Kitty Kelley talks Oprah's sexuality, secrets, and time as a 'teenage prostitute'

oprahImage Credit: Amy Sussman/Getty ImagesKitty Kelley has gone where most biographers have been too afraid to go before: She wrote the life story of the all-powerful Oprah Winfrey. Kelley spent four years of her life researching the talk show maven for her new unauthorized biography, Oprah (hits shelves tomorrow). We got the author on the phone today to talk about her research and the secrets she discovered in Oprah’s own autobiography, which was withdrawn before publication. (Kelley claims that was probably because it contained reveals regarding Oprah’s life as a “teenage prostitute,” among other secrets)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You wrote that you had met Oprah years ago. At what point did you begin thinking about writing about her?
KITTY KELLEY: Decades later. I had absolutely no intention or idea at the time. It just was one of those coincidences. And I remembered it so well. It was in 1981, and I was promoting a book in Baltimore. But I didn’t decide to write this book until 2006.

What started to get you interested in writing it?
I didn’t think I’d do another one. And I’m going to tell you now I’m never going to do another one. But I just thought her life story from the little I knew of it was absolutely fascinating. But I told my agent that that’s what I would like to do, and he said, “There is no way. Nobody is going to publish this book.” And I say, “In my contract, I have to go back to my publisher.” And we went back to my publisher, and they said no. But Crown Books thought it was a fabulous idea. And they saw it the same way as I saw it. I thought the life story was unbelievable. She’s so powerful and she’s had such an impact on our society, that I thought a biography that would tell people more to understand her would be great. So that’s how it came about.

So this is indeed your last book?
It will probably be the last biography. However, I do have to tell you, I do say that after each book. It’s like coming off a bender.

Was this the toughest book you’ve done? How did you get around the confidentiality agreement Oprah makes her employees and guests sign?
There were a lot of people that said no. But thank god, there were a lot of people who said yes in exchange for absolute confidentiality. So you hate going with anonymous sources, but for this book, most of the sources are on the record with the sole exceptions of the past and present employees, and also publishing sources.

It took you four years to write the book. Did it take you a long time to gain access to your sources? Were they at all hesitant at first to talk to you?
I went to Kosciusko, Miss. for three days. And I spent that time with her Aunt Katherine. And you are right – over a period of time, I felt that she did trust me. So much so, that I got hauled into the secrets. I say that that was the biggest surprise to me, that this woman who seems so outgoing and spontaneous and uninhibited on the air is really shackled by her secrets. And I found myself [included in the secrets] when her Aunt Katherine said, “Oprah has begged me for years and years to tell me who her father is,” and then she told me and said, “But you cannot tell. You simply cannot tell. Because it’s not our place. Oprah’s mother has to tell her.” So I didn’t, of course.

And Oprah doesn’t know who her father is.
She knows that Vernon is not her father. She gives him full credit, which I feel he deserves, and she gives it to him rightfully so, for raising her and giving her a chance at living a good life. But he’s not her blood father.

So you’re not releasing that secret.
That’s just one more secret that Oprah is having to deal with within her own family. The one that she told that I think is really her signature issue and she deserves such credit to bring forward the shame and taboo of sexual molestation, because I think by telling that secret, as much as she did tell, helped so many people. But in her autobiography, which she later withdrew, she was finally going to get rid of some of those secrets. And she was going to tell all the three people who had sexually abused her, who the father was of the little boy she had, and also the teenage promiscuity that led her to be what she called herself, “a teenage prostitute.” Which was a little harsh, I think, for a young girl who had gone through what Oprah had gone through. But she started to do that, but then she pulled back. So the secrets still govern her to this day, in a way.

Did you expect a lot of shock to come from the prostitution revelation? That’s a big one.
It’s a big one, but no. I think people [who want to hear the shocking revelations] are going to say, “What’s wrong with you? You didn’t out her!” If I interviewed 850 people, 800 of them must have said, “So, okay, what’s the deal with Gayle?” And her sexuality is a part of this book, because she’s made it a part. She has issued a press release saying she’s not a lesbian, and I take her at her word. I think she’s asexual.

