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What It Takes: Oprah Winfrey, Part 1

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey
What It Takes: Oprah Winfrey, Part 1
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00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:32 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:35 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:00:40 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:00:52 ALICE WINKLER: Welcome to another episode of What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement's recorded collection. I'm Alice Winkler. On every episode of What It Takes, we play you a revealing conversation with someone who has literally changed the world, and mind you, a lot of people say literally these days when they mean figuratively, but I mean literally, literally. The Academy of Achievement has been recording these conversations for decades to document the extraordinary lives of people like Bill Gates, Alan Shepard, and Hank Aaron, but mostly to show that all of us can learn what it takes to do a little better, aim a little higher.

00:01:33 There is arguably no one alive who has built a bigger empire of inspiration than Oprah Winfrey, or, since America's on a first-name basis with her, Oprah.

00:01:45 OPRAH WINFREY: Billy is grieving, and we, you know, Phil has compassion for him, and that's okay that he's grieving.

00:01:50 MALE VOICE: Yeah, I think it's important for his mom, Sherry, to know that it's okay if — for him to be sad. I mean, something tremendous has happened in his life, and he deserves that.

00:02:00 ALICE WINKLER: Gail Eichenthal sat down with Oprah for the Academy of Achievement in 1991. It was five years into her groundbreaking talk show and many years before the production company, the magazine, or the television network. Gail started by asking Oprah if she’d had any clue she’d one day make it so big.

00:02:19 OPRAH WINFREY: As a young child I had a vision not of what I wanted to accomplish, but I knew that my current circumstances — I was raised on a farm with my grandmother for the first six years of my life. I knew somehow that my life would be different and it would be better. I never had a clear-cut vision of what it was I would be doing.

00:02:43 I just always felt somehow — or I remember absolutely physically feeling it at around four years old. I remember standing on the back porch. It was a screened-in porch, and my grandmother was boiling clothes, because, you know, during the — at that time, we didn’t have washing machines, and so people would, you know, physically boil clothes in a great big iron pot, and she was boiling clothes and poking them down, and I was watching her from the back porch, and I was four years old, and I remember thinking, "My life won’t be like this."

00:03:14 "My life won't be like this. It will be better," and it wasn't from a place of arrogance. It was just a place of knowing that things could be different for me somehow. I don’t know what made me think that.

00:03:26 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Did you ever consider any other career besides talking, broadcasting, and acting?

00:03:30 OPRAH WINFREY: I always wanted to be an actress, for most of my adolescent and adult life. My father didn't want me to be because his idea of what an actress was, was one of these, you know, lewd women, and, "How are you going to take care of your life?" So I always wanted to be an actress, and have taken, I think, a roundabout way to get there, because I still don't feel fulfilled as an actress. I still feel like, okay, once I'm — now I own my own studio and all this, but I'm thinking, "I did all of this just to be an actress. I just want to be able to act."

00:04:10 For a while, I wanted to be a schoolteacher. In the fourth grade, Mrs. Duncan was my greatest inspiration. In the fourth grade is when I first began to believe in myself. I, for the first time, believed that I could do almost anything. I felt I was the queen bee. I felt I could control the world. I was going to be a missionary. I was going to Costa Rica. I was going to — I used to collect money on the playground for — to take to church on Sundays, from all the other kids.

00:04:43 And at the time in schools, we had devotions, and I would sit, and I would listen to everything the preacher said on Sunday and go back to school on Monday morning and beg Mrs. Duncan to please let me do the devotion, just sort of repeat the sermon. So in the fourth grade, I was called “Preacher.” Kids used to poke fun at me all the time, but it didn't bother me because I was so inspired at the time, and a lot of it was because of Mrs. Duncan. Mrs. Duncan, Mrs. Duncan.

00:05:09 And we did a show not too long ago, and I had favorite teachers on. I just broke down because, first of all, it was the first time I realized Mrs. Duncan had a name other than Mrs. Duncan. You know, your teachers never have names. But her name's Mary! I couldn’t believe it.

00:05:22 ALICE WINKLER: And maybe you won’t believe it, but Oprah’s first name was actually supposed to be Orpah.

00:05:28 OPRAH WINFREY: Well, I was born, as I said, in rural Mississippi in 1954, and I was born at home, and there were not a lot of educated people around, and my name had been chosen from the Bible. My Aunt Ida had chosen the name, but people didn't know how to pronounce it, so it went down as Orpah on my birth certificate, but they put the p before the r in every place else other than the birth certificate. So on the birth certificate, it is Orpah, but then it got translated to Oprah, and so here we are.

00:06:04 But that's great because Oprah spells Harpo backwards. I don't know what Orpah spells.

