January 29, 1954 (age 53)
Kosciusko, Mississippi, United States
Occupation: Talk show host
Net worth: over $1.5 billion USD
Oprah Gail Winfrey (born January 29, 1954) is the American multiple-Emmy
Award winning host of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the highest rated talk
show in television history. She is also an influential book critic,
an Academy Award-nominated actress, and a magazine publisher. She has
been ranked the richest African American of the 20th century, the
most philanthropic African American of all time, and the world's
only Black billionaire for three straight years. She is
also, according to several assessments, the most influential woman in
Oprah Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to a Baptist family.
Her parents were unmarried teenagers. Her mother, Vernita Lee, was
a housemaid, and her father, Vernon Winfrey, was a coal miner and later
worked as a barber before becoming a city councilman. Winfrey's father
was in the Armed Forces when she was born. After her birth, Winfrey's
mother travelled north and Winfrey spent her first six years living
in rural poverty with her Grandma Hattie Mae. Winfrey's grandmother
taught her to read before the age of three and took her to the local
church, where she was nicknamed "The Preacher" for her ability
to recite Bible verses. When Winfrey was a child, her grandmother would
take a switch and would hit her with it when she didn't do chores or
if she misbehaved in any way.
At age six, Winfrey
moved to an inner city ghetto in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her mother,
who was less supportive and encouraging than her grandmother. Winfrey
has stated that she was molested by her cousin, uncle, and a family
friend, starting when she was 9.
Despite her dysfunctional
home life, Winfrey skipped two of her earliest grades, became the teacher's
pet, and by the time she was 13 received a scholarship to attend Nicolet
High School in the suburbs, known as Glendale, Wisconsin. Although Winfrey
was very popular, she couldn't afford to go out on the town as frequently
as her better-off classmates. Like many teenagers at the end of the
1960s, Winfrey rebelled, ran away from home and ran the streets. When
she was 14, she became pregnant, but lost the baby after birth.
Also at that age, her frustrated mother sent her to live with her father
in Nashville, Tennessee. Vernon was strict, but encouraging and made
her education a priority. Winfrey became an honors student, was voted
"Most Popular Girl", joined her high school speech team, and
placed second in the nation in dramatic interpretation. She won an oratory
contest, which secured her a full scholarship to Tennessee State University,
a historically black institution, where she studied communication. At
age 18, Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant.
from high school, Anthony Otey, would later recall what Winfrey was
like during those early years:
what she wanted very early in life. She said she wanted to be a movie
star. She wanted to be an actress. And I praise God that she's done
that. She was willing to put aside a lot of other things. Back in the
seventies, drugs had started entering the schools, and that kind of
thing. We were involved in integration and those fights in those years.
We were actively involved in that, but she knew what she wanted to do.
She worked hard at it, and when her ship started to sail, she got aboard.
had said that ever since Winfrey could talk, she was "on stage".
In her youth she played games interviewing her corncob doll and the
crows on the fence of her family's property. But her true media career
began at age 17, when Winfrey worked at a local radio station while
attending Tennessee State University.
Working in local
media, she was both the youngest news anchor and the first black female
news anchor at Nashville's WLAC-TV. She moved to Baltimore's WJZ-TV
in 1976 to co-anchor the six o'clock news. She was then recruited to
join Richard Sher as co-host of WJZ's local talk show People Are Talking,
which premiered on August 14, 1978. She also hosted the local version
of Dialing for Dollars there as well.
Career and success
In 1983, Winfrey relocated to Chicago to host WLS-TV's low-rated half-hour
morning talk-show, AM Chicago. The first episode aired on January 2,
1984. Within months after Winfrey took over, the show went from last
place in the ratings to overtaking Donahue as the highest rated talk
show in Chicago. It was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, expanded to
a full hour, and broadcast nationally beginning September 8, 1986.
On her 20th anniversary show, Oprah revealed that movie critic Roger
Ebert was the one who persuaded her to sign a syndication deal with
King World. Ebert predicted that she would generate 40 times as much
revenue as his television show, At the Movies. Having surpassed
Donahue in the local market Winfrey quickly doubled his national audience,
her show replacing his as the number one day-time talk show in America.
Their much publicized contest was the subject of enormous scrutiny.
Time magazine wrote,
"Few people would have bet on Oprah Winfrey's swift rise to host
of the most popular talk show on TV. In a field dominated by white males,
she is a black female of ample bulk. As interviewers go, she is no match
for, say, Phil Donahue...What she lacks in journalistic toughness, she
makes up for in plainspoken curiosity, robust humor and, above all empathy.
Guests with sad stories to tell are apt to rouse a tear in Oprah's eye...They,
in turn, often find themselves revealing things they would not imagine
telling anyone, much less a national TV audience. It is the talk show
as a group therapy session."
Winfrey on the
first national broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986.TV columnist
Howard Rosenberg said "She's a roundhouse, a full course meal,
big, brassy, loud, aggressive, hyper, laughable, lovable, soulful, tender,
low-down, earthy and hungry. And she may know the way to Phil Donahue's
Newsday's Les Payne
observed, "Oprah Winfrey is sharper than Donahue, wittier, more
genuine, and far better attuned to her audience, if not the world."
Martha Bayles of
The Wall Street Journal wrote, "It's a relief to see a gab-monger
with a fond but realistic assessment of her own cultural and religious
In the mid-1990s
Winfrey adopted a less tabloid-orientated format, doing shows about
heart disease in women, geopolitics with Lisa Ling, spirituality and
meditation, and gift-giving and home decorating shows. She often interviews
celebrities on issues that directly involve them in some way, such as
cancer, charity work, or substance abuse. In addition, she interviews
ordinary people who have done extraordinary things or been involved
in important current issues.
