Oprah on Finding an Interior Decorating Style That Was True to Her

Oprah has said yes to a half-dozen trends (sleek and modern? sure! English chintz? why not!) and always dressed her house to impress. The result? Decor that looked picture-perfect—though somewhat impersonal. But in 2013, she received some wise counsel: Where you live should reflect who you really are. Below, she walks us through how she turned her house into a home that’s all her own. She originally shared her story in the piece “Making Room for Me” in the March 2013 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

I came across an old journal entry the other day—from 1985, back when I was filming The Color Purple. For me, making that movie was life-transforming. I think it was the first time I really understood what love was, what passion was. I’d go to the set each day, whether I had a scene to shoot or not, and watch every single person dedicating themselves to creating something extraordinary. That’s what participating in great art does: It connects you to a spirit higher than yourself. Makes you want to be better. But according to what I scribbled in my journal at the time, it also did something else: It made me yearn to live in a space that would inspire and elevate me. I longed for a beautiful home.

What you find beautiful has a lot to do with where you’ve been and what you’ve seen and the people you’ve met along the way. When I was just starting out as a local news reporter in Baltimore, a beautiful home meant two (count ’em, two!) of those wicker throne chairs from Pier 1 Imports and a ficus tree that sent me into sticker shock. After The Color Purple, a beautiful home meant walking into the furniture department of Marshall Field’s and, with the help of one of their decorators, scarfing up all things contemporary. My Chicago apartment was done in cool white with an aubergine bedroom that in my fantasy felt sort of womblike but in reality was pretty tomblike, even on sunny days. Still, everything was glossy and chic, slick and sleek—exactly the place I thought a successful TV personality was supposed to have.

“What you find beautiful has a lot to do with where you’ve been and what you’ve seen and the people you’ve met along the way.”

After a few years of modern living, I was ready for something different. In the late ’80s, the trend was cushiony and cozy, with a touch of chintz and more than a few English country antiques, so I bought a farm in Indiana and began to decorate it based on a picture I’d seen in Architectural Digest and tear sheets I’d collected from House & Garden. The only thing missing was a pair of jodhpurs and the cast of Downton Abbey.

Next came a Florida penthouse overlooking the ocean on Fisher Island—I don’t know what to tell you about the place, except that we now refer to it as my “Italian commode phase.” Suffice it to say that every stick of furniture and tchotchke was included in the sale of that home. I took the silver, grabbed my pajamas, and never looked back!

Then one day Bob Greene, my trainer, adviser, and friend extraordinaire, found a house for me to see in Santa Barbara. As I rounded the corner and pulled into the long drive, my jaw dropped. It was a Georgian mansion minus the Georgian heat and humidity. “It seems like, I don’t know, a place that fulfills something,” Bob said. “Like being here might be your destiny.” He thought a minute and added, “It’s sort of like the promised land.” That was it! I bought the place in 2001 and moved in on my birthday in 2004.

Sometimes I’d be sitting outside, and I’d look through the windows and think, My God! I could not believe this was where I lived. There was just one tiny problem…it wasn’t. Indiana, Fisher Island, and now Santa Barbara—these were all places I’d head to when I wanted to give myself some respite. But every minute of every hour I spent there, I was acutely aware that the Oprah show was waiting and the clock was ticking and soon I’d be due back in Chicago. I always felt like a visitor. Then the show ended and something dawned on me: The Promised Land was a lovely place to visit, but maybe, just maybe, I didn’t really want to live there.

You see, when I finally settled in full-time, I started to notice little things, like the fact that my living room was not designed for living. There was no place to put your feet up and hang out. Some have a fear of heights, some have a fear of flying; my great fear was that the dogs would slobber on the silk slipcovers. And though all the pillows were luxurious to look at, when you actually had one in your back, what you wanted more than anything was not to have one in your back. Objectively, I knew my house was impressive—I mean, just about every guest I ever invited for dinner told me so as they perched on the edge of the opulent sofa trying not to get fingerprints on anything. No doubt: I owned a stately home, and I poured my heart and soul into making it perfect. The place was everything a girl from Kosciusko, Mississippi, could dream of—and then some. Still, this feeling that something might be missing never quite disappeared.

oprah home makeover

Oprah during the 2013 renovation.

Luca Trovato

One day a designer I’’d long admired came to see the place. Rose Tarlow leans toward understated finishes, soft textures, and quiet colors. Her style is witty, natural, ultrasophisticated, and as I was about to find out, painfully honest. I was proud to give Ms. Tarlow the grand tour, explaining the origins of the many regal pieces as we went. Finally, she spoke. “This house,” she said, “has nothing to do with you.”

Hey, fair enough. She was entitled to her opinion, no matter how insulting and totally ridiculous it was. She could say whatever she wanted, and it wouldn’t get to me because, because…

Okay, it got to me. “Nothing to do with me? I chose every hinge, every piece of furniture in here. I picked the color of the grout! Can you believe this woman said that to me?” I told the story to my friend Maria Shriver while attempting to force a not-that-it-matters kind of smile. We were having lunch at my place with the magnificent hinges and gorgeous grout, and true-blue Maria replied, “Well, I think she’s right. It has everything to do with who you thought you were, who you wanted to be, who you might’ve been at the time, but if it ever was really you, none of this is you anymore. Just look around.”

“Over time your sense of self evolves.”

So I did. And I had to admit that Maria and the very blunt Rose, who I later convinced to take me on as a client, were absolutely right. The gilded mirrors, marble urns, the lavish carpets and sherbet palette—it was all very grand, but it wasn’t very true to myself. And there you have it: That thing that had been missing from all the beautiful places I’d ever lived in was me!

Over time your sense of self evolves. Hopefully, you grow into a deeper, more thoughtful version of who you are. Your need to please falls away and what is left is the blessed realization that you really don’t have anything to prove to anyone. At a certain point, you buy the shoes and pocketbook that feel right, instead of the ones that will impress people. You opt for muted tones that flow from one room to the next, you choose the sofa that makes you want to curl up with a good book on a Sunday afternoon, and create a space that makes your friends stop remarking on the exquisite art and start talking the night away. You let go of the cold stone floors that felt wrong from the start, and at long last you come home to floors made of old oak, floors that feel warm beneath your feet and bring peace and joy with every step forward you take.

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