When you’ve got a big secret to tell and you’re the queen of daytime TV, it doesn’t take a lot to get huge ratings. But Oprah didn’t veer from the winning combination that has made her a phenomenon beyond anything seen on TV when she announced Monday that she had learned recently about the existence of a half-sister.
By now every sentient being in the country knows that Oprah’s mother gave birth to a baby when Oprah was 8 years old and living with her father. The girl, later named Patricia, was given to up to foster care because her mother couldn’t afford to keep her. There were two other children in the family, a younger half- brother Jeffrey and half-sister Pat. They both are deceased.
Unlike other shows with sensational stories, there was little pre-show build-up or speculation. She kept the information close to her chest, as did Patricia and her two children, a fact that impressed Oprah about her new-found family member. The low-key approach Oprah took in revealing the personal story added to its authenticity and dignity. Oprah has always taken the high road on her show rather than playing to the sleaze factor so prevalent on many talk shows. For that reason, she has earned her fans’ trust, admiration and loyalty.
While Oprah didn’t stifle her tears during the introduction of Patricia on the show, she also didn’t over play her emotions. She was professional while allowing her humanity to come through. This was, obviously, a very personal experience. And because Oprah is such a well known person, she had to deal with it publicly, and introducing Patricia on her show allowed her to do it on her own terms. Still, she took risks in talking about her family — her sister Pat, who died of a drug addition and who had sold the story about Oprah’s having given birth to a baby when she was 14 who later died at two weeks of age, and about her brother’s death from AIDS.
Oprah also interviewed her own mother, who now has a slight speech impediment due to a light stroke, about why she gave up Patricia at birth, with Patricia standing beside her. That couldn’t have been easy for any of them to do on national TV. But it was classic Oprah — painful, honest and real. Afterward, Oprah commented that she realized that her mother hasn’t yet forgiven herself for giving Patricia away and urged her to “let it go.”
Most families going through such intimate conversations have the advantage of privacy — Oprah did not in this case. She had interviewed families on her show in the past who were connecting with children, parents and half-siblings who had been given up at birth, but this was her family story. Because Oprah has created such a bond with her fans, they identify with her, and this became their family story, too.
Oprah is “every woman.” Even though she is African-American, Caucasian women identify with her as easily as do African-American women. Even though she is wealthy, she was born into extreme poverty, so women of all socio-economic levels identify with her. Her struggle with weight has been very public, and perhaps that, as much as any factor, has endeared women to her. In her women see: “Here is a woman who has had extreme obstacles to overcome. If she can have a good life, then maybe I can, too.”
A great storyteller, like Oprah, uses everything they have to make their stories work for them. Everyone’s gifts are different. In Oprah’s case, they include her compelling back story, her ability to connect with the hearts of her audience through her openness and honesty, and her talent for asking the right questions and weaving those Q&As into her own context in just the right balance so that fans see her as strong yet empathetic.
What are your natural storytelling gifts?