Oprah Winfrey’s portrait reveal was deeply personal for me. Here’s why

American television mogul Oprah Winfrey poses with her portrait after it was unveiled at Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2023.

Oprah Winfrey poses with her portrait after it was unveiled at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington on Wednesday.Kevin Lamarque/ReutersCNN — 

At the unveiling of Oprah Winfrey’s new portrait at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery on Wednesday, she recalled a story about her grandmother once instructing her to boil clothes outside to get them clean. The family was so poor they had no running water, and her grandmother said Winfrey would one day have to do the same.

But Winfrey noted that she knew at an early age her grandmother’s destiny would not be her own.

“I could feel inside my being when I was very young, I think as early as four when I first started speaking in the church,” Winfrey said. “That’s where my broadcasting career began with ‘Jesus rose on Easter day [hallelujah, hallelujah] all the angels did proclaim.’ Y’all remember when we used to get Easter pieces?”

Boy, did I ever remember.

Like Winfrey, I, too, was the little girl growing up in a Black church who was prodded, hair perfectly pressed and dress stiffly starched, to stand in front of the congregation to offer up a memorized piece.

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But one year we had a guest speaker, a then young television journalist named Oprah Winfrey, who I watched on WJZ TV in my hometown of Baltimore.

I was in awe that day, seeing the woman my grandmother always tuned in to watch, in the flesh, speaking from the pulpit of Whitestone Baptist Church in west Baltimore.

Addressing the congregation years ago, Winfrey told the story of a female slave, who after being beaten, lied on the ground and marveled at the stars all around her. But rather than it being stars, it was actually grains of salt that had been thrown on her open wounds made on her back by the whip.

The congregation moaned at the tale as my grandmother, Evelyn Respers, whispered beside me, “My God, my God.” I was entranced.

Winfrey was the first Black female journalist I had ever seen. She felt like my soulmate that day as she talked about her love of reading (same for me) and how standing before all of us reminded her so much of her childhood.

As I sat there transfixed by how she held us all in the palm of her storytelling hand, a plan formed in my childhood brain.

I would call Winfrey and invite her to my family’s Thanksgiving dinner.

Lisa France as a young girl in Baltimore.

Lisa France as a young girl in Baltimore.Lisa France/CNN

After securing the number from the telephone book, I waited until my grandmother fell asleep watching her “stories,” the CBS soap operas she refused to miss. As soon as I heard my grandma lightly snoring in her easy chair, I called WJZ, figuring I would reach Winfrey’s assistant to offer the invitation.

Instead, they patched me through to Winfrey directly.

I literally froze. After the second “Hello?” from her I stammered, “My name is Lisa Respers and you came to my grandma’s church and spoke and you were so good.”

Winfrey responded, “Thank you sweetheart” and I slammed down the phone.

Yes. In my panic, I hung up on Oprah Winfrey.

I’ve thought about that experience over the years as I watched Winfrey rise from the television anchor the older women in my family marveled at for wearing her natural hair on TV to the accomplished cultural leader she is today.

When my team at CNN met a few weeks back for an editorial planning meeting, I requested to cover the upcoming film “The Color Purple.” After all, I’m not sure I would be a journalist today were it not for Winfrey, and it felt right to participate in any stories about the musical version of the film that made her a movie star.

My editor, Megan Thomas, has the biggest heart of anyone I know, and told me, “We are going to manifest this for you, Ms. Lisa.”

“Manifest” felt like the perfect word. In the beginning of the year, I had put meeting Winfrey on my vision board.

There is no way to describe my joy when Megan forwarded me an email about the portrait unveiling and secured the support of our bosses to have me travel to Washington, DC, but I will try.

I burst into tears reading that email because for the little girl who still lives inside me, it felt like the fulfillment of a dream.

Which is how I found myself on Wednesday at the National Portrait Gallery, dressed head to toe in purple to watch Winfrey receive her honor. It was an event that celebrated the journey of a woman who has succeeded against all odds by sharing an honest version of herself and empowering others to do the same.

Lisa France in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, December 13.

Lisa France in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, December 13.Lisa France/CNN

It hasn’t been perfect. Remember she was once the woman mocked for standing next to a wagon full of fat to display how much weight she’d shed. But Winfrey followed her heart and passions – from starting a book club to incredible charitable efforts that the world won’t soon forget. Her life has so often inspired me, a plus-sized Black woman who also loves to read and tell stories.

This is the part where I hoped to be able to share that I met https://tehopeng.com Winfrey at the event, told her this story and wept tears of gratitude for how she – a complete stranger – has impacted my life. That didn’t happen, but there was a moment when it appeared her eyes met mine and she subtly nodded at me.

Someone I know later asked me with so many people in the room how I was sure Winfrey’s gesture was directed to me. I answered that while I couldn’t be certain, I know that everything that led me to that morning in Washington was exactly as it should be.

For that I say thank you, Oprah Winfrey.

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