Oprah and I collided pretty hard – literally.
It happened when she was eagerly stepping out of her interview suite and I was eagerly stepping in. We ran into each other face-first. We ended up in this weird, armless, hugging position. It was really awkward. Both of us retreated and apologized. Even though it was a total accident, you know, just a moment in time. For me, it was like it happened on purpose. The Universe wanted to teach me a lesson and luckily, I was ready, willing and well-dressed enough to learn it.
I was in New York City, at the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue, to interview “The Big O” for her big screen comeback, in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Mind you, Oprah hasn’t starred in a major motion picture in over a decade. So, it was a pretty big deal for Deco Drive. Actually, whatever Oprah does is usually a pretty big deal. I was ready for the assignment, though. Matter-of-fact, I was overly prepared. I did way too much research. I wrote way too many questions (three pages to be exact.) Then, weeded them down, finalized and memorized.
Shari, my stylist, wanted me to look perfect, too. She picked a pretty flowered Ted Baker puffy skirt and paired it with a matching cashmere sweater. At first, I thought it looked like a garden party gone wrong, but once I put it on, it was pure poetry. It was so comfortable, so classy, I actually didn’t care what it cost. I happily relinquished my Visa (I call that a clothing coma.) I went with a pointy toe, single sole, ankle bracelet, brandished gold Manolo Blahnik shoe and accessorized with simple gold jewelry.
It was a hot, sunny morning in NYC, when the press converged on the Waldorf and thanks to Oprah, there was an extra buzz in the air. Her team ran such a tight ship, before I knew it, I was on deck to interview her. I was sitting in the hotel hallway, when one of her handlers barreled toward me and cooed: “Hi, Shireen. You’re up next to interview Oprah.” I smiled and followed her directions. She told me to: “Stand in front of the interview suite and walk in as soon as the doors open.” She added: “We’re on a really tight schedule today. When you’re asked to wrap, please do so.” I agreed with a wholehearted nod. Then, I glanced down, for one last look at my questions. That’s when the doors opened.
As I was walking in, with my head down, Oprah was walking out. That’s when the strange hug thing happened. We awkwardly made small talk, but eventually, Oprah dashed off to do what she needed to do (go to the bathroom.) I, on the other hand, went into the interview room, to prepare. I was feeling a bit out of sorts.
You see, I have this hard, steadfast rule, that I never engage my subject before I interview them (unless, of course, they engage me.) Especially, with celebrities. So, I wasn’t happy about the small talk. Every reporter is different, but for me, I prefer to “do it all” on camera. I like to throw caution to the wind and let the interaction happen organically. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a plan. I always have a plan, but most of them have pretty wide parameters. I also don’t like to get too comfortable in an interview room; a little tension, as in live interaction, makes for good banter. The entire situation wasn’t going as planned.
When Oprah walked back into the room, she was trying to clasp one of her bracelets that had fallen loose. She walked right up to my chair (it was opulent and comfy) and stood beside me, trying to fasten it. Another rule I have, don’t touch the celebrity, ever. I’ve learned that the hard way. Unless of course, they touch you (and I’m pretty sure, running face-first into someone, doesn’t count.) I waited for an assistant, a manager, Gayle, someone, anyone, to swoop in and clasp her rogue arm candy. I mean, come on!!! This is one of the richest, most powerful, famous women in the world! Doesn’t someone get paid to just latch things for her? The answer is no. There was no professional latcher. No one came to her rescue and no, I didn’t help her. I just sat there, like an idiot.
Oprah was dressed modestly. She had on black pants, a royal blue silk tank top and a matching sweater. She was also (like myself,) wearing brandished gold jewelry. Including a stack of bracelets on her left arm, one of which wouldn’t clasp, that were adorned with petite, dark blue, precious stones. They were the exact same color as her outfit. Her hair was big and natural and her make-up was the perfect combination of subtle and submissive. I was impressed and not because she was understated, but because it was the first time (and there had been others,) I had truly seen Oprah, Undressed. She was comfortable and complete in her own skin. I found her affable, engaging and emotionally open. That doesn’t mean she was being the Oprah I expected her to be, or that everyone else in the world expects her to be; she was just being – herself. Real. Authentic. Genuine.
I’m not just saying this because she’s Oprah. I’m saying this as an Entertainment Reporter/Film Critic who has seen her (over the years) go through some major, personal and professional, ups and downs. I met her when I first started in television, before my ship of life had really set sail. Hers, on the other hand, had already chartered itself into perilous waters. I wouldn’t fully appreciate her innate, inner compass, until I, too, raised my own canvas, testing my resilience and buoyancy against the different tides of life.
Back then, I didn’t understand the impact Oprah’s career and life would have on my own. She would become one of the great pioneers of Entertainment Television. She started in local news, morphed her way into gossipy daytime talk, transitioned her show into a celebrity hour, then made it motivational. If that weren’t enough, she took it to the next level by becoming inspirational. A true philanthropist of the mind and spirit (not to mention all the money she’s given away.) She’s always worked to make our airwaves better, richer and give them integrity. And, just when you thought Oprah was done, she left reality TV and Infotainment behind, by starting her Oprah Winfrey Network. Say what you want (and most people do), BUT there is absolutely no denying her success, significance and trail blazing legacy.
Finally, the interview timer rescued Oprah’s insecure little bauble. She latched it with ease. Oprah graciously thanked her and turned her gaze toward me. She walked closer to my chair and stared. What was it, I thought. Did I remind her of how far she’d come? Probably not, but she reminded me of how far I had. Before the interview, we talked about that phase in life when people are ‘trying really hard’ (like I was in my fancy dress and fancy shoes) and then we talked about how to grow out of it. Like Oprah had. She said: “Honestly, I just can’t be bothered anymore.” I laughed, albeit uncomfortably. My entire persona screamed ‘I am bothered. I am bothering. I am trying. I try really, really hard. I am in search of my authentic self.’ It was definitely the white elephant in the room. Oprah added: “I’m so glad I’m out of the jewelry phase, too. That was an expensive time.”
I knew a lot of her life had been expensive, and not just on her pocket book, but on her heart and mind, too. It is for all of us. It’s what we’re left with, after we pay the tab of hard knocks, that matters. Oprah is debt free, or as close to it, as a human can possibly be. She is indeed richer, not poorer – literally and figuratively – because of how she’s chosen to live her life. She’s taken the good and the bad and used it to her advantage. She’s taken all of her knowledge, experiences and power and poured them back into the world, and, by doing so, at the same time, manifested her own evolution.
I brought the interview back to Miami and it aired on Deco, but Oprah, Undressed stayed with me. Her absolute ‘this is who I am. I accept it. I love it. I don’t need to be anything else, but myself,’ attitude, completely inspired me. Our collision and what followed stirred my authentic self. It forced me to throw out my own rules, go with the flow, analyze where I had been and stay in the moment, so I could actually see, perhaps even enjoy, where I was going (not just in my interview, but in my life.)
The thing is, people like fashion, until they wear it. They want fame, until they have it and they long for fortune, but don’t know how to buy it. Oprah has managed all three, despite the fleetingness of it all. As she continues dressing the world in its best-fitting self, the world is watching Oprah, Undressed evolve – into her best authentic self, and really, isn’t that the way we all should be? www.oprah.com/own