I Lied To Oprah
The true story of Oprah's 3 strikes against Andy.
Last Thursday's James Frey episode of "Oprah" is idling in my DVR. I am too terrified to watch it. I am scared; I don't want to see "mad" Oprah. I can't handle her being mad at anyone. I think it's because she's been mad at me. I want her to love me so bad, but I have screwed up one too many times.
I have been a heavy viewer of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" since year 2 of the series, 1987. I could - and will someday – take a sabbatical and write a detailed analysis about how I think she's evolved, how the show has changed, and how for all of the crap that's thrown around about idol worship and her deified persona, she's done so much good that people should shut their faces with their negative Oprah energy. She is so good and her show is so good.
But I've struck out three times with her. My personal karma with Oprah stinks. And I have to live with that.
Since the day I started working at CBS THIS MORNING in 1990 I tried to get an "in" with Oprah and somehow get her on our air. I badgered her publicist for a couple years and finally booked a date for O to come into the studio for a taped interview with Paula Zahn, who Oprah knew from years before. Oprah was coming in advance of the Daytime Emmys, and in preparation of that event I was simultaneously producing a weeklong series featuring the big talk show hosts of the day – Geraldo, Joan Rivers, Sally Jessy – of which I wanted Oprah to be a part. This would be in addition to her interview with Paula that she'd agreed to. The publicist declined. Looking back I don't blame her.
Oprah arrived wearing a tenty, bright green garanimal-y outfit. She was Fat Oprah: together, in command, professional, surrounded by handlers and an assistant publicist (not the woman I'd been schmoozing for two years). We'd timed her arrival; the studio was fired up with Paula in her chair ready to go.
But I had set up a con job. Oprah, my idol, was the unwitting victim in a scheme that I can only look back on now with horror. I'd told Paula and my Executive Producer that Oprah hadn't exactly agreed to be a part of my talk show series, but that when (agreed-upon) interview #1 had concluded, the control room should simply keep tape rolling, Paula should keep Oprah in the chair and that it would actually be fine for her to begin a separate interview for my (stupid) talk show series. I was vague with Paula. I told her to in turn be very vague with Oprah about our intended use for this separate interview. What a master plan!
As we began interview number two, Oprah's (assistant) publicist was in the green room, watching and wondering what this second interview was, why she was in the dark, why I had conned her, and told me that we could not air it. I promised that we would not air it but was still blindly determined to air the interview and legitimize my (stupid) series by making Oprah a part of it.
I got back to my desk and the phone rang. "Andrew, it's Oprah." Oprah was calling from her limo – it was the early 90s and calling from a car was still impressive. I lost all professionalism, though upon looking back on this story it is clear I had none left to lose, and began literally hyperventilating like a crazed fan receiving and out-of-the-blue-Oprah-call on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
"Calm down, Andrew," Oprah said. "I am very upset about what happened and I need to talk with Paula."
Oh. My. Lord. Oprah is "upset." And it is because of me. I lied to Oprah. I hurt her. I was in Big Big Big Trouble. Big Trouble. With Oprah. Who I loved. I hurt the one I love. And wanted to love me. This did not feel good.
I called the control room and had them pull Paula from the studio to get on the phone with Oprah. I ran to the other end of CBS – the length of an entire Westside city block - to intercept Paula as she hung up the phone. Apparently Oprah told her that she was displeased with how unprofessional we'd handled this situation after her publicist had turned down our request, but that the interview had been so good that she was going to let us use it. This was Fat, Forgiving, Pleasing-Others, Early 90s Oprah, don't forget. Amazingly, I had also allowed Paula to be an innocent participant in the entire affair as well. I withheld my entire scheme, which she made me explain in detail once off the phone. It had worked, but put Paula in a bad spot and was poorly executed. I figured that I had seen the last of Oprah. We aired a two-part interview as part of the (stupid) series, which made little impact on our ratings.
That was only strike
1. A couple years later, I flew to Chicago for the day with Zahn to interview Oprah at Harpo Productions. That morning, I'd gotten my (very early 90s) ponytail cut off on the air by famous hairdresser-to-the-stars Christophe. I don't know what I was most excited about: my on-air makeover (!), my new look (!), Paula bumping me up to first class with her (!), the flight attendants having seen my makeover on TV and loving it (!), or showing off my new look to Oprah under the roof of Harpo (!!!). I was getting another chance with my (now thin!) Queen.
We set up in Oprah's (beautiful) study, got a tour, and in she came. She was all business. Brisk. Professional. Maybe cold, but maybe not. Paula asked her how it could be possible that she was "every woman" - as her theme song suggested - while also a multi-millionaire and shedding weight, perhaps growing further from her viewers. She turned it on, telling us a story about an hour she'd just taped about anorexia and the women who'd touched her. She was crying! She became "Oprah." She went from cold to hot to hotter. It was a good interview.
When it was over, I asked to take a photo with my idol. Time stopped. The publicist rebuked me before Oprah could say no herself. It was so uncomfortable. I was crushed. I felt like I'd offended everyone and crossed a line. I was not there as a fan, I was there to do an interview. We'd done the interview, the cameras were off, and now it was time to take my new hairdo and unprofessional self back to New York.
That was strike 2.
A few years later, ever resilient me was back in Chicago working on a story and set up a quick "hello" meeting with Oprah's publicist, who also allowed me to sit in on a taping of the "Oprah" show. I was so happy to be sitting in the audience, as a fan. During a commercial break I got up the nerve to say hello to the Queen. Again, I can't undersell my level of respect, devotion and esteem for this woman.
"Hi Oprah, I'm Paula Zahn's producer," I said sounding chipper.
That was strike 3.
Apparently she had seen CBS THIS MORNING just the day before and caught a snide comment that Mark McEwen, our weatherman who NEVER EVER made snide comments, made about Oprah, her weight loss and something to the effect that if HE had a chef and a trainer then HE'D lose all the weight that she did.
She recounted the entire story to the studio audience and me. Into her microphone the story was projected. She proceeded to say how HURTFUL it was for someone to ASSUME that it's because of her having a trainer and a chef that she was able to lose all the weight. She was not pleased. AGAIN. With ME! I was the living, breathing example of hurt - in front of three hundred women wearing red blazers who loved Oprah as much as I did. They – and she - turned on me. I felt very, very small. And sad.
During the next commercial break I got an urgent beep to call CBS NEWS in New York. It was Bill Owens telling me there'd been a huge explosion in Oklahoma City and that I needed to get on the next plane there. I fought him.
"Bill, I am in the audience at 'Oprah' right now. I can't possibly leave. It REALLY sounds like no big deal to me. Are you SURE I have to go?" I pleaded. "I REALLY think it's best for the show that I stay. She's REALLY mad at Mark, CBS, the show, and this sounds like no story to me. I don't even get what the story is..."
I went to Oklahoma City. I never saw Oprah again. I can't believe I have had the misfortune of screwing up so many times. I am still a fan. And I have no plans to watch her interview with James Frey. I can't handle it.
EDITORS NOTE: Unlike A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, every word of this story is TRUE.