The phenomenal success of Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show has made her the wealthiest and most powerful woman in the American entertainment industry. Born on January 29, 1954, she was raised in rural poverty in Kosciusko, Mississippi, on a pig farm owned by her maternal grandparents. Her parents never married. She was originally given the name Orpah from the biblical Book of Ruth, but when it proved to difficult to pronounce, her relatives rechristened her Oprah. Oprah’s grandmother taught her to read when she was only two and a half. By the time she was ready to enter kindergarten, she was literate enough to write a note convincing her teacher that she belonged in first grade. Despite her academic promise, Oprah’s early childhood was otherwise grim. She later commented that “it was very lonely out in the country” and that her grandmother “could beat me for days and never get tired.”Oprah found little relief when at six she was sent to live with her mother, Vernita, at a rooming house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Vernita worked as a housecleaner and was rarely at home. Eager for her attention, Oprah became rebellious, especially after she was sexually abused by a teenage cousin when she was nine. Vernita had so little control over her daughter that she considered placing her in a detention center. Instead, she sent Oprah to live with her father, Vernon, in Nashville, Tennessee, when she was 14. Soon after arriving, Oprah confessed that she was pregnant, a condition she had managed to hide for seven months. She gave birth prematurely, and the baby died two weeks later.
A successful business owner and city councilman, Vernon imposed strict discipline on Oprah, which she later credited with putting her on the right path in life. She was inspired to meet his high expectations of her, particularly in her school work. Oprah became an excellent student and an enthusiastic member of her high school’s drama and debate clubs. Her love of reading was also nurtured by her stepmother, Zelma. She took Oprah to the library every two weeks to pick out five books. Oprah was then expected to read them and write a report on each for her parents. While still a teenager, Oprah began her broadcasting career. After being named Miss Fire Prevention, she impressed the management of WVOL radio with her poise and speaking ability. The station hired her as a part-time newscaster in 1971. The same year, while attending Tennessee State University, she won the titles Miss Black Nashville and Miss Black Tennessee. The exposure led to her first television job. At 19, she was hired as a news reporter and anchor for WTVF, Nashville’s CBS affiliate. Before graduating from college, Winfrey was lured to Baltimore, where she anchored the news at WJZ-TV. Her frequent on-air mispronunciations led to her firing, although the station gave her a second chance as the cohost of a morning talk show, People Are Talking. Winfrey has said that “the day I did that talk show, I felt like I’d come home.” The audience embraced Winfrey with equal enthusiasm. Although she brought the show excellent ratings, the station continually criticized her appearance, particularly her weight. In their efforts to mold Winfrey’s image, the management sent her to a New York City hair salon, where a botched permanent left her bald. The experience made her vow never to listen to image consultants again.
In 1984, Winfrey took a new job as the host of AM Chicago (soon retitled The Oprah Winfrey Show), which was then last in the ratings. Within four months, the show was leading in its time slot, besting even the show hosted by talk show pioneer Phil Donahue. One of her fans was composer Quincy Jones—a producer of the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple (1985). He invited Winfrey to audition for the role of Sofia, a powerful African-American woman whose spirit is broken by prejudice. Her acting debut earned her an Academy Award nomination. In 1986, The Oprah Winfrey Show was syndicated nationally. Within five months, it became the number-one talk show, drawing more than 10 million viewers a day. Its success owed much to Winfrey’s quick wit and empathy. As guests confessed their personal problems, Winfrey often held their hands and cried as they cried. She, too, made confessions. In 1991, on an episode about child abuse, Winfrey discussed the abuse she had suffered at the hands of male relatives. Her audience also became involved in her continual struggle with her weight. In 1988, thousands of viewers went on the liquid diet that allowed her to lose 67 pounds. After regaining the weight, she again inspired her audience to exercise as she advocated a responsible diet and physical activity as the keys to weight control. Of equal fascination to her fans has been Oprah’s romantic life. Since 1993, she has been engaged to Chicago businessman Steadman Graham. Her hesitancy to marry has fueled speculations that she is gay. I 1997, she answered the rumors with a public statement declaring that she is heterosexual. As Winfrey’s infiuence grew, so did her fortune. With her show owned by her own corporationHarpo Productions (Oprah spelled backward), Winfrey was earning about $80 million a year by 1990. Her personal worth is estimated at more than $725 million.
Her finances secure, Winfrey began producing movies dealing with subjects of importance to her. In 1989, she produced and starred in the television film The Women of Brewster Place, a drama based on the 1982 novel by Gloria Naylor about seven African-American women living in a tenement. The movie spawned a short-lived television series, in which Winfrey also appeared. Harpo has also produced There Are No Children Here (1993), Beloved (1998), and Tuesdays with Morrie (1999). On September 17, 1996, Winfrey announced on her show that she wanted “to get the country reading.” She introduced viewers to Oprah’s Book Club, a monthly feature during which an entire show would be devoted to discussing a book of Winfrey’s choosing. Within a month after making her first selection, Deep End of the Ocean (1996), more than 750,000 copies of the novel were in print. Oprah’s Book Club has since made bestsellers of dozens of titles and made Winfrey herself the most powerful book marketer in the United States.
After the 1997 death of Princess Diana, Winfrey reevaluated her life and career. As a result, she recast her show, calling it “change-your-life TV.”By emphasizing self-help and advice, she tried to make the program “a catalyst for people beginning to think more insightfully about themselves.” Among the show’s new features was Oprah’s Angel Network, a campaign for donations of spare change for college scholarships. In 1998, the charity collected more than $1 million from viewers, which Winfrey matched penny for penny. She has also made substantial donations to Morehouse College, the United Negro College Fund, and many other charities.
In anticipation of ending her talk show in 2002, Winfrey, in partnership with television executives Marcy Carsey and Geraldine Lay bourne, formed Oxygen Media to create a female-oriented cable channel. In association with Hearst magazines, she also launched O, The Oprah Magazine, in April 2000. Targeted to women in their 30s, the glossy magazine features articles on family, health, spirituality, and books. The first issue was so successful that Hearst had to go back to press for 500,000 copies after the initial run of 1 million quickly sold out. Attesting to Winfrey’s unending ability to attract an audience, Winfrey herself appears on the cover of each issue.
Mair, George. Oprah Winfrey: The Real Story. Revised edition. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1998.
Pasternak, Judith Mahoney. Oprah. New York: Metro Books, 1999.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Beloved (1998). Buena Vista Home Entertainment, DVD, 1999.
The Color Purple (1985). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 1997/1999.
The Women of Brewster Place (1989). Xenon, DVD/VHS, 2000/1998.