Brentwood’s Archer School for Girls had quite the headliner for its May 28 commencement program: Oprah Winfrey.
The mogul appeared on a program that also included Grammy winner Brandi Carlile (singing her hit “The Story”) and shout-outs to a pair of A-list Hollywood producers. How Archer landed Winfrey for its program is thanks to school co-founder Diana Meehan who happens to be Winfrey’s neighbor and had a relationship with her after consulting on the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.
Winfrey, who appeared virtually during the hybrid event, was generous with advice and personal anecdotes, focused mostly on lessons learned during her legendary run as TV’s top daytime host. One such story began in 1988, when Winfrey welcomed a panel of white supremacists on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She thought it would be an opportunity to challenge their intolerance but what happened would ultimately change the trajectory of Winfrey’s career.
“During the commercial break, I saw them signaling each other in the audience,” Winfrey recalled during her commencement address. “I thought I was exposing them and their racist vitriol by doing that show but they were using me for the exposure to recruit other members. After that show, I went to my producers and said, ‘I will never do another show like that.’”
Change didn’t come immediately. Shortly thereafter, Winfrey hosted a show about “cheating husbands.” Her producers booked a guest who fit the bill and they managed to confirm participation on the show from his wife and his girlfriend. “During that show, the man announced to the world and to his wife who was sitting there, that his girlfriend was pregnant,” she detailed. “We all gasped because I certainly didn’t know what was coming. The audience didn’t know it was coming. I looked at his wife’s face and I’m telling you the hurt and the shame humiliation I saw on her face. I have, to this day, never forgotten it. I said to my producers, ‘Never again will anyone be embarrassed or shamed or humiliated on my watch.’”
The back-to-back experiences led Winfrey toward her highest calling — to use her platform to be of service. She remembers telling her team, “We’re going to intentionally aim to be a force for good and service, and that question of ‘how do we best serve our viewer’ is behind and in front of every single booking from this day forward. That is when the show took off. It was no longer just a hit, but became a phenomenon.”
Winfrey and her life lessons were wildly embraced by Archer’s audience — at least judging by the reaction in the Zoom chat box during the event, which was a hybrid one amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Graduating seniors and guests joined in person on the Archer campus while family members and alumni joined online. In addition to Winfrey and Carlile, the program included the class of 2021 doing a rendition of the One Direction hit “History,” and remarks from students Addison Lee and Francesca Cappello, coach Dani LeNoir, head of school Elizabeth English and Meehan.
“What a magical night,” said English, who expressed her pride for the graduating seniors while praising them for making it through a tough year dominated by a pandemic that forced remote learning and all of the challenges that came with it. She singled out a pair of high-profile Hollywood insiders — Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy — for “believing in and supporting the school from the very beginning,” a compliment that holds more weight as Archer administrators also toasted a 25th anniversary during the program.
Winfrey also took a few moments to salute the accomplishments of the seniors, noting how they helped register thousands of youth voters, advocated for social justice and curriculum reform and created a service and activism website for all students to find opportunities, to get involved and engaged with the “issues that truly matter.”
As for advice, Winfrey told the seniors to reserve the right to change their minds as they go through life trying to find purpose and professions. “Just follow your curiosity to find out what lights you up. Ultimately, wherever you land in a career, whether you’re an entrepreneur, an actress, an engineer, a mother, a doctor, a photographer, a professor, if the paradigm for which you see the world is, ‘How can I be of service with my talent? How can I be used in service?’ then I guarantee you, no matter what your talent or offering, you will be successful.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.