She’s one of the most pow­er­ful women in the world, but Oprah Win­frey is still do­ing what she does best – stand­ing up for peo­ple. She tells Jane Mulk­er­rins about her hard-hit­ting new role, what drives her, and why she has never mar­ried her part­ner St­ed­man

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

the talk­show queen on her hard-hit­ting new role

It’s dif­fi­cult to be­gin list­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary ac­com­plish­ments of Oprah Win­frey with­out run­ning short of breath. The 63-year-old talk­show host and media pro­pri­etor fronted the high­est-rated tele­vi­sion show of all time in the US, The Oprah Win­frey Show, for 25 years; she has her own glossy mag­a­zine (for which she is the cover star each month); runs a tele­vi­sion net­work, OWN; is the rich­est African-Amer­i­can and the first and only black multi-bil­lion­aire in Amer­ica; and is a hugely sig­nif­i­cant phi­lan­thropist.

She is also reg­u­larly re­ferred to, with­out hy­per­bole, as be­ing one of the most pow­er­ful and in­flu­en­tial women in the world. She is cred­ited with sin­gle-hand­edly bring­ing more than one mil­lion votes to Barack Obama with her en­dorse­ment of him in the 2008 elec­tion.

It is equally dif­fi­cult to over­state the im­pact she has had upon 21st-cen­tury cul­ture. Not only did she pioneer the tabloid talk­show, spawn­ing a thou­sand im­i­ta­tions, but through it, she also pop­u­larised the emo­tional, em­pa­thetic, in­ti­mate com­mu­ni­ca­tion that we now de­mand from fig­ures in pub­lic life and even politics. The Wall Street Jour­nal coined the term “Oprah­fi­ca­tion”, to de­scribe pub­lic con­fes­sion as a form of ther­apy.

Books, too, are an arena in which Oprah reigns supreme. The en­dorse­ment of a ti­tle by Oprah’s Book Club – for­merly part of her tele­vi­sion show, now an on­line com­mu­nity – can cat­a­pult a book straight onto the best-seller list and keep it there.

So it was with The Im­mor­tal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the story we are here to dis­cuss today.

Oprah first read the book in 2010. Writ­ten by the science jour­nal­ist Re­becca Sk­loot, it tells the true story of an African-Amer­i­can woman whose cells were used for med­i­cal re­search, with­out her knowl­edge or con­sent. “I’m al­ways on the look­out for sto­ries that of­fer in­sights into the African-Amer­i­can jour­ney and strug­gle and tri­umph,” she tells me.

But not only did Oprah rec­om­mend it as one of her books of the year; she bought the rights to it, with a view to turn­ing the story into a film with her pro­duc­tion com­pany, Harpo.

“Lots of other peo­ple were com­pet­ing for the rights at the time, but Re­becca sold them to us,” re­calls Oprah. “The way I look at any op­por­tu­nity to do a story is that if it’s for me, it will re­solve it­self; if not, then I bless some­one else to be able to do it.”

It’s a typ­i­cally Oprah, quasi-spir­i­tual take on what some might call fate. “It’s an align­ment, a com­bi­na­tion of things,” she says. “There’s a part of your heart, your spirit, your en­ergy, that wants to choose some­thing, and then that some­thing finds you too, based upon that en­ergy.”

Henrietta Lacks died of cer­vi­cal can­cer in 1951 aged just 31, leav­ing be­hind five young chil­dren in Bal­ti­more, Mary­land. Some cells that had been re­moved from a tu­mour dur­ing a biopsy were cul­tured by a sci­en­tist, Ge­orge Otto Gey, who used them to cre­ate a cell line known as HeLa.

They be­came the first “im­mor­tal”, hu­man cells grown in a lab, mean­ing that they do not die af­ter a set num­ber of cell di­vi­sions. The cell line went on to be used in ground­break­ing med­i­cal re­search, in­clud­ing creat­ing a vac­cine for po­lio, and the de­vel­op­ment of gene map­ping.

The cells were also cloned, put into mass pro­duc­tion in the first-ever cell-pro­duc­tion fac­tory, and sold to science labs. This was com­pletely le­gal and, at the time, some­thing that was com­monly done.