In 1993 Winfrey
hosted a rare prime-time interview with Michael Jackson which became
the fourth most watched event in American television history as well
as the most watched interview ever, with an audience of one hundred
million. Perhaps Winfrey's most famous recent show was the first episode
of the nineteenth season of The Oprah Winfrey Show in the fall of 2004.
During the show each member of the audience received a new G6 sedan;
the 276 cars were donated by Pontiac as part of a publicity stunt. The
show received so much media attention that even the taxes on the cars
During a lawsuit
against Winfrey (see Influence), she hired Dr. Phil McGraw's company
Courtroom Sciences, Inc. to help her analyze and read the jury. Dr.
Phil made such an impression on Winfrey that she invited him to appear
on her show. He accepted the invitation and was a resounding success.
McGraw appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show for several years before launching
his own show, Dr. Phil, in 2002, which was created by Winfrey's production
company, Harpo Productions in partnership with Paramount which produced
made a deal to extend her show until the 2010 – 2011 season, by
which time it will have been on the air for twenty-five years. She plans
to host 140 episodes per season, until her final season, when it will
return to its current number, 130.
The 2004 Nobel Peace
Prize Concert was hosted by Oprah and Tom Cruise. There were musical
performances by Cyndi Lauper, Andrea Bocelli, Joss Stone, Chris Botti,
Diana Krall, Tony Bennett and others. The concert was broadcasted in
the United States on December 23, 2004 by E!. An unofficial Winfrey
fan-club also organized a petition drive in 2005 to nominate Oprah for
the Nobel Peace Prize.
As well as hosting
and appearing on television shows, Winfrey co-founded the women's cable
television network Oxygen. She is also the president of Harpo Productions
(Oprah spelled backwards).
Oprah Winfrey as Sofia in The Color Purple.In 1985, Winfrey co-starred
in Steven Spielberg's epic film adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer
Prize-winning novel The Color Purple. She earned immediate acclaim as
Sofia, the distraught housewife. The following year Winfrey was nominated
for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but she lost to Anjelica
Huston. The Color Purple has now been made into a Broadway musical and
opened late 2005, with Winfrey credited as a producer.
In October 1998,
Winfrey produced and starred in the film Beloved, based upon Toni Morrison's
Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. To prepare for her role
as Sethe, the protagonist and former slave, Winfrey experienced a 24-hour
simulation of the experience of slavery, which included being tied up
and blindfolded and left alone in the woods. Despite major advertising,
including two episodes of her talk show dedicated solely to the film,
and moderate to good critical reviews, Beloved opened to poor box-office
results, losing approximately $30 million. Working with delicate subjects,
Winfrey managed to keep the cast motivated and inspired. "Here
we were working on this project with the heavy underbelly of political
and social realism, and she managed to lighten things up", said
costar Thandie Newton. "I've worked with a lot of good actors,
and I know Oprah hasn't made many films. I was stunned. She's a very
strong technical actress and it's because she's so smart. She's acute.
She's got a mind like a razor blade."
In 2005, Harpo Productions
released another film adaptation of a famous American novel, Zora Neale
Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). The made-for-television
film Their Eyes Were Watching God was based upon a teleplay by Suzan-Lori
Parks, and starred Halle Berry in the lead female role.
Books and magazines
Winfrey on the cover of O, The Oprah Magazine.Winfrey publishes two
magazines: O, The Oprah Magazine and O at Home. She has co-authored
five books; at the announcement of her future weight loss book (to be
co-authored with her personal trainer Bob Greene), it was said that
her undisclosed advance fee had broken the record for the world's highest
book advance fee, previously held by former U.S. President Bill Clinton
for his autobiography My Life. In 2002 Fortune called O, the Oprah
Magazine the most successful start-up ever in the industry.
Oprah.com is a website created by Winfrey's company to provide resources
and interactive content relating to her shows, magazines, book club,
and public charity. Through Oprah.com Winfrey raised over three million
dollars for Katrina victims and helped to capture four accused child
predators. Oprah.com averages more than 100 million page views and more
than three million users per month.
On February 9, 2006 it was announced that Winfrey signed a $55 million,
three-year contract with XM Satellite Radio to establish a new radio
channel. The channel, Oprah & Friends, features popular contributors
to The Oprah Winfrey Show and O, The Oprah Magazine including Nate Berkus,
Dr. Mehmet Oz, Bob Greene, Dr. Robin Smith and Marianne Williamson.
Oprah & Friends began broadcasting at 11:00 AM ET, September 25,
2006, from a new studio at Winfrey's Chicago headquarters. The channel
broadcasts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on XM Radio Channel 156. Winfrey's
contract requires her to be on the air 30 minutes a week, 39 weeks a
year. The 30-minute weekly show will feature Winfrey with friend Gayle
King. Winfrey's audience is extremely loyal and XM hopes that the "Oprah
Effect" can have the same effect on XM subscription sales that
she does on the New York Times Best Seller list, thanks to her book
In late 2006 Winfrey’s Harpo production and ABC revealed plans
to bring two new reality TV shows to the air. One of the series is tentatively
titled Oprah Winfrey's The Big Give, and presents 10 people with large
sums of money and resources and they must compete to find "the
most powerful, sensational, emotional and dramatic ways to give to others."
The second show, tentatively titled Your Money or Your Life, will unleash
an "expert action team" every week to aid a family in overcoming
a crisis through a "total money and life makeover."
Winfrey will also
voice a part in Bee Movie coming out in 2007.
Winfrey currently lives on “The Promised Land”, her 42 acre
(170,000 m²) ocean and mountain view estate in Montecito, California,
outside of Santa Barbara. Rumors state that Winfrey was at a party the
previous owners were throwing and fell so in love with the estate that
she was reported to have purchased it by writing a personal check for
$50,000,000 USD, although it was not for sale. Winfrey also owns a house
in Lavallette, New Jersey, an apartment in Chicago, an estate on Fisher
Island off the coast of Miami, a ski house in Telluride, CO and property
on the island of Maui, Hawaii.
