Oprah Winfrey: the name everybody has heard of one way or another. For most people, Oprah Winfrey is more than just a talk show host; she is a friend, an inspiration, a confidante. How a TV personality is able to relate to us in a very profound manner is a mystery. We could call it “the Oprah touch.”
A Peek into the Life of a TV Legend
Along with Oprah’s success is the making of more TV personalities and celebrities. Oprah exudes a rare kind of credibility that soon dictated trends and crazes. An interview in the Oprah Winfrey Show defined a stars’ fame. Any aspiring celebrity only had to impress Oprah to be given their most sought-after break in show business.
Books written by unknown authors became instant bestsellers after an endorsement from Oprah. The Oprah touch is akin to Midas touch. Professor Juliet E.K. Walker of the University of Illinois created History 298: Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon for students to fully grasp the genius behind Oprah’s success. Such was Oprah’s legend.
The multi-media Mogul touched millions of lives through her sufferings and achievements. We hang on to everything she says because we know she means every word of it. Her sincerity sets her apart from her contemporaries. Indeed, Oprah Winfrey is one of a kind.
We saw the last of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011. The show that was aired in more than 120 countries all over the world and watched by millions of followers ended with a bang. It was the end of her show but only the beginning of another journey for the Oprah Winfrey who cried with us and cheered us up. Disappointing her supporters is not in her agenda. She let go of the show only to become more of an agent of better TV programming.
The Oprah Winfrey Network or OWN is Oprah’s new baby since the finale of her talk show. This business venture allows her to provide better shows that aim to educate and inspire people more than what The Oprah Winfrey Show once did.
There’s no doubt that Oprah means to maintain her positive influence over the generations to come. When will she ever stop? The right question must be: Will she ever think that what she has done is already enough?
Oprah is every inch a successful woman in her own right. The reason she is not stopping is she knows that viewers deserve well thought out programming that put together TV shows not for profit but for more noble causes, such as promoting values.
We are indebted to Oprah more than we could ever realize. A personality as famous as her has the power to change the world either for the better or otherwise. Oprah chose to make a positive difference.
Oprah’s life of pain and suffering is no secret. We still vie to live her life regardless of what she went through because of how she overcame her challenges. Her birth was a result of reckless teenage passion. Her mother was 18 when she got pregnant. She did not intend to marry Oprah’s father because there was hardly any emotion involved in the relationship. Her mother left her to the care of her grandmother and she was deprived of decent clothing and pretty toys.
She was molested before she could even comprehend that she fell victim to a relative’s abuse. Her two–week old baby died when she was barely a teenager. We want to be Oprah because she went through all of those without any hint of surrender. She made the battles of life look easy.
How did she do it? Maybe getting to know her better would shed more light into her successful journey from suffering to success.
Oprah’s Early Biography
On 29 January 1954, 18–year–old Vernita Lee, a housemaid from Mississippi, gave birth to her first daughter out of wedlock. Coming from a family of Bible readers, Vernita took her baby’s name from the book of Ruth. Orpah is Ruth’s sister-in-law. The name had an exotic sound to it and the staff in the registry did not bother to confirm if they had the baby’s name spelled correctly. It was too late when Vernita saw that instead of Orpah, her baby’s name in the birth registry read O-P-R-A-H. The original name was scrapped.
After Vernita’s teenage birth, she decided to leave her baby to her mother’s care. Hattie Mae Lee lived in a farm in Mississippi. Oprah grew up playing with dolls made of corn cobs and wearing clothes fashioned from old sack cloths. Oprah and Hattie Mae could be poor but they were not miserable. The young Oprah spent most of her time playing in the fields pretending she was a talk show host interviewing her improvised dolls. Her grandmother knew that Oprah was meant for big things.
The Little Preacher in Her Grandmother’s Church
She was exceptionally intelligent. Hattie Mae taught her grandchild to read at the age of three and soon she became the Little Preacher in her grandmother’s church, reciting Bible verses eloquently in front of the adoring congregation. Growing up poor was not a big deal for Oprah as a kid but her playmates often made fun of her clothes and toys. It was hard for the imaginative little girl to understand how some people see their needy life as something to laugh about.
