Ida Mae Astute/ABC via Getty Images
Ida Mae Astute/ABC via Getty Images
As we continue to find out that certain people we once looked at with reverence (or at least without disgust) are not what they seemed, and that others we never thought much of are even worse, it's nice to have friends you can always count on, people you really know—people you can share your thought process with, before you've figured out what's right and what's wrong, when you need to face a million strangers and say the right thing.
While Oprah's no-last-name-needed status as a dominant force in entertainment and beyond is unparalleled, the very mention of her also has the power to connote a feeling of stability and calm amid chaos. And that's just for us, let alone the woman who's been her best friend for 40 years.
That's what happened Tuesday morning when Gayle was opening up on CBS This Morning about how awful she felt in light of the stomach-churning sexual harassment allegations against co-host Charlie Rose published yesterday by the Washington Post. (After initially suspending the longtime CBS newsman, who was also a contributor to 60 Minutes, the network announced today that Rose was fired. PBS, which aired his nightly interview show Charlie Rose, did the same.)
"I got an hour and 42 minutes of sleep last night," Gayle said, joining co-host Norah O'Donnell in expressing her shock and disappointment. "Both my son and my daughter called. Oprah called and said, 'Are you OK?' I am not OK."
A glimmer of normalcy from Gayle on such an abnormal morning as she was admittedly "reeling" from the disturbing report about Rose.
And of course Oprah called. Right up there with King's children, Winfrey is family, and has been since the ladies met in 1976 while both were working at a Baltimore TV station. They knew each other, but they first really bonded on an evening when a snowstorm was moving in and 22-year-old Oprah, who was the 6 p.m. news anchor, invited 21-year-old Gayle, a production assistant, to stay at her house (back when she only had the one).
"When I said I didn't have any clothes with me, she said 'you can wear mine,' and when I said I didn't have any underwear she said, 'you can borrow mine, it's clean!" King recalled to Huffington Post in 2015. The next day they want to the mall and Winfrey, who was making $22,000 a year, blew King's mind by dropping $19.99 on two-for-one sweaters.
The Oprah Magazine
The rest is friendship history. "We became friends that first night because for the first time, I met somebody who I felt was like me," Gayle reminisced 20 years later.
Greg Allen/Invision for The Hollywood Reporter/AP Images
Ever since, as King built up her TV news career and Winfrey launched a billion-dollar empire, the women have remained close. In fact, they just might be each other's one true loves, in that glorious friendship sense of the word, when the romances could come and go but they'll always have a partner in crime in one another. Texting may have encroached by now, but they've said they talk on the phone as much as three or four times a day. Oprah is godmother to Gayle's daughter, Kirby, and son, Will.
As in any long-term relationship, there have been bumps in the road. But they've weathered it all together—from Gayle's tough divorce after she caught her husband cheating, to their shared weight struggles, to rumors that they themselves are actually a couple. We can only imagine how many times they've laughed their butts off over that persistent conspiracy theory.
"If we were gay, we would tell you," Gayle promised Access Hollywood in 2009, her umpteenth time assuring a media outlet of exactly that. She nonchalantly said she had no problem with the question "because it's so silly."
Besides, the rumors only arose because they spent so much time together, seemed so close and looked so happy. Projections due to what people ideally want out of their own romantic relationships followed. Who wouldn't want to be frolicking on the beach together in the Bahamas or sharing $10,000 a night hotel suites?
Joking in 2006 about a hairstyle of Gayle's she didn't care for, Oprah recalled in O Magazine, "but then I thought, 'Hey, I don't have to sleep with her.' Now, if we were sleeping together, it'd be like [she lowered her voice like Barry White], 'Baby, I want the bangs...'"
And since she brought it up...
"I understand why people think we're gay," Winfrey said. "There isn't a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women. So I get why people have to label it—how can you be this close without it being sexual? How else can you explain a level of intimacy where someone always loves you, always respects you, admires you?"
"Wants the best for you," Gayle added. Oprah continued, "Wants the best for you in every single situation of your life. Lifts you up. Supports you. Always! That's an incredibly rare thing between even the closest of friends."
Seriously, what more could one want, out of any relationship?
But, once again, just like in any partnership, particularly when a duo are perceived as two peas in a pod, does it bother one when the other gets most of the glory? Or worse, when one's glory is attributed to the other's supreme gloriousness?
"Who doesn't want to be her best friend?" King told the New York Times in 1998. "If I didn't think I brought something to the table, or if I wasn't secure enough with myself then maybe it would bother me. But you know, I've been anchoring the news for a long time. I won three Emmys. I've proven that I can do that. I never feel I'm in her shadow. I feel I'm in her light, that's how I look at it."
