What does it mean to be an ‘icon’? All week long on Glamour.com, we're celebrating trailblazing women who fit that hard-to-define descriptor. Our final installment: Whoopi Goldberg, a woman who needs no introduction.
There's a clip from a 2015 episode of The View floating around the forgotten corners of YouTube that sums up everything you need to know about Whoopi Goldberg. She is quietly perched at the morning chat-fest's hot topics table, a seat she's held for over a decade, and she's clearly got some thoughts. The prompt: footage of model turned actress Cara Delevingne offering flat responses and eye rolls to a cast of earnest, local TV reporters interviewing her about a new film. "I'm sorry," Goldberg begins, "but she's not a famous actress." Michelle Collins, her then cohost, attempts to explain: "She's famous." Without missing a beat, Goldberg lobs back: "No, honey, I'm famous." With that, the panel and studio audience erupts into a standing ovation.
Indeed, Whoopi Goldberg is famous. Cara-Delevingne-is-a-nobody-compared-to-me-level famous. Ever since the director Mike Nichols plucked her from obscurity after seeing her one-woman show in the early eighties, she's built a career that's impressive from both a quality and quantity standpoint. She's an EGOT—part of an elite, 15-person group of entertainers who have won an Emmy (outstanding host for The View), Grammy (she’s got two, including best comedy album for her 1985 self-titled stand up record), Oscar (best supporting actress, Ghost), and a Tony (for 2002's Thoroughly Modern Millie). Incidentally, she's also hosted the ceremonies for three of five of those awards. She's appeared in more than 50 films, including some so universally beloved almost no one can resist watching at least a few minutes when they're on TV: Ghost, The Color Purple, Sister Act. And in what would be a career unto itself for most people, she's been beamed into 3 million homes daily for the past 11 years as a cohost on The View.
When we connect over the phone, a few days after an explosive exchange with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro on The View has once again made her a trending topic on Twitter, I ask her if she remembers that conversation about Delevingne. She holds firm in her conviction about what celebrity entails. "You know, you don't always want to talk to a million people. You don't always want to sign an autograph. You've gotta try to suck it up," she says. "And if you just got here 10 minutes ago, which is kind of how I was feeling about the person we were talking about, it's like, 'Listen. This is the life you chose.' You want to be an actress?
This is what it entails." Goldberg has been famous for so long it's difficult to make the case that, at 62, she's in the midst of a career renaissance. (Because, uh, when exactly did she leave?) But it does feel like her place in the zeitgeist is just a little more heightened these days. Ratings of The View are at their best in years, and she'll play Tiffany Haddish's mom in the upcoming Tyler Perry comedy Nobody’s Fool. She's also just kind of everywhere all of sudden too. At this most recent New York Fashion Week, she went to a slew of shows, including, perhaps most unexpectedly, Rodarte, where she wore a baggy T-shirt with "Flexin' in My Complexion" emblazoned across the front.
It’s a move that’s quintessentially Whoopi—weird but weirdly endearing (The New York Times, in an early review of her one-woman show, asked who wouldn’t be taken by her charms?). In fact, part of the reason Whoopi Goldberg is iconic is because she does things virtually no one else could pull off. Born Caryn Elaine Johnson (the first part of her stage name is a play on Whoopee Cushion), Goldberg grew up one of two children to a single mother in a housing project in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. In the early sixties she found little by way of onscreen representation.
After first seeing Nichelle Nichols aboard the starship Enterprise, Goldberg reportedly exclaimed: "There's a black lady on television, and she ain’t no maid!" It's a moment that still resonates. "If you look at any of the shows prior to Star Trek, we were not there," she says. "[Nichols] was really instrumental in making me believe I could be on TV. So I did grow up having 'a me.'" Still, the path to making it was far from easy. After struggling with dyslexia, she dropped out of high school and had a daughter, Alex, a short time later, at just 18. By the seventies she was living off welfare in California and working odd jobs (bricklayer, mortuary cosmetologist) while participating in an experimental theater troupe Blake Street Hawkeyes. (A then unknown Courtney Love took classes from her.) A few years later Mike Nichols would discover Goldberg.
The director clearly saw in her that thing audiences have grown to love over the years: You never know what Whoopi Goldberg is going to do next. While her View cohost Joy Behar is a reliable liberal, Goldberg's views are harder to define. She’s no fan of Trump but is also proud about having owned guns. Her many side hustles run the gamut from an ugly-holiday-sweater collection to a medical cannabis line. She never bites her tongue. When the conversation turns to her outlook on relationships, she makes it clear she's not the codependent type. "Hey, listen, I don't want a relationship. I just want sex and then you can go home," she says. It's a fact that took her three marriages plus several high-profile romances (Ted Danson, Frank Langella) to realize. "I just want a hit and run. Boom. Boom. Goodbye."
When I ask whether she's noticed an uptick in the Whoopi Goldberg brand of late, she concedes she has. It's not like she's not aware of how these things work—she's amused by it. "I think more people are interested in me again. Careers are cyclical," she says. "I used to make people very uncomfortable and now people are very comfortable. Maybe people know now, for real, that I don't care." And maybe, when you're as famous as Whoopi Goldberg, you really don't have to.