Hattie Mae took great pains in rearing her granddaughter. Of all Oprah’s relatives, it was Hattie Mae who was closest to her. Even though her grandmother hit her whenever she displayed indolence, Oprah was grateful for the values her old woman instilled in her.
One of the things her grandmother taught her was to be outspoken. Back in kindergarten, the astute Oprah wrote her teacher a note. According to her self-assessment, she was fit to join the first graders because she could already read and write. Convinced, her teacher allowed her to skip kindergarten and gave her permission to enroll in the first grade.
Oprah Shuttles between her Parents’ Houses
Oprah joined her mother in Milwaukee after Vernita took her from Hattie Mae when she was six years old. Hattie Mae became seriously ill and she could no longer look after Oprah. Patricia, Vernita’s second daughter, was already born that time. Having an infant and a six–year–old to take care of became unbearable for Vernita, who often went home dead tired tending other people’s homes. When she could no longer manage her time and expenses, she brought Oprah to her biological father.
Vernon Winfrey was already married to Zelma when Oprah was introduced to him. It did not occur to Oprah that she still had a father. She was seven when she moved in with Vernon and Zelma who warmly welcomed her into their home. Oprah was thrilled to be given her own room.
Her father worked as a barber in Nashville, Tennessee. Like Oprah, Vernon was also crazy for books. Father and daughter bonded by reading classic novels. Vernon even took it further by requiring Oprah to submit to him a book review every weekend. He must be intrigued by his daughter’s perception of the stories she was reading.
Oprah started second grade at Wharton Elementary School. Her teachers were impressed by her reading and writing skills that they decided to promote her to third grade. It was with Vernon and Zelma that Oprah felt a sense of importance. The couple once took her to a library and she was amazed by the endless stacks of books that lined the huge hall.
But that period of her life was short-lived. Vernon took Oprah back to Vernita at the end of the school year. A boy was added to Vernita’s brood by the time Oprah went to live with her again in Milwaukee. It was not Vernon’s intention to leave his daughter to Vernita who barely had enough time for her son Jeffrey and daughter Patricia. When Oprah was about to begin fourth grade, Vernon came to get her but she refused. Her reason for choosing to live with her half-siblings and preoccupied mother remains unknown.
Oprah Gets Molested
Vernita was always away and Oprah, Patricia, and Jeffrey were usually left under the care of relatives. When Oprah was nine years old, Vernita had her 19–year–old nephew look after her three children. That was the biggest mistake she ever made in her life. Oprah’s 19–year–old cousin raped her and warned her not to tell anyone about it. Afraid, Oprah chose to keep mum and resorted to doing nasty things in school and at home to cover up the trauma.
The abuse did not stop there. When she turned ten, she was again raped by an uncle and a family friend. It went on for four more years. Oprah was too scared to tell anybody about the molestations. Her mother and their other relatives were not the supportive type and Oprah was more terrified of what her mother would think if she found out. Oprah still finds it hard to relate to people who could tell their parents everything. She cited the following as the culprit:
"That comes from having been abused as a child—being beaten and not even being able to be angry or to have any emotions about it. I was trained to believe that other people's feelings were more important than my own, and that only through pleasing somebody could I be loved. It has taken me 56 years to overcome that. And by the way, in all those 56 years I have never once called my parents to share anything with them. Not "I got a job," "I met a guy," "I made a million dollars"—not once, ever. I'm in awe of people who felt their parents' love every day of their lives. They start out in the world with a full cup. The rest of us go through life trying to fill ours."
Oprah remained one of the brightest students in her high school class. She was enrolled in Lincoln Middle School at first. Gene Abrams took notice of Oprah’s potential and helped her transfer to Nicolet High School, a non-colored school in Wisconsin. Oprah was very popular because she was the only black student at Nicolet, and a very bright one at that.
