The singular Oprah Winfrey on braving the elements, the way forward for women, and why, for now at least, she doesn’t want to be president
by LAURA BROWN
photographed by PHIL POYNTER
Oprah Winfrey is sitting on a couch in an L.A. photo studio, wearing a very flattering gray jersey jumpsuit and eating some shrimp (“No Weight Watchers points!”) from the catering table. The outfit is doubly fortunate because, as she explains wryly, “I’ve been wearing it for a week.” Fires are currently raging around Winfrey’s home in Montecito, Calif., so she can’t get to the property, making do by staying in a hotel.
We were together three weeks before Winfrey received the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes and delivered an instantly seminal speech that married the blights of racism and sexism with her uncommon vision. “I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon!” she thundered. “And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women … and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”
The speech left many speechless, immediately rousing a call for Winfrey to run for president, with #Oprah2020 trending on Twitter for days. And a remark to The Los Angeles Times from her longtime partner, Stedman Graham (“It’s up to the people. She would absolutely do it”), only increased the fervor. But then, another thud back down to earth: The week after the Golden Globes brought a second blistering attack on Montecito by Mother Nature—flooding rains that resulted in the region drowning in mud (which Winfrey shared with the world on her Instagram) and, at press time, 20 fatalities.
But when we talked, it was clear that whatever may be happening in the universe, hers or ours, Winfrey has a very Oprah way of reconciling it.
LAURA BROWN: How are you feeling?
OPRAH WINFREY: Well, it’s a little unnerving to have your property surrounded by fire. I ask everything that shows up in my life, “What are you here to teach me?” But I don’t need this lesson. I try to be the most grateful, the most appreciative, but this has given me great perspective. Thankfully, we’re through the process of “What do you take when you think the house is burning down?”
LB: What would you take?
OW: The first thing is the animals. Get all the dogs out. And then important art and things that actually mean something to me, like my collection of Pulitzer Prize books. My slave documents. Gayle [King, Winfrey’s best friend] said, “What about your journals?” I said, “Meh, let ’em burn.” Now I’m going to end the year on a high note of gratefulness. I’m going to certainly be thankful for every firefighter I ever see from now on. I think back to the time in 1985 when I was away shooting The Color Purple and my dream was to have a beautiful home and be surrounded by things that matter to me. So I’m really thrilled that I’ve been able to create that life, the one I was dreaming of in 1985. I get a lot of comfort from that.
LB: So, next year—
OW: Next year is A Wrinkle in Time! I’ve been waiting for this moment. I love what this movie represents—gathering the light carriers, the people, the warriors who will be fighting against the dark.
LB: How many of them do we need?
OW: Oh, we need an army! We need an arsenal.
LB: How fortuitous and timely that the team working on the film—from Ava DuVernay to Reese Witherspoon to Mindy Kaling—is such a great alliance of ladies.
OW: Yes, ladies first!
LB: Could you ever have predicted the film would come out at a moment when women were banding together in such a—
OW: Powerful, seminal way? Everything that’s happened has brought us to this point in time. We’ve been working our way through a lot of repressed pain, anger, shame, and disappointment. And we weren’t honoring our own voices. Now we’re here, and it took Harvey Weinstein* to burst that door wide open. But Harvey wasn’t the first one. It was Bill Cosby before him, and Bill O’Reilly before him. It’s just fascinating to me because I always try to look at things from thousands of feet above …
LB: In a macro way?
OW: Yes! In a macro way, like, “What’s really going on here?” Well, if it had only been Harvey Weinstein in that moment, it probably wouldn’t have happened. But it compounded, and people are hearing it. Finally everyone has to start paying attention. It’s cracked open. It takes a lot for people to wake up and see things differently than they’ve seen them before. I remember in the early days when I first started doing shows about missing children, we couldn’t get mothers to watch because it was too much and they didn’t want to believe it could happen to them. It’s only after it reaches enough people that you open yourself up enough to think, “Hmm, there’s a possibility that this thing could happen to me too.”
LB: Throughout your career, you have experienced and empathized with moments when women feel powerless.
OW: You know what has fascinated me the most about all of this? I was on set with some actresses the day after the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and I realized they all had a form of PTSD. They were saying, “Oh, since this thing broke I can’t sleep” or “I’ve been anxious. I just tear up every time I hear another story.” Having done hundreds of stories about child sexual molestation over the years, I recognized it as the same. The women were having the same reaction that children have when they’ve repressed an experience and they didn’t know whom to tell, felt shame, and thought, “I am the only one.”
LB: How do you see this manifesting into a movement? What comes next?
OW: It has seared into the consciousness a level of awareness that was not there before. That’s the most important thing to me. When Reese Witherspoon can tell her story at the same time as a farm worker in Iowa or a factory worker in Alabama, it says to a person, “Oh well, I’ve been putting up with that asshole supervisor for all these years. Maybe it’s time for me to do something too.” You can see you’re not alone. We don’t have to turn our heads to pretend something isn’t happening in order to keep going. And now we have amongst ourselves actresses, producers, directors, and people in business discussing how we can create a reporting system so that everybody feels supported. [Cue Time’s Up, a movement and legal fund announced in January, coming to the fore with black-clad actresses bringing female activists to the Golden Globes.]
