Such is the nature of Oprah, among all interviewers, that she turns the notion of the “get” upside down. Historically, networks, newsmagazines, and anchors have vied to land high-profile subjects, but one imagines high-profile subjects working just as hard to land Oprah. In the case of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry, whatever effort expended was worth it. Their recent headline-making, ratings-grabbing conversation was a showcase for what being interviewed by Oprah can do for you.
We are in the middle of a bonanza in the celebrity-on-celebrity interview—Bruce and Barack, Michelle’s podcast, Gwyneth’s podcast, Rihanna and Miranda July, Letterman’s Netflix show. It’s a format that is meant to encourage a sense of privilege and safety. The celebrities can open up inside the rarefied bubble of their shared megafame. But Oprah’s interviewing abilities are part of her foundational skill set, not just a perk of her star power. While it’s true that this star power ensures there’s nothing she can’t ask, you don’t talk to Oprah because it’s easy; you talk to Oprah because it’s good for you. Even when it’s hard, as it was for past Oprah interviewees like Lance Armstrong, Lindsay Lohan, and James Frey, that difficulty is at least a provisional step toward redemption.
As with most interviewers who have been doing their work for a long time—see Terry Gross, Marc Maron, Letterman—subjects arrive knowing what is expected of them. In Oprah’s case, that means being ready to expose yourself to her satisfaction, in exchange for having one of the world’s great empaths help you reshape your public image. As with the best therapists, you are exposed, but in some fundamental sense you are also safe: You bring the raw material; she helps you put the narrative together.
Over her two hours with Meghan and Harry, Oprah asked and circled back and clarified and emphasized so that we could see the story that really matters: not a heightened squabble between rich family members, but the ancient racism of a cruel institution. Meghan and Harry’s story has its fuzzy elements—details about titles and security and the press, eyebrow-raising moments like when Meghan claimed not to have heard the term “Megxit”—but it also has a straightforwardness in its themes that another interviewer might not have been able to give it. Oprah is like player and umpire at the same time. She asks questions even as she understands that her reactions to the answers will influence our own. So while she permitted Meghan and Harry to self-narrativize about their fairy-tale story to their hearts’ content—it’s The Little Mermaid! She rescued him! No, he rescued her!—the fact that Oprah barely reacted to these gooey lines while focusing on the abhorrent behavior of “the firm” made the takeaway clear: Call it a fairy tale if you want, but this is a horror story.
Watching the interview with Twitter open, I saw numerous people describing it as a master class in interviewing. I don’t disagree, but I think it would be hard for anyone else to replicate because so much of it depends on Oprah’s special authority, her ability to effortlessly toggle between her incredible fame and something more intuitively regular.
In one moment, she’s mentioning that she was at Meghan and Harry’s wedding; in another, she’s challenging Harry on his claims that he wasn’t happy as a rich princeling, as though she has no personal experience with the strictures of fame. Just before the most heart-wrenching sequence in the interview, when Meghan was describing the persistence of her suicidal thoughts and the institution’s refusal to help, Oprah asked her whether it was “what it looked like”—if she and Harry were as content as they seemed in pictures. That Oprah, who presumably has more than a little firsthand knowledge of the eternal social performance required by life in the public eye, could ask this so credulously is one thing—for it to work is Oprah’s secret sauce, her ability to be completely, potently Oprah while also plausibly channeling everyone who is not.