College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Unwavering focus

Kristin Graham still has a screen capture that lists her in the credits as a producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show. It’s the kind of thing you want to show your folks. For Graham, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Purdue in Theatre Stage Management, it was the culmination of a decade of job applications and an unwavering focus on finding a way to work with the Queen of Talk.

Graham arrived at Purdue as a chemical engineering student. Despite making the Dean’s List, she knew that major wasn’t in sync with her passions. During a yearlong study abroad program in England, she pursued film and television studies, which sparked newfound career excitement. Without hesitation, she returned to Purdue, switched her major, and never looked back.

After graduation, Graham landed a stage management job at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Around the same time, she became drawn to The Oprah Winfrey Show.“ Oprah has the power of connection. You can learn from her, but you can also laugh with her. The rich and poor wanted to connect to Oprah. All just wanted to be heard and validated,” she says.

Graham had her first brush with the Oprah show in the most unconventional way. An announcement during an episode urged viewers to write in to Oprah and tell her their dreams. Graham’s letter read, “My dream is to be the stage manager for The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Two months later, a team of Oprah’s producers and a camera crew surprised Graham backstage at the Goodman. Oprah’s producers had chosen her to have her dream come true.

“I was told I had been selected and would be following Dean Anderson around as stage manager for the day on The Oprah Winfrey Show,” she explains. Did it land her the job? No, but it was her first real experience working in television, and she was hooked. She knew then that she wouldn’t stop until she was able to officially make her dream come true.

It was not easy to get a job working for Oprah, and Graham knew it. “No one really leaves The Oprah Winfrey Show; job openings don’t happen that often,” she says. “I applied for anything and everything, just to get my foot in the door.”

Even as she held on to her Oprah dream, Graham sought out film and television work to gain experience and better prepare her for the day the right job opened at the show. She worked on movies and television shows such as Barbershop, Surviving Christmas, The In-Laws, Spider-Man 2, What About Joan, and The Kennedys, among others. One particular job found her working on The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, a candid camera show involving pranks on unsuspecting bystanders.

As luck would have it, the show collaborated with The Oprah Winfrey Show, following Oprah as she pranked her crew and audience members. During filming, Graham’s team worked alongside Oprah’s producers, inevitably allowing her to make an impression with Oprah’s team.

After filming wrapped, an Oprah producer walked up to Graham and said, “I really enjoyed working with you. Is there any chance at all that you’d possibly consider coming to work with The Oprah Winfrey Show? ” Less than two weeks later, she had a full-time job as a member of Oprah’s production team.


The Dream Job

Graham remembers being nervous and excited on her first day, as everything she had been working toward for 10 years was finally coming to life in front of her. “It felt right,” she says. “I thrived at the creative challenges. It was not easy, but nothing worth it ever is.

“The job lived up to every expectation,” she continues. “It was extremely competitive, trying to produce the impossible with integrity. I remember trying to get Shaun White to the Chicago studios the morning after his gold medal ceremony in Canada. He had already booked a satellite interview with The Today Show, but I worked some Oprah magic and convinced him to do the Oprah show. That wasn’t the hardest part, though; we had to get him there. I quickly booked a private plane, but he’d be arriving to Border Patrol at 2 a.m.—when they’re closed. I convinced Customs to meet him, and he made it to the studio 20 minutes before we went live.”

Graham worked on The Oprah Winfrey Show for nine and a half years, staying with production until Oprah wrapped her 25th and final season in 2011. “Everyone knew that what we were doing on The Oprah Winfrey Show was special,” she says. “Our production style was unique—it could not be copied—and we were making history.” From catching America’s most wanted criminals to building schools in South Africa, Graham and her team knew they were making a difference: “It was important work. We knew it. No one left early, and 100-hour weeks were not uncommon.”

As the show wrapped up its final season, Graham recalls being there on the last day, shutting the studio doors, and locking them up. “It was time,” she says. “We gave our heart and soul to that show. It was time to go our separate ways and make our own new paths. It was the end of an era.”

How do you come off a decade rush of nonstop work and excitement at your dream job? For Graham, it was time to take a moment for herself. “I was exhausted. I took a breath and didn’t worry about applying for work anywhere,” she says. “But when you’ve just worked on The Oprah Winfrey Show, offers start coming to you, so I didn’t get much of a breather.”

These days, Graham finds her life well balanced. She divides her time between being a landlord, playing guitar, competing on her volleyball team, and traveling for her current job as executive producer of NBC’s Naturally, Danny Seo. “The show is all about eco-friendly and sustainable living, everything I believe in, so its intentions align with mine. Another perfect fit,” she says.

After landing three of her major dream jobs, Graham is content to see where each day takes her. “I don’t have the next dream set,” she says. “I’m living in the moment right now.”