00:06:09 ALICE WINKLER: It seems appropriate somehow that Oprah ended up with a singular name, even if by mistake. Her singular talents started to show when she was practically still a toddler, speaking in public at an age when the rest of us are still learning to talk. It was her grandmother who recognized her gifts, the grandmother who raised her.

00:06:30 OPRAH WINFREY: I came to live with my grandmother because I was a child born out of wedlock, and my mother moved to the North. She's a part of that great migration to the North in the late '50s, and I was left with my grandmother, like so many other black youngsters were, left to be taken care of by their grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles, and I was one of those children. It actually, probably, saved my life.

00:06:55 It is the reason why I am where I am today, because my grandmother gave me the foundation for success that I was allowed to continue to build upon. My grandmother taught me to read, and that opened the door to all kinds of possibilities for me, and had I not been with my grandmother and been with my mother, struggling in the North, you know, moving from apartment to apartment, I probably would not have had the foundation that I had.

00:07:22 So I was allowed to grow up in Mississippi for the first six years of my life, and allowed to feel somewhat special. Because I was a precocious child, I guess, by any standards now. I was taught to read at an early age, and by the time I was three, I was reciting speeches in the church. And they put me up on the program, and they'd say, "And little Mistress Winfrey will render a recitation."

00:07:48 And I would do, "Jesus rose on Easter Day. Hallelujah, hallelujah, all the angels did proclaim," and all the sisters sitting in the front row would fan themselves and turn to my grandmother and say, "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it: “Maybe I am!” I didn’t even know what “gifted” meant, but I just thought it meant that I was special, and so any time people came over I'd recite. I'd recite Bible verses and poetry.

00:08:15 I did all of James Weldon Johnson's sermons. He has a series of seven sermons, beginning with “The Creation” and ending with “Judgment.” I used to do them for churches all over the city of Nashville. I've spoken at every church in Nashville at some point in my life, I think, and you sort of get known for that. Other people were known for singing. I was known for talking. By the time I was seven, I was doing Invictus by William Ernest Henley.

00:08:41 "Out of the night that covers me, black as a pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods there be for my unconquerable soul," and at the time, I was saying — I didn't know what I was talking about, but I'd do all the motions: "Out of the night that covers me," and people would say, "Ooh, that child can speak!" And so that's — you know, you — whatever you do a lot of, you get good at doing it, and that's just about how this whole broadcasting career started for me.

00:09:07 ALICE WINKLER: It was all going pretty well for young Oprah, considering she was being raised without her parents in Mississippi, but then she moved north to be reunited with her mother in Chicago and things took a turn.

00:09:20 OPRAH WINFREY: And if you had asked me at the time if we were poor, I probably would have said no, because when you are living it and you don't know anything else, you think that's the way life is. And I was raped when I was nine by a cousin, and never told anybody until I was in my late twenties. Not only was I raped by a cousin... I was raped by a cousin, and then later sexually molested by a friend of the family, and then by an uncle. It was just an ongoing continuous thing, so much so that I started to think, you know, “This is the way life is.”

00:09:57 And not until, I'd say, a year ago did I release the shame from myself, because I was in the middle of an interview with a woman named Trudy Chase, who has multiple personalities and was severely abused as a child.

00:10:18 TRUDY CHASE: Each one of us went through some pretty deep garbage, and this is our opportunity, has been our opportunity for a while, to explore each other. Do you know...

00:10:29 OPRAH WINFREY: Do you feel like you lost whoever you would have been that day you were raped at two years old?

00:10:35 TRUDY CHASE: Well, she is no more. No more.

00:10:41 OPRAH WINFREY: And I think it was on that day that, I mean, for the first time, I recognized that I was not to blame, because I was a — I became a sexually promiscuous teenager, promiscuous and rebellious, and did everything I could get away with, including faking a robbery in my house one time. I remember, you know, stomping the glasses in the floor and putting myself in the hospital and acting out the whole scene, and I used to pull all kinds of pranks — ran away from home — and as a result of that got myself into a lot of trouble and believed that I was responsible for it.

00:11:18 It wasn't until I was 36 years old — thirty-six — that I connected the fact, oh, that's why I was that way. I always blamed myself, even though, intellectually, I would say to other kids — I would speak to people and say, "Oh, the child is never to blame. You're never responsible for molestation in your life." I still believed I was responsible somehow, that I was a bad girl and just released it in the middle...

00:11:46 And so it happened on the air, as so many things happen for me. It happened on the air in the middle of somebody else's experience. And so I thought I was going to have a breakdown on television, and I said, you know, "Stop, stop. You’ve got to stop rolling cameras." And they didn't, and so I sort of got myself through it, but it was really quite traumatic for me.

00:12:06 “The real Trudy Chase underwent years of therapy, and most of that therapy — stop — was videotaped because Trudy says that she wanted others to someday be able to understand that they are not alone in their abuse.”

