Oprah Gail Winfrey (an American talk show host, television producer, actress, author, and philanthropist) was born on January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi. After a troubled adolescence in a small farming community, where she was sexually abused, by a number of male relatives and friends of her mother, Vernita, she moved to Nashville to live with her father, Vernon, a barber and businessman. She entered Tennessee State University in 1971 and began working in radio and television broadcasting in Nashville.
In 1976, Winfrey moved to Baltimore, where she hosted the TV chat show, People Are Talking. The show became a hit and Winfrey stayed with it for eight years, after which she was recruited by a Chicago TV station to host her own morning show, A.M. Chicago. Her major competitor in the time slot was Phil Donahue. Within several months, Winfrey’s open, warm-hearted personal style had won her 100,000 more viewers than Donahue and had taken her show from last place to first in the ratings. Her success led to nationwide fame and a role in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film, The Color Purple, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Winfrey launched the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986 as a nationally syndicated program. With its placement on 120 channels and an audience of 10 million people, the show grossed $125 million by the end of its first year, of which Winfrey received $30 million. She soon gained ownership of the program from ABC, drawing it under the control of her new production company, Harpo Productions (‘Oprah’ spelt backwards) and making more and more money from syndication.
In 1994, with talk shows becoming increasingly trashy and exploitative, Winfrey pledged to keep her show free of tabloid topics. Although ratings initially fell, she earned the respect of her viewers and was soon rewarded with an upsurge in popularity. Her projects with Harpo have included the highly rated 1989 TV miniseries, The Women of Brewster Place, which she also starred in. Winfrey also signed a multi-picture contract with Disney. The initial project, 1998’s Beloved, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Toni Morrison and starring Winfrey and Danny Glover, got mixed reviews and generally failed to live up to expectations.
Winfrey, who became almost as well-known for her weight loss efforts as for her talk show, lost an estimated 90 pounds (dropping to her ideal weight of around 150 pounds) and competed in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC, in 1995. In the wake of her highly publicized success, Winfrey’s personal chef, Rosie Daley, and trainer, Bob Greene, both published best-selling books.
The media giant contributed immensely to the publishing world by launching her “Oprah’s Book Club,” as part of her talk show. The program propelled many unknown authors to the top of the bestseller lists and gave pleasure to reading a new kind of popular prominence.
With the debut in 1999 of Oxygen Media, a company she co-founded that is dedicated to producing cable and Internet programming for women, Winfrey ensured her place in the forefront of the media industry and as one of the most powerful and wealthy people in show business. In 2002, she concluded a deal with the network to air a prime-time complement to her syndicated talk show. Her highly successful monthly, O: The Oprah Magazine debuted in 2000, and in 2004, she signed a new contract to continue The Oprah Winfrey Show through the 2010-11 season. In 2009, Winfrey announced that she would be ending her program when her current contract with ABC ends. Winfrey is expected to move to the Oprah Winfrey Network, a joint venture with Discovery Communications. The show is currently seen on 212 U.S. stations and in more than 100 countries worldwide.
According to Forbes magazine, Oprah was the richest African American of the 20th century and the world’s only Black billionaire for three years running. Life magazine hailed her as the most influential woman of her generation. In 2005, Business Week named her the greatest Black philanthropist in American history. Oprah’s Angel Network has raised more than $51,000,000 for charitable programs, including girls’ education in South Africa and relief to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Winfrey is a dedicated activist for children’s rights; in 1994, President Clinton signed a bill into law that Winfrey had proposed to Congress, creating a nationwide database of convicted child abusers. She founded the Family for Better Lives foundation and also contributes to her alma mater, Tennessee State University. In September 2002, Oprah was named the first recipient of The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Bob Hope Humanitarian Award.
Winfrey campaigned for Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama in December 2007, attracting the largest crowds of the primary season to that point. Winfrey joined Obama for a series of rallies in the early primary/caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. It was the first time Winfrey had ever campaigned for a political candidate.
The biggest event was at the University of South Carolina football stadium, where 29,000 supporters attended a rally that had been switched from an 18,000-seat basketball arena to satisfy public demand.
“Dr. (Martin Luther) King dreamed the dream. But we don’t have to just dream the dream anymore,” Oprah told the crowd. “We get to vote that dream into reality by supporting a man who knows not just who we are, but who we can be.”
The power of Winfrey’s political endorsement was unclear (Obama won Iowa and South Carolina, but lost New Hampshire). But she has a clear track record of turning unknown authors into blockbuster best-sellers when she mentions their books on her program.
Since 1992, Winfrey has been engaged to Stedman Graham, a public relations executive. The couple lives in Chicago, and Winfrey also has homes in Montecito, California, Rolling Prairie, Indiana, and Telluride, Colorado.
By the mid-1990s, Winfrey had reinvented her show with a focus on literature, self-improvement, mindfulness, and spirituality. Though she has been criticized for unleashing a confession culture, promoting controversial self-help ideas, and having an emotion-centred approach, she has also been praised for overcoming adversity to become a benefactor to others.
In 2013, Winfrey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama and received honorary doctorate degrees from Duke and Harvard. In 2008, she formed her own network, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).
Credited with creating a more intimate, confessional form of media communication, Winfrey popularized and revolutionized the tabloid talk show genre pioneered by Phil Donahue. In 1994, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Winfrey has won many accolades throughout her career which includes 18 Daytime Emmy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award and the Chairman’s Award, two Primetime Emmy Awards, including the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, a Tony Award, a Peabody Award and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, awarded by the Academy Awards and two additional Academy Award nominations. Winfrey was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2021.