Oprah defends her People's Fund of Maui initiative with Dwayne Johnson, redirects attention to Lahaina

Oprah Winfrey is sitting on stage talking into a microphone and gesturing with her hand while wearing glasses
Oprah Winfrey said 2,200 Maui residents have already been cleared to receive direct checks from her People's Fund of Maui. (Arturo Holmes / Getty Images for Essence)

Oprah Winfrey went on the defensive this week and is standing by her role in starting the People's Fund of Maui amid a wave of eat-the-rich backlash.

Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson started their initiative last month. The fund promises to give money directly to people affected by the historic wildfires on Maui. The pair seeded the program by giving a combined $10 million and asked the public to fund the rest through donations. Since then, critics questioned why the two wealthy celebrities didn't simply fund the project on their own.

In her first comments addressing the backlash to the People's Fund, Winfrey said she had thought the $10-million sum was enough, adding that if someone gives that amount at a fundraiser, it's called "a good night" and essentially shuts down the event.

"I was so excited and I got up the next morning and I saw all of this vitriol and I was like, 'Whoa, what happened here?'" the talk show host and media magnate said on "CBS Mornings," adding that she had been "terrorized and vilified" online. Johnson, who is of Samoan descent and lived in Hawaii as a child, has not yet addressed the online criticism.

Read more: In the wake of backlash, Oprah Winfrey starts a fund for Maui fire victims alongside Dwayne Johnson

"What if I didn't really know who I am ... that I am the master of my own faith and the captain of my soul — it will take you out," Winfrey continued in the Tuesday episode, referring to the backlash as "attacks, lies and conspiracy theories."

Winfrey and Johnson have shared that they were inspired by a similar fund set up by Dolly Parton after wildfires swept through Gatlinburg, Tenn., in December 2016, killing 14 people and destroying 2,400 structures.

However, Winfrey's detractors mischaracterized Parton's charity résumé as they criticized the Maui effort. Critics falsely claimed that the country icon had never asked for donations to her 2016 fund and had only poured money in from her own fortune. That narrative has since been debunked, but the sentiment remained.

A flood of voices online continued to blast Winfrey and Johnson's invitation for donations, with some asking how they expected the public to give when many Americans "barely can pay rent, barely can put food on the table for our families." Others demanded that the celebs instead fund the project by digging deeper into their pockets or rallying their wealthy friends in Hollywood and Washington, D.C.

Read more: Oprah, Stevie Nicks, Paris Hilton: Celebs are shellacked for responses to Maui disaster

TV personality Nick Cannon joined the backlash, commenting on his "Daily Cannon" podcast that he supported the criticism against Winfrey and Johnson.

"It’s in poor taste for a billionaire to ask anyone for money," Cannon said. "I don’t care what the situation is."

In early August, wind-whipped flames tore through Lahaina, the former capital of the Kingdom of Hawai'i, destroying more than 2,200 homes, apartments and other buildings in West Maui, including historic structures. The fire killed 115 people, making it the deadliest in the United States in 100 years, with the figure expected to rise as 66 others remain missing as of Sept. 8. The estimated damage to property is about $5.6 billion.

Read more: Mapping how the Maui fires destroyed Lahaina

Days after the wildfire, Winfrey was filmed handing out supplies to Maui residents who had sought refuge in a local gymnasium.

Earlier this year, Winfrey bought more than 870 acres on Maui, expanding her holdings on the island to more than 1,000 acres of land. After the acquisition, Forbes estimated her net worth at $2.5 billion.

Johnson's net worth is around $270 million, and he was ranked by Forbes as among the top five earners in entertainment. As a child, he lived with his mother on the island, before they were evicted when he was 14 and had to leave Hawai'i.

Even before the People's Fund was launched, some Hawai'i residents poured their frustration onto Winfrey and other celebrities in response to her videotaped promise to “make a major donation." One user demanded that she ”give back" the land she purchased on Maui "to the native Hawaiian[s]." Another added that the land she bought "was illegally sold [because] it is illegally occupied," a reference to the history of the U.S. government's colonization of the islands of Hawai'i.

Read more: Mourning the catastrophic loss of Hawaiian culture and history in Lahaina

During the Tuesday "CBS Mornings" episode, Winfrey lamented how criticism of her "took the focus off of ... the people of Maui," adding that she was "on the ground" giving out generators and towels to people. She revealed that the son of the show's host, Winfrey's longtime friend Gayle King, had sent her an article about Parton's Gatlinburg fund, sparking the idea for the Maui fund.

She said that as of this week, 2,200 Maui residents have already been cleared to receive their first round of $1,200 monthly checks. Those who qualify can apply for relief on the fund’s website.

Further addressing the backlash, Winfrey told the show's hosts, shrugging with her hands outstretched to her sides, "It made me sad that we're at this state in our country."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.