The stunning transformation of Oprah & Gayle

It's the fascinating tale of the world's most influential self-made mogul, and her ride or die. And no, we're not talking about Stedman. "She is the mother I never had. She is the sister everybody would want. She is the friend that everybody deserves. I don't know a better person," Oprah has said of Gayle. And according to Gayle, the feeling is mutual, "Who doesn't want to be her best friend? I never feel I'm in her shadow. I feel I'm in her light, that's how I look at it."

In the most sensational rags-to-riches story ever told, Oprah Winfrey rose from devastating poverty to the very top of a $2.9 billion empire, with BFF Gayle King by her side all the way. A fateful snowstorm brought the two together when they were just 20 and 21, and they quickly realized they were more than just "work friends". "[It's] the night I wore Oprah's underwear," Gayle joked, of the sleepover that would bond them for life in 1976. Now in their 60s, the two media mavens rock matching Bentleys, twinsie jammies, and a mutually profound respect for each other. And after 40 years spent sharing everything together, the question remains: Are they or aren't they more than friends? Spoiler: they're more than just regular BFFs, but not in that way.

1954: Gayle's got a maid, Oprah's got an outhouse

Though the two were born in the same year, their beginnings were starkly different. A Maryland native, Gayle was born to an upper-middle class family. "Gayle had a pool growing up," Oprah dished in an O Magazine interview with Gayle. "And a maid," Gayle added. She even lived in Turkey from age 6 to 11, thanks to her father's engineering work.

Born in Mississippi to an 18-year-old unwed mother, Oprah, faced much greater odds. She lived in a home with no electricity or running water, and was raised by her grandmother through the age of six. "My grandmother never imagined that I could be anything bigger than a maid. She used to say 'I just hope you get some good white folks when you grow up'. And I remember being about 5 years old, and I knew that I wasn't going to have that life," Oprah revealed in an interview for Makers.

1966: They faced big challenges growing up

A whip-smart, teenaged fan of Neil Diamond, Oprah commiserated over the difficulties she faced in school: "It's that whole being-the-odd-girl-out thing — we didn't fit in to everybody else's perception of what it's like to be a black girl." Gayle added, "I grew up in an all-white community. I remember getting embarrassed in fourth grade when a boy in my class named Wayne said, 'If it weren't for Abraham Lincoln, you'd be my slave.'"

A devastating home life, as well as sexual abuse by family members, forced Oprah to run to the streets, resulting in a pregnancy at just 14 years old. Immediately sent to live with her strict father, she hid her pregnancy until the day she went into labor. A premature baby boy was born and later died. "My father said to me, 'This is your second chance'," Oprah shared with Makers.

1971: They were crushing hard in high school

While 17-year old Oprah was winning the "Miss Fire Prevention" beauty pageant saying she wanted to be a journalist, Gayle was already honing her brand. "I changed my name from 'Gail' to 'Gayle'… because I liked to make a loopy y," she claimed in Us Weekly. And both were crushing on boys.

Later reading their high school love letters aloud to a live audience on The Oprah Show in 1992, the two affectionately looked back on their passionate teen romances. Reading a letter she wrote when she was 17, Oprah gushed, "Today [June 22, 1971] is my ninth anniversary with Anthony. Never thought I'd make it this far. I love Anthony. I don't think God will mind. There's so much hatred in the world, I should think God would be happy to see a little love flowing every now and then." Gesturing at her bestie, Gayle quipped, "She's always been very dramatic."

1976: They meet while working at the same TV station in Baltimore

They've told the story a thousand times. Oprah was a 22-year-old co-anchor at WJZ News, making $22,000 a year. "She connected with the female audience instantly," NY Times TV critic Bill Carter remembered. "Oprah was genuine." And just steps away from the rising star, 21-year-old Gayle was working at the same station as a production assistant, banking $12,000 a year in her entry level position.

