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The New York Socialite Living a Lie | The Oprah Winfrey Show | Oprah Winfrey Network

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WINFREY: I want you to meet Jeannette Walls. Jeannette was a glamorous entertainment reporter, socialite who says that she was one of those women living a big old lie. Take a look. WINFREY: Entertainment reporter Jeannette Walls was everywhere in magazines, on television and on the Internet, Ms. WALLS: I covered Oscar parties. I covered the Academy Awards. I covered the Golden Globes. I was interviewing the richest, most powerful people in the world. WINFREY: Jeannette wasn't just covering high society; she was living it, too. Ms. WALLS: I was living on Park Avenue. I was married to a very well-to-do man. I was living in a neighborhood where, you know, Jerry Seinfeld lived. Catherine Zeta-Jones goes my gym. You know, I was--I live a life right out of Vanity Fair. I thought I had everything. I thought this is it. I am everything. But at the same time, I was a complete phony. I'm a liar. I don't belong here. And I knew that. I lived in fear of being exposed for who I really was. WINFREY: It was just a matter of time before Jeannette's long buried secret past would be uncovered. Ms. WALLS: I lived in West Virginia. We lived in a little tiny house without indoor plumbing and I would literally wash my face in snow because we didn't have running water. We had a yellow bucket in the kitchen that we used instead of a toilet. It was disgusting and I had nightmares about for years afterwards. WINFREY: Jeannette's alcoholic father and eccentric mother could not hold down jobs, so the family was penniless. Ms. WALLS: From a very early age, you just sort of knew this is the way it is, and you don't turn to Mom and Dad and tell them you're hungry. You know, we'd go for days sometimes without food. We'd sometimes just look in the garbage behind us for food. When I would go to school, the kids would all--they would just find me and they would beat me up. They would literally throw rocks at us. WINFREY: At 17 with only $100, Jeannette boarded a bus, determined never to look back. Ms. WALLS: I skedaddled out of West Virginia and came to New York. And I got myself a job. I got an apartment. And we had electricity. And we had heat.You could turn on and have a hot bath every single night. WINFREY: With sheer determination, she finished high school, graduated from Barnard, an Ivy League college, and became a rising star reporter. Ms. WALLS: Once I sort of achieved a certain level of success, I was living in constant fear that my secret would get out and that people would realize who I was and who my parents were. I wanted to create a new person. But my past followed me. WINFREY: Meanwhile, to Jeannette's horror, her vagabond parents trailed her to New York. Ms. WALLS: My first reaction was stay away. Just get away from me. WINFREY: As she lived in the lap of luxury on Park Avenue, her parents slept on the streets. Ms. WALLS: I said, `Please don't tell anybody that you're my parents. It's very hard for me to explain to people why you're living like this.’ WINFREY: But one night, Jeannette realized she could no longer live the lie. Ms. WALLS: I was going to a party, and I was all decked out, and I glanced out the window. A woman was rooting in the garbage. She was about 15 feet away from me. And the woman was my mother. So to my eternal shame, I slid down in the back of the taxi and I hid. The emotion that seized me at that moment was a fear that she would spot me and that my secret would be out. WINFREY: What happened after you saw your mother in that Dumpster that night? Ms. WALLS: Well, I went home, Park Avenue, and I paced around the apartment and I looked in the mirror and I didn't much like the person looking back at me. And I got in touch with my mother. We had an elaborate system for getting together. I had dinner with her, and I said, `Mom, what am I supposed to tell people when they ask me about you?' And she said, `Tell them the truth,' as though it was the simplest thing in the world, but I felt I couldn't possibly explain to anybody why my parents were living like that and moreover, what kind of monster would let her parents live on the street while she was living on Park Avenue? WINFREY: Because had you tried to reach your parents? Ms. WALLS: Oh, I was in regular contact with them. They had come to NewYork. They followed. We sort of--they lived with my sister for a while. Things got crazy, then they went out on the street, and I'd seen them from time to time. They're very articulate people. Well, my father's dead now. But they were on TV a lot, being quoted about the rights of homeless people, and they were all over the place, and it was just--I was leading a completely fraudulent li… WINFREY: Had you offered to give them a home… Ms.WALLS: Oh, yeah. WINFREY: ...or provide them with shelter? Ms. WALLS: Yes. Yes. Many times I've offered to help my mother, to have her move in with us. But my mother--and I love her dearly, but she chooses the life she leads. And it took me a really long time to understand and accept that. I've finally come to sort of appreciate and not be ashamed of whatever it is that she has to offer. WINFREY: And how did you get to that? Ms. WALLS: I did exactly what my mother told me to do: I told the truth. There was no doubt in my mind that once people knew who I really was, that I would lose all my friends, that I would lose my family or that I would lose my job, that I would lose everything I'd worked so hard for. I'd be a pariah. I hugely underestimated people's capacity for compassion. So the eye-opener for me has been--you know, shame is a very isolating emotion. And you build up this shell around you. WINFREY: And what was your shame? Was your shame that you had not been able to convince your parents to take another lifestyle? Was your shame that you were in denial about your past life? What was your shame? Ms. WALLS: It was a dual shame. One was that I was living this life while my parents were living another. So it was--guilt was part of it. The other was who I was. It was my past. You know, I had eaten out of garbage cans when I was hungry. I had led a life that I was definitely ashamed of. And I thought if people knew that I wasn't this glamorous person, that they would reject me.

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