Winfrey and her
partner Stedman Graham have been together for over 20 years. Sophie
and Soloman are her two Cocker Spaniels. Winfrey believes that the reason
she never had children was because her students at South Africa’s
Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for girls were meant to be her daughters:
I never had children,
never even thought I would have children. Now I have 152 daughters;
expecting 75 more next year. That is some type of gestation period!…I
said to the mothers, the family members, the aunts, the grannies —
because most of these girls have lost their families, their parents
— I said to them, “Your daughters are now my daughters and
I promise you I'm going to take care of your daughters. I promise you.”
“When I watched
Oprah with those girls,” observed best friend Gayle King, “I
kept thinking she was meant to be a mother, and it would happen one
way or another.” Newsweek described a student named Thelasa
Msumbi hugging Winfrey extra tight, then whispering “We are your
daughters now.” Winfrey, who will teach a class at the school
via satellite, plans to spend much of her retirement in a house she
is building on the campus where she plans to use the same dishes, sheets,
and curtains that the students do. “I want to be near my girls
and be in a position to see how they're doing,” said Winfrey.
She previously dated
movie critic Roger Ebert, whom she credits with advising her to take
her show into syndication. The relationship of Winfrey and Graham has
been documented through the years with numerous romantic tabloid articles
often accompanied by color spreads of the couple at home and on lavish
vacations. Prior to meeting Graham, Winfrey's love life was a lot less
stable. A self-described promiscuous teen who was a victim of sexual
abuse, Winfrey gave birth at the age of 14, though her son died while
still in infancy. In 1997 a former boyfriend named Randoph Cook
tried to sue Winfrey for $20 million for allegedly blocking a tell-all
book where he claimed they lived together for several months in 1985
and did drugs. Cook’s claims mark the second time
reports surfaced about Winfrey’s involvement in a drug related
love affair. In 1995 Winfrey herself confessed to drug use. “And
I've often said over the years…in my attempts to come out and
say it, I've said many times I did things in my 20s that I was ashamed
of, I did things I felt guilty about, but that is my life's great big
secret that's always been held over my head,” she explained on
her show. “I always felt that the drug itself is not the problem
but that I was addicted to the man.” She added: “I can't
think of anything I wouldn't have done for that man.”
love life had not always been so tumultuous. Her high school sweetheart
Anthony Otey would recall an innocent courtship that began in Winfrey's
senior year of high school, from which he saved hundreds of love notes;
Winfrey conducted herself with dignity and as a model student. The
two spoke of getting married, but Otey claimed to have always secretly
known that Winfrey was destined for a far greater life than he could
ever provide. On Valentine's day of her senior year, Otey's fears
came true when Winfrey took Otey aside and told him they needed to talk.
“I knew right then that I was going to lose the girl I loved,”
Otey recalled. “She told me she was breaking up with me because
she didn't have time for a relationship. We both sat there and cried.
It broke my heart.”Years later, Otey was stunned to discover
details from Winfrey's promiscuous and rebellious past at the end of
the 1960s, and the fact that she had given birth to a baby several years
before they met.
In 1971, several
months after breaking up with Otey, Winfrey met William “Bubba”
Taylor at Tennessee State University. According to CBS journalist George
Mair, Taylor was Winfrey's “first intense, to die for love affair”.
Winfrey helped get Taylor a job at WVOL, and according to Mair, “did
everything to keep him, including literally begging him on her knees
to stay with her.” Taylor however was unwilling to leave Nashville
with Winfrey when she moved to Baltimore to work at WJZ-TV in June 1976.
“We really did care for each other,” Winfrey would later
recall. “We shared a deep love. A love I will never forget.”
When WJZ-TV management
criticized Winfrey for crying on the air while reporting tragedies and
were unhappy with her physical appearance (especially when her hair
fell out as the result of a bad perm), Winfrey turned to reporter Lloyd
Kramar for comfort. “Lloyd was just the best,” Winfrey would
later recall. “That man loved me even when I was bald! He was
wonderful. He stuck with me through the whole demoralizing experience.
That man was the most fun romance I ever had.”
According to Mair,
when Kramar moved to NBC in New York Winfrey became involved with a
man who friends had warned her to avoid. Winfrey would later recall:
I'd had a relationship
with a man for four years. I wasn't living with him. I'd never lived
with anyone—and I thought I was worthless without him. The more
he rejected me, the more I wanted him. I felt depleted, powerless. At
the end I was down on the floor on my knees groveling and pleading with
According to Mair's
reporting “the major problem with this intense love affair arose
from her lover's being married, with no plans to leave his wife”.
Winfrey became so depressed that on September 8, 1981, she wrote a suicide
note to best friend Gayle King instructing King to water her plants.
“That suicide note had been much overplayed” Winfrey told
Ms. magazine's Joan Barthel. “I couldn't kill myself. I would
be afraid the minute I did it; something really good would happen and
I'd miss it.”
According to Winfrey,
such emotional ups and downs gradually led to a weight problem:
The reason I gained
so much weight in the first place and the reason I had such a sorry
history of abusive relationships with men was I just needed approval
so much. I needed everyone to like me, because I didn't like myself
much. So I'd end up with these cruel self-absorbed guys who'd tell me
how selfish I was, and I'd say “Oh thank you, you're so right”
and be grateful to them. Because I had no sense that I deserved anything
else. Which is also why I gained so much weight later on. It was the
perfect way of cushioning myself against the world's disapproval.