Reflecting on their shared experience as young, single, African American career women leading a shift toward diversity, Gayle admitted, "You're a pioneer, and you don't even know you're a pioneer. But… clearly it was uncharted territory." And speaking about her future best friend, "For the first time, I met somebody who I felt was like me. I'd never met anybody like that. Certainly not another black girl."

1976: Their friendship was sparked in a snowstorm

Oprah made the first move, inviting Gayle to wait out a bad Baltimore snowstorm at her place. Although they had spent hours together in the newsroom every day, they weren't yet friends. "Anchors and PA's do not socialize — the newsroom hierarchy," Gayle explained. "This [gesture] is something that's so unique to Oprah and truly not surprising to who she is," Gayle shared, of Oprah's warmth and generosity.

As fate would have it, after borrowing clothes and chatting all night long, the two forged the beginnings of a life-long bond. Gayle discovered, "Oprah and I had the same sensibilities. We liked the same kind of music. We thought smart —" Oprah jumped in, "smart and articulate —" Gayle continued, "was not a bad thing."

1982: Gayle gets hitched

"There are some weddings you go to and you're just filled with all this hope for the couple…I didn't feel that at yours," Oprah revealed to Gayle long after Gayle had divorced her only husband, attorney William Bumpus. "But you were maid of honor!" Gayle laughed, of the wedding that took place when she was 27 years old.

But even though she wasn't feeling the love at the time, 28-year-old Oprah championed the happiness of her best friend. Even if she was struggling against her own feelings. She continued, admitting to Gayle, "Also… I felt like, well, maybe it's just me being jealous. Maybe I couldn't feel the joy because I was feeling like our friendship was going to change. But it didn't."

1986: Oprah hits the air in Chicago

"We usually talk three or four times a day," Gayle revealed. As 32-year-old Oprah was about to hit a ratings jackpot with a morning show on WLS-TV in Chicago, Gayle, 31, was already establishing herself as a star anchor on Hartford's WFSB evening broadcast.

But the long-distance pals remained closer than ever, supporting each other despite what anyone else thought. "I hate when everybody has to have a discussion about it," Oprah shared with Vogue about her body. "That's why I first brought it up on TV… I said, 'I know y'all are thinking, Look at her fat butt. It's a little issue I've had for a while.' All my friends, except Gayle, told me I wouldn't get the job in Chicago because I'm black and overweight." Oprah's brutal honesty about her fluctuating weight, and her struggles with it, would become a defining element of her brand.

1986: Oprah meets Stedman

In one of the most speculated-about pairings of all time, Oprah struck up a relationship with the elusive Stedman Graham, 35, when she was 32 years old. Two years later, Oprah told Barbara Walters, "It would be wonderful [to marry] Stedman [but] I know I'm not ready." While the two have stayed together over 30 years, never tying the knot, Stedman did once propose to Oprah in 1992. And who else was hanging around during the impromptu moment? You guessed it — Gayle.

"The truth is, no matter where I am, whether Stedman is there or not, Gayle's in the other room," Oprah shared in O Magazine. Gayle continued, "I really do marvel at this because if Stedman didn't accept me, it would be very difficult for us to be friends." For Stedman, Gayle is a welcome part of the family: "What's made [Oprah and Gayle's] friendship so successful is they both love to talk… and they're interested in the same things," he said. "They basically are sisters."

1986: The Oprah Show premieres nationwide

The Oprah Show debuted for a national audience on September 8, 1986. At midnight before the show aired, 32-year-old Oprah journaled, "I keep wondering how my life will change, if it will change, what all this means. Why have I been so blessed?"

"From the time that I've known her, the core of this girl has not changed. Her feet are still firmly on the ground — as she says, she's just wearing better shoes," Gayle shared of her BFF on OWNSHOW. And it wouldn't be long before viewers would get to meet the loyal best friend of their beloved talk-show host. Gayle debuted that first season on a show about celebs and their BFFs. By the show's final episode in 2011, she would have 23 guest appearances.

