'Negroes in the house! Negroes in the house!' Oprah shouted as her father and his wife arrived. 'She was reminding us of our low class,' says Oprah's bitter stepmother in an explosive first-ever interview.
Barbara Winfrey can pinpoint exactly when her divorce turned more ugly than she had ever thought possible.
It was Friday 2 November 2012, her sixty-fourth birthday, and the day she received the telephone call that turned the implosion of her marriage into an 18-month legal battle with one of the most powerful celebrities on the planet – her stepdaughter, Oprah Winfrey. Barbara listened as Oprah delivered her thunderous ultimatum:
‘You say I never talk to you? I want to talk to you now. You have until Monday to get out of MY house.’
Earlier this month Barbara was finally served with an eviction notice. She has until 29 May to vacate the $1.4million house just south of Nashville that was home throughout her 14-year union to Oprah’s father, Vernon Winfrey. Now, Barbara is breaking her silence and speaking publicly for the first time about her devastation at what she regards as Oprah’s callous and calculated betrayal.
In an emotional and wide-ranging interview Barbara has given her account of the dispute, reveals the part Oprah played in ‘destroying’ her marriage, and gives an excoriating insight into the woman behind the global brand. Speaking exclusively to MailOnline she said, ‘I have lost everything. It’s not just a house, this is my home. All my memories are here.
‘I’m trying to keep it together but there are some days I just don’t understand how I could have made her so angry that she would kick me out on the street and think nothing about it. But that’s Oprah – she’s judge and jury.’ A world away from the inspirational figure beloved by millions, the Oprah Barbara describes is manipulative and high-handed, treats family like staff and uses her wealth to control others.
She claims that Oprah, 60, and longterm partner Stedman Graham, 63, are not bound by romance but a pragmatic cocktail of shared secrets, convenience and money. She describes Oprah’s relationship with close confidante Gayle King, 59, as ‘bizarre’ and ‘unhealthy,’ and points to it as the reason that neither woman is married.
And at the heart of it all, Barbara claims, the ‘real Oprah’ - hidden behind the image she projects so well – is a woman unhappy in her skin and, as Barbara has learned to her cost, unforgiving to those who inspire her wrath. Barbara said, ‘You find out quickly where your place is with Oprah and you get in that place and you stay in that place.
‘My crime, I think, was to talk to her like a normal person and she didn’t like that one bit.’ was Vice Principal at Brentwood High School, a respected public school in Nashville, when she first met Vernon Winfrey. Winfrey’s barber shop in a rundown area of East Nashville was a local landmark – it has been there for more than 50 years – and his work as a local councilman made him a well-known figure in the community.
Barbara recalled: ‘I used to send difficult students to his shop to work there at weekends, sweep floors that sort of thing, help them stay out of trouble.’ Fifteen years after first meeting him, they reconnected and the passing acquaintance became something more. They married on 17 June 2000 in a ceremony at Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel. Looking back, Barbara admitted, ‘I don’t think Oprah really wanted to be there but she couldn’t not be at such a big event. How would that look?’
Barbara and Oprah’s first meeting some weeks earlier at the star’s Indiana farm had not been easy. Barbara said, ‘We drove from Nashville to Prairie, Indiana and when you pull up at her house it’s like pulling up to a castle. But that first night she didn’t have anything to say to us hardly at all. She wasn’t warm at all.’
The next morning Barbara got a taste of the sort of balance of power Oprah expected in their relationship. She said, ‘Early the next morning she got on the intercom in her house – she has an intercom in all her houses - and she was calling, ”Barbara, Barbara come down, we’re going for a walk”.
‘Gayle was there and the way it worked she walked on one side, Oprah on the other and they peppered me with questions. I felt like I was being interrogated by the FBI. She had a large farm, about 125 acres. By the end of the walk I felt we’d covered the whole farm.’ Gayle did most of the talking that weekend. Oprah, according to Barbara, largely ignored her and her father – a pattern that would be repeated in visits and social occasions across the years.
Soon after their marriage, Vernon sold the house in which he had lived with his late wife and, thanks to Oprah, Barbara and Vernon got a place of their own. Barbara said, ‘It was a new home so we got to choose every part of it. We signed so many documents, became part of the Housing Association. I was thankful of course. I never knew it was Oprah’s name on the deeds and that I was just on probation.’
Instead with each paper signed the misunderstanding was compounded. Barbara had no idea that her home was a gift never truly given. Yet over the years she has come to understand that this is the dynamic on which Oprah’s empire is built.
