Numlock Sunday: Kellie Carter Jackson on Oprahdemics
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week we’re joined by Wellesley College historian Kellie Carter Jackson, who along with Leah Wright Rigueur is the host of the brand new podcast Oprahdemics.
Longtime readers know I’m fascinated by pop culture’s impact on society as a whole, and there are very few people who have had a more substantial, direct impact on American life than Oprah Winfrey. So when I heard about this podcast, I was instantly hooked on the idea of two historians sorting through the colossal legacy of Oprah Winfrey.
We talked about Oprah’s impact on the arts, the wellness industry that launched in her wake, how influencers learned from Oprah’s playbook and how American society would be unrecognizable without this person. Oprahdemics can be found wherever you get your podcasts.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You are a professor at Wellesley College and you are one of the hosts of the new podcast, Oprahdemics. I would love to hear about what drew you to this topic as a historian.
I have been a longtime fan of just Oprah in general, but especially The Oprah Winfrey Show. I'm still kind of sad that it's no longer on the air. I love and live for a good Oprah interview. I stand by the fact that she is the queen of talk. As someone who majored in journalism in college, and then I did my Ph.D. in history, I've always been fascinated with good storytelling, with culture and how we think about what becomes relevant and what matters. Especially as it relates to the lived experiences of Black people or people on the margins.
I thought that doing that in a podcast like this would just be epic because, one, there wasn't really anything out there like this. Which was kind of shocking to me, because as big as Oprah is, you'd think there would be a podcast like this already or 10 different iterations of it. So we definitely saw a void and an opening. But really all of this stems from an episode on This Day In Esoteric Political History. We go back in time and we look at certain major events, political events. And one day or one episode we covered Oprah's being sued by the big beef industry.
When we were doing it, I was so giddy. Jody [Avirgan, the producer] was like, "Oh my gosh, Kellie, you're all into this episode." I was like, "I am, this topic is just everything. I remember it so clearly." And so we had so much fun with it that later Jody pitched it to me. He was like, "You know, Kellie, I think this is like a podcast. I think you should run with this."
I was like, "Hmm, all right, cool. Let me think about it.” He's like, "Is there anyone that you want to work with?" And I was like, "Oh my God, Leah Wright Rigueur. Hands down." We talk about these things all the time and we've been besties for a long time. It just felt like the perfect way for really, for us to take our private conversations to the public.
Oprah is such a fascinating figure. And it's just such a cool concept for a podcast, because you will never run out of things to talk about. She's been one of the most famous women in America for decades and just a phenomenal actress, phenomenal talk show host. She's real and there's just so much there, that I suppose my first question is, where the hell do you even start with all this?
I know, so, 4,500 episodes. That's just of The Oprah Winfrey Show. We not talking about Oprah's Next Chapter or all of her other ventures. Although we have pitched like ideas of just talking about Oprah, like as an actress, as the owner of Weight Watchers, as all these different things that she has so many spinoffs. Then of course there are so many people who spin their careers off of her, and so many things that we do simply because Oprah did. Like, no one was really celebrating their birthdays in this elaborate, fantastic, fabulous way, certainly not when they were turning 50. You had a lot of over the hill, doom and gloom parties, but not like this, this is what 50 looks like, in this glamorous way. I think about every single weight loss craze, I think about all of the interviews that she had with either celebrities or politicians, when she has on Trump, when she has on Sarah Palin, when she has on the Obamas.
I mean, there is so much there, so honestly the hardest thing for us to do was curating the first 15 episodes, because season one is 15 episodes. There will be a season two, we're already planning episodes for that. We're also taking listener feedback. But it was definitely hard; I think starting with the vegan episode though, felt really good because Marcia Chatelain is just fantastic as a food historian. I think a lot of people's gateway into Oprah was through food and diet. A lot of people are aware of her up and down struggles with weight, and Weight Watchers, and Dr. Oz, and all of the different people she's had on, her trainer, Bob Greene. Health has become such a big aspect of her identity that we really wanted to start with that episode first, and then open it up to all of these other different ideas and relationships that she has. But there's no shortage, that's for sure.
