Even if she weren’t the richest and most influential woman in the world, Oprah Winfrey has to be the most persuasive person I’ve ever interviewed.
At her press conference for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, she may not be as glamorous as she was on her talk show, but in every other respect, she’s without peer.
Her current passion is her TV network, OWN, for which she’s promoting two shows, Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, in which she serves as both executive producer and supporting player.
The 62-year-old Winfrey is said to be worth US$2.8bil (RM11.8bil).
What have you been doing with yourself since retiring from syndicated broadcasting four years ago?
I took a week off. I went on a friend’s yacht, and we were in the middle of the Mediterranean, and I was like, “What am I doing out here? I better get busy.”
But it actually took me a while to transition from what was the true love of my life. It wasn’t just a show for me. I spent more time there than I did in my actual apartment.
So, when it was time for me to move out (of the apartment), I was like, I don’t care, take the whole thing, I don’t care about anything here; my housekeeper had a harder time than I did.
I really had no relationship to that home because I just used it for sleeping and getting up the next day and doing the show.
You no longer live in Chicago (where The Oprah Winfrey Show was taped)?
No I don’t. And even though I lived in the same apartment for 27 years, there was not one thing, not one single object that I felt any attachment to. Once the dogs were out, I was good.
But on the other hand, when I saw the first crane knock over the wall of the Harpo building – where all those shows happened – it hit me in my gut. I felt a sense of sadness.
So, when I was in Chicago this past April, I had a lot of anxiety as I was approaching that building, like, what am I going to feel, am I going to break down and cry, am I going to be sad, is it going to depress me?
But because I had moved on, it felt like the spirit was no longer there. So, I said that’s good, it’s just a building, let it go, it’s fine, I am over it.
Was there anything you really missed?
I’d say the platform it gave me, the ability to speak to 10 million people at once all around the world. So, even now with social media, however many followers I have on Twitter, it’s not the same as being able to sit in a seat and say, “Here is a book I have read, and it is worth your time.”
And because you are speaking to so many millions, you can assume a million of them will hear you and buy the book. So that’s the thing that I still miss, the ability to connect to so many people at one time.
On your talk show you’ve changed so many lives. Was there one special person who might have changed your life?
I’d say Maya Angelou, the poet, writer, author. She was like my go-to, my mother figure.
In all the years, when every tabloid story would come out, she would be the person I would call and say, “But it’s not true,” and she would say, “Stop it, stop it now.”
She passed away in 2014 at 86 years of age, and I remember her saying to me, “Babe, the 80s are hot! Wait till you get there, they are hot.”
So who are you today?
I am a woman who still wants to use my voice to help raise the consciousness of the planet in every way that I can – through my magazine, through my Tweets.
One of the most important things that Maya Angelou ever said to me was when I had opened my Girls School (in South Africa) and was quite proud of myself and I was literally bragging to Maya, “This is going to be my greatest legacy.”
And Maya said to me, “You have no idea what your legacy will be. Your legacy is every life that you have touched. So don’t go claiming your legacy, because it’s not for you to decide that.”
What was the best acting advice you ever got?
It was when I made The Color Purple in 1985 and I didn’t have a clue. I thought I was going to be thrown out of the movie every day.
I was sitting in my hotel room crying because I wasn’t able to cry on cue when (director) Steven Spielberg asked me to. I could cry over every one else’s scenes, but not my own.
The late Adolph Caesar heard me crying and asked me, “What are you making all this damn noise for?” and when I told him I couldn’t do what Steven wanted me to do, he gave me my greatest acting lesson.
“You’re trying to force the character,” he told me. “You need to give yourself over to the character. Let the character take control.”
And after that lesson, I was still terrified because Steven never said anything to me, until the premiere, when he finally told me, “I saw your terror and I thought it was working for you, so I decided not to do anything about it.”
You’ve been called an icon.
That’s not how I see myself. I see myself as a black woman who started out being a coloured girl who was just trying to be the best I knew how. I made mistakes. You learn from those mistakes. You move on.
When I was in high school, Jesse Jackson came and gave a talk and told us, “Excellence is the best deterrent to racism. Excellence is the best deterrent to sexism.”
So, I took that to heart. I always worked harder. I was always the person with the most overtime. You just give it your best shot, and your reward comes from that. Maybe that’s how you grow up to be an icon.
And you still are able to enjoy life?
I have a wonderful life, surrounded by beautiful things. I’m having a good time with my money, really. I’m not one of those people who feels guilty about it, like I don’t deserve it. I think I do.
Is there anything missing in your life?
Not a thing. I feel really whole. I’ve worked a long time to be whole. It’s been a great, long journey getting here.
Other people have voices that reach their children in their home. That voice is strong and just as important as mine. Other people reach out into their communities, and their voices are just as strong.
Maya Angelou taught me what real faith is. A lot of people claim to be faithful, to be religious. But real faith is when the crisis comes in your life, you don’t say, ‘Why me? You say, ‘Thank you’, as an affirmation of faith that you’re going to be all right. You say ‘Thank you’ first, because you know whatever it is, you’re going to get through it.
Were you always a clever businesswoman, and do you have any business tips?
I don’t think I’m very clever at all. I had to learn it. When I was 22 years old, my goal was to make US$40,000 by the time I was 40.
At the time I was working in Baltimore making a salary of US$22,000. I learned the business.
I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning because I thought you could run a company the way you run a family, doing what you think is fair.
The problem is, everyone’s idea of what is fair isn’t the same as yours. So, after making a lot of mistakes, I had to create a system.
My best business decision has always been to sign my own cheques. I did have that sense, that no matter how many money managers and money advisers and investment people you have, you sign your own cheques.
Why do you think you were the best talk show host ever?
Simple secret – before I started any important interview, I would ask the person off camera, “Tell me what your intention is? Because I am the person who can help you fulfill that intention, and because I don’t want you to walk away from this interview saying you should have said that, and you didn’t ask me this.”
So, I did that for all important interviews, I sort of stepped back and tried to meet them where they are. And it worked.