So you don’t buy into the rumors?
No, I don’t.

It’s interesting you wrote so much about people who tried to write books about Oprah, but were turned down by publishers, or intimidated to the point where they withdrew. Yet you managed to eke one out, which seems a feat.
Yes. YES. I don’t say that immodestly. I say that as a survivor.

And now I’ve seen that you feel you’ve been blacklisted by Barbara Walters, Larry King, and Rachael Ray?
I don’t think that Oprah got on the phone. She doesn’t have to do that. But it just shows you the immense power that she has. Barbara Walters said she absolutely wouldn’t [have me on], and Larry King…he’s somebody who loves celebrities, I think. And [with] the last book [2004's The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty], he wouldn’t have me on because he was emceeing George H.W. Bush’s 80th birthday party. So I’m not surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised.

Has Oprah contacted you since you finished writing?
No. Her publicist, I wrote her several times, and her publicist called me finally after about my third or fourth letter and said, “Ms. Winfrey asked me to call you. She declines to participate at this time.” And I thought, ooh, at this time! Maybe there’s hope! So I asked her, “Is there hope? The reason I ask is because I have to be accurate. I have to be fair, but I have to be accurate.” I said, “Could I send her questions? Could I send her a list of facts?” And she said, “Well, if you have questions or a list of facts, you can reach out to me. Call me, and I’ll be happy to answer anything.” And don’t you know, every time I called, she didn’t pick up.

Do you expect to hear from either Oprah or her publicist?
No.

So then you had to rely on Oprah’s own interviews for information. Did her interviews change over the years? Did the way she spoke change?
Absolutely. When I finally realized she wasn’t going to talk to me, I spent about a year gathering all the interviews she’s ever given in the English language to newspapers, radios, and so forth. And it took a long time to put them all together in a way that made sense. But it was fabulous because I had her own words talking about things, her thoughts at the time. So it was great. But I did see a huge difference. Not so much the confidence, which seems to be something she had from the very beginning. Immense, immense confidence. But the change you see in her happens about 1994. It’s what the Chicago reporters told me they called “The Dawn of the Diva.” Up to that point, she was very open and accessible, she’d sit for every single interview, she was open to reporters, she courted publicity, she gave things to the tabloids, provided them pictures. But by 1994, she had made substantial money, and she decided she wasn’t going to be tabloid anymore. And that’s when she started her new-age spiritual quest, if you will. She became more and more aloof, so that now, today, she doesn’t even give interviews.

There’s an interesting passage near the beginning about Winfrey’s father’s memoir, which he claimed would not be about Oprah, and how she got him to withdraw the proposal before publishers began to bid. I know you talked to Vernon — did you have a chance to read the proposal?
Yes, I have the proposal. You know something? Vernon Winfrey was telling the truth. He said to me, and he said this is what he said to Oprah on the phone, “This is not your book, it’s my book. I want to write about my life.” And I said to him, “Well, Mr. Winfrey, what did you want to write?” He said, “You have to understand, I’m part of the Moses generation. I was there when Martin Luther King was starting to march for civil rights. Oprah’s part of the Joshua generation. She’s on the come-up.” I thought that was so interesting. He said, “She can quote all of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, but she wasn’t there. I was, and that’s what I want to write about.” Well, when I got ahold of the proposal, he’s absolutely right. He did write about Oprah, there’s no question, but he wrote about his family, about growing up one of 10 children, growing up in white America. It was very interesting. And I happened to mention it when I went to Kosciusko and talked to her Aunt Katherine. And she gave me a book that she had written. And I read it. It was fascinating. And I said, “Ms. Esters, why didn’t you give this book to Oprah?” She said, “Oh, I did. I just hoped Oprah would bless my book so it would be profitable, and I could leave some money to people here in the community. But Oprah said my book was too boring.” It’s very sad. But as far as her father, I said, “So what happens to your book now?” And the proud part of this man said, “Well, I still want to do it.” And I said, “Do you think you will?” And he said, “Publishers are now saying I have to have her permission.” So I don’t think we’ll ever see Mr. Winfrey’s book.