Let's talk about that a little bit. I think that it's fair to say that the global "wellness industry" would look absolutely unrecognizable if it were not for Oprah.
Facts! Facts. I don't think we understand, you don't get Goop without Oprah, you know what I mean? Gwyneth Paltrow has built a lot of this brand off of the things that were Oprah's Favorite Things and the things that Oprah marketed. I think even just when it comes to being honest and vulnerable about our curves and about things that we either can't change, or just are who we are, Oprah allowed us to embrace our full selves, flaws and all.
What I love about Oprah so much is that she's always been open and honest, like with her trauma, with her pain, with her losses, with her failures, with her wins and her successes. I think people have always appreciated that when they turn on their TV at 4:00 p.m. — or 9:00 a.m., if you were in Chicago, but for most people 4:00 p.m. — you were going to get something honest and authentic and that spoke to maybe where you are or where you might want to be. There's a lot about this show that's also aspirational. I just appreciated all the conversations that she was starting.
I'd love for you to expand on that, because you've clearly done a ton of research on this. A lot of what you just said really reminds me of influencer culture today. The vulnerability that people have is absolutely different than even like what we considered stardom at one point, but that relatability is the conduit to fame these days. How do you think that Oprah changed what it means to be famous and influential, even for today seeing what we see now on like Instagram and such?
Yeah. I think influencers today, for me, they're incredibly hard to relate to. And I say that because so much of what you're seeing in like a 30-second or 60-second video or an image, is so heavily curated. Like, I can never have a perfect smokey eye like that, or I can never perfectly coif my hair like that. I would never have enough money to travel to all these different places, however the influencer is operating. A lot of the things that they're selling are these very expensive, big ticket, brand name items. And to be fair, Oprah does some of that too. Absolutely when you see her Favorite Things episodes, she is pushing some of that. But I also think that what makes Oprah most relatable is the fact that she talked about things that were really hard to talk about.
She talks about race and racism and police brutality on her show. She talks about sexual assault and child molestation and the things that we prefer to keep in the dark. She talks about trauma and how she worked through that. How other people have worked through that. She talks about depression and what that looks like. She was one of the first people to have conversations about trans identity. I remember when Chastity Bono was on her show coming out as a lesbian. And then when Chaz Bono came on as a trans man. These conversations just were not being had. She brought psychologists on her show to talk about mental health. There are aspects of that I just feel like you don't always get in influencer culture, because so much of it is shiny and celebrity-focused and not always attainable, even though it's aspirational. I felt like Oprah had a great balance of aspiration and adoration, but also authenticity and this vulnerability that people appreciated.
The most recent episode, at least as we speak right now, is about the relationship between Oprah and Toni Morrison. It is not a wrong perception that Oprah did get a lot of people like Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, you can really draw a direct conduit between their oftentimes not particularly great place in society and her platforming of them.
But, what I love about this, is that people do not recognize how much of what they understand to be the mainstream of pop culture is directly attributable to what Oprah did. Not to say that Toni Morrison was niche necessarily before Oprah elevated her, but that was a fundamental leap in popularity and international interest for her. Can you expand that on that?
Oh yes, she made Toni Morrison a household name. As an academic, I know Toni Morrison, Leah knows Toni Morrison. But when you're talking to, as we say, the soccer mom, right? The person who may only do the beach reads, the easy reads, the light reads. Toni Morrison is hard. You can't just pick up her book and just sort of breeze through it. It requires that you reread paragraphs, reread sentences, really grapple with what she's saying.
And I love that Oprah does this for Toni Morrison. She does this for Maya Angelou. She does this, I think for a lot of other Black women, singers or professionals that weren't getting the love and the adoration that they might have needed in the public stratosphere. She shoots them into even more greatness.
