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Image: Oprah Winfrey
Mary Altaffer  /  AP file
Kitty Kelley, author of a new unauthorized tell-all about Oprah Winfrey, said that the powerful talk-show host does not know the identity of her own biological father. She also said that Winfrey has not given her mother her phone number, but still takes excellent care of her.
TODAY contributor
updated 4/13/2010 11:41:22 AM ET 2010-04-13T15:41:22

Celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley claims she knows a major secret about Oprah Winfrey’s life that even the Queen of Talk doesn’t. But despite writing a new, unauthorized biography in which she lays bare myriad Winfrey family secrets, Kelley’s keeping mum on the most important of all — who Oprah’s biological father is.

Speaking with Natalie Morales on TODAY Tuesday, Kelley said that among the 850 people she interviewed for “Oprah: A Biography,” Oprah’s relative Katharine Carr Esters (whom Oprah refers to as “Aunt Katharine,” even though Esters is actually her cousin) proved to be the most revealing. Kelley says Esters told her that Oprah’s acknowledged father Vernon Winfrey is not her real father, and spilled the beans to her about who actually is.

Appearing surprised by Kelley’s assertion, Morales said, “If you reveal all of her other secrets, why not say, ‘Oprah, this is your father?’ ”

Kelley replied, “I gave my word of honor I wouldn’t do it, because Mrs. Esters says that Oprah’s mother, it’s her place to do it. And so Mrs. Esters has not told Oprah, although Oprah has begged to find out who her father is.”

Sexual abuse
Indeed, the apparent mystery over who is Oprah’s real dad may be the only stone left unturned by Kelley, whose previous books on Frank Sinatra and Nancy Reagan sparked firestorms of controversy.

Winfrey’s cousin Katharine Carr Esters, better known as “Aunt Katharine,” reportedly told Kitty Kelley the identity of Oprah’s biological father, and swore her to secrecy.
In the biography, out in bookstores today, Kelley tackles one of the most sensitive and profound aspects of Winfrey’s life story: the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a cousin, uncle and family friend beginning at age 9. Winfrey first told her story of abuse on her talk show in 1986, the year her show went into national syndication.

But Winfrey’s own family doesn’t fully back her account. Kelley said Esters has adamantly denied the abuse ever happened, while her father Vernon has wavered on the issue.

Kelley told Morales that for her part, she chooses to believe Oprah. “I think Oprah’s family is in denial about the sexual abuse,” the author said. “Her father and her Aunt Katharine are like the families of other sexual abuse victims; they’re in great denial. But I believe Oprah; she’s a woman who shows the scars of sexual abuse.”

Complex relationships
Morales wondered aloud whether there could be some sour grapes involved with Oprah’s family granting Kelley interviews — in the past, Winfrey has bemoaned the fact that her family sometimes treats her as a human ATM machine. Kelley said she had to tread a fine line in the book, and ensure the reader knows where each family member stands with their powerful relative. Video: Unauthorized Oprah biographer blacklisted?

“Her Aunt Katharine gets no money from Oprah at all,” Kelley told Morales. “She says she wanted to tell the truth, ‘spiders, snakes and all’; that was her quote. Vernon Winfrey does get things from Oprah, but he still has a very, very complicated relationship with his daughter.

“Her family feels they are not treated as well as the celebrity family that Oprah has created for herself.”

Still, Kelley says Oprah is often extremely generous with her family. She told Morales Oprah has no relationship with her biological mother, Vernita Lee — Oprah herself has often said she was much closer to her late stepmother Zelma, dad Vernon’s former wife — but still takes scrupulous care of her.

“[Oprah] does not like her mother, she does not give her phone number to her mother, but she has taken good, good care of her,” Kelley said.

Impoverished youth
On other family issues, Kelley claims Oprah may have exaggerated her hard-luck childhood. She told Morales that she was told by family members that Winfrey has heightened the drama of her youngest years to make for a better story to tell viewers, but her own family members discount it.

Kitty Kelley’s sources told her that Oprah Winfrey’s account of the hardships of her early years may be somewhat exaggerated.
“Oprah has described it as abject poverty — outhouses, pigs in the front yard,” Kelley said. “It wasn’t quite as bad as that. There was something very, very valuable that Oprah got for the first six years, and that was being an only child; absolutely indulged and spoiled and loved. As Aunt Katharine explained, when you have that kind of time and attention directed to you for the first six years of your life, it develops a very precocious child — and in Oprah’s case, a very confident little girl.”

Morales questioned why Kelley would spend four years researching Oprah’s life and speaking to those close to her to unearth “dirty little secrets,” when there might be meatier subject matter to write about.

Slideshow: Oprah Winfrey “They’re not dirty little secrets,” Kelley responded. “They’re Oprah’s life. It’s a fabulous life story.”

Despite the heat Kelley has taken for her past tell-alls, she insists she is a careful reporter and writer.

“I don’t want to appeal to celebrities,” Kelley said. “I really am trying to write a straight, accurate, honest story of someone’s life.”

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Video: Biographer: I know who Oprah’s real father is

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    >> al, thank you.

    >>> author kitty kelly has written tell-all revealing biographies about some of america 's most celebrated icons from elizabeth taylor , nancy reagan , frank sinatra among them. her latest is about the queen of talk, called " oprah the biography." it is an unauthorized detail of oprah winfrey 's story . kitty kelly , thanks for coming back. you spent four years researching this book. you say you interviewed more than 800 people. what do you see really as the headline then that comes out to some of oprah 's biography?