She explained, ‘My husband once told me that just because someone gives you something does not mean they love you. He was talking about Oprah. ‘Her brand is that she’s a nice, caring, generous, giving person. That’s not how it is. She’s controlling – it’s all about control. ‘She has confidentiality agreements with pretty much everybody in her life. She has them sign their life away and she has them in her pocket. ‘Everything comes with stipulations but she doesn’t tell you that and she doesn’t tell you what they are.’
According to Barbara, ‘Some people can have money and be mentally rich – secure in what they have I guess. But others, how can I put it…some people you can’t take the ghetto out of. ‘That’s Oprah, it’s who she is and where she’s from. She had money, everybody was going to know it and see it. But she had to be in control.’ It would be easy to be seduced by the riches of the world in which Oprah lives.
She has homes in Santa Barbara, Indiana, Hawaii, the Bahamas and Chicago, has owned various properties on Fisher Island, Fla and, until recently, had a home in Aspen. She numbered an Aston Martin and Rolls Royce convertible among her many cars. The 2004 Mercedes that sits in Barbara’s garage is, she said, in Oprah’s name and the Porsche Cayenne Turbo that 81-year-old Vernon drives is thanks to his daughter.
But for all her very obvious wealth, Barbara said, with thinly veiled relish, ‘She was a horrible decorator. ‘Money cannot buy you taste. She would put plaid with stripes and all sorts. In Indiana she must have had 200 dolls, some of them looked like they could have gone back to the slave days, lined up on long benches in the hallway. It was creepy.’ Barbara and Vernon visited four of Oprah’s homes but were only ever invited to stay on Fisher Island and in Indiana. Otherwise, they were put up in hotels.
And if Barbara’s mistake was to not show Oprah the deference she expected, then it is clear the error was matched and returned by the star. Intentional or not, for Barbara, the slights came thick and fast. ‘She complained my sheets didn’t have 1000 thread count when she came to stay and that the bath towels and the coffee cups weren’t big enough,’ she claimed. When Oprah threw her Legends’ Ball in Santa Barbara her father and stepmother were not invited to stay in the house but put up in a nearby hotel.
When they were shown to their table it was not on the main floor with the A listers – John Travolta, Sidney Poitier, Tina Turner, Alicia Keys – but ‘tucked in the corner on the second floor.’ She added, ‘We weren’t allowed to mingle with the celebrities--but we did.’ And when she and Vernon arrived at Oprah’s Chicago condo on one occasion she recalled, ‘Oprah got on the intercom and announced, “Negroes in the house. Negroes in the house. ‘She thought it was funny. I thought it was insulting. I’m older than her. I know what it means. She was reminding us of our low class.’
According to Barbara, ‘I’ve seen what happens to people when they step out of their place and fall out with Oprah. ‘It wasn’t unusual over the years for her to fly to her house in Hawaii, call Gayle and say, “Fire so and so and so and so and so and so.” ‘She never says a word to that person herself. She never tells the person why. She never gives the person the chance to defend themselves and all the “gifts” are snatched back.’
Pausing, Barbara shook her head: ‘You know I sometimes feel sorry for her because she’s created this world for herself and really, it’s a mess. ‘I don’t think she has one relationship in her life that you or I would understand.’
Alhough Oprah has since bought another house for her father, as far as Barbara was concerned there has always been a distance between Oprah and her father that neither have ever quite managed to bridge. And, in Barbara’s view, Oprah has always had a degree of denial over the circumstances of her childhood and the reality of who she really is.
It has been reported that Vernon is not Oprah’s biological father. Barbara said, ‘Vernon wanted to do the DNA test but Oprah said, “No.” I think she’s afraid because she knows it would prove he IS her father. She can’t quite believe that such a silly man could make such a magnificent creature. ‘But Vernon’s her father all right. They have the same big feet, with the same callouses underneath; they have the same bags under their eyes and the same nose. They’re so alike.’ But according to Barbara, ‘Oprah doesn’t want to know the truth of her past, where she’s from. ‘She’s a human like anybody else but she spends so much energy hiding the real her.’
It isn’t difficult to see why Barbara might ultimately conclude that her company was not something Oprah had any desire to seek out or endure longer than necessary. But it wounded her, she said, to see the celebrity snub her own father time after time.
For Barbara the final straw came with a trip to South Africa in 2005. She recalled, ‘We were there for some ceremony to do with her school and I have to say that the chance to meet Nelson Mandela was a highlight of my life I will never forget.‘But in eight days she must have spoken to her father for about five minutes, and that was in public to make him stand up as the person who made her who she was. ‘I told Vernon, “That’s it. I’m not travelling 23 hours, half way round the world anymore to be ignored by her. I’m done.”’ It is clear from Barbara’s recollections that her relationship with Oprah, which may have started with hopes of familial fondness, deteriorated into one of strained mutual intolerance.
