Opray Winfrey is one person that has made mark in history; over the years she has been able to carve a niche for herself.
The 63-year-old talk-show host and media proprietor fronted the highest-rated television show of all time in the US, The Oprah Winfrey Show, for 25 years; has her own glossy magazine (for which she is the cover star each month); runs a television network, OWN; is the richest African American and the first and only black multi-billionaire in America and is a hugely significant philanthropist.
She is also regularly referred to, without hyperbole, as being one of the most powerful and influential women in the world. She is credited with single-handedly bringing more than a million votes to Barack Obama with her endorsement of him in the 2008 election.
It is equally difficult to overstate the impact she has had upon 21st-century culture. Not only did she pioneer the tabloid talk show, spawning a thousand imitations, but through it, she also popularised the emotional, empathetic, intimate communication that we now demand from figures in public life and even politics. The Wall Street Journal coined the term ‘Oprahfication’, to describe public confession as a form of therapy.
Books, too, are an arena in which Oprah reigns supreme. The endorsement of a title by Oprah’s Book Club – formerly part of her television show, now an online community – can catapult it straight on to the bestseller list and keep it there.
So it was with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the story we are here to discuss today. Oprah first read the book in 2010. Written by the science journalist Rebecca Skloot, it tells the true story of an African-American woman whose cells were used for medical research, without her knowledge or consent. ‘I’m always on the lookout for stories that offer insights into the African-American journey and struggle and triumph,’ she tells me.
‘Lots of other people were competing for the rights at the time, but Rebecca sold them to us,’ recalls Oprah. ‘The way I look at any opportunity to do a story is that if it’s for me, it will resolve itself; if not, then I bless someone else to be able to do it.’
It’s a typically Oprah, quasi-spiritual take on what some might call fate. ‘It’s an alignment, a combination of things,’ she says. ‘There’s a part of your heart, your spirit, your energy, that wants to choose something, and then that something finds you too, based upon that energy.’
Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951 aged just 31, leaving behind five young children in Baltimore, Maryland. Some cells that had been removed from a tumour during a biopsy were cultured by a scientist, George Otto Gey, who used them to create a cell line known as HeLa.
They became the first ‘immortal’, human cells grown in a lab, meaning that they do not die after a set number of cell divisions. The cell line went on to be used in groundbreaking medical research, including creating a vaccine for polio, and the development of gene mapping.
The cells were also cloned, put into mass production in the first-ever cell-production factory, and sold to science labs. This was completely legal and, at the time, commonly done.
However, Henrietta’s family – many of whom have struggled on welfare, and battled addictions and mental-health issues – were not made aware of HeLa’s existence or the incredible uses to which it had been put, until 1975. Nor have they ever received any money from the industry that sprung up around HeLa. Her children were subjected to tests by the medical establishment to see if their cells could be as useful as HeLa; they were told they were being tested for cancer.
‘The context of the times makes it impossible to think that the reasons the family were treated this way were to do with anything else other than race and class – both played a role,’ says Oprah. Today, specimens intended specifically for research can be collected only if the donor gives consent.
But isn’t there, I posit, some justification for what the medical community did – to Henrietta and many more patients – given that the cells went on to do so much good in the world? ‘What’s difficult to justify is that there are members of the Lacks family who are still without healthcare,’ Oprah says, indignant. She believes that the family should have been compensated by the drug companies who profited from Henrietta’s cells.
These days, Oprah herself is a world away from such worries – she has a home in Montecito, California, worth an estimated $88 million, a mountain cabin in Colorado, a house in Hawaii, a farm in Indiana, and a penthouse in Chicago. But part of Oprah’s enormous and enduring appeal is not only how high she has climbed, but how far she has travelled.
She was born into rural poverty in 1954 in Mississippi, to a teenage single mother, Vernita Lee, a housemaid. Until the age of six, Oprah lived with her grandmother, who was reportedly so poor that Oprah was sent to school wearing dresses made of potato sacks. She was later sent to live with her father, Vernon Winfrey, a coal miner in Nashville, Tennessee.
Her childhood was marred by more than poverty and rootlessness, however. ‘I was raped at nine years old by a cousin, then again by another family member, and another family member,’ Oprah has admitted, first opening up about the subject on her show in 1986.
She became pregnant at 14, as a result of the sexual abuse, but her son was born prematurely and died shortly after birth. Yet at school, she flourished, excelling particularly in speech and drama, and won a full scholarship to Tennessee State University.
Just before leaving for college, aged 17, she won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant, and was hired by a local radio station, WVOL, to read the news part-time while still at high school. And at 19, she dropped out of her degree when she was offered a job as the youngest, and the first black, female news anchor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV.
Her next job, at Baltimore’s WJZ-TV, led, in part, to her immediate connection with the story of Henrietta Lacks.
‘I lived and worked in Baltimore for eight years, and I was many times on the same streets that Henrietta walked,’ she says. ‘I’ve done stories all over the city – stories at Johns Hopkins [the university hospital where Henrietta was treated], stories at every festival the city had.
I was part of the community, part of the church, and I never heard of HeLa; the name Henrietta Lacks was never mentioned.
‘That was part of my mission with the film,’ says Oprah. ‘For people to know her name.’
Though Oprah was hired by WJZ-TV to co-anchor the evening news, her emotional style did not go down well on a straight news programme, and she was transferred to an ailing daytime chat programme, People Are Talking, in 1978.
It was one of the moments of perfect alignment she speaks of – Oprah had found her calling. When, in 1984, she relocated to Chicago to take over a morning chat show, its name was quickly changed from AM Chicago to The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was syndicated nationally, quickly becoming the No1 talk show in the US.
While Oprah’s empathy, openness and straight-talking make her a natural chat-show host, her early ambitions lay in acting. ‘I remember when I said I wanted to be an actress as a teenager, my father said, “No daughter of mine is going to go out there ho-ing herself.”’
Her first formal role came, however, in 1985 – and her performance as Sofia in The Color Purple won her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She has since appeared in films including Beloved, The Butler and Selma.
But when it came to the story of Henrietta Lacks, Oprah says, ‘I did not want to be in it.’ The film adaptation is told largely through the experiences of Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest surviving daughter, who is anxious, unpredictable, and struggles with bouts of anger and paranoia.
‘I can truly tell you, I did not want to take on Deborah’s stuff,’ Oprah assures me. But after much deliberation, she took the role. ‘I sat down with an acting coach and we spent a week going through it line by line, excavating her emotional spaces and relating those to specific examples or incidents in my life.’
The film is a moving, tender and in parts funny account of a family’s struggles with loss and grief, mental-health problems and addictions. In piecing together her mother’s story, Deborah also uncovers disturbing family secrets.
‘Millions of families are living with their secrets,’ Oprah points out. ‘And, as a result of the covering up, or the burying, the uncovering in later life impacts people in direct proportion to how deeply it was buried.’
Oprah has been in a relationship with Stedman Graham, 66, for 30 years. The couple did plan to marry in the early 1990s, but postponed their wedding because of a clash with a book launch. ‘The truth, which nobody ever believes, is that it never comes up. It’s not even an issue,’ she says. ‘The relationship works.’
She has run Harpo Productions for almost the same length of time. ‘My idea was to tell stories that affected the human spirit, stories people could see themselves in,’ says Oprah. ‘And mostly black people – [when I set it up] there were few opportunities for us to see our history, culture and our daily lives reflected on screen.’