On the contrary, her fellow black girls took Oprah’s good fortune against her. Oprah rode the bus with girls whose mothers were servants of her classmates. Those girls condemned Oprah for associating with people who are considered their masters. There was not a single day that they did not remind Oprah of her “right place” in the society.
Just like any normal teenager, Oprah was compelled to keep up with her classmates’ way of life. In order to blend with her affluent friends, Oprah stole money from her mother and went out with older men. The situation in their home and the recurrent abuse made Oprah more rebellious and antagonistic towards Vernita. Her teachers and classmates, however, adored her. She was a member of Nicolet High School’s speech team and was once voted Most Popular Girl in School.
Oprah and Vernita’s disagreements escalated until it was decided that Vernon should do the disciplining. Vernita sent Oprah back to her father in Nashville unaware that her daughter was pregnant. She kept her pregnancy to herself for as long as she could. Her father found out her secret when she went into premature labor on her seventh month. She gave birth to a baby boy who only lived for a couple of weeks. That pretty much sums up Oprah’s motherhood experience. Two weeks, then it was over.
From Radio to Television
Oprah did not lose heart. She went back to school and took solace in reading and studying. Oprah’s public speaking skills preceded her and she became her school’s orator. In 1970, Oprah won a speaking competition organized by the Elk’s Club, which secured her college education in the Tennessee State University.
The following year, Oprah represented Tennessee in the White House Conference on Youth. WVOL radio station was there to cover the event and Oprah was one of the attendees who got interviewed. Oprah made such an impression to them that they asked her to represent the station in the pageant for Miss Fire Prevention. She won the contest at 17 years old and WVOL offered her a part-time job. That time, Oprah was working in a local grocery store to help augment her educational expenses. In 1972, Oprah joined another beauty contest—Miss Black Tennessee. She won again but her job at the radio station kept her too busy to join more pageants.
Oprah’s TV break came when WTVF-TV offered her to co-anchor their six o’clock news program. At 19, Oprah became the youngest news anchor in the whole of America. Oprah initially turned down the offer as she was already beginning to get busy with her studies. But she eventually changed her mind and heeded the advice of her professor who told her that the very reason she was in college was to get a job like the one she was being offered.
The Men in Oprah’s Life
Oprah’s boyfriend then was William “Bubba” Taylor. He was the second serious relationship Oprah had after her puppy love, Anthony Otey. Everything was going smoothly between Bubba and Oprah until she got an offer from WJZ-TV in June 1976. WJZ-TV offered her a tempting job in Baltimore. Oprah had to choose between Bubba and her career. She knew that if she turned it down, she would not be able to get another offer as handsome as the WJZ-TV job. Torn, Oprah resorted to begging Bubba on her knees to come with her to Baltimore. It failed to change Bubba’s mind and their relationship ended when Oprah left Nashville.
After two years of calling cut-ins for WJZ-TV’s news program, the station gave Oprah a show with Richard Sher. “People Are Talking” started airing in 1978.
Ready to love again, Oprah started a relationship with John Tesh. The relationship ended prematurely due to interracial issues. Oprah soon fell for Lloyd Kramer, a fellow reporter at WJZ-TV. Lloyd, unlike most of her colleagues, did not criticize her for appearing bald on TV after a perm disaster ruined her hair. Unfortunately, Lloyd left WJZ-TV to work for NBC New York, which resulted in their separation.
Desperate for affection, Oprah got into an illicit affair with a married man. She did everything to please him—even smoking cocaine. Oprah needed love and there was nothing she would not do to win her man’s loyalty and affection. But at the end of the day, the man had wife and kids to go back to and Oprah was again left to herself. She chose to give her heart a rest for a while and focused on her career instead.
Another big break came in September 1983. WLS-TV needed a new host for their low-rating program “AM Chicago.” They pitted it against Phil Donahue’s program. Now, that’s just crazy since Phil Donahue was America’s most popular talk show host that time. Competing against Phil’s show was a desperate act for WLS-TV. Oprah first appeared in “AM Chicago” in January 1984. After a few months, “AM Chicago” toppled Phil Donahue’s talk show. Oprah’s rise to fame officially began.
