Oprah Winfrey showed up on Saturday at Essence Fest for the first time in the convention’s 22-year history and it felt like the Pope had just arrived in Boston. The 6,000-person theater was packed to the rafters for Winfrey’s appearance, and she did not disappoint. Combining elements of a religious revival, stand-up comedy routine, and inspirational speech, Winfrey spoke for some 45 minutes and had the crowd in the palm of her hand.
“Essence Fest is the best family reunion I’ve ever been to, with all the relatives you didn’t know you had but all the relatives you really, really, really like,” she told the audience.
She later added in an interview with EW, “There was this sense of connected community — coming together with our shared history.”
That connection became clear when Winfrey, who was also at the fest to help promote the upcoming scripted series Queen Sugar which will air on her OWN network in September, began telling a howlingly funny story about her quest for a role in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple.
As most Winfrey fans know, the then-morning news host on A.M. Chicago was a rabid fan of The Color Purple — read it one sitting, bought it for all her co-workers, could recite every line. So when she learned that the Alice Walker novel was going to be adapted into a film, she had to find her way onto that set.
“I started praying to God, ‘Please help me find a role in The Color Purple,” she told the rapt audience on Saturday. “I didn’t need a speaking role. I was willing to carry the script, help people with the water.”
At that same time, she continued, Quincy Jones, a producer on the movie, had come to Chicago to deal with a lawsuit filed against Michael Jackson. And as he was coming out of the shower in his hotel room, “chubby little me with my Jeri Curl,” was on his television, Winfrey remembered. “Quincy Jones calls Reuben Cannon, the casting agent, and says ‘I think I found Sophia.'”
Cannon then invited Winfrey to audition, but she didn’t hear from the agent for three long months following the try out. Going against Hollywood protocol, she called Cannon herself. The conversation didn’t go well.
“Reuben says to me, ‘You don’t call me. I call you. And I didn’t call you. Do you understand I have real actresses who have auditioned for this part.’ I hung up the phone and start crying,” she said Saturday.
Winfrey was convinced that she had not succeeded because of her weight.
“I decide that this is because the fat has finally caught up with me. Now I must get rid of the fat,” she said to shouts from the crowd. “In two weeks I’m going to go to a fat farm and I’m going to lose 25 pounds. I’m going to drink a lot of green juice. I’m going to have cleanses and colonics.”
As she told the story on Saturday, Winfrey ran around the stage in her heels and her red Donna Karan wrap dress. “It starts to rain. Y’all know how that is,” Winfrey said, as she continued to jog. “I don’t even care. I’m praying to God to help me let it go. It’s controlling my life. I start praying.
“And I keep hearing this noise. There is nobody on the track but me. And I look around, and it’s my thighs rubbing together. It’s my thighs rubbing together causing this thunderous sound. Then I really start to cry.”
Winfrey told the audience that the only way to let it all out was to return to her roots in her church, at which point she spontaneously began to sing the well-known church hymn, “I Surrender All.”
“I sang. And I cried,” Winfrey recalled, as the crowd sang along. “Until I could reach the point where I would not only be able to go to the movie but I would be able to bless the other actors [in the film.]”
Then the remarkable conclusion to her story:
“The instant I let it go, a woman comes running out of the cafeteria screaming, ‘Ofrey, is your name Ofrey?’ Ten years, still no one knew how to pronounce my name. ‘Somebody is on the telephone for you, says his name is Spielberg,’” Winfrey remembered the woman told her.
“I hear you are on a fat farm,” Spielberg said to Winfrey.
“No sir, this is a health retreat,” she replied, as the crowd laughed.
“He says, ‘I’d like to see you in my office in California and if you lose a pound you could lose this part.'”
“I packed my bags. I stopped at the Dairy Queen: Three scoops just in case I lost half a pound. Next day, I was in Spielberg’s office and he said, you’re hired.”
After her story, the iconic scene from the 1985 film that landed Winfrey an Oscar nomination then played on the big screens in the theater. Though Winfrey has told this anecdote before to a large group of people, she later admitted that the entire audience has never recited the famous speech back to her. But that’s what happened Saturday at Essence Fest:
“All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles.
A girl child ain’t safe in a family of mens.
But I never thought I’d have to fight in my own house.
I loves Harpo. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me.”