When her marriage to Vernon fell apart there was simply no reason to carry on the façade. Yet, Barbara admitted, she had expected some note of sympathy given the circumstances of the split. It was the revelation of his weeklong ‘affair’ with a prostitute known as ‘One Tooth’ that was the final undoing of his marriage to Barbara. The woman taped her barbershop liaisons with Winfrey and originally intended to blackmail him. Instead the truth came tumbling out three years ago.
Barbara said, ‘Oprah is a woman who empowers women to be all they can be, to stand up against men who mistreat them. ‘If she was a more decent person she would realize that what her dad did was very wrong instead of plotting against me and pushing me out of the scene.’
At the time Barbara and Vernon were in the midst of rebuilding his barbershop. After 47 years it was in dire need of renovation, Barbara explained. Oprah refused to help financially. So Barbara, who worked in education for 32 years before retiring in 2006, secured a loan on a home she owned outright before she married Vernon, as collateral. This was to prove a crucial and costly decision.
By her own admission Barbara struggled to cope with Vernon’s infidelity. She moved out of the marital bedroom but she was not, she insisted, looking to end her marriage. She said, ‘I couldn’t be the wife he wanted me to be but I might have gotten over it.’ But Vernon, she said, was impatient and, frustrated, left the marital home that summer in a move that, as it turned out, proved final.
At the same time the couple were struggling to keep up with loan repayments on Barbar's old house, where her daughter and grandchild were living. According to Barbara, rather than step in, Oprah advised her father to let the bank foreclose. She explained, ‘She then bought the barbershop and my old house at cut price. Everyone thought she was swooping in to save the day. But she’d stood back and let that day happen.’
According to Barbara, ‘Vernon had been telling everyone he was unhappy with the marriage. He told Stedman and he told Oprah, so she came up with an escape plan I guess to get me out of the picture, make all the scandal of what he’d done go away. ‘Vernon is a weak man. He let the situation run away from him.’
Barbara claimed that Oprah pressed Vernon to resolve the situation and divorce her. In June 2012 – on the anniversary of their wedding 12 years earlier - Barbara was blindsided when Vernon filed for divorce citing her unreasonable marital conduct. The court rejected his petition and accepted instead one made in response by Barbara. She said, ‘The settlement they offered was the house that I had owned but lost, the car I’d had since 2004, with 110,000 miles on the clock and I had to sign a confidentiality agreement.
‘Vernon also asked for a chunk of my pension because he claimed I was the main earner in the household.’ At the time, Barbara’s daughter and five-year-old grandson were living in Barbara's old house, which is now owned by Oprah’s company. When Barbara rejected the settlement, she explains, her daughter and grandson were told to leave the property.
‘That house lay empty and then it was sold. Tell me, what sort of person does that? I would have walked away quietly but she put my baby and my grandbaby out on the street. That made it personal. Gathering her fury Barbara said, ‘Vernon and I were joined by God. Who does she think she is to interfere in that? Does she think she’s God?’
The home in which Barbara sits is undeniably impressive. Laurelbrooke is a gated community of Stepford style perfection, with manicured lawns and sweeping driveways leading to homes considered modest if they only have three or four garages. Barbara is aware of how her ‘demands’ might look. Gesturing around the room in which she sits, with vaulted ceilings and a faux baby grand that she ‘plays’ with the flick of a switch, Barbara admitted, ‘I know people have read about this and thought, “Who does she think she is? Why should she get a million dollar home?”
‘But can you see it’s not about that? It’s about everything that went before. Look at how she has treated me. I laid my head next to her father for 14 years and she never thought me worthy of talking to. ‘Look at how she’s behaved. Can you imagine Bill Gates or Warren Buffet behaving like this? So petty and mean spirited?’
Perhaps it is inevitable that this divorce like so many should bring out the worst in parties who once attempted to rub along as family. As far as Barbara is concerned that is what all this comes down to – not to one woman’s property or fame but the messy, dismantling of a marriage in which the frustrations of years are played out in offer and counteroffer. She said, ‘I am 66 years old. My credit was ruined by the foreclosure. Who is going to rent me a home? I have to leave here on 29 May and I really don’t know what will come next. For the first time, the shadow of defeat passes across Barbara’s face,‘Oprah may have the right to do this. But is it the right thing to do?’
In Part 2, to be published tomorrow, Mrs. Winfrey will reveal the shocking details of the big blowup between Oprah and her boyfriend Stedman Graham, the truth about her relationship with Gayle King and how she really feels about being in her own skin.