The Birth of The Oprah Winfrey Show
Fully recovered from a recent heartbreak, Oprah gave love another chance by going out with Roger Ebert, a respected movie critic. It was Roger who gave Oprah the idea of syndicating “AM Chicago” to enable the show to reach a wider array of television viewers, Oprah thought it was a good idea and a deal with King World was finalized. “AM Chicago” adopted the name of its renowned host following its global syndication. “The Oprah Winfrey Show” airtime was extended to run a full hour.
Following the format of “AM Chicago,” the first few episodes of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” featured tabloid issues. Oprah felt they could do more than tackle petty topics so she tweaked the programming to include a wider scope of subjects, such as geopolitics, controversial debates, and personalities.
Her eloquence as a host drew the attention of viewers and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” became a prime-time mainstay. It was a show like no other. Guests found themselves confessing to Oprah their most-kept secrets in front of the cameras. Oprah projected intimacy that was hard to resist.
Because of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” TV audience saw the television in a different light. From a nondescript entertainment contraption, the television became the public’s eyes and ears. Oprah involved the audience in interviews by asking what most of them would love to find out. It was also in her show when Oprah first spoke of her traumatic childhood. She told the whole world the secret she had kept from her parents.
An honest person like her deserved to be told the truth. What made Oprah the host that she became known for was her ability to listen. After doing a tell–all interview with her, people felt liberated. Oprahfication was borne out of Oprah’s manner of getting people to talk about their worst experiences in public in order to be freed from their past.
Rapport talk was the hosting style made popular by Oprah Winfrey. As opposed to report talk, rapport talk engages the viewers to participate actively in the show. Oprah pried the truth from her guests and they did not feel offended by her earnest questioning. Oprah personified sincerity and people admired that about her.
In 1985, Oprah tried out acting in “The Color Purple,” a movie directed by Steven Spielberg. She was cast to play the role of Sofia in the movie. Her acting was superb despite her limited experience. She bagged the Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards.
There was no denying Oprah’s popularity both in Hollywood and the television industry. Her career was going absolutely the way she hoped it would and Stedman Graham’s coming into her life was the icing on the cake. Like Oprah, Stedman was also in the business of creating positive change. He was Athletes Against Drugs’ executive director. What his organization does was warn younger generations of prohibited drugs’ adverse side effects.
Oprah’s Quotes on Having a Family
Oprah and Stedman met in 1986 and got engaged in 2002. The marriage did not materialize because Oprah thought it was best for them to stay in a relationship not bound by marital responsibilities and demands. Asked if she regrets not having a “family” to call her own, she candidly replied:
"Really good. No regrets whatsoever. Gayle grew up writing the names of her would-be children, making little hearts and putting children's names in them. Never occurred to me to do that. I never had a desire. And I don't think I could have this life and have children. One of the lessons I've learned from doing the show is just how much sacrifice and attention is required to do the job of mothering well. Nothing in my background prepared or trained me to do that. So I don't have any regrets about it at all. And I do feel like I am a mother in a broader sense—to a generation of viewers who've grown up with me."
Her relationship with Stedman was steady and it provided her a sense of belongingness she had long been looking for from her mother and past relationships. With someone to love and love her back, Oprah had every reason to keep living and accomplish her dreams.
The Harpo Productions Increases Her Net Worth
She launched Harpo Productions five months after she met Stedman. Harpo Productions syndicated “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 122 countries around the world, making Oprah the most well-known talk show host in the history of television. After winning her 40th Emmy Award, Oprah decided to give way to other shows by excluding her show from the list of awardees.
Having her own production company further secured her spot in Forbes’ richest. She’s now valued at 2.7 billion dollars with an annual salary of over 300 million dollars.
Remember Oprah’s touch? Some people dubbed it as the Oprah Effect. Oprah became so closely followed that every little thing she did was considered the right thing to do. She could have won any election without even trying. Her influence transcended cultural and racial barriers. Women from all walks of life look up to Oprah because they see in her the kind of person they wanted to be—confident and collected.