You talked to a whopping 850 sources. What percentage of them spoke favorably about the talk show host?
Let’s just start with her family. They really prefaced our interviews with they do love Oprah, they do admire her for her good works, but they have a very complicated relationship. And I think they resent the fact that she’s created a celebrity family for herself and dismissed them. So it was mixed. When I interviewed Alice Walker, she said she loved Oprah, she admired her, she considered her a gift to the planet, but she didn’t understand the remove that Oprah put between them. They weren’t all negative and they weren’t all positive. Erica Jong loved the Oprah she met in the early days. She said she was sweet then. Not so sweet now. It was that kind of thing.

Did you fear a lot of your sources just held grudges against Oprah, and that’s the reason they spoke unfavorably?
No, because I really tried to put it in context. I really tried to let the reader know what I was doing and where the person was coming from. Katherine Esters — and she had said this in her book too — said, “I believe in telling the truth, snakes, spiders, and all.” And boy, she did. And I was having lunch with Ms. Esters, and she was talking about Oprah’s lies. “She tells lies!” And I said, “Well, are they really lies? They’re more colorful stories.” And Mrs. Esters is saying, “No, those are lies. There weren’t pigs on the farm. There was one pig. She said she was raised in abject poverty. Oprah said she never had a pretty dress until she was successful. She was beautifully dressed as a child. She said she grew up barefoot. Well, look at this picture here.” And when she was done, I said, “Is that the most important thing?” And she looked at me and said, “No, the most important thing is that we were poor folks down there. But she was raised as an only child, and she had the full and undivided attention of all of these adults who spoiled her to death. And that was the reason she was so precocious and successful.”

What was the key to her success?
I think that has a great deal to do with it – the fact that she was precocious as a young child. She got a great deal of attention, and I think it just absolutely went from there. Oprah herself says for the first 10 years of her life, she wanted to be a white child, because they got more and they had more. But once she saw Diana Ross on The Ed Sullivan Show, she decided she wanted to be Diana Ross. And she just aimed that way. She has said that Diana Ross was the first black woman she ever saw wearing real diamonds.

What was the biggest scoop in your book, in your opinion?
To tell you the truth, I don’t know. For me, as somebody who spent all this time writing her life story, the fact that she is so shackled by secrets. It knocked me over. The secrets that she kept, and the secrets she still binds others to. With her confidentiality agreements, telling employees that they can’t go out in public and mention her name — they have to refer to her as Mary — [and] you’re not allowed to take your cell phone around her because you might take pictures. She wants to be in the news, but she needs to control it. She now sees herself as a brand. She doesn’t like her picture taken unless it was staged. And if her picture is taken by a photographer, and she doesn’t like it, she will buy up all the copies.

Was that the thing that most surprised you while writing?
It was the secrets thing. First of all, when I was down South, and I absorbed what it was for a young black child to grow up in Mississippi, and then to live in Nashville, I wasn’t surprised by the interracial love affairs that she had, but I was surprised by people’s reactions, even in the 21st century, saying it’s no big deal now, but then it was a big deal. But I guess what I was surprised about was she had put all the secrets down, or a lot of them, she mentioned the three men who had sexually abused her, as well as the prostitution, and she was ready to put that in her autobiography. And then she withdrew it.

Was it just too much for her to take at the time?
Yeah, absolutely. And I think the people she showed it to said, “Whoa. It’s one thing to talk about sexual abuse. You were a victim. You were victimized. But you don’t go out there and say you traded sex for money and you were a prostitute.” I think they felt she established herself on such a high pedestal, she couldn’t afford to do that. And as we are talking now, she is now, according to Good Housekeeping’s latest poll, the most admired woman in the world. That means more admired than Mother Teresa and Eleanor Roosevelt. That’s a feat!

