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'I Was Ignored on Oprah'

On a Cold Day in Chicago, I Was Ignored on Oprah [1]

 By JANET SILVER GHENT, Oakland Tribune

[I call this my signature piece]

As the snowflakes fell over Michigan Avenue, where the mercury registered twenty-two °F and the windchill factor was probably -10°, I contemplated my short, bittersweet career as a talk show guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Some people go to bars when they feel rotten. I crash at art museums. Fingers frozen, I climbed the steps of the Art Institut

e of Chicago and plunked myself in front of Van Gogh’s “Bedroom at Arles,” the painting with the sloping floor. Ghent, I said to myself, your suffering doesn’t even register on the Richter scale. Besides, you still have both ears.

The forty-eight hours that did not change my life began at 2:55 p.m. on a Wednesday. I was in the Oakland Tribune newsroom trying to figure out how to get to a four p.m. interview in Mill Valley. Assistant Features Editor Ken Long told me the Oprah show had phoned. They wanted my input on a fashion story.

Oprah Winfrey was doing a fashion segment in two days. Producer Dianne Hudson wanted Nicholas Coleridge, author of The Fashion Conspiracy. She couldn’t reach Coleridge. She got me.

How did it happen? In desperation, Hudson called Craig Herman, Coleridge’s publicist at Harper & Row, asking if he knew anybody who was disgusted with the fashion establishment. My name came to mind. The rest is infamy.

I hung up the phone, screamed, “I’m gonna be on Oprah, and breathlessly flew out of the newsroom for my interview with author George Leonard. A pro on the talk show circuit, Leonard gave me a few pointers, which I quickly forgot as soon as I got on the set.

As I walked in the door at home, I greeted my sixteen-year-old son. “Randy, I’m flying to Chicago tomorrow. Can you manage.?”

Then I called my mother and brother in New York and daughter Niki in San Diego.

“Do you get paid?” everybody wanted to know.

“No, but they cover expenses. It’s a free December trip to Chicago.”

I phoned George Estrada, former Tribune Ear columnist turned filmmaker.

“George,” I said, “I can’t make lunch tomorrow. I’m flying to Chicago to be on The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

“Sure,” I expected him to say. “And I’m flyin’ to London to ’ave tea with the queen.

“When you get back,” he actually said, “tell your agent to call my agent, and we’ll network on it.”

Then I threw all my clothes on my bed.

“Wear the green silk blouse you wore on New Year’s Eve,” my mother had said. “And for God’s sake, don’t wear anything with a jewel neck. And get your hair done.”

“Wear your black and blue dress,” said Features Editor Wendy Miller.”

“Wear your dramatics,” said Ear columnist and color analysis maven Martin Snapp.

I chose a red-and-black knit ensemble. It was dramatic, but more important, it was clean. Thank God I had just bought a new winter coat. My mother would have plotzed if I had worn the old beige one with the six-inch-wide lapels.

Not knowing when my plane would leave, I threw some stuff into a garment bag Thursday and drove to work. Then I made a hair appointment, forgetting about the eleven a.m. staff meeting.

Apologizing, I arrived as it ended. “You had no choice,” said Food Editor Paula Hamilton. “There’s no way you could have gone on national TV with your hair looking the way it did.”

At one-thirty p.m., someone from the show phoned. My flight was leaving at three o’clock. I made it to the gate as the plane was boarding. As I deplaned in Chicago, a young man carrying a sign met me at the gate, grabbed my garment bag, and shepherded me to the awaiting limo. What a life!

I checked into the Hotel Nikko and was escorted to a sumptuous room overlooking the Chicago River. I opened the mini refrigerator stocked with champagne, petrified cookies, chocolate bars, and miniature liqueur bottles. Deliberating over the choices, I mixed myself a late-night cocktail of half grapefruit juice, half mineral water. Then I thought I’d be reckless. I drank a second grapefruit juice and called the desk for a seven-a.m. wake-up call. But I didn’t need the wake-up call. Going to bed at one a.m. Central Time, I awoke at six a.m.

Room service arrived at seven a.m. I knocked over the cream jug, which spilled its contents all over the dusty rose chairs and gray rug. I grabbed a napkin and rubbed. Then I put on my most theatrical makeup and headed down to a waiting limo.

What was Oprah like? Who knows, I never really met her. By nine a.m., I was on the air, without so much as a rehearsal. My fellow panelists were Working Woman Editor-in-Chief Anne Mollegen Smith, Detroit fashion historian Sandy Schrier, and Vogue Creative Director André Leon Talley.

According to The Fashion Conspiracy, Talley is “a total fashion freak. The kind of guy, in fact, who if he saw an outfit he coveted in a store window, and the store was closed, he’d break the glass.”

I believed it. Talley, I thought, was out of touch with real women who don’t have time for lifestyles and can’t afford to look outrageous. He schlepped along glitzy fashions that were expensive but looked cheap. Clothes for professional women—in the world’s oldest profession.

Fashion, said Talley, should be fun.

“Yes,” I said, “but there is a downside to that fun.” Then I talked about the sweatshops in Korea where shirts that sell for forty dollars in America are made for under two dollars by a laborer who earns seven dollars a week and loses his vision by the time he’s twenty-five. “That doesn’t strike me as very much fun.”

The audience applauded, but after I made that point, I couldn’t seem to get on camera. I was finished. I thought I hadn’t been assertive enough. My parents had other thoughts.

“They didn’t want to hear what you had to say,” said my father. “You were asked to be controversial, but they wanted the show to be fun. They didn’t want to hear about the sweatshops.”

“You were the Jane Fonda of fashion,” said my mother.

“You clapped like your grandmother,” said my brother.”

“You were totally cute,” said daughter Niki.

“You were the most uptight person on the panel,” said a man who considers himself a friend.

“You looked so little,” said San Francisco publicist Trisha Britt. “Next time you go on television, ask them to give you a phone book to sit on.”

Sunday afternoon, my neighbor greeted me as I was filling the sixth of eight bags with oak leaves. “What are you doing raking now that you’re a celebrity?”

I laughed. The experience was humbling, and in some ways, humiliating. Nothing had really changed. I hardly got my moment in the sun. In the Warhol 1960s, I was told that everybody would get fifteen minutes. But a friend of mine tells me I should feel lucky. This is the fast-moving almost ’90s. I should be happy I got my fifteen seconds.




[1] This piece appeared on December 13, 1988, in the Oakland Tribune.


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