1987: Gayle starts her family

During her marriage to William Bumpus, Gayle gave birth to her "favorite son and daughter". In 1987 daughter Kirby arrived. And almost a year later she gave birth to William Jr. Oprah wanted to give something special to the new mom. Gayle described Oprah's gift to her the best, "The kids are 11 months apart, and Oprah goes, 'I got you the perfect gift." And I'm thinking, 'Oh good. She's giving me a double stroller.' Back then double strollers were very expensive. But the gift turned out to be a nanny! She said, 'I want to pay the nanny's salary for as long as you feel you need her.'"

Now that they're all grown up, Gayle and her kids frequently vacation with Oprah. After Gayle divorced her husband in 1993, Oprah said of her friend, "I admire a lot of things about Gayle. But when I think about the way she raised her kids, that makes me weepy… It's always, always, always been about what's best for her children." She added, "Her children are my children."

1987: Gayle interviewed Oprah

Hoping to help her news-anchor bestie boost ratings at Hartford station WFSB, Oprah agreed to let Gayle interview her on breaks during a taping of The Oprah Show.

Her 9-month-old daughter Kirby in tow, working mom Gayle's warm welcome in Chicago began with Oprah herself picking them up from the airport. The interview revealed Oprah at her office desk, taking stock of herself: "I'm a very good [boss]. I pay people very well for the work that they do because I remember when I wasn't paid well." In 1980, Oprah was shot down for an equal pay raise while co-hosting People Are Talking. "I'm not the wimp that I used to be."

1994: Oprah turns 40 live on her show

With megawatt surprise guests Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, Phylicia Rashad, and Stedman appearing for Oprah's birthday celebration on The Oprah Show, it's hard to imagine anyone topping the lineup. But the moment her bestie walked out from backstage, Oprah lost her cool, tearing up with a birthday tiara on her head. "I was gonna have a quiet little dinner and not make a big deal about [my 40th birthday], but…" she said.

Oprah later explained the rush of emotion, as she stood in the audience with her partner in crime, "This is so touching to me because when Patti was here and then Aretha came and everyone was coming, I thought, 'Gee, I wish Gayle could be here to see this'."

1997: Gayle knows Oprah even better than Stedman

It was "best friends vs. boyfriends" on The Oprah Show. And we bet you can guess how this one turned out. As long time boyfriend Stedman predicted Oprah liked shopping for panty-hose in a who-knows-her-best style quiz, Gayle made a slam dunk, knowing The O prefers to purchase furniture and art.

But what else would you expect from the person who shopped for sweaters with Oprah at Casual Corner when the two were in their early twenties, and barely scraping by? Gayle remembered that day when she was 21, Oprah was 22, and the two were just becoming friends, "I had to call my mother and say, 'You know my friend Oprah? Guess what? She bought two sweaters!'" Gayle had purchased just one sweater for herself. And put it on layaway.

1997: Gayle is jealous of Oprah and Tina Turner

BFF Gayle, who was so famously well-adjusted to Oprah's wild success, finally hit her breaking point, when Oprah took the stage with Tina Turner on The Oprah Show in 1997. Later, Oprah recalled, "The only time [Gayle's] ever been jealous of anything — and she just said, 'I'm jealous' — was with me singing with Tina Turner. Which is so interesting because [Gayle] can't sing."

But the friendship survived Tina, and that one flash of envy, becoming stronger because of Gayle's honesty about her true feelings. But it's not the only thing Gayle has offered the relationship. "The therapy that I didn't have, and the therapy that I don't need, is because of my thousands and thousands of hours on the phone with Gayle," Oprah told Barbara Walters.

2006: The road-trip that reignited those rumors

"Let's just add to that lesbian rumor…" Gayle muttered, as she comically opened the door to the friends' shared camper on a cross country road trip. It was the summer of Oprah's 20th season, and the two had struck out on an adventure that would take them from Santa Barbara, CA to NYC in 10 days. Oprah claimed she got the idea from a Chevy commercial she saw as a kid, that sang, "See the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet." And they did.

