'Oprah' executive producer Sheri Salata: The final episodes will be 'fantastical, wondrous'
Behind every great daytime queen, there's a great executive producer. Helping to ensure Oprah Winfrey's place on the throne is Sheri Salata. Fans have come to know Salata from her occasional appearances on the talk show, whether it be a cut to her in the production booth or a cameo onstage. But these days Salata, who in addition to being executive producer of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" is also president of Harpo Studios, is getting more onscreen time via OWN's "Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes." The series gives viewers a glimpse inside the makings of the epic farewell season -- including Hugh Jackman's faulty attempt at ziplining off the Sydney Opera House, the hefty price of getting Danny Glover onstage and Oprah's date with Jackie Jackson.
We chatted with Salata about what it's like working for the O, the pressures of living an enlightened life, and we tried to get her share some hints on the "Oprah" final episodes.
How did you find yourself working on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”?
It’s a miracle story.
Well, she likes those.
Well, almost everybody has one. I was an agency producer; I produced television commercials. I had a little dream. I was in Chicago. It was 1995. I thought I would really, really like to work for Oprah one day. I had no TV experience other than producing television commercials, which is a very different discipline. I applied for the job. I got a message on my voicemail — or rather the answering machine —and it said, "Thank you for applying but you are not what we are looking for.” I was so embarrased for thinking that I would be a good fit. Never in a million years would I apply again.
My résumé and reel were sort of stuffed in a closet. A new boss came in for the promo department and wanted to hire some people. She went ruffling through those old tapes and popped mine in. Then I get a message: “This is so-and-so from ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’; we’d like to have you come in and produce some freelance spots for us.” I was happy. I didn’t care. I would have swept the floor or stocked the coffee cups if they let me.
It was your “Color Purple” moment.
It was my “Color Purple” moment. Although, I’m trying to think ... I think I did surrender.
Right, you have to surrender. That’s crucial to the teachings of Oprah.
You’re so right.
Is it hard to sort of live by those teachings? She has such an enlightened outlook on things — do you sort of feel obligated to practice her ways? Can’t you ever just be bitter about something?
Here’s the truth: She’s also a human being and very understanding. She understands that we’re under stress, we’re under pressure. We don’t have to be Polly Perfect. She’s not looking for that. She’s looking for honesty and truthfulness. She understands that we get bratty and crabby. She’s very patient.
So were you glad that they decided to chronicle the final year … or hesitant at being in front of the camera? It’s like a yearbook!
That is exactly what I said to my disgruntled and upset staff. Nobody reacts positively to being filmed doing all of their duties at work. But I said, “Listen, let’s make some lemonade.” At the end of it, we are going to have a visual scrapbook of what this took.
Here’s part of the challenge: We’re pros. We shoot other people. We’re a little savvier than a fresh, new reality star. But it did take some getting used to for that very reason, you know, we’re experienced but still awkward. After a while, though, here’s what happened: The season started. You are so busy having to roll through these shows and deliver them at the level of a farewell season. It’s like, whatever, so my lip gloss isn't on, who cares?
You’ve made the occasional appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” But "Oprah Behind the Scenes" has surely increased your fame factor, right?
Yes, it’s been very fun. This will be my 10 minutes. I take pictures at airports. I take pictures on my way into work. It’s lovely. I really appreciate it. It’s very sweet. People are just so nice about it. What really makes me smile, and what’s really gratifying about it is I think for the first time “Oprah Show” viewers have a real sense of what it takes to put on a show on the air every day. It’s hard! And people are so sweet about that. They acknowledge that everywhere I go.
We definitely get a greater sense of what Oprah is like as a boss. But it’s only a snapshot. So give us the real scoop.
Well, I mean, in an earlier age, it would be like getting to work for Gandhi. It’s the home run, lottery win. It isn't just a job and she isn't just a boss. I won't speak for everybody — although, I think a lot of people would echo what I’m saying — but she is my greatest teacher. I’m a different human being for having worked with her. I’ve had great bosses. But this has been an absolute transformation on a spiritual, emotional … life level. I watch her as a viewer. And one of the things I’ll miss the most is our afternoon meetings. We do about two or three hours of afternoon meetings. Every decision she makes is from a place of intention. Just being in that energy over and over again. She’s always like, "Sheri, what’s our intention?” In earlier days, I’d be like, “Geez, I forgot to write one down.” Because I’ve been around her for so many years that I now think like that; I now operate like that. Many of those hours, we’re talking about big questions in life and what really matters. It’s priceless.