In 1989, Winfrey
was personally touched by the 1980s AIDS crisis so frequently discussed
on her show when her long time aide, Billy Rizzo, became afflicted by
the disease. Rizzo was the only man among the four-person production
team who Winfrey relied on in her early years in Chicago long before
she had a large staff. “I love Billy like a brother,” she
said at the time. “He's a wonderful, funny, talented guy, and
it's just heartbreaking to see him so ill”. Winfrey visited him
daily during his last days.
Winfrey's best friend
since their early twenties is Gayle King. King was formerly the host
on The Gayle King Show, and is currently an editor of O, the Oprah Magazine.
Since 1997, when Winfrey played the therapist on an episode of the sitcom
Ellen in which Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet, Winfrey and King
have been the target of persistent rumours that they were gay. “I
understand why people think we're gay,” Winfrey says in the August
2006 issue of O magazine. “There isn't a definition in our culture
for this kind of bond between women. So I get why people have to label
it—how can you be this close without it being sexual?”
“I've told nearly everything there is to tell. All my stuff is
out there. People think I'd be so ashamed of being gay that I wouldn't
admit it? Oh, please.”
Her celebrity status
notwithstanding, the billionaire Winfrey served in 2004 on a murder
trial jury. The trial was held in Chicago, and involved a man accused
of murder after an argument over a counterfeit 50 dollar bill. The jury
voted to convict the man of murder.
In June 2005, Winfrey
was denied access to the Hermès company's flagship store in Paris,
France. Winfrey arrived fifteen minutes after the store's formal closing
time, though the store was still very active and high end stores routinely
extend hours for VIP customers. Winfrey believed she would have been
allowed in the store if she were a white celebrity. “I know the
difference between a store that is closed and a store that is closed
to me,” explained Winfrey. In September 2005, Hermès USA
CEO Robert Chavez was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show and sincerely
apologized for a rude employee.
Oprah on The Late
Show with David Letterman.On December 1, 2005, Winfrey appeared on The
Late Show with David Letterman to promote the new Broadway musical The
Color Purple, of which she was a producer, joining the host for the
first time in 16 years. The episode was hailed by some as the “television
event of the decade” and helped Letterman attract his largest
audience in more than 11 years: 13.45 million viewers. Although
a much-rumored feud was said to have been the cause of the rift, both
Winfrey and Letterman balked at such talk. “I want you to know,
it's really over, whatever you thought was happening,” said Winfrey.
Winfrey's show is
based in Chicago, so she spends time there, specifically in the neighborhood
of Streeterville, but otherwise resides in California. She purchased
at least one property on Maui, Hawaii, which was featured on the cover
of O at Home and on her TV show.
Winfrey had her
DNA tested for the 2006 PBS program African American Lives. The genetic
test determined that her maternal line originated among the Kpelle ethnic
group, in the area that today is Liberia. Her genetic make up was determined
to be 89% Sub-Saharan African. She is part Native American (about 8%
according to the test) and East Asian (about 3% according to the test).
To celebrate two
decades on national TV, and to thank her employees for their hard work,
Winfrey took her staff and their families (1065 people in total) on
vacation in Hawaii in the summer of 2006.
As revealed on a 2004 episode of her television show, Oprah had a half-brother
who was gay and had died of AIDS.
In the February
2006 issue of her magazine, O, Winfrey felt "betrayed" by
her family member, who revealed to the National Enquirer that Winfrey
gave birth as a teen to a baby who died in the hospital weeks later.
Oprah visit Graceland
in 2006 while in her cross-country trip with Gayle King. While having
dinner with Lisa Marie Presley and her husband Michael Lockwood, Oprah
told Lisa Marie that her grandmother's last name was also Presley. 
Main article: Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball
To celebrate her African heritage and to honor her cultural and political
heroines of the civil rights era, Winfrey hosted the Legends Weekend;
a televised ball that took place at her California home and was watched
by 11 million viewers. Among the most prominent honorees were civil
rights icons Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King who both died less than
a year after being honored.
Winfrey during her car giveaway to the entire audience.Born in rural
poverty, then raised by a mother on welfare in the ghetto, Winfrey became
a millionaire at age 32 when her talk show went national. Because of
the amount of revenue the show generated, Winfrey was in a position
to negotiate ownership of the show and start her own production company.
By 1994 the show's ratings were still thriving and Winfrey negotiated
a contract that earned her nine figures a year. Considered the richest
woman in entertainment by the early 1990s, at age 41 Winfrey's wealth
crossed another milestone when with a net worth of $340 million, she
replaced Bill Cosby as the only African American on the Forbes 400.
Although blacks are 12% of the U.S. population, Winfrey has remained
the only black person wealthy enough to rank among America's 400 richest
people nearly every year since 1995. (Black Entertainment Television
founder Bob Johnson briefly joined her on the list from 2001-2003 before
his ex-wife reportedly acquired part of his fortune, though he returned
With a 2000 net-worth
of $800 million, Winfrey is believed to have been the richest African
American of the 20th century. To celebrate her status as a historical
figure, Professor Juliet E.K. Walker of the University of Illinois created
the course "History 298: Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon."
rich list has listed Winfrey as the world's only black billionaire in
2004, 2005, and 2006 and as the first black woman billionaire in world
history. According to Forbes, Winfrey is now worth over $1.5
billion. and has overtaken Ebay CEO Meg Whitman as the richest self-made
woman in America
In 1998, Winfrey began Oprah's Angel Network, a charity aimed at encouraging
people around the world to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged
others. Accordingly, Oprah's Angel Network supports charitable projects
and provides grants to nonprofit organizations around the world that
share this vision. To date, Oprah's Angel Network has raised more than
$51,000,000 ($1 million of which was donated by Jon Bon Jovi). Winfrey
personally covers all administrative costs associated with the charity,
so 100% of all funds raised go to charity programs.
show is known for raising money through her public charity and the cars
and gifts she gives away on TV are often donated by corporations in
exchange for publicity, behind the scenes Winfrey personally donates
more of her own money to charity than any other show-business celebrity
in America. In 2005 she became the first black person listed by Business
Week as one of America's top 50 most generous philanthropists, having
given an estimated $250 million. Despite being the 235th richest
American in 2005, Winfrey was the 32nd most philanthropic. Her philanthropy
has included a $10 million donation to Hurricane Katrina relief.
