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Stedman Graham steps into his own spotlight

He looked and talked as if he had just stepped out of one of those glossy photos in Fortune or Forbes of perfectly pressed, unflappable corporate types. As he glided into Nobu, the post-modern Japanese restaurant in lower Manhattan that is a daily destination for perfectly pressed, unflappable corporate types, Stedman Graham was all facts and figures.

This is the same Stedman Graham who is known to television talk-show watchers (not to mention millions of People and Ebony magazine readers and supermarket-tabloid addicts) as Oprah Winfrey's longtime boyfriend. The athletic, 6-foot-6 man who has stood by the talk-show queen as she has gone from thick to thin. The man who was briefly engaged to her. The man who may or may not have objected to intimate parts of an autobiography, which she pulled in 1993 before it could be rushed into print. The man who overcame an angry childhood that left him as an adolescent and adult with cripplingly low self-esteem.

He was at Nobu for one of his favorite meals: sushi a la carte. Like his modular lunch of yellowtail and salmon rolls, Graham was carefully assembled, from his size 15 loafers to his meticulously manicured fingernails.

But he was also there, for once, to talk. After years of being swallowed up in Winfrey's sizable shadow, Graham, who just turned 46, said he wanted the world to know that he is not just, as McCall's magazine recently put it, "Mr. Oprah."

He said more than once that he is his own man, with his own ideas and dreams. He is quick to remind anyone who appears unaware of it that he is the founder, president and chief operating officer of S. Graham & Associates, a management, marketing and consulting firm that specializes in sports.

He shifted easily from topic to topic, from how men need not feel threatened by relationships with women who earn more than they do to his conviction that the chorus of those who say they speak for black America sorely needs new voices and new messages.

"We have lost leadership in our African-American communities," he said. "The old guard has not brought in any new players. They've closed out younger people who could take their places and create some opportunities and change the way we think and keep the movement going."

He spoke passionately about what he sees as the failure of the black middle class to return to struggling inner-city neighborhoods and help people who still live there.

"No one would ever think that I think this way," Graham then remarked.

His opinions do not surprise Les Brown, the author and motivational speaker, who also is married to a woman better known than he, the recording star Gladys Knight. "Stedman is a deep thinker, a guy who has special perceptions of things," said Brown, who has helped Graham sharpen his public speaking. "He is a warm person and a guy who speaks from his heart."

The newest of Graham's corporate hats seems to please him most. He is the president of the marketing firm Graham Gregory Bozell. Before lunch, Graham was listening to proposals by his staff at the company's headquarters on W 23rd Street (his world spins on a double axis of New York, where Wall Street is, and Chicago, where Winfrey is). One presentation envisioned festivals to showcase African art, music, food, history and business opportunities. Another was for a sports resource center at George Washington University, where Graham directs sports seminars and is active in marketing.

"We could change the whole culture of sports," Graham said. During the presentation he said quietly, "exciting," "great synergy." He attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, on a basketball scholarship. On graduation with a bachelor of science in social work, disappointed not to be drafted by the National Basketball Association, he played in the 1970s in the European Basketball League, where, a publisher's biography states, "he starred for several years."

At lunchtime, he was talking about his public image. "People didn't know anything about what I do or what I'm involved in," he said, sipping hot tea. "They say, "Wow, where did this guy come from?' "

"I'm stepping out," Graham said in a voice both gentle and insistent. "I know there is going to be a backlash at some point," he added, noting that some people might have a problem with his having "equal billing with one of the most powerful women in the world." In the eyes of some, Graham said, that would "make me a dangerous man."

Graham's beginnings were modest. He is the second son of a house painter and grew up in predominantly black Whitesboro, N.J. He is himself the divorced father of a daughter, Wendy Graham, 21. He said that he is determined to "help other people to reach their full potential." If that means cultivating a better-known public persona, then Graham, who has a master's in education from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., says he is ready.

He stepped into the spotlight this month when he became the face of the National Black Fine Art Show, a landmark gathering of black artists, dealers and art. Without Winfrey at his side (although she attended), Graham chatted with reporters, as television crews trailed him past watercolors, oils and sculptures. Graham Gregory Bozell was a sponsor of the three-day show at the Puck Building in SoHo.

He has begun a book publicity tour, promoting You Can Make It Happen: A Nine-Step Plan for Success (Simon & Schuster). He is proud of this semiautobiographical volume, written with Wes Smith. Over lunch, Graham often referred to the book to illustrate his point, for instance, how for years he struggled with low self-esteem.

The book, he said, is an easy-to-follow road map of his journey from inner turmoil to freedom. "Being positive begins with eliminating the negative," one section begins, with all the obviousness of an old-fashioned Broadway show tune. But Graham, whose bedtime reading is business textbooks, said that reducing life's problems to building-block size helped him stand on his own.

"The crucial point for me, No. 1, was to examine myself," Graham said in low, mesmerizing tones. "To get some self-awareness and to stop looking at the external and start looking to the internal for answers."

His friend Julius Erving, the basketball great, said the book explains "success as a process that anyone with the desire for it can follow."

Graham credits Winfrey with helping him face down the demons rooted in his past. He recalled that he became angry after attending a party in Aspen, Colo., with Winfrey and other influential people who wanted to stand next to her.

"As the night wore on," he writes, "I found myself getting pushed further and further away as they moved past me to get to her." Later, he wrote, "Oprah tried to make me understand that the real source of my pain was in my past."

He added that through Winfrey's patience, soul-to-soul talks and their support for each other, he found the childhood source of his pain: "I never imagined that I could be equal to white folks. I never imagined that I could feel that I was an equal."

Graham said none of his accomplishments would have been possible without great planning _ and he is an obsessive planner, scribbling out list after list of tasks to do.

"Oprah asked me the other day, she says: "What are you doing?'

" Graham recalled.

"I'm organizing," he told her.

"She says, "I guess that's your word this year, huh?'


Graham said he simply told her how busy he was. "That is why I have to organize," he said he told Winfrey. "She didn't say a word."

Graham's vision of himself as a self-made marketing entrepreneur is expanding. "They used to call me Oprah's boyfriend," he said with a barely concealed grin. "Some people call me Stedman now."

A self-described late bloomer, Graham said: "I'm finally a free man for the first time in my life. I have filled the hole in my heart."