We’re not just sitting in her office having a hoo-ha. Teams are coming in and out. Multiple meetings and calls with the magazine. In order for her to get through the day, she has to be focused. She’s not a snippy person. She’s not short with us. She’s actually very patient and compassionate. She’s the least celebrity-acting person ever. She is very, very grounded. There are no queen bee airs. She brings me my lunch three days a week. She packs it in GladWare and brings it to work. You don’t see that everyday from world icons.
What did you find most surprising once you became an employee?
Before I even stepped through the door, I could feel on some level that whatever I did would have meaning and would be meaningful. I was craving that. I had really, really great experience doing telvevision commercials. But I also knew that wasn’t always going to be my path. In that craving for meaning, I looked at Oprah as a leader. I thought, "Boy, I would like to serve somebody who wants to add meaning to the world.”
So I was very nervous to meet her. I was stuttering kind of nervous. I was a promo producer, that was my entry. Oprah would sit down in the studio before the show and she’d read our copy. I had a special outfit on. I think I had Spectator shoes on — I think those were in at that time. I really dolled myself up for this meeting, even though the studio was filled with the crew and staff; it wasn’t like it was a one-on-one with her. And she came strolling in and looked and stopped because I was a new face and was like, “Hey, nice shoes.” I’ll never forget it. I called my mom, “Mom! She told me I had nice shoes!”
Even to this day, I spend lots and lots of time with her. I’ve been her houseguest many, many times. I’m absolutely comfortable with her. But there’s always going to be this awe. There just is. It’s not an uncomfortable thing or a distancing thing. It is the respect and awe for what she does in the world and who she’s been in my life.
Was it at all surprising to you when she announced she was going to end the show?
It wasn’t. This is my fifth season as the executive producer. It has given me a new window and a new appreciation for what it takes and what Oprah has done for 25 years. Two shows a day week after week, it is really challenging. She has more stamina than anyone I know. To be able to do it with such joy in her heart, I think is quite a life achievement. At some point, you’re ready to do some other things. And when you’re doing a daily show, there really isn't time. We cram a lot in with the magazine and OWN. It’s a very challenging schedule when you’re doing a daily show. I wasn’t shocked.
Has it hit you that it’s almost over?
When I was most filled with anxiety and that sense of sadness was last summer because of the pressure I felt of “what are we gonna do?” I was definitely feeling very emotional last summer. Now, I would say it feels perfect. The team has soared this season. They surpassed any bar Oprah would have set for them. She’s so proud of them.
And right now, I think I feel good. I’m busy. We work crazy hours. I think that final show is going to air and I’ll probably need a little sleep but I don’t know if I’ll have a breakdown.
What’s been your favorite show from the farewell season so far?
One of my favorite moments was the booking of Robert Redford.
You’re in media so you can appreciate that something like that doesn’t happen every day. Robert Redford is not making the talk show rounds. I thought that was … oh … it was a nobody-could-do-it-but-Oprah moment. And also I would say the producing of the Australian shows was just a remarkable accomplishment. I’m really proud of those.
The big day is May 25. What can viewers expect from the final week of shows? Gives us a little tease!
I have to be a little tight-lipped because two of those hours are about surprising her. She is doing her own detective work. Lord only knows if she’ll find out. We’re going to do a last one of Harpo’s Hookups [where she tries to give some people a chance to make their dreams happen]. You can expect to see some of the most memorable guests ever on Oprah’s shows. The two surprise hours are going to be … hmm, let me think of words to describe: fantastical, wondrous.
Lots of people are getting into the daytime arena now that Oprah is making her exit.
I’m going to say what she would say: There can’t be another Oprah but there can be another somebody else that’s authentically being themselves. What I'd say to one and all is, good luck. Really, good luck. It is an exciting and challenging proposition to bring meaningful content into people’s homes. I think it’s going to be exciting to see.
Here's a look at Sunday's episode of "Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes."
-- Yvonne Villarreal
Photo: Oprah Winfrey with Sheri Salata. Credit: George Burns/OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network
Video credit: OWN