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Oprah Winfrey WAS HANGING OUT IN THE kitchen of her Indiana farmhouse with her best friend and houseguest, Hartford, Conn., TV news anchor Gayle King Bumpus. It was the afternoon of Oct. 10, and the two were waiting for Oprah's longtime beau, public-relations man Stedman Graham, to arrive from Chicago with the evening's entertainment, a tape of a forthcoming Oprah Winfrey Show. As it turned out, they never did get around to watching the video that night. Between the time Winfrey, 38, went outside to meet Graham, 41, and the time she returned to the kitchen, a miracle had occurred. "You are not going to believe this," Winfrey breathlessly told Bumpus. "Stedman just proposed!"

Actually, Stedman's declaration had been so matter-of-fact that Oprah wondered if it was for real. "Is this the proposal?" she asked. "I want you to marry me," he said. "I think it's time." To which Winfrey replied, "Ah, that's really great." They set a wedding year—1993—but no date.

For the next four weeks, the couple managed to contain their secret, telling only a few close friends. But on Nov. 6, appearing as a guest on Bumpus's show on Hartford station WFSB, Eyewitness News at Five, Winfrey caved in. "Shall we talk about husbands and marriage?" Bumpus asked her friend. "Well," said Winfrey, "Gayle was there the weekend that Stedman proposed."

Say what? Within hours—before Winfrey even had a chance to break the news to her 59-year-old father, Vernon—the impending nuptials were blasted all over the national news. And small wonder. For as long as Winfrey has been famous, she has been dogged by two questions: How much does she weigh—and when is she getting married? The first answer, alas, has been offered time and again (though it is currently a well-guarded secret). The second response was six years in coming.

During that time, Winfrey and the once-divorced Graham became experts in deflecting The Question. "We will announce happily when we're getting married when we decide, and not before," Graham said during a rare appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show (topic: How Fame Affects a Relationship) in 1989. Two years later he laughed off tabloid reports of a wedding with a dismissive, "It was news to me." Even last May. Oprah couldn't totally commit herself to the word. "I'd say we are closer to it now than we've ever been," she told USA Today. "And that's the best answer I can give."

Speculation as to why it took so long to come up with a better answer is all over the map. Friends pointed to Winfrey's desire to have a family. (She once said that she wanted to begin her first pregnancy at 38.) "If you asked her whether the biological clock's the reason," says one close pal, "she'd say, 'You bet it is.'" But another Winfrey intimate, Hollywood casting director Reuben Cannon, rejects that theory. "She doesn't do anything under pressure," he says. "She trusts her spiritually guided instincts. She knows exactly what she needs at a certain time."

What she doesn't need, she says, is an engagement ring. "If you've all noticed or watched over the years," she told an ecstatic studio audience last week, "I don't wear rings. I've only ever wanted one ring [a wedding ring]."

In truth, it was never a diamond that Winfrey was interested in flaunting as much as the man she calls "my rock." Though she is one of the richest woman in show business—Forbes has estimated her earnings for 1991-92 at $88 million—Winfrey's pals say that he is the catch. "Stedman is a really nice person," says a friend of the couple. "Perhaps even nicer than Oprah." Adds Winfrey's buddy, singer Patti LaBelle: "When I heard the news, I thought, 'It's about time, because the man was too good to let go.' "

Graham's gentlemanly nature was molded in Whitesboro, N.J., where he grew up one of six children of Stedman, a painter and contractor, and Mary a housewife. Sprouting to 6'6", Graham first showed his mettle on the basketball court at Middle Township High, where he was one of the team's best players. "He worked well with the younger kids on the team," recalls his coach, John Roberson. "He was so genuine that he would help anyone." Graham continued his hoops career at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Tex., graduating in 1974 with a degree in social work. In 1979, he received a graduate degree in education from Ball Stale University in Muncie, Ind., and eventually moved to High Point. N.C., to establish himself in public relations. "He always had something to prove," says Bob Brown, one of Graham's first bosses, at B & C Associates. Graham did so by working on behalf of black causes and hobnobbing with Brown's many distinguished clients and friends, including author Maya Angelou and South African activist Winnie Mandela. "Stedman mixes well, says Brown. "He fits in wherever he goes. He's a great traveler. He doesn't get tired or irritable. And he is intensely loyal.

Not to mention handsome. An occasional sportswear model, Graham has features so flawless that Winfrey's staffers were moved to question his intentions when he began dating her back in 1986. "They figured if he looked like that, he either had to be a jerk or want something," Winfrey recalled at the time. But she quickly learned otherwise. "He's kind and supportive," she said just months into her relationship with "my Steddy," as she calls him. "Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo. But you want someone who'll help you catch the bus." For his part, the limelight-shy Graham often returned the compliment to his "O," maintaining that her love has made "all the suffering, all the pain" of public scrutiny worth the trouble.

Since the two have been simpatico for so long, then, the intriguing question is this: Which one has been holding out on marriage? Oprah has always claimed that it was she, explaining, as she did only six months ago, that "I'm allowed great freedom in this relationship right now, and I think that if I'm married, as good as Stedman is, I think that his expectation of what I should be would change."