Testing the bounds of their patience, the two quickly ran into trouble, as two independent women stuck together in a car. They had never spent 11 days in close proximity to each other, for 24 hours a day. Cameras rolled as they hashed out their own rules of the road, who picks the music, and "Would You Rather". And with their fair share of hiccups, the two made it to NYC in one piece. "At times we were laughing so hard we could barely breathe," Oprah shared with her audience.

2011: Oprah's farewell season

"Oh no, it's my last Oprah Show appearance, I am not wearing jeans," Gayle said, as she fixed her hair in the dressing room mirror before stepping out on stage for the last time, for Oprah's final season of the show. As Oprah, who had many shows yet to tape, reviewed her own jeans-based options, Gayle audibly disapproved, hoping for a more upscale sense of occasion. "Gayle, it's The Oprah Winfrey Show, I can wear whatever I want," Oprah expressed, with growing frustration.

But Gayle has always felt the gravity and importance of Oprah's successes, far more deeply than maybe Oprah herself. "It's one of the things that's so amazing about this friendship. Gayle is more excited about my success than I am. It makes her genuinely happy. We've made this journey together," Oprah shared in O Magazine.

2014: Oprah threw Gayle the surprise party of her life

It was a party to end all parties, thrown by the "favorite things" goddess herself. An early 60th birthday bash for her BFF, made possible by the O Magazine staff. But this time, the theme was "the world according to Gayle," and was all about Gayle's favorite things.

ET dished on the besties' festivities that involved the birthday girl's closest friends and family wearing her favorite color — yellow — and her favorite shoes — clogs. Along with bright yellow balloons and smiles all around, there were 960 cupcakes, custom grilled cheese sandwiches, and burgers from Shake Shack. Gayle praised her friend's thoughtful generosity, sharing, "Oprah always says this — that 'love is in the details' — and I certainly felt that."

2015: They spent New Years in the hospital together

"She's never asked me for a dime. There is a level of mutual respect that comes from being with somebody you know doesn't want anything from you but you," Oprah said of Gayle. "But let me just say this, too. The person who has the money has to have a generous spirit."

And she sure does. For Gayle's big 6-0, Oprah flew Gayle's entire family to Hawaii for the celebration. And when Gayle sprained her ankle walking to the gym during New Years Eve on that vacation, her best friend stayed by her side in a Maui hospital, even pushing her in a wheelchair.

2016: They're not afraid to throw some shade at each other

Proving that their life-long love for each other allows them the freedom of real honesty, and the kind of critical opinion only the tightest bonds can stand, Oprah recently tore Gayle's on-air look to shreds. Oprah wrote, "Please tell Gayle I'm on a treadmill & it's hard to focus with the circus around your neck." Gayle posted a pic of her statement necklace, and gamely fired back, "I think she's WRONG — thoughts?"

And it wasn't the first instance where Gayle stood up to the queen of talk shows. A year earlier, Oprah bashed Gayle's TV makeup artist for going too red with Gayle's lips. Gayle's response? "I said proudly, 'I did that MYSELF'."

2017 Oprah + Gayle 4 EVA

Theirs is a friendship most of us can only dream of. A deeply and mutually adoring partnership. A kind of luxuriously endless sleepover. And even in their early sixties, the two mega successful media stars are just getting started. Recently, Oprah launched her 2017 Year of Adventure with a hike through the Grand Canyon — with "sister-friend" Gayle, of course. Oprah also hopes to become a master teacher, and yes, "make peace with the weight thing". And, if she can find a spare moment in between crushing it on CBS This Morning, O Magazine, and sharing her Weight Watchers journey, we're betting Gayle will be with her for all of it.

"There isn't a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women," Oprah said of her friend. "So I get why people have to label it — how can you be this close without it being sexual? How else can you explain a level of intimacy where someone always loves you, always respects you, admires you?" Gayle added, "I think about when we get old, but I can't imagine life without Oprah. I really can't. I'll go first if I can be 90 and [Oprah] can be 91." Oprah assured, "Something about this relationship feels otherworldly to me, like it was designed by a power and a hand greater than my own. Whatever this friendship is, it's been a very fun ride—and we've taken it together."

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