Winfrey also put 100 black men through college with $7 million in scholarships.
Winfrey was the
recipient of the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award at the 2002 Emmy
Awards for services to television and film.
In 2004, Winfrey and her team filmed an episode of her show entitled
Oprah's Christmas Kindness, in which Winfrey, her best friend Gayle
King, her partner Stedman Graham, and some crew members travelled to
South Africa to bring attention to the plight of young children affected
by poverty and AIDS. During the 21-day whirlwind trip, Winfrey and her
crew visited schools and orphanages in poverty-stricken areas, and at
different set-up points in the areas distributed Christmas presents
to 50,000 children, with dolls for the girls and soccer balls for
the boys. In addition, each child was given a backpack full of school
supplies and received two sets of school uniforms for their gender,
in addition to two sets of socks, two sets of underwear, and a pair
of shoes. Throughout the show, Winfrey appealed to viewers to donate
money to Oprah's Angel Network for poor and AIDS-affected children in
Africa, and pledged that she personally would oversee where that money
was spent. From that show alone, viewers around the world donated over
Main article: Oprah
Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls
Winfrey invested $40 million and much of her time establishing the Oprah
Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls near Johannesburg in South Africa.
The school opened in January, 2007. Nelson Mandela praised Winfrey for
overcoming her own disadvantaged youth to become a benefactor for others
and for investing in the future of South Africa.
Rankings as world's
most influential woman
Winfrey was called "arguably the world's most powerful woman"
by CNN and Time.com. Time named Winfrey one of the 100 people who
most influenced the 20th century, as well as one of the 100 most influential
people of 2004, 2005, and again in 2006. Winfrey and Bill Gates are
the only two people in the world to make all four lists. At the end
of the 20th century Life listed Winfrey as both the most influential
woman and the most influential black person of her generation, and in
a cover story profile the magazine called her "America's most powerful
woman". Ladies Home Journal also ranked Winfrey number one
in their list of the most powerful women in America and senator Barack
Obama has said she "may be the most influential woman in the country".
In 2003 Winfrey edged out both Superman and Elvis Presley to be named
the greatest pop culture icon of all time by VH1. In 2005 Forbes
named her the world's most powerful celebrity. Columnist Maureen
Dowd seems to agree with such assessments:
She is the top alpha
female in this country. She has more credibility than the president.
Other successful women, such as Hillary Clinton and Martha Stewart,
had to be publicly slapped down before they could move forward. Even
Condi has had to play the protegé with Bush. None of this happened
to Oprah — she is a straight ahead success story.
Vanity Fair wrote:
arguably has more influence on the culture than any university president,
politician, or religious leader, except perhaps the Pope."
Bill O'Reilly said:
I mean this is a
woman that came from nothing to rise up to be the most powerful woman,
I think, in the world. I think Oprah Winfrey is the most powerful woman
in the world, not just in America. That's — anybody who goes on
her program immediately benefits through the roof. I mean, she has a
loyal following; she has credibility; she has talent; and she's done
it on her own to become fabulously wealthy and fabulously powerful.
Kelly states that she has always been “fascinated” by Winfrey:
As a woman, she
has wielded an unprecedented amount of influence over the American culture
and psyche,…There has been no other person in the 20th century
whose convictions and values have impacted the American public in such
a significant way.… I see her as probably the most powerful
woman in our society. I think Oprah has influenced every medium that
reaches far beyond pop-culture and into unrelated industries where many
believe she has the power to cause enormous market swings and radical
price changes with a single comment. During a show about mad cow disease
with Howard Lyman (aired on April 16, 1996), Winfrey exclaimed, "It
has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!" Texas cattlemen
sued her and Lyman in early 1998 for "false defamation of perishable
food" and "business disparagement", claiming that Winfrey's
remarks subsequently sent cattle prices tumbling, costing beef producers
some USD$12 million. On February 26, after a trial spanning over two
months in an Amarillo, Texas court in the thick of cattle country, a
jury found Winfrey and Lyman were not liable for daimages. (After the
trial, she received a postcard from Roseanne Barr reading, “Congratulations,
you beat the meat!”) In June 2005 the first case of mad cow disease
in a cow native to the United States was detected in Texas. The USDA
concluded that it was most likely infected in Texas prior to 1997.
In 2005 Winfrey
was named the greatest woman in American history as part of a public
poll as part of The Greatest American. She was ranked #9 overall on
the list of greatest Americans.
extends far beyond the shores of the U.S., where 49 million U.S. viewers
see her talk show weekly. The show airs in 117 countries around the
world “from Australia to Zimbabwe.”
While Phil Donahue has been credited with pioneering the tabloid talk
show genre, what has been described as the warmth, intimacy and personal
confession Winfrey brought to the format is believed to have both
popularized and revolutionized it.  In the scholarly text
Freaks Talk Back, Yale sociology professor Joshua Gamson credits
the tabloid talk show genre with providing much needed high impact media
visibility for gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transgender people
and doing more to make them mainstream and socially acceptable than
any other development of the 20th century. In the book's editorial review
Michael Bronski wrote "In the recent past, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals,
and transgendered people had almost no presence on television. With
the invention and propagation of tabloid talk shows such as Jerry Springer,
Jenny Jones, Oprah, and Geraldo, people outside the sexual mainstream
now appear in living rooms across America almost every day of the week."
