As a young gay boy growing up in a small-town New Zealand, Aroha Awarau found a beacon of light in the form of Oprah Winfrey. So when the planets aligned and she granted him an exclusive interview, he freaked out and prayed he could keep it together.
Iwish there was a guidebook that told you how to conduct yourself when meeting your hero. At journalism school you learn how to tell a story and be professional in the field, but they don’t teach you how to act when you secure an exclusive interview with your idol, that one person who not only influenced your life but the lives of millions around the world.
It seemed like a dream when Oprah Winfrey granted me an intimate interview with her for M ori Television’s current affairs show Native Affairs, where I’m associate producer. Last year, the media mogul was in New Zealand for two weeks shooting the US$103 million (NZ$142m) Disney film A Wrinkle in Time, directed by Ava DuVernay and starring Reese Witherspoon. M ori Television was one of the few media outlets to gain a one-on-one interview with Oprah and Ava while they were in New Zealand and also spent the entire day on the South Island set with the Hollywood A-listers.
Oprah is the reason I became a journalist. I copied her interview mannerisms and the sensitive way in which she treated her guests. This was helpful when I became a writer for the NZ Woman’s Weekly and Woman’s Day, where I had to gain people’s trust in order to tell their stories of tragedy, sadness and triumph. On a personal level, I was a devotee who would apply Oprah’s affirmations whenever I faced one of life’s many challenges. Her voice of reason helped me overcome some tough times.
Now I was going to be face-to-face with the person who changed my life and helped steer my career. I was interviewing the queen of TV interviewers – and in the medium that made her a legend. The cameras were on us and the interview was about to begin. We were sitting on directors’ chairs on a perfect sunny day, right next to the aqua-coloured Lake Pukaki with Mt Aoraki and the snow-capped ranges behind us. I was interviewing my hero in heaven! We were sitting so close to each other that our knees were touching and every time Oprah moved her head, her curly locks would lightly brush my cheek. I was freaking out. I didn’t have the tools, or a point of reference on how to handle this kind of pressure and anxiety. But I wasn’t going to blow this opportunity. Once the cameras started rolling, I stared into Oprah’s eyes, letting her gaze be a calming influence, and chanted two simple rules in my head: “String words together that make sense and don’t faint!”
I was 9 years old when I became one of Oprah’s
biggest fans. It was 1985 and Oprah was cast in The Colour Purple, directed by Steven Spielberg. She defied the odds even back then, because she was cast in the pivotal role of Sofia without any previous film acting experience. At the time, she was hosting a morning talk show that was only broadcast in Chicago. When Oprah first read Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, she was so moved by the story about the struggles of African American women in rural Georgia in the 1930s, that she went out and bought all her friends a copy. She vowed that if the book was adapted into a film, she had to be in it and she prayed and willed it to the universe.
Oprah got her wish when Quincy Jones, the film’s producer, was visiting Chicago and switched on the TV to see the then little-known Oprah hosting her talk show. He knew she was perfect for Sofia and she was cast in the film, alongside Whoopi Goldberg in the iconic role as Celie.
Oprah frequently tells the story of how The Colour Purple changed her life. The influential film, which I first saw on VHS, changed my life too.
There’s a poignant scene where Sofia confronts Celie, who has advised Sofia’s husband to beat her to keep her in line. A defiant Oprah Winfrey storms through the cornfield to deliver this powerful monologue to Whoopi Goldberg. “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy, I had to fight my uncles, I had to fight my brothers. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men. But I never thought I had to fight in my own home.”
This scene resonated with me because just as “a girl child ain’t safe in a family of men”, the same was true for a little gay boy like myself, living in H wera. Although I had a loving mother who protected me as much as she could, it was still a tough struggle to live in a household of mostly violent men. Seeing a character like Sofia fearlessly fighting to have a voice in her home was exactly what I needed as a child. I felt like that scene helped me survive.
Oprah was nominated for an Academy Award in 1986 as best supporting actress. It was another crucial step that took her from being a poverty stricken child from Mississippi who survived sexual abuse to becoming one of the most powerful women in the world.
I had secured the interview with Oprah by reaching out to DuVernay who, as well as directing Winfrey in A Wrinkle in Time, is a good friend of hers. Both women have a connection to indigenous cultures and spoke highly on social media about the traditional M ori welcome they received when they arrived in New Zealand. DuVernay, one of Hollywood’s most soughtafter film directors, has said she watches M ori Television online. Her favourite show is Game of Bros, a competition with Polynesian muscle men vying for the title of the ultimate warrior. Thanks to DuVernay and Winfrey’s connection to the indigenous culture, M ori Television was the only New Zealand station to visit the set and interview the Hollywood powerhouses. In fact, Winfrey had tears welling in her eyes when she spoke of the land and the M ori people’s connection to it.
It’s been a year since I met Oprah. Native Affairs will screen the interview tomorrow before A Wrinkle in Time opens here next month. So how did it go? I asked her about the time Donald Trump said he wanted Oprah to be his vice-president. I also got a question in about her DNA test which found that she has Native American ancestry. And there was a fun exchange where I taught Oprah to say: “Kia ora,” along with that other traditional Kiwi saying: “Sweet as.” I didn’t faint.
So I was happy. The only feedback my producer gave me was that I let Oprah ramble. I was so busy panicking inside and trying to act normal that I it didn’t occur to me to cut her off at any stage. And if the only thing I did wrong was not interrupting Oprah, I can live with that. Aroha Awarau’s interview with Oprah will screen on Native Affairs, M ori Television, tomorrow at 8pm.
Aroha Awarau and Oprah Winfrey had their chat on the shores of Lake Pukaki.
Winfrey in The Colour
Purple, which had a big impact on the young Aroha Awarau.