How­ever, Henrietta’s fam­ily – many of whom have strug­gled on wel­fare and bat­tled ad­dic­tions and men­tal-health is­sues – were not made aware of HeLa’s ex­is­tence or the in­cred­i­ble uses to which it had been put, un­til 1975. Nor have they ever re­ceived any money from the in­dus­try that sprung up around HeLa. Her chil­dren were sub­jected to tests by the med­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment to see if their cells could be as use­ful as HeLa; they were told they were be­ing tested for can­cer.

“The con­text of the times makes it im­pos­si­ble to think that the rea­sons the fam­ily were treated this way were to do with any­thing else other than race and class – both played a role,” says Oprah. Today, spec­i­mens in­tended specif­i­cally for re­search can be col­lected only if the donor gives con­sent.

But isn’t there, I posit, some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for what the med­i­cal com­mu­nity did – to Henrietta and many more pa­tients – given that the cells went on to do so much good in the world? “What’s dif­fi­cult to jus­tify is that there are mem­bers of the Lacks fam­ily who are still with­out health­care,” Oprah says, in­dig­nant.

She be­lieves that the fam­ily should have been com­pen­sated by the drug com­pa­nies who prof­ited from Henrietta’s cells.

These days, Oprah her­self is a world away from such wor­ries – she has a home in Mon­tecito, Cal­i­for­nia, worth an es­ti­mated $88 mil­lion, a moun­tain cabin in Colorado, a house in Hawaii, a farm in In­di­ana, and a pent­house in Chicago. But part of Oprah’s enor­mous and en­dur­ing ap­peal is not only how high she has climbed, but how far she has trav­elled.

She was born into ru­ral poverty in 1954 in Mis­sis­sippi, to a teenage sin­gle mother, Ver­nita Lee, a house­maid. Un­til the age of six, Oprah lived with her grand­mother, who was re­port­edly so poor that Oprah was sent to school wear­ing dresses made of potato sacks. She was later sent

to live with her fa­ther, Ver­non Win­frey, who was a coalminer in Nashville, Ten­nessee.

Her child­hood was marred by more than poverty and rootlessness, how­ever. “I was raped at nine years old by a cousin, then again by an­other fam­ily mem­ber, and an­other fam­ily mem­ber,” Oprah has ad­mit­ted, first open­ing up about the sub­ject on her show in 1986.

She be­came preg­nant at 14, as a re­sult of the sex­ual abuse, but her son was born pre­ma­turely and died shortly af­ter birth. Yet at school Oprah flour­ished, ex­celling par­tic­u­larly in speech and drama, and won a full schol­ar­ship to Ten­nessee State Univer­sity.

Just be­fore leav­ing for col­lege, aged 17, she won the Miss Black Ten­nessee beauty pageant, and was hired by a local ra­dio sta­tion, WVOL, to read the news part-time while still at high school. And at

19, she dropped out of her de­gree when she was of­fered a job as the youngest, and the first black, fe­male news an­chor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV.

Her next job, at Bal­ti­more’s WJZ-TV, led, in part, to her im­me­di­ate con­nec­tion with the story of Henrietta Lacks.

“I lived and worked in Bal­ti­more for eight years, and I was many times on the same streets that Henrietta walked,” she says. “I’ve done sto­ries all over the city – sto­ries at Johns Hop­kins [the univer­sity hospi­tal where

Henrietta was treated], sto­ries at every fes­ti­val the city had. I was part of the com­mu­nity, part of the church, and I never heard of HeLa; the name Henrietta Lacks was never men­tioned.

“That was part of my mis­sion with the film,” says Oprah. “For peo­ple to know her name.”

Though Oprah was hired by WJZ-TV to co-an­chor the evening news, her emo­tional style did not go down well on a straight news

“My idea was to tell sto­ries that af­fected the hu­man spirit, sto­ries peo­ple could see them­selves in.”

pro­gramme, and she was trans­ferred to an ail­ing day­time chat pro­gramme, Peo­ple are Talk­ing, in 1978.

