Oprah Winfrey had a little help from a friend in pulling off her most memorable on-air stunt.
In the debut episode of PEOPLE’s Pop Cultured, Gayle King recalls the chance encounter in an airport with a Pontiac executive that lead to the iconic “You get a car!” giveaway on a 2004 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
“I was at an airport, minding my own business,” King, 67, explains. “A guy walks up to me — and I’ll call him Larry — [and said,] ‘We’re really interested in giving a car to the show.'”
“I said, ‘Oh, ok. That’s nice.’ He said, ‘No, no, we’re interested in giving a car to everyone in the audience,'” she continues. “At that point, I put down my suitcase and went, ‘What did you say?'”
“He said, ‘We’ve been trying, and we can’t get anyone to return our calls.’ Well, why would they return a call because it just sounded so far-fetched?” King adds. “But there was something about him… that I believed him.”
Although she and Winfrey, 67, had been friends for decades, they had a rule of not talking shop at the time.
Mathew Imaging/FilmMagic Gayle King and Oprah Winfrey
“She said, ‘I have a whole team that does this. I get this all day long. I really don’t want to get it from you.’ There are still times that I just can’t help it, which is what happened with the cars,” King explains. “So I said, ‘I’ll take your card and pass it along to her team.’ And I couldn’t get to the phone fast enough. And then from there, then the question became, how do we execute it?”
King says Winfrey wanted to give the cars to “people who are deserving,” which is why they asked potential audience members questions about their automobile situation.
“Oprah is a girl who will tell you all the time, ‘Love is in the details,” King notes.
“She wanted to make sure that every car had a bow, and not just a regular bow — it had to be an oversized jumbo red bow,” she adds. “I remember her looking at different shades of red to make sure it was the right shade of red. It was a whole big thing.”
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The color motif also extended to Winfrey’s look for that episode, which has since been immortalized in millions of memes. “She said, ‘It will be a great picture with the red.’ I think she might have said something like, ‘It won’t be jarring to the eye,'” she recounts.
“The truth is, she could have sat up on that damn car buck naked, and that would have looked good too,” King adds of her best friend.
On the day of the big reveal, King said she flew from Connecticut to Chicago just to watch the iconic moment unfold.
“I wanted to see it for myself,” she says, noting that Winfrey was just as excited. “It was such a secret, so I don’t even think Oprah could sleep that night, because she was so excited about what was going to happen the next day.”
As fans know, the crowd went wild when Winfrey uttered those now-famous words, making it one of the most memorable giveaways in the history of daytime TV. The Pontiac G6 maxed out at just below $30,000 per person, with the talk show host’s overall giveaway totaling $7 million.
“That was one of the happiest days of my life,” Winfrey says in the episode. “It delights me, it makes me so happy, to see other people be happy and to be able to do that. That’s one of the great joys of my life.”