Comments (73 total) Add your comment
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  • Gata

    Ah well – what can I say…Oprah was born just like the rest of us!!!

  • Dysthymia83

    Oprah is a poor excuse for a journalist, who peddles vapid literature and dangerously idiotic self-help pap to the ignorant masses. She has done nothing to deserve her fame, and yet is beloved by millions. I fail to understand it.

    • Jennifer

      I’m indifferent towards Oprah, but your statement is a pretty out there. You many not like what she has done, but to say she doesn’t deserve her fame is putting her in the same category as Paris Hilton and other ppl famous for being famous. That is simply not true. Also as an aside some of her book club choices have been great works of literature. I would hardly call Anna Karenina vapid literature….just saying.

      • Narcisio

        I don’t think you can compare the two at all – they’re both hcteic, stressful, and make you want to rip your hair out. They also both have their boring moments and their rewarding moments. You can’t compare racing a deadline with mopping up puddles of toddler fluids because they’re so totally different. The only thing I’ve seen that’s similar with both choices is tantrums – bosses and customers have them too… the only problem is that you can’t put THEM in time-out!

    • Brenda Barrett

      I’ve loathed Oprah since she inserted herself into the 2008 presidential election – she’s a traitor to women.

      • Cherish

        No she is a champion to black people. We are black first we are women second. Any black woman will tell you that. That is how the world views us and that is what Oprah is showing the world. There is no black woman out there that would say that Oprah is a traitor, for supporting Obama, by 90% of us would consider her a traitor if she didn’t. know your cultural differences.

      • Wanda

        Cherish are you saying you like Oprah because she is black? That is the only reason she has the fame and money that she does is because she is a black women. As a young actor smart execs knew this would be a draw. She didn’t to were she is on her own merits of talent.She had and still has very smart people that direct her every move. I’m happy that a black woman succeeded but please don’t keep her revenues to continue skyrocketing just because she’s a black woman. She’s just a mediocre actor trying to get as rich as possible. All the little charity works are just for publicity. Open your eyes

      • Wanda

        And what I’m also hearing is that you voted for Obama because he is black. That has to be the most irresponsible reason to vote for the President of the United States! And not to mention racist! Did you research his platform? Did you research his credentials? Or did you say we have to have a black President even if it means it bankrupts our economy and leaves families homeless from not being able to work. Yes you are black and yes you are a woman, but you should consider yourself an American first. Without our nation are own personal cultures won’t be as cherish!

      • RyRyNYC

        I find it funny what you said, Cherish. And I would love to ask you if you are college educated – not because you sound uneducated. BUT BECAUSE every friend of mine that is a black woman I asked if she was “Black” or “Woman” first and foremost and every single one of them that was a college graduate said “WOMAN, first.” In fact, the only black women that I’ve heard say the opposite are younger non-college educated girls.

      • Dayle

        Sounds like someone is jealous of Oprah…The woman has more money than you and I will ever enjoy…but instead of acting like a LOSER like Kitty K she’s busy helping to make strangers realize their own dreams.I’m a white woman in my 60’s and thank GOD I have Oprah as a mentor! I admire her for all the good things she has done…you sound like a racist Obama hating tea party Sarah Paylin fan!Oprah is not a traitor to women..she tries to lift EVERYONE up and I love her.I hope she has a long happy life…there will never be another Oprah…by the way…she opened that school in Africa to EMPOWER little girls!!Is that what you are afraid of?A black woman being smarter than YOU!But why not.. Obama is ions smarter than that idiot before him…and you know exactly who I’m talking about.”W”

      • MsSuniDaze

        Is she a traitor because she sided with Obama, or because she didn’t side with Palin? Just curious.

