Charla Nash on Oprah: What Happened to Winfrey's "Chimp Lady" Gaffe?

 

I was among the 7.4 million Americans who tuned in on Wednesday to watch Oprah Winfrey interview Charla Nash, the woman tragically attacked by her friend’s pet chimpanzee back in February. If you were among us, you witnessed the deeply awkward moment just after Oprah removed Nash’s veil and, confronted with her horribly mangled face, asked her how she is able to eat. Nash, who lost her eyes, nose, lips, and hands because of the attack, explained that she can’t eat solid foods and instead consumes everything in liquid form through a straw. Oprah, in a cringe-inducing response, said something like, “Well, at least it helps you keep your weight down.” What the what?

At the time, I was gchatting with a friend who was also watching the episode (and, Newsweek overlords, I was also hard at work, I swear!), and I typed into the chat window: “OMG. Did Oprah really just say at least you keep your weight down?”

“SERIOUSLY.” He replied. “Had the same thought.”

“Oh, Oprah.”

To be fair, I don’t entirely blame her. If I were in Oprah’s shoes, interviewing a woman so tragically disfigured, and confronted, suddenly, by the terrifying sight of oozing sores where a face used to be, I can easily imagine myself tripping up, saying something awkward and inappropriate, something that I would curse myself for and cringe at the thought of for weeks or months thereafter.  And given Oprah’s very public battles with her weight, it’s not wholly surprising that at the moment she felt disarmed, she would come up with a bad joke having to do with dietary struggles.

But the next day, it occurred to me that the comment made Oprah ripe for inclusion in our weekly indignity index, our “unscientific appraisal of dubious public behavior.” So I mentioned it to my boss, who asked to see a clip of the gaffe, or at least a reference to it from a reputable news organization. So I looked. And looked and looked and looked. And …. there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was as if it had never happened.

It’s not entirely surprising that no papers mentioned the moment. In today’s media climate, it’s unlikely that many reporters were freed up enough to watch the episode and pay full attention. They were probably, as I was, multitasking, and based a good deal of their coverage on whatever talking points the show released. Plus, the bigger point of the story, the headline, was Nash as a survivor. Her spirit, as Oprah pointed out again and again, is absolutely phenomenal. I don’t think anyone watching the episode wasn’t moved by how upbeat and positive Nash was given what had happened to her. And to Oprah’s credit, she handled the rest of the interview with her characteristic unflappability and poise.

But still, it was a deeply cringe-worthy moment. Surely someone must have caught it. Some blogger somewhere must have posted a clip. So I kept searching—I clicked through every YouTube video from the show, but all of the ones that included that particular moment had been taken down for copyright infringement. Other clips from the same episode are live. And clips from earlier shows this week are up as well. But that part of Wednesday’s episode, arguably the most fascinating segment of Oprah’s show all week, was posted, multiple times, by multiple people, then removed. And only an earlier segment, about Nash’s day-to-day life at the Cleveland Clinic, was posted on Oprah’s site. It was confounding—almost as if it had never happened. My boss thought I’d made the whole thing up.

After three or four hours Googling, finally I found a handful of tweets from viewers expressing the stunned, did she really just say that sentiment as I had. Some commenters on Oprah.com mentioned it as well. Plus, I had the transcript of my gchat. Together, it was enough to redeem myself to my boss. But still, what the what?

The official statement, from Harpo spokesperson Angela DePaul is that, aside from some selected clips on the official website, “We don’t stream our show online or maintain an online media archive. Our footage is copyrighted material.” I still didn’t understand why other segments from this week’s shows were still up on YouTube while that one had disappeared, so I asked whether Harpo had specifically gone after copyright violations of that particular segment of the show. “Unable to confirm,” she told me.

It’s too bad, though, that for whatever reason, this clip has disappeared from the internet. Oprah’s success lies, in part, in the fact that she is an everywoman who struggles with weight, relationships, family, and everything else just like the rest of us. We all say the wrong thing from time to time—it’s just part of being human. Oprah, I hope, would know that better than anyone, and be able to laugh at herself. And maybe also cringe, just a little.

Jesse Ellison is a NEWSWEEK reporter.

Join the Discussion