LB: On that note, do you feel optimistic about next year?
OW: Yes! At another time in our collective consciousness the story could’ve gone away—two weeks, and it’s over. And I think that’s what probably some of these guys thought they could do. They could just go away to rehab…
LB: Oh, the rehab!
OW: You can rehab addiction, but how do you rehab criminal behavior? So I think the fact that it’s not over—it’s not done. Women are courageous and will continue to speak.
LB: And you speak for so many. How do you feel when people say, “Oprah 2020”?
OW: [Laughs] I actually saw a mug the other day ... I thought it was a cute mug. All you need is a mug and some campaign literature and a T-shirt. I’ve always felt very secure and confident with myself in knowing what I could do and what I could not. And so it’s not something that interests me. I don’t have the DNA for it. Gayle—who knows me as well as I know myself practically—has been calling me regularly and texting me things, like a woman in the airport saying, “When’s Oprah going to run?” So Gayle sends me these things, and then she’ll go, “I know, I know, I know! It wouldn’t be good for you—it would be good for everyone else.” I met with someone the other day who said that they would help me with a campaign. That’s not for me.
LB: Now you’re getting back to interviewing with your work for 60 Minutes. How does it feel to return to that?
OW: I have to say the core of me is about conversations. Exploring the depth of our human experiences. That is what I do. That is my calling. Whether I do that through dramas, producing stories with OWN [Oprah Winfrey Network], or one-on-one conversations that matter, I know that’s what I’m here to do.
LB: It’s such a wild and divisive time in the country right now. There’s so much tangible change going on every second. How do you stay on top of it all?
OW: I have taken a step back and a couple of notches down. I don’t get up and turn on the TV first thing in the morning. I spend quiet time. I try to center myself, and I’m conscious of what I allow in because there’s so much all day long. I have the app that has all the news stories, so I scroll through the 5 Things You Need to Know Today and then choose which of those things I want to explore more. I try not to lean into the hysteria. I’ve heard a lot of Twitter chatter where people have said, “Where are you? You should be speaking up on these things!” But it makes no sense to speak when you cannot be heard. One hundred and forty characters—that is not how you want to make your mark in the world.
LB: What makes you angry right now?
OW: What makes me angriest is the lack of discernment. Maya [Angelou] used to say to me, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” She said, “Babe, your problem is you have to be shown 29 times.” So, I see a lot of people who have to be shown 29 times, who have a lack of discernment for things that appear to be obvious. Character is very much a defining matter in everything that you do. To be able to say because you behaved a certain way doesn’t [reflect] who you really are, that’s just wrong.
LB: What makes you feel the most optimistic?
OW: Personally, the girls I put through school [in South Africa]. They are where I was at 22 and 23. They’re these open vessels to the world—their wide-eyed curiosity and ambitious desire to be better than where they’ve come from are what makes me optimistic. And in terms of optimism within our own country, I think what’s exciting is this moment in our political history, in our social engagement. It’s really opened a lot of people to the fact that they have a voice, and it’s gotten people involved in ways that they never would’ve been before.
On running for president
“It’s not something that interests me. I don’t have the DNA for it.”
LB: The last time we sat down I asked you: What are you hungry for?
OW: I remember that! Right now I’m actually hungry for nothing.
LB: Because we just had shrimp?
OW: We had shrimp. [Laughs] Zero points on Weight Watchers! If scientists can find a way to make pasta a zero-point thing, that would be heaven on earth for me, but that’s not going to happen. Shrimp and chicken and lean things are zero.
LB: You look good!
OW: Thank you! I feel healthy. I feel strong. I feel like this is where I can maintain and not go up and down. I don’t, like, binge binge anymore. My doctor said to me, “Get to a place where you feel happy with yourself, and maintain.”
LB: I want to know, Who’s your Oprah?
OW: Ava [DuVernay] is my new one. She’s just burning up; she’s a light! I’m inspired by her. And I feel a real connection, still, to Maya. Sometimes I can just hear her in my presence. I always tell people when somebody who’s loved you on earth is gone, it’s natural to grieve. But you can also leave just a little clearing for the spirit of them to abide with the spirit of you, to give you strength. So, who’s my Oprah? Maya—she was always mine.
LB: Tell me about life in your 60s.
OW: You take no shit. None. Not a bit. In your 40s you want to say you take no shit, but you still do. In your 60s you take none. There’s both a quickening and a calming—there’s a sense that you don’t have as much time on earth as you once did. For me, there’s also a sense of calming about that.
LB: Do people even give you shit? How much shit do you get?
OW: I don’t have time for it. [Laughs] By that I mean, people coming with anything less than what is the truth or authentic? Don’t even try.
*Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Bill O’Reilly deny the allegations made against them.
For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download February 9.