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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”