00:12:33 My openness is the reason why I did not do so well as a news reporter, because I used to go on assignments and be so open that I would say to people at fires and they'd lost their children, "That's okay. You don't have to talk to me." Well, then you go back to the newsroom, and the news director, "What do you mean they didn’t have to talk to you?" I'd say, "But she just lost her child, and, you know, I just felt so bad."

00:12:55 So I didn’t do very well. I was too — absolutely too involved. I'd go to funerals of people and not go in. I wouldn't want to talk to them and disturb them. Cry on the air.

00:13:05 ALICE WINKLER: But, of course, it was her overwhelming empathy that allowed Oprah Winfrey to become “Oprah.” She just needed to find the format that fit. On her talk show, she perfected a new kind of confessional, therapeutic television, and television hasn’t been the same since.

00:13:23 OPRAH WINFREY: When I was growing up, especially in the third and fourth grade, I always wanted to be a minister and preach and be a missionary, and then for a while, after Mrs. Duncan's fourth grade class, I wanted to be a fourth grade teacher, and I think, in many ways, that I have been able to fulfill all of that. I feel that my show is a ministry. We just don't take up a collection, and I feel that it is a teaching tool without preaching to people about it.

00:13:47 I really do. That is my intent. That is my intent, and the greatest thing about what I do, for me, is that I'm in a position to change people's lives. It is the most incredible platform for influence that you could imagine, and it's something that I hold in great esteem and take full responsibility for. I mean, I do every show in prayer, not down on my knees praying, but I do it in sort of, before every show, a mental meditation in order to get the correct message across because you're dealing with millions of people every day, and it's very easy for something to be misinterpreted.

00:14:35 And so my intention is always, regardless of what the show is, whether it's about sibling rivalry or wife battering or children of divorce, for people to see within each show that you are responsible for your life, that although there may be tragedy in your life, there's always a possibility to triumph. Doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, and that the ability to triumph begins with you, always. Always.

00:15:01 ALICE WINKLER: When interviewer Gail Eichenthal asked Oprah in this conversation, in 1991, how aware she was of her own triumph, her own courage, this is what she said.

00:15:11 OPRAH WINFREY: The interesting thing about it is, if you were telling me my life story and it was about somebody else, I'd say, "Oh, how courageous." It's very difficult for me to give myself that credit. I mean, it's very difficult for me to even see myself as successful because I still see myself as in the process of becoming successful. To me, successful is getting to the point where you are absolutely comfortable with yourself, and it does not matter how many things you have acquired.

00:15:44 The ability to learn to say no and not to feel guilty about it, to me, is about the greatest success I have achieved. The fact that I have, you know, in the public's eye done whatever is fine. It's all a part of a process for growing for me, but to me, to have the kind of internal strength and internal courage it takes to say, "No, I will not let you treat me this way," is what success is all about. “I will not be treated this way. I demand only the best for myself.”

00:16:14 ALICE WINKLER: One of Oprah's greatest wishes, she said, was that through her work she could teach young people how to learn this life lesson a little faster than she learned it.

00:16:23 OPRAH WINFREY: Because it’s painful, because you keep repeating it over and over and over until you get it right, and what I found is that every time you have to repeat the lesson, it gets worse because it's — you know, it's — I call it God trying to get your attention, the universe trying to get your attention. So we didn't get your attention the first time, so we're going to have to hit you a little harder this time. Any major problem you encounter, it always started out as a whisper. By the time it gets to be a storm, you have been — you've had a pebble knock you upside the head.

00:16:52 You had a brick. You had a brick wall. You had the house fall down, and before you know it, you're in the eye of the storm, but long before you're in the eye of the storm you’ve had many warnings, like little clues. So now my goal in life is to not have to hit the eye of the storm, is to catch it in a whisper, to get it the first time. And getting it comes from understanding your — I think the thing — the one thing that has allowed me to certainly achieve both material success and spiritual success is the ability to listen to my instinct.

00:17:27 I call it my inner voice. It doesn't matter what you call it — nature, instinct, higher power. But the ability to understand the difference between what your heart is saying and what your head is saying — I now always go with the heart, even when my head is saying, "Oh, but this is the rational thing. This is really what you should do." I always go with that little feeling, the feeling. I am where I am today because I have allowed myself to listen to my feelings, and to validate them.

00:18:03 ALICE WINKLER: Oprah Winfrey told so many fantastic stories in this 1991 interview about how, more precisely, she got where she did, including how she won the Miss Fire Prevention Contest when she was a teenager, even though the deck was clearly stacked against her. That win led to her first job in broadcasting, but digest all the Oprah wisdom you’ve heard so far because the rest is coming in our next podcast. There was just too much good stuff with the Queen of Talk to fit into a single episode. This is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler.

00:18:43 Funding for What it Takes comes from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation.

What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.