      • Elizabeth

        No a trader to women is Gloria Allred.

    • Tia Newton

      That is so ignorant to say…Oprah just didn’t wake up one morning and became the most admired woman she appealed to so many because she discussed topics that no one else would. The simple fact that you are on here making a comment about Oprah proves how vast her reach is.

      • Beddu

        This has been an interesting thared on both posts. The Mommy Wars have been around a long time. I worked the whole time my daughter was growing up and was the main breadwinner in our household. It was the right thing to do for us. When I first had my baby I joined a neighborhood babysitting cooperative. Little did I know that these women basically traded babysitting during the day only. I was totally looked down upon for working and leaving my child with other caregivers. It was the least nurturing situation for me, a tentative new mom who had so much to learn from other mothers. Eventually I found other friends, but have always felt sad about the fact that these particular SAHP’s couldn’t accept the choice that I made. I really try to respect everyone’s choices to do what is best for their families.physicsmomP.S. WV = sityden, as in SRMM told me to sityden and listen to some home truths.

  • Mr Bean

    I’m not an Oprah fan, but I do believe that Oprah like any person is entitled to their privacy. Why do people want to dig up dirt, does it make them feel like a better person themselves. The money they make from exposing someone else, is dirty money and they are welcome to any gain they receive from such sleezey work!!

  • flower

    If it is true, it would be better for Oprah to write her own book in her own words. I just think it’s her own secret to tell.

  • Spud

    I think it’s disgusting to write a biography about someone who so obviously does not want her life out there, who does not want her story told. The fact that the author is talking about all these “secrets” she dug up, how she went behind this woman’s back and talked to people who signed confidentiality agreements (strike one against the author’s moral standing) and then talked to Oprah’s own family (another strike), who I don’t think in their right mind would reveal so much. I am certainly never going to buy this book. I don’t think we have the right to information about celebrity’s personal lives that we all think we have. Sure, Oprah may have been “born just like the rest of us” — as Gata says — but it is she who should get to control what the world knows about her, about her life. And the fact this woman so blatantly ignored this right, the right to privacy, just seems horrible in my opinion.

    • CC

      Very well said. I feel the exact same way. I think it is horrible that people feel they have a right to know everything about celebrities – they still have a right to their private lives. Also, all of this was in the past – the past is history.

    • Benson

      I totally agree with everything you have wrote.

  • Marie

    This book seems to pull the curtain back and show people what’s really going on behind the great & powerful Oprah. She’s done a lot of good, she’s brilliant, but she’s also a controlling diva.

    • Cherish

      FYI every woman in power is a controlling diva…why because Patriarchal society tells us that if we are smart, in control, and take charge of our surrounding then we are being divas or bitches. And now even women like yourself believe the Kool-aid they feed you to keep you submissive to men. I say we women need to be a little more “diva” like and start taking over the word like Oprah did.

  • ME

    In recent years, I have become less and less an Oprah fan, yet there is something unconscionable about this Kitty Kelly interview. I would be LIVID if someone poked around my past and spoke to my relatives.

    Some of the things really ARE petty-so she buys up all the pics of herself she doesn’t like. I hate when people take pics of me and put them on facebook without my permission. If I had the money, I WOULD just stop them. Kelly says those things as if they are so awful, but how many of us wouldn’t? And so what she doesn’t talk to Alice Walker anymore? Maybe they had a falling out.

    I just can’t get behind these unauthourized biographies, because they just feel wrong. We don’t need to know every secret everyone has.

    • Emiliano

      Do not a lot of money to buy some real estate? Worry no more, just baecuse it is possible to get the to solve all the problems. Hence get a secured loan to buy everything you need.

  • LVGRAMPS

    I like Oprah except when she fawns over OBUMMER.

    • Esme

      Suck it up, Pops! Times have changed since you were in knee britches.

