Oprah Goes to School

Two thousand and six was the year Africa went Hollywood: Madonna, Clooney, Brangelina. And now, in 2007, the most exclusive spot on the continent will undoubtedly be in the town of Henly-on-Klip, about 40 miles outside Johannesburg. Set on 22 lush acres and spread over 28 buildings, the complex features oversize rooms done in tasteful beiges and browns with splashes of color, 200-thread-count sheets, a yoga studio, a beauty salon, indoor and outdoor theaters, hundreds of pieces of original tribal art and sidewalks speckled with colorful tiles. Julia Roberts, John Travolta, Stevie Wonder, Nelson Mandela and the reigning African Queen herself--Angelina Jolie--are expected to attend the grand opening this week. By now, you're probably wondering how much a spread like this goes for per night. Actually, it's free. There's only one catch--you have to be a 12- or 13-year-old African girl to get in. As spectacular as this place sounds, it's not a resort. It's a school: the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.

Winfrey has spent five years and $40 million building the school to her own Oprahlicious specifications--did we mention the huge fireplaces in every building? The talk-show diva always does things in grand style, of course. But $40 million for a school for impoverished girls in Africa does seem a bit, well, extravagant . In fact, the South African government had planned to build the school with her, but it pulled out amid reported criticism that the academy was too elitist and lavish for such a poor country. Oprah doesn't care. "These girls deserve to be surrounded by beauty, and beauty does inspire," she says, sitting on the couch of her hotel suite overlooking the deep-blue Indian Ocean. "I wanted this to be a place of honor for them because these girls have never been treated with kindness. They've never been told they are pretty or have wonderful dimples. I wanted to hear those things as a child."

Oprah says she decided to build her own school because she was tired of charity from a distance. "When I first started making a lot of money," she says, "I really became frustrated with the fact that all I did was write check after check to this or that charity without really feeling like it was a part of me. At a certain point, you want to feel that connection." But there's another reason Oprah has put so much, and so much of herself, into this school. Like her students, she grew up poor--truly a coal miner's daughter--with dim hopes for the future. She was raped as a girl and ultimately raised by her grandmother. To a certain degree, she is building this school for herself: the plucky girl who became one of the most successful women in the world yet still feels that pain. I wanted to hear those things as a child. If she can save these girls, perhaps she can rescue that child, too.

Oprah calls the school "the fulfillment of my work on earth." But God is in the details. She personally chose the china and the pleated uniforms, the sheets and the beds--she actually sprawled out on each one to check for comfort. She also insisted that the dorm rooms and the closets be extra large, even though the girls have minimal amounts of clothes. "People asked me why it was important to have closet space, and it's because they will have something," she says. "We plan to give them a chance to earn money to buy things. That's the only way to really teach them how to appreciate things." There is no official motto at her academy, but it could well be dream big. For poor girls in Africa, that's not so easy. As she planned her academy, Oprah discovered that the local architects weren't interested in her version of girl power. "From the very beginning, the developers sent me plans for the school that resembled a chicken coop," she says. "It was clear that the attitude was 'These are poor African girls. Why spend all this on them?' It was unbelievably upsetting."

More than 3,500 girls applied for 152 spots--that's a 4 percent acceptance rate. (Harvard accepts about 9 percent.) Oprah interviewed all of the 500 finalists herself, though the students weren't told they'd be meeting her. Most were understandably stunned when they walked into the interview room. One girl opened the door, took one look at her and declared: "You're so skinny in person!" Oprah asked the various South African tribes and communities to nominate girls with exceptional leadership potential; her plan is to educate the best and brightest and hope that, after being Oprah-cized, they will lead their country out of poverty. To weed through the finalists, she asked each applicant a series of questions about her background and dreams. Some had questions for her, too. Lesego Tlhabanyane blurted out: "Do you spend $500 to get your eyebrows done?" Oprah laughed--and admitted her to the school. A girl with moxie is exactly what she's looking for.

But most of the interviews were serious, even somber. One girl came in on the day after her mother had died of AIDS. Oprah immediately had her moved to a special room and gave her extra blankets because she was shivering. Then she did something very un-Oprah-like: she buried her emotions. "If I didn't find a way to separate my feelings, I'd have been crying the entire month I was in Africa," she says. There were so many heartbreaking stories--one in eight South Africans is HIV-positive--that Oprah finally stopped asking the girls about their backgrounds. "I see myself in all these girls--the struggles and the hardships that just seem unbearable," she says. "I have nothing but respect for them. I can't understand how someone's who's been there can't want to reach back and do something."

In fact, many people believed Oprah shouldn't be reaching back, at least not in this way. The South African government has never said precisely why it pulled out of the project, though it's not hard to guess. "The country is very obviously poor, and so few children have a chance at education," says one South African school official who asked not to be identified because he didn't want to offend Oprah. "It is hard not to see that many feel that what Ms. Winfrey is doing is too much." Oprah's response? "I understand that many in the school system and out feel that I'm going overboard, and that's fine. This is what I want to do. I wanted to take girls with that 'It' quality, and give them an opportunity to make a difference in the world. I'd like to think I have as much good sense as I have money, so that's a lot of good sense."

Oprah also knows that some people will complain that charity should begin at home, even though she has provided millions of dollars to educate poor children in the United States, especially via her Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program. But she sees the two situations as entirely different. "Say what you will about the American educational system--it does work," she says. "If you are a child in the United States, you can get an education." And she doesn't think that American students--who, unlike Africans, go to school free of charge--appreciate what they have. "I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn't there," she says. "If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school."

The academy is Oprah's vision, but she does have a not-so-silent partner: longtime buddy Gayle King. She's with Oprah everywhere in Africa, and Oprah relies on her advice. On everything. Every time a girl leaves the interview room, Oprah asks for Gayle's thoughts. When they sit for a fashion show of possible uniforms, Gayle suggests the pleated skirts be looser to accommodate the heavier girls; Oprah agrees. We all know that King is Oprah's BFF--their cross-country car trip last summer was one of the best "Oprah" features in years--but it's still something of a shock to see someone of Oprah's stature rely so heavily on someone else. Gayle really does seem like Oprah's other half. King says rumors of their being lovers used to bother them both--"It wasn't true, and it implied that Oprah was a liar"--but they're over it now. "Most people will be lucky if they get one good friend in their lifetime," King says. "Most don't even get that one friendship, so the friendship we have is foreign to them. What we have is a blessing."

King has her own theory as to why her friend has become obsessed with the school. "When I watched Oprah with those girls," she says, "I kept thinking she was meant to be a mother, and it would happen one way or another." Indeed, Oprah constantly refers to her students as "my girls," and she really means it. She'll not only teach two leadership classes via satellite, she plans to spend a good deal of her retirement years in Henly-on-Klip. (Of course, that's assuming she ever does retire.) She's going to build a house on the school grounds--and she'll use the same dishes, sheets and curtains that the students do. "I want to be near my girls and be in a position to see how they're doing," Oprah says. "I want to have a presence they can sense and feel comfortable with." The bonding has already begun. Recently, when Oprah had finished interviewing for the day, she escorted the girls back to their bus and gave each of them a big hug. One girl, Thelasa Msumbi, held on extra tight, then whispered in Oprah's ear: "We are your daughters now." Winfrey smiled. And yes, Thelasa got admitted.