Before diving into the interview between Trevor Noah and Oprah Winfrey, I feel it’s pertinent to mention a book I just finished…
I recently read Hank Green’s first novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, and thoroughly enjoyed the literary journey. The book uses a quirky contemporary sci-fi setting and plot – in this case, a 21st century humanity’s first contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence – to simultaneously foreground and debate elements of the all-too-relevant socio-psychological phenomena of fame, celebrity culture and celebrity identity construction. For a few weeks after finishing the read, I couldn’t decide which aspect of the book played on my mind more; the intricate science and metaphysics surrounding the world creation and writing of the Carl(s), or the complex commentary on identity creation and perception in both private and public spaces, as seen through the thoughts and experiences of the story’s central character April May. The narrative follows April May’s rocket-speed rise to internet and global stardom over the span of a few months, whilst honing in on the growing tensions that arise between her desires and behaviours as an individual person, contrasted with the behaviours and actions she is driven to take whilst maintaining her public persona, or branded identity. Interestingly, while I was watching a short video exert from The Daily Show on YouTube (it was an “off air” interview segment between Trevor Noah, Oprah Winfrey and the studio audience), whilst listening to Trevor’s questions and word choices I could see some thematic parallels between Trevor and Oprah’s casual and comedic interplay, and the commentaries on lifestyle and daily life as a celebrity seen in An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. So, allow me to share with you, my thoughts while watching The Daily Show’s “Between the Scenes – Guest Edition: Oprah”.
Trevor opens the segment by addressing the crowd, letting both them and Oprah know what’s about to happen. Oprah refers to the segment as “Behind the Scenes” and Trevor promptly corrects her. He describes the moment as an opportunity for him to “hang out with the real people”. Whilst my ears pricked with interest as Trevor used the phrase ‘the real people’, I didn’t know quite how striking and relevant these words would be until I reached the end of the video clip. By categorising the audience members as ‘real’ he inadvertently defines celebrities – those characteristically not part of the audience – as ‘not real’. Trevor begins the interview with an affirmation, more than an introduction. Trevor says, “You are Oprah Winfrey, you have been very wealthy for a long time, you’ve worked hard to get there.” He immediately follows this introduction with a cautious and staccato delivery of the question, “I often wonder how much normalcy there still is in your life?” Trevor then quickly clarifies the question be presenting some humorous examples, such as having your mobile phone run out of battery or having the toilet roll finish while you’re in the bathroom.
These are all quite common and relatable occurrences for most people watching, hence why Trevor referred to them as ‘normalcy’, but as Oprah explains how the toilet roll at her home is frequently and discreetly checked by an anonymous employee (then decoratively folded as though she lives in a fancy hotel) or how she once bought an entire avocado orchard to avoid the high consumer prices of avocados in supermarkets, it quickly becomes apparent that such events account for zero percent of Oprah’s daily life. I think it’s important to try clarifying the mirage of the two Oprahs we see here. Sitting opposite Trevor is a woman (born Orpah Gail Winfrey in Mississippi in 1954), but this woman is also recognised as capital–O ‘Oprah’; a public identity who has become a household name and world-renowned celebrity. This woman’s reputation and relationship with her public is inescapable. If Oprah walked into a Whole Foods and tried to buy her own avocados, she would almost certainly become the centre of a crowd of fans, all eagerly anxious to bask in the presence of their cultural idol and role-model. This is an example of one of the many ways in which the fictional character – the television icon – ineluctably has an impact on the daily lifestyle of the person who portrays and embodies the scripted and constructed media persona.
Oprah then goes on to answer two questions from the audience before Trevor closes the segment with a final question for his esteemed guest. If Trevor’s first question is framed as him asking Oprah, the human being, how the celebrity title has affected the ‘normalcy’ (the middle-classness or anonymity) of her life, then his next question can be seen as one directed more so at Oprah Winfrey the global superstar and television character. He begins by saying, “One of the greatest pressures, in my opinion, of being Oprah is that everywhere you go people are waiting for you to tell them to look under their seats, because everyone’s waiting for you to give them something”. Trevor’s word choice here when he talks about the ‘pressures of being Oprah’ once again alludes to the duality of being both a ‘real’ person whilst simultaneously living as a public construct. Trevor, himself, is quite a famous and globally recognised entity and I’m sure he is similarly aware of the pressures of ‘being Trevor Noah’ while living a normal life out in the public sphere. At this point the audience lets out an excited chuckle before Oprah Winfrey quickly takes her cue to deliver her signature line by stating, “So I’m gonna say ‘look under your seats, everybody gets a booook!’”. Trevor excitedly joins in at this point and exclaims inflated deliveries of Oprah’s catchphrase, “you’re getting a book, you’re getting a book, everybody’s getting a book!’. Oprah then stands and lets out her trademark saying one more time before her and Trevor exit the stage together.
This hyped up handing out of promotional merchandise before swiftly exiting the stage – much like a magician vanishing in a puff of smoke – really sealed in my mind the notion that I was watching a performance by two characters, by two personas in the media industry. After all, telling everyone to look under their seats truly is one of the quintessential traits of Oprah’s public identity. Furthermore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that much of this ‘Between the Scenes’ segment was likely carefully planned and scheduled, from the allotted time to the theatrical give-away at the end. Having worked as an editor in live broadcast television, I am quite aware of just how much rehearsing and scripting goes into the final performance. By acknowledging the elements of this video that are deliberately crafted though I’m not trying to suggest that everything in this segment is fake, or a form of deception, but rather that this video clip serves as a real-world case study examining the themes central to An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. In the novel, when April May made any television appearances, she was fully aware that she needed to set aside anything from her personal or private life, and that she needed to be prepared, rehearsed, and that her words and actions on stage needed to align with the brand and identity of the public figure she embodied. Similarly, everyone in the audience (and watching online) is there to see capital-O ‘Oprah’, so it only makes sense that she be this persona for her audience. The women asking her questions from the crowd (and those watching on YouTube) want to hear from their public hero, and that’s the identity they all want to experience. Capital-O ‘Oprah’ and capital-T ‘Trevor’ are what fill the seats and bring in the viewers. But more than sales and viewership, these constructed identities are not just isolated products of media and entertainment. The public figure Oprah Winfrey has a very real impact on the larger society she finds herself situated in; from supporting and creating global education initiatives, to shaping public opinion on important matters such as mental health awareness and poverty alleviation. Moreover, the public figure also has a very real effect on the private life of the woman that is Oprah Winfrey. This is true of all celebrities, but I think it’s even more pervasive for people who share a namesake with their public persona. For example, people don’t expect to see Thor when they meet Chris Hemsworth in quite the same way that the crowd might expect to see capital-O ‘Oprah’ when they spot Miss Winfrey in the streets. Trevor’s initial question about ‘normalcy’ in Oprah’s life was a subtle and poignant reminder of this effect that fame and reputation have on one’s life, whilst seeing Oprah really lean into her public character – by acting in her signature way on stage – reminds us which Oprah we’re really seeing on stage, and which Oprah we actually came to watch in the first place.