    >> we think we know everything about oprah winfrey because she appears to be so open and spontaneous, even uninhibited about her life. but i found with these four years, we don't at all. this is a woman who's got real secrets in her life. now some of her secrets real ly one has helped millions of women , and that was the taboo secret of her sexual molestation. i think that is the signature issue of oprah winfrey 's show. and what she really -- a legacy she's going to leave.

    >> are you saying in this day and age of all the tmzs and vast media outlets in this world and where everything goes public almost instantaneously on twitter, that oprah winfrey is able to keep such deeply guarded secrets ?

    >> yes, i am saying that. i am saying that.

    >> how?

    >> because she has great control and if you grow up keeping secrets , even now she makes her employees keep secrets . i even found when i was doing this book, i had to keep a secret when i went down to the town in mississippi where oprah was born and i spent three days with her aunt katherine .

    >> who is really her cousin.

    >> who's really her cousin but because of the age difference, aunt katherine is 80, oprah 's now 56. and during that time with her she told me who oprah 's real father was.

    >> you don't reveal the identity.

    >> no, i don't.

    >> why not? i mean if you reveal all of hur other so-called see secrecrets, why not say, oprah , this is your father.

    >> one, because i gave my word of honor to oprah 's aunt. because she says it's oprah 's mother 's place to do it. so mrs. esters has not told oprah , even though oprah 's begged to know who her father was. again i saw the secrets . even today they're keeping secrets within that family and there's oprah herself, says you're only as sick as your secrets .

    >> is there really a market though for a book like this when you do, as i mention, have so many different outlets that are reporting on the real scandals that are out there, the tiger woods , the elliott spitsers, the john edwards .

    >> this is a life story of the most powerful woman in our society.

    >> it's a life re-invented who has done so much good.

    >> she has done immense good and that is outlined in this book. but she is -- she has impacted our culture more than anybody. this is a woman of immense power. nobody in the communications industry has the power that oprah winfrey does. so i think that people are entitled to get a better understanding of a woman who's impacted their life so much.

    >> so what are the secrets -- you talk about the sexual abuse reportedly by her uncle. but you say that some of her family members actually question whether or not that is really what happened.

    >> that is true. i do think that oprah 's family is in denial about the sexual abuse .

    >> so how do you know that your sources are accurate if some of those family members are the ones that are talking to you , from her father first to aunt katherine ?

    >> because her father and aunt katherine are like the families of other sexual abuse victims, they're in great denial.

    >> this was his brother .

    >> right.

    >> but oprah , i believe oprah and she is a woman who shows the scars of sexual abuse .

    >> yeah. and some of your sources for the book, as i talked about, from vernon to aunt katherine , they've received gifts, they've been paid cash before by oprah , they've benefited from her celebrity, her enormous celebrity, and oprah 's even said on her show though, my family sometimes treats me as an atm machine and she's had to cut them off. so when it comes to these sources, did you at all question their credibility, are you so sure that they don't have an ax to grind?

    >> those sources are laid out in the book. for instance, her aunt katherine . she gets no money from oprah at all. and as she says, she wanted to tell the truth . spiders, snakes and all, that was her quote . vernon winfrey does get things from oprah . but he still has a very, very complicated relationship with his daughter . her family feels that they are not treated as well as the celebrity family that oprah has created for herself. so, yes, there is a little contention. but the reader knows that. it's laid out in the book. oprah has taken fabulous care of her family . she does not like her mother . she does not give her phone number to her mother . but she has taken good, good care of her.

    >> what about the oprah , the young oprah , the childhood. what did you find out from the family members and from your sources who talked with you? what do we learn about that oprah ? because really, you say that is the person who shaped and -- the challenges she was presented in her youth is really what got her to where she is today.

    >> you are absolutely right. and the first six years, oprah has described it as abject poverty, outhouses, pigs in the front yard . it wasn't quite as bad as that. there was something very, very valuable that oprah got for those first six years and that was being an only child . absolutely indulged and spoiled and loved by this huge family . her mother , her grandmother, her grandfather, aunts and uncles. and as aunt katherine explained, when you have that kind of time and attention directed to you for the first six years of your life, it develops a very precocious child and in oprah 's case, a very confident little girl .

    >> when we asked question if there is a market for this book, who's that market and why do you think we would care to know oprah 's dirty little secrets , as you say?

    >> they're not dirty little secrets .

    >> is this a biography though or more of an expose'?

    >> it is a biography. it is the story of one of the most important lives. i adore her for giving me this life story . it is a fabulous life story .

    >> she didn't give it to you.

    >> she did inseed give it to me.

    >> she didn't authorize this and she didn't give you any interviews for this.

    >> you know, the biggest source of information in this book is oprah winfrey herself.

    >> from her past interviews?

    >> from her past interviews. she's been absolutely fabulous . so i wrote with surely on oprah 's thoughts and emotions about the things that have happened to her.

    >> the only thing you're holding back in this book then is what you say is the identity of her biological father .

    >> that's right.

    >> do you think you'll ever get a phone call from oprah ?

    >> that isn't why i wrote the book. i did it without fear or favor. i don't write to appeal to celebrities. i really am trying to write a straight, accurate, honest, fair story of someone's life. no, i don't think oprah 's ever going to call. but i did have the pleasure of meeting her in 1981 when she was in baltimore.

    >> and it was a good meeting?

    >> it was a good meeting. yes, it was.

    >> well, the book of course is called " oprah a biography." it goes on sale agagenerating a lot of headlines. ket kitty kelly , you're going to stick around and talk to kathie lee and hoda later this morning. we appreciate that.


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