Oprah will never forget the time Joan Rivers fat shamed her on TV

We all need a good wake-up call from time to time. But it’s hard for someone to receive the good behind the ugly when it’s being doled out in front of the whole world. Just ask Oprah Winfrey.

Before she was the Queen of Talk, Winfrey was a former beauty queen trying to make her mark as host of the show AM Chicago. She was well-aware of the fact that she was packing on the pounds (more than 40) and didn’t feel great about it. Still, she had plans through the show to do a segment called “Diet With Oprah” in the hopes of helping her shed the weight. But before that segment could happen, she was asked to be a guest on The Tonight Show in 1985. During her interview, Winfrey’s weight was put on blast by guest host Joan Rivers. In an excerpt from her new cookbook, Food, Health and Happiness, Winfrey recalled that humiliating moment, an excerpt she posted on her website this week.

“It was all going smoothly; I was starting to settle in,” Winfrey said of the interview. “And then it happened: Joan interrupted with perhaps the only question I hadn’t prepared for: ‘So how’d you gain the weight?’”

It went downhill from there. Rivers, who seemed to mean well, remarked that as a single woman, Winfrey needed to get the weight off. There was also a moment where Rivers told Winfrey that she was even heavier than Gimme a Break actress Nell Carter. From the outside looking in, Winfrey handled the uncomfortable situation with grace. She smiled, giggled, and came up with explanations as well as jokes to appear a good sport. However, underneath it all, she couldn’t have been more embarrassed.

“Wait a minute—did she just use my national television debut to ask me why I was so fat? The studio started spinning,” Winfrey said. “The word fat…fat…faaaaatttttt reverberated in my brain. Joan sat behind Johnny’s big wooden desk, telling me that she didn’t want to hear my excuses and that I shouldn’t have let this happen. The audience laughed nervously as she wagged her flawlessly manicured finger at me, pointed out that I was still ‘a single girl,’ and challenged me to come back 15 pounds lighter next time she hosted. And the whole time I just sat there smiling breezily, wanting nothing more than to crawl under my chair.”

Afterward, she felt driven to try just about every diet possible to drop the pounds: Atkins, South Beach, liquid diet, hell — even the cabbage soup diet. Despite her best efforts, things weren’t falling into place. She could get the weight off, but Winfrey couldn’t keep it off.

She eventually realized she was scarfing down food as a coping mechanism to deal with past pain.

“So many of us just want to fill up on a large helping of unconditional love,” she said. “When I was a girl, there wasn’t always enough of that to go around. As an adult, though, I came to realize that even when people have the time and strength to care for you, the deepest care must ultimately come from your own self-acceptance, self-respect, and hard-earned truth. When I feel emotionally depleted or deprived, when I’m overwhelmed by life’s pressures, food has always been my drug of choice—the way alcohol or gambling or shopping might be for someone else. But none of these are fixes. They’re all just empty promises. They don’t actually fill you up inside. They’re like junk food for the soul.”

Winfrey said it best: “When I manage to nourish myself with the stuff that really matters, food tends to be much less complicated.” She finally has a grasp on food and has not only been able to slim down, but keep the weight off while still enjoying and appreciating a whole host of meals. So even though Rivers’s barbs on national television were the things of nightmares, had the situation not played out, Winfrey wouldn’t have eventually faced the real reason behind her eating habits. She’s definitely come a long way.

If you’re interested in reading more about this journey, Food, Health and Happiness is available Jan. 3.