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THE thought of Oprah Winfrey personally calling me for an interview is laughable. After all, she is, aside from being the CEO of the Oprah Winfrey Network and her numerous other work commitments, on a manic schedule. But that is exactly what she did – three times – before we connected.
To say her high level of professionalism and personable nature left me in awe would be an understatement. Especially since she was jet-setting from one city to another, juggling several other interviews and, amid shooting her scenes for The Butler, in which she plays Forest Whitaker’s wife, still took time out to call for the interview.
And it easy to see why she is such a notable role model to the pupils at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.
In the light of TLC’s documentary ‘The First Graduating Class: Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls’, Winfrey recalls how the idea took root.
“I offered this [school] as a gift to Nelson Mandela and South Africa – a gift I wanted to give. I remember we were having a conversation about how to overcome poverty – and it was like sitting at the foot of Jesus.
“I said it can be done through education and that one day I would like to open a school. He [Mandela] immediately jumped up, called Kader Asmal – and that day came sooner than I expected,” she laughs.
Although criticised for not opening the school in the US, Winfrey says: “What I know is that every human heart is the same. Every desire is the same… it does not matter what nationality or race you belong to.”
On the 75 girls she hand-picked, Winfrey explains: “The reward for me is in the doing. Every day now, I talk or text one or more of the girls and keep… track of who I have spoken to and what they have done.
“The girls now have access to possibilities they would never had. The true definition of wealth is to be able to live a life filled with options. That is what I’m creating. These girls are now the first in their family to break the cycle of poverty.”
While the former abuse at her school still crawls its way into interviews, it is an issue that has been dealt with and Winfrey rightly chooses to now focus on the academy’s successes.
After all, it was a mammoth undertaking for her.
She says: “It is a lot of money. But it is money well spent when it pays off. Lives have been changed – it far outweighs the challenges we have gone through.
“I have learnt you cannot be defined by the past. You are defined by your decision to make things better. I am really proud of where we are right now. I must admit there were lots of times I thought about giving up because it is so expensive to pay for doctors, braces, etc. But I love these girls.”
Winfrey continues: “There is an adage: ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’”
That, combined with the spirit of ubuntu Winfrey has experienced and absorbed, has ensured “their ability to achieve true wealth is my life calling”.
Success of her academy aside, I asked Winfrey if she misses the routine of her talk show.
“Like The Gambler by Kenny Rogers, ‘you got to know… when to fold [’em], know when to walk away’. I’m proud of myself for knowing when to fold it. I don’t regret the decision at all. I think we did as well as we could have done. You want to come out when you are on top of it – not when you are starting to regress or worrying about continuing to top yourself. Twenty-five years, not 20, was just the right time,” she shares.
However, Winfrey isn’t without challenges getting her Oprah Winfrey Network off the ground.
“The pace and scale of what it takes to develop a network that requires programming 24/7 was something that was overwhelming. was accustomed to operating like a machine with my talk show. But to create that foundation that could allow for a machine-like operation to grow has taken time – as everyone has said. But because of my name, there was pressure to do it sooner than is was humanly possible. After six months, the same people who said it would take time were saying: ‘Why isn’t it done yet?’
“But we have some really great shows coming on. I am on Super Soul Sunday, which won an Emmy. And we have Iyanla: Fix My Life, which is doing very well.”
Besides not having a day off for weeks, and shooting her scenes for The Butler, which releases next year, Winfrey continues to work like a well-oiled machine.
She will also be in SA for a few seminars tomorrow.
Come to think of it, that demigod status is well earned. A big personality with a big heart and gestures to match – what’s not to revere?
‘The First Graduating Class: Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls’ airs on TLC tomorrow at 6.30pm, on Saturday at 5.40pm and on Sunday at 4pm.