Shortly after Oprah Winfrey became a national sensation she hired her first cousin Jo Baldwin to be her speechwriter. Later she promoted Baldwin to VP of her company Harpo Inc.
"When I received my PhD in 1985 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Oprah asked me where I was going to work," said Jo Baldwin in the summer of 2010. "I said I would be applying for a position at Ebony magazine as a copy editor. Oprah said she did not like Linda Johnson Rice [owner of Ebony] and I should come to work for her instead. So I did."
"I was to work for her for three years, but she fired me without notice after two years... I heard from someone later that she got rid of me because she got tired of me talking about Jesus all the time... Oprah preferred the teachings of Shirley MacLaine's books, such as Dancing in the Light and Out on a Limb, which Oprah made me read but I didn't think much of."
Jo Baldwin, a tenured professor at Mississippi Valley State, is also an ordained minister who preaches at two churches every Sunday. Deeply religious, the Reverend Jo, as her parishioners call her, feels her famous cousin has lost her way and is mired in godless New Age mumbo jumbo.
Baldwin's feelings, like many in Oprah's family, stem from resentment over the way she has been treated.
The power of Oprah's vast wealth makes most of her relatives quake. They want to be part of the luxurious life that she offers on occasion (her lavish Christmas presents, her birthday checks, even her hand-me-downs) but they chafe at the way she has dismissed them since becoming famous and they know that she does not cherish them as family. She prefers instead her celebrity friends. Oprah holds Maya Angelou as the mother she should've had; she sees Sidney Poitier as her father, Quincy Jones as her uncle, and Gayle King as her beloved sister.
Jo Baldwin became estranged from her famous relative who continues to put distance between herself and her blood relations. Oprah will not give her mother, Vernita Lee, her personal phone number. If her mother needs to call Oprah, she must call the studio and talk to Oprah's producers.
"The family is tangled with so many secrets and so much fear," said Baldwin. "I admit I was afraid of Oprah for 20 years. Absolutely terrified. She's powerful and dangerous. She told me if I ever opened my mouth [about what I know] she'd sue my pants off."
Baldwin, who spoke to me for the paperback publication of Oprah: A Biography, feels the main reason she is not close to Oprah is because of the differences in their religious convictions.
"Mainly, Oprah wanted to shame me for being a follower of Jesus as if to say, 'What is He doing for you that's so great?' Oprah inflicts emotional wounds that could lead to physical illness, if they aren't healed. My faith has kept me from getting sick [over her]."
Photos of Oprah via Getty Images. Photo of Baldwin courtesy of Kitty Kelley