It was one of the mo­ments of per­fect align­ment she speaks of – Oprah had found her call­ing. When, in 1984, she re­lo­cated to Chicago to take over a morn­ing chat show, its name was quickly changed from AM Chicago to The Oprah Win­frey Show. It was syn­di­cated na­tion­ally, quickly be­com­ing the No1 talk show in the US.

While Oprah’s em­pa­thy, open­ness and straight-talk­ing make her a nat­u­ral chat-show host, her early am­bi­tions lay in act­ing. “I re­mem­ber when I said I wanted to be an ac­tress as a teenager, my fa­ther said, ‘No daugh­ter of mine is go­ing to go out there ho-ing her­self.’”

Her first for­mal role came, how­ever, in 1985 – and her per­for­mance as Sofia in The Color Pur­ple won her an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for Best Sup­port­ing Ac­tress. She has since ap­peared in films in­clud­ing Beloved, The But­ler and Selma.

But when it came to the story of Henrietta Lacks, Oprah says, “I did not want to be in it.” The film adap­ta­tion is told largely through the ex­pe­ri­ences of Deb­o­rah, Henrietta’s youngest sur­viv­ing daugh­ter, who is anx­ious, un­pre­dictable, and strug­gles with bouts of anger and para­noia.

“I can truly tell you, I did not want to take on Deb­o­rah’s stuff,” Oprah as­sures me. But af­ter much de­lib­er­a­tion, she took the role. “I sat down with an act­ing coach and we spent a week go­ing through it line by line, ex­ca­vat­ing her emo­tional spa­ces and re­lat­ing those to spe­cific ex­am­ples or in­ci­dents in my life.”

The film is a mov­ing, ten­der and, in parts, funny ac­count of a fam­ily’s strug­gles with loss and grief, men­tal-health prob­lems and ad­dic­tions. In piec­ing to­gether her mother’s story, Deb­o­rah also un­cov­ers dis­turb­ing fam­ily se­crets.

“Mil­lions of fam­i­lies are liv­ing with their se­crets,” Oprah points out. “And, as a re­sult of the cov­er­ing up, or the bury­ing, the un­cov­er­ing in later life im­pacts peo­ple in di­rect pro­por­tion to how deeply it was buried.”

Oprah has been in a re­la­tion­ship with St­ed­man Gra­ham, 66, for 30 years. The cou­ple did plan to marry in the early 1990s, but post­poned their wed­ding be­cause of a clash with a book launch. “The truth, which no­body ever be­lieves, is that it never comes up. It’s not even an is­sue,” she says. “The re­la­tion­ship works.”

She has run Harpo Pro­duc­tions for al­most the same length of time. “My idea was to tell sto­ries that af­fected the hu­man spirit, sto­ries peo­ple could see them­selves in,” says Oprah. “And mostly black peo­ple – [when I set it up] there were few op­por­tu­ni­ties for us to see our his­tory, cul­ture and our daily lives re­flected on screen.”

Beloved and Selma were both pro­duced in part by Harpo, along with the cur­rent tele­vi­sion drama Queen Sugar.

“I think time is not put to its best use fo­cus­ing on where we haven’t been, what we need to do,” re­flects Oprah. “My thing is: do it. You want to see changes? Then get out there and make those changes your­self.” AWW

The Im­mor­tal Life of Henrietta Lacks screens on Sky’s Soho chan­nel on July 13 at 9pm.

Through her many media in­volve­ments, Oprah has had a huge im­pact on 21st-cen­tury cul­ture.

ABOVE: Oprah in scenes from The Im­mor­tal Life of Henrietta Lacks. RIGHT FROM TOP: In the po­lit­i­cal realm, Oprah has lent her sup­port to both Hil­lary Clin­ton and Barack Obama. Oprah (third from left) stands on stage in 2011 with a line-up of celebrities in­clud­ing Tom Hanks (fourth from left), Bey­once (sixth from right), Madonna (fifth from right), Halle Barry (third from right), and Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (far right) dur­ing one of the last episodes of The Oprah Win­frey Show.

ABOVE: Oprah and her long-time part­ner St­ed­man Gra­ham. BE­LOW: Ful­fill­ing her early am­bi­tions to act, Oprah has starred in (from left) The Color Pur­ple, Selma and The But­ler.

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