Actually, let’s just take a moment to relive that again… OK, onward.
During her speech, the idolized star of film, TV, talk shows, production, publishing and many, many hearts thanked a number of people, including her best friend of nearly 40 years, Gayle King, who was of course sitting at Winfrey’s table as one of the VIPs along with Denzel Washington, Willem Dafoe, Barbra Streisand and James Brolin. And sitting in a place of honor on Winfrey’s right was her companion of nearly 30 years now, Stedman Graham, whom on Sunday she called her “rock.”
We sense that to be near and dear to Oprah’s heart means to be caught up in a wave of love, light and infectious inspiration that knows no bounds. But how about the man who captured her heart, who, in all honesty, has to be a certain type of guy to be the partner of someone as uniquely talented, connected and magnetic as Winfrey.
At the “Oprah Winfrey Surprise Spectacular,” held at Chicago’s United Center before she signed off from her eponymous talk show and attended by the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Jordan, Stevie Wonder, Madonna and Tom Hanks, Graham took the stage to tell her, “You are so special. I’m so proud of you.”
“It really amazes me that I got to be around a woman who changes people’s lives every day and who also takes her own lunch to work,” he continued. “I can’t believe that a colored girl from the backwoods of Mississippi has done all that you have done. But what is really amazing is that you have done this [he motioned around him] through God’s amazing grace. I love you for making the difference in my life.”
Graham, 66, hails from Whitehorse, N.J., and is one of six children—so he grew up learning how to share a spotlight. After serving in the U.S. Army and finishing his graduate studies in education at Ball State University in Indiana, he worked in public relations and turned his attention toward activism, focusing on furthering opportunities for underprivileged kids and, as co-founder of Athletes Against Drugs in Chicago, tackling the growing scourge of drug abuse among children.
“Stedman is a deep thinker, a guy who has special perceptions of things,” Les Brown, an author and motivational speaker who, as the husband of Gladys Knight knows all about partnering a powerful woman, told The New York Times in 1997. “He is a warm person and a guy who speaks from his heart.”
He admitted in the book that, earlier in their relationship, he got angry at a party both he and Winfrey attended in Aspen when a wave of people just couldn’t wait to get closer to her, making him feel left out in the proverbial cold. “As the night wore on,” he wrote, per the Times, ”I found myself getting pushed further and further away as they moved past me to get to her.”
“Oprah tried to make me understand that the real source of my pain was in my past,” he wrote. “I never imagined that I could be equal to white folks. I never imagined that I could feel that I was an equal.” Finally he felt like “a free man for the first time in my life. I have filled the hole in my heart.” (In a 2012 interview for “Time With Natalie,” he explained, “Race was never an issue for her. Excellence was. Performance is important. Being the best she could be.”)
“They used to call me Oprah’s boyfriend,” he also told the Times, adding wryly, ”Some people call me Stedman now.”
Wendy reportedly spent a lot of time shuffling between her dad in Chicago and her mom in Texas when she was a kid. In 2002 she suffered a tragedy when her then-fiancé accidentally drowned while they were on vacation, so her entire family was said to be over the moon that she had found love again after such a terrible experience. Graham reportedly rushed to her side to be there for her in the wake of the accident.
After his divorce, Stedman dated Chicago anchorwoman Robin Robinson for about three years, breaking up in 1985. Robinson told People in 1992 that she guessed, although Winfrey was the more boisterous one in public, that her ex was the one who swept Oprah off her feet. “I have never seen Stedman respond to a woman’s advances,” she said. “He doesn’t like a forward woman.”
“And so I’m not threatened by her fame, or her success, or her money, or all of that. So, that’s who she is. It doesn’t have anything to do with how I define myself.”
Ultimately no powerful person is an island, or can remain and island for the long run, and whatever Graham is bringing to the table has helped make for the satisfying private life that in turn has helped Winfrey flourish in her public life.
“Stedman, you’re the sweetest man, with the greatest integrity,” Winfrey said while accepting her honorary Oscar in 1998.”Thank you for helping me to be everything that I am, and all that is to come.” Graham (sitting in the front row next to King, of course), in a rare display, needed to put his hand over his eyes for a moment to steady his emotions before looking back up at the stage.
Among the rumors they’ve faced down as a couple was when in 1988 came the speculation that she was crash-dieting to please Graham.
“I love Stedman very much,” Winfrey addressed the story on her Nov. 15, 1988, show—the one where she wheeled out the wagon full of fat and showed off her 67-pound weight loss. “And he cares about me and has been very supportive of me, fat and thin. I did not do this for Stedman…You know you cannot do it [lose weight] for anybody but yourself.”
More like, “Who’s this lucky guy?!” but such is the complexity of the human experience.
So there was a part of me that wanted to look the best I could for myself, but also to identify—with form again—for the image of what we looked like as a couple. For Stedman this was all about me maximizing my potential, physically. I think that he wanted what was best for me. Obviously he grew up being an athlete and fit, and loves the outdoors and sports and all of that. And he wanted for me to have the opportunity to be in the body, and feel the body in the way that was fulfilling for me, what he believed to be my body’s greatest potential.”
Graham, at 6’6″, does cut a strapping figure. He played college basketball at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas and then went on to play professionally abroad, in the European League. And other than having more gray hair now, he doesn’t look all that different than he did 20 years ago. “They figured if he looked like that, he either had to be a jerk or want something,” Winfrey reminisced in the 1980s about her staff’s reaction to the new man in her life, her “Steddy.”
An obsessive planner and incredibly organized, he retains a serious, corporate air about him, but he’s been amusing Oprah all these years, so still waters obviously run deep.
“Stedman mixes well,” an old boss of Graham’s told People in 1992 following the couple’s engagement announcement. “He fits in wherever he goes. He’s a great traveler. He doesn’t get tired or irritable. And he is intensely loyal.”
In 2008, Winfrey told E! News that Graham also gave her the space she needed, which she felt was an essential part of any strong relationship.
“I happen to be with a man who has always appreciated the fact that I was…considered a powerful person,” she said. “[He’s] not trying to crowd in on it, not competing with it. He knows how to hold his own.”
“You know it’s big if Stedman’s here,” Winfrey joked in a clip showing the behind-the-scenes lead-up to that episode. “I knew that second [to last] show was gonna be tough for you and I wanted to just kinda…get you through it,” he offered, as she added that he was there to “give me strength.”
In an interview, Winfrey said, “I think people are fascinated with the relationship because…people haven’t seen him. And, you know, want to know, wha
Stedman wore the same calm, content expression on his face in the dressing room at Harpo Studios in Chicago as he did watching Winfrey exhilarate the crowd at the Globes. Like a rock.
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