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Kitty Kelley biography doesn’t expose the inner Oprah Winfrey

Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography of Oprah Winfrey, in which the author spends more than 500 pages offering up reasons the megastar is “not all that” (as a teenage girl and maybe Oprah herself might say), is turning out to be something similar: not all that interesting.

It’s a letdown: not enough dish. But part of what makes a big Oprah expose so difficult is the fact that Winfrey has already done much of the heavy lifting in that department. Whether she’s publicly charting her fluctuating weight or speaking up about her traumatic past, including being sexually molested as a child and having a baby at 15, Oprah is a testament to the self-protective properties of telling your story on your own terms before someone less than benign does it on theirs. Like all talented confessors, she knows that if you slip on a banana peel, you’re a fool, but if you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, you’re a hero.

For all of her formidable confessional skills, Oprah is perhaps most virtuosic at the art of conveying intimacy while, in truth, keeping much of the world at arm’s length. She may punctuate interviews with teary anecdotes of her own foibles, but to hear Kelley tell it (and this isn’t big news), most of Oprah’s private self is perhaps not as available, let alone as warm and fuzzy as the best girlfriend she appears to be.

Everyone who works for or around Oprah (and reportedly this includes upholsterers and dog-walkers) signs a confidentiality agreement. That’s not unusual among celebrities as big as Oprah. Kelley tells us, however, that Oprah also abruptly drops friends who offer up any criticism, has exaggerated the poverty of her upbringing to infuse drama into her life story, and likes being left alone so much that she won’t even supply her own mother with a direct phone number (though she’s provided her with handsome financial assistance).

In case you’re interested, former Oprah friend Erica Jong recently took the liberty of discussing her friendship with Oprah -- and its demise -- in the Huffington Post, writing: “When everyone thinks they know you, it’s hard not to be guarded … [but] when you make people sign confidentiality agreements … you may start to think you’re the queen.”

With friends like these, you’d better have a confidentiality agreement.

Not surprisingly, Kelley hasn’t really breached Oprah’s defenses. Consider the longstanding rumors that Oprah and her best friend, Gayle King, are in fact romantic partners. Kelley concedes that there’s “no foundation” for this but is nonetheless happy to fan the flame of innuendo. But all she can do is quote Rosie O’Donnell telling Howard Stern that the two are “the emotional equivalent of a gay couple”; and Jong, who has said, “I would not be surprised if Oprah is gay.”

It’s easy to label Oprah a hypocrite for all the ways her lack of transparency flies in the face of the “live your best life” mantra out of which she’s made her fortune. And yes, it’s a bit unusual that her mother can’t call her directly (though I bet there are other daughters out there who are jealous). But after sifting through the gossip and finger-pointing and sanctimonious posturing of Kelley’s book (the author claims to know the identity of Oprah’s father, which Oprah herself doesn’t know — but that’s a whole other matter), I can’t help but find all of Oprah’s secrecy a bit … refreshing. I daresay it wouldn’t hurt some of us to emulate just a teeny bit of it.

I’m not advocating for confidentiality agreements, nor am I suggesting that anyone lie about who he or she is. But in a world in which over-sharing has become an epidemic, in which many people think nothing of discussing their sex lives on blogs or spilling 140 characters worth of their guts on Twitter, Oprah (at least when it comes to much in her personal life) espouses what’s almost become extinct: the value of boundaries. She may appear to reach out and touch us through our TV screens, but in real life she knows where the rest of the world ends and she begins. Unlike the uncensored tellers of the “true-life stories” on whom she shines her spotlight, she knows the worth of keeping some things to herself.

It’s maddening, to be sure. But also, in its own way, worthy of another by-now-overused Oprah-ism: You go, girl. Wherever you need to go to be yourself.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com


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