An example of one
such show by Winfey occurred in the 1980s where for the entire hour,
members of the studio audience stood up one by one, gave their name
and announced that they were gay. Also in the 1980s Winfrey took her
show to West Virginia to confront a town gripped by AIDS paranoia because
a gay man living in the town had HIV. Winfrey interviewed the man who
had become a social outcast, the town's mayor who drained a swimming
pool in which the man had gone swimming, and debated with the town's
hostile residents. "But I hear this is a God fearing town"
Winfrey scolded the homophobic studio audience, "where's all that
Christian love and understanding?" During a show on gay marriage
in the 1990s, a woman in Winfrey's audience stood up to complain that
gays were constantly flaunting their sex lives and she announced that
she was tired of it. "You know what I'm tired of", replied
Winfrey, "heterosexual males raping and sodomizing young girls.
That's what I'm tired of." Her rebuttal inspired a screaming standing
ovation from that show's mostly gay studio audience.
Gamson credits the
tabloid talk show fad with making alternative sexual orientations and
identities more acceptable in mainstream society. Examples include a
recent Time magazine article describing early 21st century gays coming
out of the closet younger and younger and gay suicide rates plummeting.
Gamson also believes that tabloid talk shows caused gays to be embraced
on more traditional forms of media. Examples include sitcoms like Will
& Grace, primetime shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and
Oscar nominated feature films like Brokeback Mountain.
a grieving Nate Berkus.While having changed with the times from her
tabloid talk show roots, Winfrey continues to include gay guests by
using her show to promote openly gay personalities like her hairdresser,
makeup artist, and decorator Nate Berkus who inspired an outpouring
of sympathy from middle America after grieving the loss of his partner
in the 2004 tsunami on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey's "therapeutic"
hosting style and the tabloid talk show genre has been credited or blamed
for leading the media counterculture of the 1980s and 1990s which some
believe broke 20th century taboos, led to America's self-help obsession,
and created confession culture. The Wall Street Journal coined the term
"Oprahfication" which means public confession as a form of
In April 1997, Winfrey
played the therapist on the sitcom Ellen to whom the character (and
the real-life Ellen DeGeneres) said she was a lesbian. In 1998, Mark
Steyn in the National Review wrote of Winfrey "Today, no truly
epochal moment in the history of the Republic occurs unless it is validated
by her presence. When Ellen said, 'Yep! I'm gay,' Oprah was by her side,
guesting on the sitcom as (what else?) the star's therapist. She is,
of course, therapist to an entire nation. If only it weren't so hard
for the rest of us to get an appointment. Asked to explain the cause
of the 1992 riots, one angry black looter from South Central said: 'We
had to do something to get Oprah to Los Angeles.'"
By confessing intimate details about her weight problems, tumultuous
love life, and sexual abuse, and crying alongside her guests, Time magazine
credits Winfrey with creating a new form of media communication known
as "rapport talk" as distinguished from the "report talk"
of Phil Donahue:
Winfrey saw television's
power to blend public and private; while it links strangers and conveys
information over public airwaves, TV is most often viewed in the privacy
of our homes. Like a family member, it sits down to meals with us and
talks to us in the lonely afternoons. Grasping this paradox, ...She
makes people care because she cares. That is Winfrey's genius, and will
be her legacy, as the changes she has wrought in the talk show continue
to permeate our culture and shape our lives.
Observers even noted
the "Oprahfication" of politics by noting "Oprah-style
debates" and Bill Clinton's empathetic speaking style. Columnist
Maureen Dowd commented on the symbolism of Bill Clinton seeking an "Oprah-style"
talk show when he left the presidency:
There is a delicious
symmetry in Clinton's exploring the idea of a daytime syndicated talk
show: the man who brought Oprah-style psychobabble and misty confessions
to politics taking the next step and actually transmogrifying into Oprah.
Every time a politician
lets his lip quiver or a cable anchor "emotes" on TV, they
nod to the cult of confession that Oprah helped create.
confessions about her weight (which peaked at 108 kg (238 lb), also
paved the way for other plus sized women in media such as Roseanne Barr,
Rosie O'Donnell and Star Jones. The November 1988 Ms. magazine observed
that "in a society where fat is taboo, she made it in a medium
that worships thin and celebrates a bland, white-bread prettiness of
body and personality...But Winfrey made fat sexy, elegant — damned
near gorgeous - with her drop-dead wardrobe, easy body language, and
Oprah's Book Club
In late 1996, Winfrey introduced a new segment on her television
show: Oprah's Book Club. The segment focused on new books and classics,
and often brought obscure novels to popular attention. The book club
became such a powerful force that whenever Winfrey introduced a new
book as her book-club selection, it instantly became a best-seller (known
as the Oprah Effect); for example, when she selected the classic John
Steinbeck novel East of Eden, it soared to the top of the book charts.
Being recognized by Winfrey often means a million additional book sales
for an author.
In Reading with
Oprah: The book club that changed America, Kathleen Rooney describes
Winfrey as "a serious American intellectual who pioneered the use
of electronic media, specifically television and the Internet, to take
reading — a decidedly non-technological and highly individual
act — and highlight its social elements and uses in such a way
to motivate millions of erstwhile non-readers to pick up books."
