Inspirational Stories : Whoopi Goldberg, Survivor Personified

By Ellesse Chow

I know a lot of you may have seen Whoopi Goldberg’s movies, but do you know what she went through before becoming a famous actress, show host, author etc etc?

Let this story reveal the journey of a survivor. A real survivor that stands true to the test of life.

No Limitations Please

As a young girl, Whoopi Goldberg knew no limitations. All thanks to her mother.

Born as Caryn Elaine Johnson on November 13, 1949, Whoopi Goldberg lived in a Manhattan housing project with her mother and younger brother Clyde. Her father left when she was very young and her mother became a nurse in order to support the family. Even though the family was poor, her mother would constantly remind them of the fact that they’re not limited by their financial conditions or colour and would try to give the best to the children.

She would bring the kids to watch New York cultural performances by famous artistes such as James Earl Jones, Leonard Bernstein and send them to acting lessons at the Hudson Guild, a community program for inner city kids. It was that early introduction to the arts and drama that initiated Whoopi’s passion for the stage.

Whoopi also loved old movies. Back then, she would rush home after school everyday and forgo sleep to watch movies by famous old Hollywood movie stars. To her, movies was an avenue to stay in touch with the outside world, reassuring her of the fact that she could venture out and be whatever she wanted to be. It also kept her in a black and white illusion that a world without any race truly existed. She continued to live in that illusion until very much later when she realized that all the black actors were casted in less important roles.

Overcoming Life’s Struggles

In school, Whoopi felt like an outcast. She was constantly being made fun of by her classmates because of her strong features, and her shyness and love for musicals over Motown made it difficult to assimilate into the community. Coupled by the fact that she was suspected of being mentally retarded due to her undiagnosed dyslexic condition, she finally decided to quit school after a few weeks into her first year of high school.

Whoopi led a bohemian lifestyle after which, abandoning home and sleeping on the streets. She abused drugs and engaged in promiscuous activities, getting pregnant and an self inflicted abortion (using a coat hanger) for the first time at the age of 13. 4 more abortions ensued until one day, after seeing so many of her friends and famous personalities dying from consuming too much drugs, she finally decided enough was enough and enrolled herself on a rehabilitation program in a Manhattan clinic.

After she was declared drug free, Whoopi married one of her drug counselors Alvin Martin, at the age of 18 and got pregnant again very soon after. Her marriage was constantly on turmoil as they would get into fights and arguments over her acting ambitions, dressing and their financial troubles. It was only when a friend offered Whoopi and her baby a ride to California that ended the 2 year old marriage.

In San Diego, to support her and her child, Whoopi brought her daughter along to jobs such as a bricklayer as well as a mortuary makeup artist while on a scholarship to a beauty school. But the jobs were temporary and paid little, and for the next few years, she was on and off welfare.

Her True Love

During this time, Whoopi never gave up auditioning. Her persistence finally paid off when she discovered a group of like minded actors at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, where she was given an opportunity to hone her dramatic skills and learn how to be a comedian.

She partnered with another guy doing late night stand up comedy acts at clubs, improvising the act inspired by Mike Nichols and Elaine May, a popular comedian pair during the 60s. Her first successful solo performance came in when she was forced to go up stage alone after her partner backed out at the last minute during an invitation to San Francisco.

A theatre company in Berkeley loved Whoopi’s performance so much so that they urged her to modify it into a one-woman show, helping her to re brand it into the Whoopi Goldberg Show or the Spook Show. In her performances, Whoopi revealed to the audience, the young girl who wished she was white and blond so that she could be a movie star, the 13 year old delinquent who used a coat hanger to conduct an abortion on herself, a school dropout interested in the arts and drama, but lived a bohemian lifestyle and a dyslexic woman who got married partly out of fear that she would be left on the shelf.

As Whoopi traveled around on performances, media publicity on her widely acclaimed shows increased. In 1984, a performance in New York led to a resounding review in the New York Times and brought in an attractive offer from the Mike Nichols director of the Graduate. He wanted to work with Whoopi to showcase her show anywhere she desired and indeed, soon after, Whoopi found herself on Broadway.

That also catapulted her to fame on the big screen. Whoopi’s leading role in The Colour Purple (a Steven Spielberg’s production) and supporting role in Ghost won her an Oscar nomination and Academy Award respectively and her academy award win also made her the 2nd African American actress ever to do so. Since 1985, she has also appeared in 80 film and television productions and has been a show host, author (of children’s books), a sitcom actress, stand up comedian etc.

As Whoopi reflected her past, she was glad that she made the choice to be different. Even though she experienced more difficulties than if she were to take the common route, it turned out to be a much more enriching journey than what she would have gone through, adding a unique flavour to her performances, letting her stand out amongst the crowd.

What Did I Learn From This Story?

That one can be down and out at the moment but he can still turn it around to achieve the dreams of his lifetime, as long as he consciously decide to do so and pursue it with tenacity and perseverance.

(1) Down & Out Now? You Can Change Your Destiny

Whoopi Goldberg’s story is a reminder to anyone that they’ve the power to change their destiny. If you’re facing hardships, struggles or challenges now, do not feel despondent. Continue to believe in yourself, your dreams and you’ll be able to achieve wonders in your life.

Now, if you think what I’ve said above is very cliche, to tell you the truth, I agree. But why do people keep saying this over and over again, knowing that it has been overly mentioned? Because it truly works! Whoopi’s teachers think she’s mentally retarded but she turned out to be one of the most gifted comedians in the Hollywood. She led a wanton life initially but she proved it beyond doubt that if one’s willing to change, he can still be the brightest star he ever set himself to be. If Whoopi can do it, so can you!

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what your current results are. What counts is where you see yourself to be in the future and your relentless efforts in working towards it.

(2) Don’t Follow The Crowd For the Sake of It

I must admit I was guilty of this when I first started out in my professional career. At that time, all I wanted to do is to put what I’ve learned in college into practice and be an auditor or accountant like anyone else in my faculty. So, I joined a local audit firm. It didn’t take long before I started to discover an interest in IT business consultancy and as I’m more inclined in pursuing my own financial freedom, thoughts of striking out on my own, surfaced.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to advocate against being an accountant. It’s a great profession for anyone who consciously believes he can add value in this domain. Nor am I trying to imply one should emulate Whoopi’s bohemian lifestyle.

What I’m trying to raise is, you should follow your true calling and don’t stick to doing something because everyone’s doing so, but rather because you decide to do it. It’s easy to fall into the trap of conforming for the sake of societal acceptance. However, if you’re not pursuing what your heart truly desires, even if you’re earning a lot of money or getting a lot of fame in that field, you’ll not be truly happy.

Because at the end of the pursuit, you’ll find that it’s not your goal that you’ve accomplished. It’s someone else’s.