But one former Stedman flame believes it was he who was more resistant. "He's a proud man, and he's marriage-shy," says Chicago anchorwoman Robin Robinson, who dated Stedman from 1982 to 1985. Robinson met Graham several years after his divorce from his first wife, Glenda, by whom he has a 17-year-old daughter, Wendy, who lives with her mother in Texas. "The general ill-informed opinion is that Oprah didn't want to marry him," Robinson says. "I would question that speculation. He was hurt by his first marriage not working out, and he doesn't like making mistakes."

Though Winfrey is more extroverted than Graham, Robinson believes that Stedman must have made the first romantic overtures. "I think he swept her off her feel," she says. "I have never seen Stedman respond to a woman's advances. He doesn't like a forward woman."

By most accounts, neither party had any interest in a whirlwind courtship. Their pace has been deliberate. When they began seeing each other, Graham commuted on weekends from a modest High Point apartment to her lavish condo on Chicago's Gold Coast. As the romance progressed, he found reason to spend more time in Chicago with a group he cofounded there called Athletes Against Drugs, which arranges for sports figures to educate children about substance abuse. And though he rented an unpretentious apartment a few blocks away from Oprah, it wasn't until four years ago that Graham took the major step of starting his own Chicago public-relations firm, S. Graham & Associates. Still, though Winfrey has admitted that she prefers to sleep in her office rather than at home when Stedman is out of town, she said it has only been in the last year that he "keeps a toothbrush at my apartment."

Admittedly the two have had some obstacles to overcome. Oprah has conceded that at times she has let her relationship with Stedman take second place to her talk show, TV and movie commitments, plus her tireless work Oprah, you've got to be a strong man, because she's a strong woman, oh brother!" says Graham's business partner, Armstrong Williams. "She's very controlling. She likes to have things her way. But she has learned to compromise. Stedman knew that with Oprah, her work used to come first. But now he sees that she's willing to pull back for her family."

For his part, Graham had to get used to being overshadowed by Winfrey. "He knows that most people see him as Oprah's boyfriend," says Williams. "But it doesn't bother him anymore. He's at peace with himself."

After a lifetime battling deep-seated problems of her own, Winfrey too seems more settled. Born out of wedlock to Vernon Winfrey and Vernon Lee on a farm in Kosciusko, Miss., she is still haunted by her painful childhood. Though she has candidly discussed being sexually abused by two family members and giving birth at 14 to a premature baby who died shortly afterward, recovery from those psychic wounds has been understandably slow. "All these years I have done show after show about low self-esteem," she has said, "but because I was on TV, was famous, was making pots of money, I never thought I might be talking about me."

After one former boyfriend, William "Bubba" Taylor, refused to marry her back in the 1970s, Oprah reportedly threatened suicide. So it helps that Stedman, according to Williams, "loves her unconditionally." Even her fluctuating weight is not an issue. "He just plain sees me," she has said, "not the size." ("He must love her," says Robin Robinson, a svelte size 10, "because he watched my weight closer than me. If I ever said I wanted to lose 5 lbs., he would be like a personal trainer.")

When Oprah and Stedman are together, "they can be quiet, hold hands, they are very affectionate," adds Cannon, noting that Stedman is the one who spends more time in the kitchen. "Oprah often raves about his cooking," he says. The couple are at their most domestic at Winfrey's 160-acre farm in Indiana, where they spend weekends tending her sheep, horses, llamas and dogs. And when domesticity does not suit them, they can escape to Winfrey's new 90-acre getaway in Telluride, Colo.

Back in Chicago, Oprah bought a ritzy condo on East Lake Shore Drive that lakes up an entire door. It was rumored that her elaborate renovation plans included the addition of a $1 million—plus nursery. In the end, though, because of a labor dispute involving the building's doormen, Winfrey reportedly chose to put her digs up for sale before ever moving in. And while she has not abandoned the idea of a nursery, she believes in first things first. "I would never have children without the benefit of marriage," she has said. "How could I speak before the thousands of teenagers I address each year and advise them not to bear children unless they are married?"

Though she has not yet focused on the details of her ceremony, Oprah has had practice planning a wedding. In August 1988, she married off one of her producers, Mary Kay Clinton, to Tom O'Brien, a sales executive for a fruit company. Winfrey arranged for trumpets to herald the arrival of guests as dancers moved in slow motion on the lawn of suburban Chicago's Lake Forest Academy. The bride arrived in a carriage drawn by a white horse. The banquet featured steak and lobster.

Now it's Winfrey's turn. "She's low key, she's not Elizabeth Taylor," explains one of her staff members. "She and Stedman want to do it without much fuss and publicity." But, according to Bumpus, Oprah is already hammering out the guest list. "It's going to be quite the wedding," says Bumpus. "1993 sounds like a good year, don't you think?"

ELIZABETH SPORKIN
BARBARA KLEBAN MILLS and LUCHINA FISHER in Chicago, SABRINA McFARLAND in New York City, BOB LANGFORD in Raleigh, and bureau reports

  • Contributors:
  • Barbara Kleban Mills,
  • Luchina Fisher,
  • Sabrina McFarland,
  • Bob Langford.