Oprah's Book Club
is so influential that, when she selected his memoir Night in 2006,
just a few months later Time magazine named author Elie Wiesel as one
of the 100 most influential people on the planet. Winfrey and Wiesel
traveled together back to the Auschwitz concentration camp with Wiesel
telling Winfrey that he would not have made the trip with just anyone
and that it was probably his last trip there. "What you did was
so respectful", Wiesel told Oprah. 50,000 high school students
competed to be part of a follow-up show in which only 50 winners of
an essay contest were selected to meet Winfrey and Wiesel. Consistent
with the book's theme, many of the winning students had endured their
own forms of discrimination including homophobia and surviving the Rwandan
Genocide (and being reunited with lost family on the show). The students
were surprised to learn that AT&T had given them all a $5000 scholarship
to the college of their choice, and even more surprised when Winfrey
decided to double their scholarships herself by adding an additional
Oprah's Book Club
has occasionally chosen books which have proven to be controversial.
Most notably, Jonathan Franzen questioned the Club's selection process
and credibility, and there was a live television confrontation over
allegations of fabrication regarding James Frey's A Million Little Pieces.
Oprah's latest selection,
The Measure of a Man by Sidney Poitier, was announced on Janaury 26,
In 2002, Christianity Today published an article called "The Church
of O" in which they concluded that Winfrey had emerged as an influential
spiritual leader. "Since 1994, when she abandoned traditional talk-show
fare for more edifying content, and 1998, when she began 'Change Your
Life TV', Oprah's most significant role has become that of spiritual
leader. To her audience of more than 22 million mostly female viewers,
she has become a postmodern priestess—an icon of church-free spirituality."
The sentiment was seconded by Marcia Z. Nelson in her book The Gospel
According to Oprah. On the season premier of Winfrey's 13th season
Roseanne Barr told Winfrey "you're the African Mother Goddess of
us all" inspiring much enthusiasm from the studio audience. The
animated series Futurama alluded to her spiritual influence by suggesting
that, a thousand years from now, a religion known as "Oprahism"
The audience for her magazine is considerably more upscale than those
who watch her show, earning US$63,000 a year (well above the median
for U.S. women). Although Winfrey's audience is sometimes spoofed
for their fanatical devotion by shows like Saturday Night Live, Winfrey
has been very protective of them and gets very offended when they are
Some of Winfrey's
biggest fans are gay males. For example, one of the stars of the reality
TV show The Benefactor was a gay African American man named Kevin who
was so obsessed with Winfrey that he would ask "What would Oprah
do?" before making any strategic decision. Another gay man included
Oprah on his published list of women worshipped by gay men and asked,
"What gay man hasn't watched at least 1,000 episodes of The Oprah
Although Winfrey has continually changed the focus of her show since
the mid-1990s, her success has been blamed for popularizing the "tabloid
talk show" genre, and turning it into a thriving industry that
has included Ricki Lake, The Jenny Jones Show, and The Jerry Springer
Show. Sociologist Vicki Abt criticised tabloid talk shows for redefining
social norms. In her book Coming After Oprah: Cultural Fallout in the
Age of the TV talk show, Abt warned that the media revolution that followed
Winfrey's success was blurring the lines between "normal"
and "deviant" behavior.
Leading up to the
U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Winfrey's show received criticism for allegedly
having an anti-war bias. Ben Shapiro of Townhall.com wrote:
is the most powerful woman in America. She decides what makes the New
York Times best-seller lists. Her touchy-feely style sucks in audiences
at the rate of 14 million viewers per day. But Oprah is far more than
a cultural force — she's a dangerous political force as well,
a woman with unpredictable and mercurial attitudes toward the major
issues of the day."
In 2006, Winfrey
recalled such controversies:
"I once did
a show titled Is War the Only Answer? In the history of my career, I've
never received more hate mail-like 'Go back to Africa' hate mail. I
was accused of being un-American for even raising the question."
In 2006, rappers
Ludacris, 50 Cent and Ice Cube criticized Winfrey for what they perceived
as an anti-hip hop bias. In an interview with GQ magazine, Ludacris
said that Winfrey gave him a "hard time" about his lyrics,
and edited comments he made during an appearance on her show with the
cast of the film Crash. He also claimed that he wasn't initially invited
on the show with the rest of the cast. Winfrey responded by saying that
she's opposed to rap lyrics that "marginalize women", but
enjoys some artists, including Kanye West, who appeared on her show.
She said she spoke with Ludacris backstage after his appearance to explain
her position, and said she understood that his music was for entertainment
purposes, but that some of his listeners might take it literally.
Winfrey has also
been criticized for not being "tough" enough in questioning
celebrity or politician guests on her show that she appears to like.
Lisa de Moraes, a media columnist for The Washington Post, stated, "Oprah
doesn't do follow-up questions unless you're an author who's embarrassed
her by fabricating portions of a supposed memoir she's plugged for her
In early 2007, Winfrey
was criticized for building a $40 million school complex for girls in
South Africa. The school will have an initial enrollment of 152 but
will gradually accommodate 450, and features such amenities as a
beauty salon and yoga studio. It has been argued that the money
would be better utilized to educate a larger amount of children in either
North America or South Africa, however Winfrey insists that beautiful
surroundings will inspire greatness in the future leaders of Africa.
has been accused by magician and skeptic James Randi of being deliberately
deceptive and uncritical in how she handles paranormal claims on her
In 2007, Oprah began
to endorse the controversial self-help program The Secret. The Secret
urges its audience to change their lives through positive thoughts,
which will directly change the world around them. Critics argue that
this idea is damaging, as it trivialises important decisions and promotes
a quick-fix material culture, and suggest Oprah's promotion of it is
irresponsible given her influence.
Through the power
of media, Oprah Winfrey has created an unparalleled connection with
people around the world. As supervising producer and host of the top-rated,
award-winning The Oprah Winfrey Show, she has entertained, enlightened
and uplifted millions of viewers for the past two decades. Her accomplishments
as a global media leader and philanthropist have established her as
one of the most respected and admired public figures today.
