The Story of Oprah Winfrey and Her Rock Stedman Graham, the Other Great Love of Her Life

 In U.S.
At the Golden Globes on Sunday night, aside from jump-starting a nation’s weary soul with a rousing speech about equality, respect and a new tomorrow when nobody ever has to say “Me too,” Oprah Winfrey

Actually, let’s just take a moment to relive that again… OK, onward.

During her speech, the idolized star of film, TV, talk shows, production, publishing and many, many hearts thanked a number of people, including her best friend of nearly 40 years, Gayle King, who was of course sitting at Winfrey’s table as one of the VIPs along with Denzel Washington, Willem DafoeBarbra Streisand and James Brolin. And sitting in a place of honor on Winfrey’s right was her companion of nearly 30 years now, Stedman Graham, whom on Sunday she called her “rock.”

We sense that to be near and dear to Oprah’s heart means to be caught up in a wave of love, light and infectious inspiration that knows no bounds. But how about the man who captured her heart, who, in all honesty, has to be a certain type of guy to be the partner of someone as uniquely talented, connected and magnetic as Winfrey.

The one very un-unique thing about their enduring relationship is that, as a famous couple, they’ve been subject to a slew of breakup rumors over the years. Not even Oprah can avoid those.

Oprah Winfrey, Stedman Graham, 2018 Golden Globe Awards

Christopher Polk/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Yet their bond has only strengthened over the years, with Graham by her side during the crowning moments of her career, such as when she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars in 1998, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2013, or when the HFPA honored her with the Cecil B. DeMille Award three days ago.

At the “Oprah Winfrey Surprise Spectacular,” held at Chicago’s United Center before she signed off from her eponymous talk show and attended by the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Jordan, Stevie WonderMadonnaand Tom Hanks, Graham took the stage to tell her, “You are so special. I’m so proud of you.”

“It really amazes me that I got to be around a woman who changes people’s lives every day and who also takes her own lunch to work,” he continued. “I can’t believe that a colored girl from the backwoods of Mississippi has done all that you have done. But what is really amazing is that you have done this [he motioned around him] through God’s amazing grace. I love you for making the difference in my life.”

At a glance, the key to the whole thing seems to be that Graham, as impossible as it is to not be overshadowed by Winfrey while in her presence in public, still has his own life. And perhaps like Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, who knew he was signing up for the right-hand-man job when he proposed, the dynamic is presumably a lot more equal behind closed doors, as no one wants to feel like the second-most-important person all the time. 

Having met her 32 years ago, Graham may not have known that he was falling in love with someone who would become as close as we have to royalty in this country as far as esteem and unfathomable wealth goes, but he sure has rolled with it. He is her “HoneyGraham” after all.

Oprah Winfrey, Stedman Graham, 1989

The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Graham, 66, hails from Whitesboro, N.J., and is one of six children—so he grew up learning how to share a spotlight. After serving in the U.S. Army and finishing his graduate studies in education at Ball State University in Indiana, he worked in public relations and turned his attention toward activism, focusing on furthering opportunities for underprivileged kids and, as co-founder of Athletes Against Drugs in Chicago, tackling the growing scourge of drug abuse among children. 

As he became more of a prominent name, largely thanks to his association with Winfrey, whom he met in Chicago, he didn’t rest on his laurels. He hit the speaking circuit, giving motivational speeches about the importance of identity and self-awareness; founded S. Graham & Associates, a management and marketing consulting firm specializing in corporate business and education; and has authored 11 books on achieving personal and business success.

“Stedman is a deep thinker, a guy who has special perceptions of things,” Les Brown, an author and motivational speaker who, as the husband of Gladys Knight knows all about partnering a powerful woman, told The New York Times in 1997. “He is a warm person and a guy who speaks from his heart.”

Stedman Graham, Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular, 2011

Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images

Graham talked passionately about his work helping kids who were at risk of being left behind educationally and economically, and at the time he was promoting his second book, You Can Make It Happen: A Nine Step Plan for Success, based in part on his own experiences.

He admitted in the book that, earlier in their relationship, he got angry at a party both he and Winfrey attended in Aspen when a wave of people just couldn’t wait to get closer to her, making him feel left out in the proverbial cold. “As the night wore on,” he wrote, per the Times, ”I found myself getting pushed further and further away as they moved past me to get to her.”

“Oprah tried to make me understand that the real source of my pain was in my past,” he wrote. “I never imagined that I could be equal to white folks. I never imagined that I could feel that I was an equal.” Finally he felt like “a free man for the first time in my life. I have filled the hole in my heart.” (In a 2012 interview for “Time With Natalie,” he explained, “Race was never an issue for her. Excellence was. Performance is important. Being the best she could be.”)

“They used to call me Oprah’s boyfriend,” he also told the Times, adding wryly, ”Some people call me Stedman now.”

He and Winfrey got engaged in 1992, but ultimately decided on a “spiritual union.” Graham was married previously and he and his ex-wife have a daughter, Wendy Graham. She and her husband welcomed a baby girl in May 2015, making Graham a grandpa. He and Oprah were thrilled about the grandchild, a source told the Daily Mail at the time.

Wendy reportedly spent a lot of time shuffling between her dad in Chicago and her mom in Texas when she was a kid. In 2002 she suffered a tragedy when her then-fiancé accidentally drowned while they were on vacation, so her entire family was said to be over the moon that she had found love again after such a terrible experience. Graham reportedly rushed to her side to be there for her in the wake of the accident.

After his divorce, Stedman dated Chicago anchorwoman Robin Robinson for about three years, breaking up in 1985. Robinson told People in 1992 that she guessed, although Winfrey was the more boisterous one in public, that her ex was the one who swept Oprah off her feet. “I have never seen Stedman respond to a woman’s advances,” she said. “He doesn’t like a forward woman.”

Oprah Winfrey, Stedman Graham, 1999, dogs

Scott Olson/Getty Images

“We have what a lot of people have who are in a relationship,” Graham said in 2011 when he made a rare appearance on the set of Oprah in 2011, “and we’ve been in the relationship a long time. We want each other to succeed. And, you know, I want her to succeed and be as successful as she possibly can. So I encourage that. That’s not always an easy thing to do,” he admitted, “when you’re the man in a relationship with a very powerful woman.

“And so I’m not threatened by her fame, or her success, or her money, or all of that. So, that’s who she is. It doesn’t have anything to do with how I define myself.”

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