      • Wanda

        Yea Times Have Changed. People who work hard their whole lives to keep their business going are now going have to give part of the income to some lazy person. Why don’t we come to your house and take half of your belongings, because that is what’s happening to the small business class. I hope my 3 employees can use you as a reference when they have to find new jobs because the business taxes are taking it down. How about that for some change you can believe in!

  • jh

    Operah is queer.

  • Kate

    Meh, all’s fair. She’s not publishing stuff like Oprah’s dads name. Not that I find this OK; I just think that part of celebrity (especially legendary celebrity like Oprah) is an understanding that people will be curious about you, and may find things out you don’t want them too. I really don’t buy this whole “we deserve privacy too!” rant celebrities go on. I think that yes, they do deserve privacy, but they also clearly understand in pursuing fame, that fame and excessive wealth are accompanied by a decrease in privacy. I don’t see any of them abandoning their mansions to work 9-5 in an office, in order to maintain privacy. All professions have their down sides – the entertainment profession (at this level) has fewer than most. I think Oprah has pursued endless fame, and should expect intrusions on her personal life may happen because of it. We don’t complain when people write biographies of sports stars, actors, directors, politicians, etc. Why is Oprah different?

    • Kate

      A perfect example of this desire for attention followed by a rejecting the attention is how she said Oprah used to be open and courted the media (probably in order to build fame, yes?), but now avoids it at all costs. If that’s true, it reeks of hypocrisy to complain about something you once chased because it no longer serves your purpose.

      • Keith

        Well said !!!

  • Maggie

    A celebrity doesn’t have much of a private life. They know that going into it. I don’t find it horrible at all that biographies get written about celebrities. When someone like Oprah makes people sign confidentiality agreements she is just asking for someone to dig deep to find out why. If you don’t want anyone to know anything about you, you need to keep your mouth shut and stay behind the scenes. That’s entertainment.

    • dancingirja

      I think one of the problems with biographies in general, is the strength of the written word when describing situations that can be seen in many ways. It is all presented as truths (maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not), and when printed, the rumours are out there. I don’t find the fact that boigraphies are written horrible either, and there are fact-checks etc. It’s just more the concept of publishing something first, and then the people involved may comment on the described situations/defend themselves afterwards.

  • TheNoirEffect.com

    Oprah believes in freedom of speech. While she doesn’t support the book, she believes in Ms. Kelley’s right to that freedom. People however should be aware of what they allow into their spirit, and Ms. Kelley could use her talents to peddle something more than her interpretation of gossipy aspects of Ms. Winfrey’s life.

    They say that the pen is mightier than the sword and while Ms. Kelley wields her pen with wreckless abandon to write salicious second hand tell-alls, Oprah uses her pen and platform to write checks to advance the needs of those in need.

    I’m on TEAM OPRAH.

    • Dayle

      You go girl! I couldn’t have said it better…Talk is Cheap and Oprah is real.I can’t stand sleaze and that’s what Kitty K is…I wonder how much of her earnings on this so called biography is going to help another human being or charity…my guess is NONE!!

      • Mukesh

        Good stuff, Dave’s a man of the popele, all popele. We should all aspire to those heights. And he’s funnier than hell. Oh yeah and he’s damn near my neighbor, lived in a small community about a half hour away from me. It’s a really different kind of community filled with popele who have similiar views on life. Sometimes when he’s there you will see him just walking down the street and no one mobs him for autographs and such, well much anyway.

  • charlotte

    I can’t believe this woman. She’s so disgusting. I’m sorry, but any “unauthorized” biography is so opportunistic and a complete violation of someone’s privacy. I don’t consider myself a huge Oprah fan but this woman absolutely repulses me. I really feel for Oprah. This bottom-dweller is nothing but an opportunistic “writer” who is contributing absolutely nothing to society. She’s literally no better than someone who works for the tabloid.

  • Jolie

    Ms. Kelly has made her life’s work doing this sort of tabloid writing. I do not like it so I do not read or buy her books.

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