Susan Kelley has a way with words — in person and in print.
Her fifth and latest book, “I Oprahed,” says so much in just two words (one of which isn’t even a word) you don’t believe Kelley when she says she never set out to be a writer.
Especially since she Oprahed.
By that, she means she appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — the zenith of all television zeniths for any writer hungry for exposure.
It happened 19 years ago, and it’s still the author’s biggest claim to fame.
“I titled the book ‘I Oprahed,’ because no matter what happens in my life, my most defining moment is still when I went on ‘Oprah,’” Kelley says. “You tell people, ‘My daughter is a doctor,’ and nothing registers. You tell them, ‘I was on Oprah’ and it’s like ‘Oh, gawd! What was it like? What was SHE like?’”
So, we’ll cut to the chase.
Oprah was nice, polite, funny, smart and attractive. She threw Kelley more time than the usual relationship expert, which was how the author was pegged when she appeared on the show before three warring couples.
It was well before Dr. Phil had come on the scene, and Kelley’s blunt sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is attitude made her a hit with the audience.
It also didn’t hurt that she resembled Michelle Pfeiffer, despite being a decade older than Pfeiffer.
A former model and actress from Boston, Kelley was 45 at the time. She was at the height of a new and somewhat unexpected career as a self-help author having just penned her second book, “Why Men Commit,” a kind of business manual for women in aimless relationships.
Inspired by her second marriage to Sarasota artist William Kelley, the book would go on to sell millions of copies.
“I was in such a panic sitting there,” Kelley says. “I was thinking, ‘I’m supposed to advise these couples? Who am I?’ I felt like an imposter. But, then again, it comes down to: what are you there for? You’re there to sell books, because, let’s face, it. At the end of the day, these people go home and still have the same problems.”
Kelley stretches out on a white sofa in her downtown Sarasota condominium. She slips on a pair of pink reading glasses and begins paging through “I Oprahed,” a 180-page paperback that came out earlier this month.
“I always felt I could say things that were humorous because I wasn’t a psychologist,” Kelley says of the wit and capriciousness that’s endeared her to readers. “If I had the schooling of a psychiatrist or psychologist, I might be more apt to follow certain rules.”
The author looks so comfortable dressed head-to-toe in black, with her feet up the couch, glasses teetering on the tip of her nose, that you feel compelled to share with her your sordid secrets as you would in the company of a psychologist.
The mother of two children, now 40 and 41, Kelley was single for 17 years between her two marriages.
She was 36 when she published her first work, “Real Women Send Flowers,” a humor book loaded with messages of female empowerment spurred by what Kelley calls “the ridiculous dates” she went on as a single mother.
The title was plucked from an actual note Kelley included with a bouquet of flowers she had delivered to an ex-boyfriend on his birthday.
“Humor books were big then and the whole women’s movement thing … the timing was just right,” Kelley says. “Everyone was growing underarm hair and not wearing makeup. I remember Betty Friedan came to one of my book signings and left in a big huff because it was held in the cosmetics department. Big deal, right? I mean, she had makeup on.”
She laughs at the memory, tickled in a sense, by Friedan’s brush-off.
It would appear that this — Kelley’s laidback candor mixed with hard-earned wisdom — is what makes her a worthy confidante.
She’s motherly and sisterly, self-deprecating and unafraid to drop a proper curse word when the moment strikes.
“I Oprahed” is a collection of essays on aging, traveling, beauty, famous friends, thong bikinis, aging parents and adult children. It opens, appropriately, with Kelley’s “Oprah” experience.
“It reads like the menopausal mind wandering,” Kelley says. “You know it’s funny because everyone is telling me 60 is the new 40, but it’s not. At 40, you still feel like your whole life is ahead of you. Your kids are still young. Your parents are still well. At 60, you’re dealing with more issues. You may feel 40, but you look in the mirror and you ask, ‘If 60 is the new 40, how come I have to work so hard to look the part?”
Brian Johnson, the lead singer from AC/DC, a fellow Sarasota resident and longtime friend of the Kelleys, not only supplied a quote for the front cover, but provided fodder for one of the book’s most colorful essays.
After devoting so much time to steering lovelorn women straight, Kelley says she’s was happy to write something a little more self-indulgent.
She’s earned it.
“I’m still fascinated by relationships,” Kelley says. “I still love listening to peoples’ stories. I just don’t want to write about them anymore. This time, I wrote for myself.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]
DID YOU KNOW?
• Kelley’s first modeling gig was for Seventeen Magazine.
• Kelley served as a body double for Diane Keaton in the 1988 movie, “The Good Mother.”
• Kelley and her children appeared in the 1978 TV movie “See How She Runs” starring Joanne Woodward.
• Kelley’s first marriage was to “Saturday Night Live” alum Jane Curtin’s brother.
• At a writer’s conference in The Hamptons, author Frank McCourt read (and consequently snubbed) Kelley’s first attempt at a memoir. The author describes the rejection with great sarcasm in “I Oprahed.”