then end somewhere else again. This makes the book hard to follow. Basic dates or facts like when and how Oprah met and became friends with Gayle King/Maria Shriver or why she parted ways with Jeff Jacobs are skimmed over or left out.
In fairness to Kelley it's apparent that she did a lot of research, but most people don't want to go on the record about Oprah, either because they're friends of hers or because they're afraid of her. Consequently Kelley relied heavily on published sources and developed an obsession with catching Oprah out in every lie or inconsistency, rather than using the sources as guidance to develop an understanding of who Oprah is. So we find out that no, Oprah didn't have cockroaches for pets - she had a dog! No she didn't miss out on having a doll, she had lots of dolls! No she wasn't raised on a pig farm, there was only one pig! And so forth. Does it really matter? Intriguingly, Kelley claims to know who Oprah's real father is, but won't disclose it because she doesn't think that's fair to Oprah, who doesn't know. It seems hard to believe that she would choose to sit on a bombshell like that.
The book isn't a one-sided hatchet job. Kelley admires Oprah's instincts, her generosity, her incredible work ethic and her ability to go for the jugular even when interviewing friends. While she recognizes that Oprah steals ideas from other sources (eg Oprah's Book Club), she has the ability to make them her own - and an enormous success.
Essentially Oprah emerges as someone who grew up in a broken and poor family. After suffering sexual abuse as a child, she became promiscuous and experimented with drugs, but she was smart enough to clean herself up. She was highly ambitious from the start and while initially she was hungry for fame and money, later it became more about impacting people's lives. When she moved into media she was a quick learner and made some very smart decisions early on: surrounding herself with talented people and advisors (especially Jeff Jacobs), which meant that she owned her empire and was able to maximise how much money she retained. While highly charismatic, she is definitely not as nice and friendly a person as you'd think from seeing her on TV. She is extremely controlling with her staff and in fact with almost anyone who comes into contact with her and freezes out anyone who displeases her. On the other hand she is very generous with her friends. Less evolved and self-confident than she seems, she is highly sensitive to criticism, over-eats and has issues with romantic commitment.
It was particularly interesting to learn the way that the Oprah we feel we all know is a facade: yes it's her, but it's not entirely her. Her image is carefully controlled, and even seemingly spontaneous moments on her show are "as choreographed as a Kabuki doll".
At the end of the day I found the book interesting to read, but I don't feel like there were any major surprises or that Kitty Kelley got to the core of who Oprah is. She focuses too much on what she's done and not enough on who she is. Why is control so important to her? What is the nature of her relationship with Stedman? Why did she choose to end her series now? I've still no idea, but what is clear is that she is a far more cold, complicated and controlling individual than her public persona suggests.