Biography: Photos, videos and important milestones from Oprah's life
Oprah began her broadcasting career at WVOL radio in Nashville while
still in high school. At the age of 19, she became the youngest person
and the first African-American woman to anchor the news at Nashville's
WTVF-TV. She then relocated to Baltimore's WJZ-TV to co-anchor the Six
O'Clock News and later went on to become co-host of its local talk show,
People Are Talking.
In 1984, Oprah moved
to Chicago to host WLS-TV's morning talk show, AM Chicago, which became
the number one local talk show—surpassing ratings for Donahue—just
one month after she began. In less than a year, the show expanded to
one hour and was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. It entered national
syndication in 1986, becoming the highest-rated talk show in television
history. In 1988, she established Harpo Studios, a production facility
in Chicago, making her the third woman in the American entertainment
industry (after Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball) to own her own studio.
The Oprah Winfrey
Show has remained the number one talk show for 20 consecutive seasons*.
Produced by her own production company, Harpo Productions, Inc., the
show is seen by an estimated 48 million viewers a week in the United
States** and is broadcast internationally in 126 countries.
AND EDITORIAL DIRECTOR
In April 2000, Oprah and Hearst Magazines introduced O, The Oprah Magazine,
a monthly magazine that has become one of today's leading women's lifestyle
publications. It is credited as being the most successful magazine launch
in recent history and currently has a circulation of 2.3 million readers
each month. In April 2002, Oprah launched the first international edition
of O, The Oprah Magazine in South Africa, extending her live your best
life message to another broad audience.
In 2004, O at Home,
a newsstand-only quarterly shelter magazine designed to help readers
create a home that reflects their personal style, made its debut.
Through her company's film division, Harpo Films, she has produced projects
based on classic and contemporary literature that have garnered the
highest industry honors for quality acting and production. Telefilms
under the Oprah Winfrey Presents banner have included the award-winning
Tuesdays With Morrie, based on the best-selling novel by Mitch Albom
and starring Academy Award®-winner Jack Lemmon and Emmy Award®-winner
Hank Azaria; David and Lisa, an updated version of a 1962 film, re-written
for television by Lloyd Kramer and Theodore Isaac Rubin and starring
Academy Award®-winner Sidney Poitier; and Their Eyes Were Watching
God, based on the Zora Neale Hurston novel and starring Academy Award®-winner
In 1998, Harpo Films
produced the critically acclaimed Beloved, a Touchstone Pictures feature
film based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Toni Morrison, which
co-starred Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover and was directed by Jonathan
Oprah made her acting
debut in 1985 as "Sofia" in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple,
for which she received both Academy Award® and Golden Globe nominations.
She also has been lauded for her performances in the made-for-television
movies Before Women Had Wings (1997), There Are No Children Here (1993),
and The Women of Brewster Place (1989).
Oprah.com is a premiere women's lifestyle website, offering advice on
everything from the mind, body and spirit to food, home and relationships.
It provides comprehensive resources related to The Oprah Winfrey Show,
O, The Oprah Magazine and Oprah & Friends. In addition, the website
has unique original content, including Oprah's Book Club, which offers
free in-depth reading guides for each book selection, online discussion
groups and Q&A sessions with literary experts. Within its first
year, Oprah's Book Club quickly became the largest book club in the
world, attracting approximately 1 million members. In 2003, Oprah.com
also launched Live Your Best Life, an interactive multimedia workshop
based on her sold-out national speaking tour that features Oprah's personal
life stories and life lessons along with a workbook of thought-provoking
68 million page views and more than 4 million users per month and receives
approximately 20,000 e-mails each week.
Oprah has long believed that education is the door to freedom, offering
a chance at a brighter future. Through her private charity, The Oprah
Winfrey Foundation, she has awarded hundreds of grants to organizations
that support the education and empowerment of women, children and families
in the United States and around the world. Amongst her various philanthropic
contributions, she has donated millions of dollars toward providing
a better education for students who have merit but no means. She also
has developed schools to educate thousands of underserved children internationally
and created "The Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program," which gives
scholarships to students determined to use their education to give back
to their communities in the United States and abroad.
In December 2002,
The Oprah Winfrey Foundation expanded its global humanitarian efforts
with her ChristmasKindness South Africa 2002 initiative that included
visits to orphanages and rural schools in South Africa where 50,000
children received gifts of food, clothing, athletic shoes, school supplies,
books and toys. Sixty-three rural schools received libraries and teacher
During a December
2000 visit with Nelson Mandela, Oprah pledged $10 million to build a
school in South Africa. As that commitment broadened, she established
The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Foundation, to which she has contributed
more than $40 million toward the creation of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership
Academy for Girls—South Africa, which opens in January 2007. Located
in a 28-building campus in Henley-on-Klip, the Leadership Academy is
a state-of-the-art independent school that will engender high standards
of academic achievement and service leadership for girls. Its first
152 accepted 7th and 8th grade students, who show outstanding promise
despite their impoverished backgrounds and social circumstances, represent
all nine South African provinces. By 2011, the Leadership Academy will
accommodate approximately 75 learners per grade, for a total of approximately
450 learners, grades 7 through 12. Her vision is that the Leadership
Academy will help develop the future women leaders of South Africa.
In a 1997 episode
of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah encouraged viewers to use their lives
to make a difference in the lives of others, which led to the creation
of the public charity Oprah's Angel Network in 1998. To date, Oprah's
Angel Network has raised more than $50 million, with 100% of audience
donations going to non-profit organizations across the globe. Oprah's
Angel Network has helped establish scholarships and schools, support
women's shelters and build youth centers and homes—changing the
future for people all over the world.
to children also led her to initiate the National Child Protection Act
in 1991, when she testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee
to establish a national database of convicted child abusers. On December
20, 1993, President Clinton signed the national "Oprah Bill"