You can look at Toni Morrison, you can be like, yeah, "Pulitzer. Nobel prize." But I think if we're honest, people are like, "Toni Morrison on Oprah? Yeah, that's how I found out about her." You know what I mean? That's what more people are familiar with. More people are going to recognize the person who sat on Oprah's couch than they are the person who won the Nobel Laureate. And while that may seem sad, that's just a reality of pop culture. We pay attention to the things that are popular, not always the things that are prestigious.
That's great, I love that angle. Where are we going next, do you think, over the course of the podcast? Do you have any specific Oprah moments in mind that you're going to hit on season one that you think would be great to talk about?
Yes. I'm so excited. I know we're going to cover Oprah's 50th birthday, for sure, because that was just such a big deal. We're going to cover Oprah finding her half sister. Do you remember that episode?
I don't, no.
When she found out that she had a half sister she had no idea about. And that her half sister looks exactly like her sister that passed away decades ago. I mean, it's like, what? Oprah has this big family secret.
The next episode will be about Oprah starting the school, her school in South Africa. I'm really excited about this. This will be out probably in the next week or so. I think April 21st, they're going to announce, but we'll be doing a live podcast taping at the Tribeca Film Festival with the great Wesley Morris. And we are going to talk about Oprah as an actress. I'm so excited to do that because she's been in so many films from like, The Color Purple, Selma, The Butler, Henrietta Lacks. She's done like TV and big film, Beloved. So that's separate from the show, but I think the Tribeca Film Festival is the perfect place to talk about how we love Oprah in Hollywood.
But for those who are politics buffs, we are going to talk about Oprah and Trump. She has Trump on her show like eight times. We're going to talk about Oprah and Sarah Palin. That interview was so big, I mean, so big. So there's a lot, there's just so much more to get into.
There were years where people were putting her name in there for running for president.
Yes, yes. People don't realize that Oprah has this really big political lexicon. That there are a lot of politicians that she has on her show. She's also very open about the fact that she's voted Democrat and Republican. I think that we think of her as a Liberal and as a Democrat. But in her early years coming up, she voted on both sides. And I think that to me is really interesting to see that Oprah doesn't necessarily fit in the neat boxes that we expect.
Yeah. I just love the concept for the podcast. I think it's such a great idea. I'm so excited again, to see the take from, again, a historian. Because I feel like too often with these pop culture topics, it gets kind of dismissed as frivolities and it’s reduced to like, "Oh, Tom Cruise jumps on the couch." Whereas American culture would, again, be completely different if not for the influence of this one woman.
That's so true, it's so true. I think, who better to do this than academics? Leah and I are somewhat exceptional in that we're historians that watch TV, and we watch movies, and we pay attention to pop culture a lot. We get to have a lot of fun with it. But I think we also get to put on our academic hats and tease out and give nuance to a lot of these issues that aren't that superficial and really do have major consequences for the culture. And so we see Oprah and everything that she's done as this syllabus, as this classroom, in which so much about our social political culture is learned through what she brings to everyone's TV screen.
Incredible. All right. So the podcast is called Oprahdemics. Kellie, can you tell folks where to find it and then what they can expect?
You can find it pretty much wherever you get your podcast, so that makes it open and free. It's free to listen to. You don't have to subscribe, but we always appreciate subscribers. We always appreciate five star ratings. That's always great. We always appreciate feedback. Let us know if there's a show or topic you really want to touch on. And in the next couple weeks, you can expect us to talk about Oprah's school next week, and then after that, Oprah's relationship with hip hop and politics and Beyoncé. And there's just so much more that we want to hit on, her 50th birthday. Everything that you are probably pining for, you can best believe we will cover it in this season or the next.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.
Thank you so much for becoming a paid subscriber!
Send links to me on Twitter at @WaltHickey or email me with numbers, tips, or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.