And you can bet, when you get right down to it, that people are jealous of the woman who gets to be Oprah's best friend. What a life. King is super-successful and she has her own fans, but Winfrey's a billionaire. Private jets, fabulous vacations, perfect parties, the parade of A-list pals, all those impeccably tricked-out homes. Twenty years after Winfrey snatched up two sweaters, her spontaneous purchase during a day of shopping with King was a black Bentley. For Gayle's 60th birthday, Oprah flew her entire family out for a surprise celebration—in Hawaii.
Some people are said to have married well. Gayle King hit the BFF jackpot.
And just as Winfrey was the kind of friend who invited you to stay over during a storm back when she didn't have much, so she became the kind of friend who set aside a "Gayle wing" in her house once she had acquired a lot.
But Oprah insists this runs both ways.
"There's nothing I wouldn't do for her, there's nothing she wouldn't do for me," Winfrey told O. "There is a line of respect that is unspoken, on both our parts."
Moreover, Gayle has "never asked me for a dime. There is a level of mutual respect that comes from being with somebody you know doesn't want anything from you but you. There will never be an ulterior motive. I have to say, this would have been a much different relationship had that ever happened. Not that I wouldn't have done it, but in order to have a real friendship, you have to be equals."
In 2010, Winfrey told Barbara Walters, "The therapy that I didn't have, and the therapy that I don't need, is because of my thousands and thousands of hours on the phone with Gayle."
Oprah is known for being financially generous with all of her friends, but Gayle is the one whom she leans on in return. They're a mutual admiration society of two. Gayle is the only one who always believed in her when everyone else told her she was headed for failure by moving to Chicago to try her hand at a talk show. Gayle just gets her.
So no wonder people sometimes don't get them.
"...In a way, our friendship is better than a marriage or a sexual relationship," Winfrey, who's been involved with partner Stedman Graham for more than 30 years, said in 2006. "You know, there's no such thing as unconditional love in a marriage as far as I'm concerned, 'cause let me tell you, there are some conditions."
King's status as kind of a permanent third wheel to Winfrey and Graham has raised a few eyebrows, though Graham has had plenty of time to make peace with his place in the hierarchy.
"I don't know any man I've ever dated who could tolerate that, but Stedman knows Gayle's going nowhere," Barbara Winfrey, Oprah's stepmom, told the Daily Mail in 2014—albeit acrimoniously, as she was divorcing Winfrey's father and said at the time that Oprah was evicting her from her house. (In response to the interview, a Winfrey rep said that Barbara was first offered a variety of new living arrangements to relocate to.)
Winfrey told O that getting along with King was "not negotiable" in a relationship. "Not liking my best friend—forget it! Or my dogs—you gots to go!"
King and her husband, Bill Bumpus, divorced in 1993 after 11 years of marriage. From the beginning, Oprah didn't think it would work out, revealing 25 years later that she didn't sense much joy in the occasion—but as Gayle's maid of honor she never let on. "I wouldn't have believed you anyway," Gayle admitted.
Cooper Neill/Getty Images
Meanwhile, Winfrey positively sings King's praises as a mom. Even though King utilized Winfrey's big gift—a nanny, all expenses paid—for about eight years when her kids were little, she hustled while also working full-time to be able to spend as much time as possible with them every day.
"I admire a lot of things about Gayle," Winfrey told O. "But when I think about the way she raised her kids, that makes me weepy."
She recalled inviting her friend to come work on The Oprah Winfrey Show, even thinking of King as a possible replacement for her, but that would have required a full-time move to the Windy City, and King said her children were too young to even consider it.
Gayle did go on to do correspondent work for Oprah, as well as join O magazine as an editor-at-large, prompting some to question whether "Oprah's best friend" could shine on her own on CBS, as host of her own Sirius/XM radio show, etc.
But really, when King was promoted to co-anchor of CBS This Morning, the question was only "why did this take so long?" as opposed to "how'd she get this job?" King—unless she happens to be mentioning Winfrey—is her own star, one who holds her own in every arena, particularly in front of the cameras (as she did just today in light of a heartbreaking scandal that hit home).
In 2012, Oprah said on CBS This Morning (she has popped up on occasion) about Gayle, "There is not a better human being in the world as far as I'm concerned. She's going to become everybody's best friend on this morning show...In all of our years of friendship, she has always been happier for me about anything that occurred in my life...Never a hint of jealousy, always wanting [she mimed lifting up] what's best for me, and that's what everybody needs in any kind of relationship."
To be honest, we're starting to feel a little jealous of the woman who gets to be Gayle King's best friend.