Oprah Helps Victims of Child Abuse
As a victim of child abuse, Oprah used her influence to uphold the rights of children who fall victim to molesters. Oprah knew what it was like to live in a home where people who are supposed to protect children became their aggressors. Her incessant efforts finally bore fruit when President Bill Clinton made the National Child Protection Act into a law. Tracking child molesters on the loose became more systematic after the law was enacted. Not only that, Oprah launched Oprah's Child Predator Watch List to get the public involved in indicting rapists and molesters by offering 100, 000 dollars’ worth of reward.
To get everybody into reading good books, Oprah started The Oprah Winfrey Book Club. It featured books that piqued Oprah’s interests and appealed to her bibliophile persona. Her book endorsements resulted in their becoming bestsellers. Like what she used to do with her father, Oprah would discuss the featured book with her audience. Apart from making unknown authors millionaires, Oprah also helped potential TV personalities get their own slot in programming. Dr. Phil and Rachael Ray were just two of the many people Oprah helped prove themselves to be people worth listening to.
O, the Oprah Magazine
“O, the Oprah Magazine” was founded in 2000. It aimed to provide readers with inspirational content that are not only entertaining but also educational. Twenty–five years since Oprah began her media career, she proved to everyone that her talent goes beyond hosting. She could very well run her own production and publishing company.
What Oprah does that most successful personalities do not bother doing is sharing her blessings. Her generosity is unbelievable. Who could ever forget the time she gave away Mercedes Benz to her hundreds of TV audiences? At one time, she even gave away tickets for a trip to Australia. The first quarter of her life was spent in poverty and she finds priceless joy in seeing other people beam after receiving an extravagant gift.
Oprah’s Half-Sister Contacts Her after Many Years
Oprah’s half siblings died of illnesses during the prime years of their lives. She did not know any family besides her mother and father. It was not until recently that her second half-sister, whom Vernita gave up for adoption in her infancy, contacted Oprah. She lived most of her life with Gayle King by her side. Gayle and Oprah loved each other dearly. It was Gayle who stood by Oprah whenever she is groped by depression.
Oprah made another huge investment by putting up an academy for the poorest of female high school students in South Africa. She opened the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in 2007 to help hundreds of South-African girls get the kind of education they deserve.
In 2011, we see The Oprah Winfrey Show come to a close. We bid farewell to the one show that touched our lives and changed the way we see things around us. It was the end of her show but not of Oprah. It marked a new beginning for the woman who could not ask for more but a better world for the generations to come. She now heads the Oprah Winfrey Network which is geared towards “value-centered inspirational programming.”
Quotes on Fear
Is she afraid of failing after all that has achieved?
According to her, “I have no fear about the future. I have no fear about anything, because I really do understand that I am God's child and that He has guided me through everything and will continue to until the end.”
Very well said, Oprah, very well said.
Organisations and Campaigns Supported
- Oprah's Child Predator Watch List
- Morehouse College
- Barack Obama
- Oprah's Angel Network
- Oprah Angel Network Katrina
- Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls
- Morehouse College
- Harold Washington Library
- United Negro College Fund
- Tennessee State University
- National Child Protection Act
- Voted most popular girl
- Won Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant
- Placed second in dramatic interpretation
- First black anchor and youngest at Nashville's WLAC-TV
- 1970: Won an oratorical contest facilitated by Elk’s Club
- 1976: Co-anchored Baltimore's WJZ-TV's 6 o'clock news
- 1978: Became a co-host in People Are Talking while hosting Dialing for Dollars
- 1983: Made a low-rating show AM Chicago number 1
- 1985: Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
- 1986: Started Harpo
- 1986: Hosted The Oprah Winfrey Show
- 1986: Recipient of a special award from the Chicago Academy for the Arts
- 1986: Named Woman of Achievement by the National Organization of Women
- 1995: Replaced Bill Cosby in Forbes 400
- 1995 - Present: Always belonged in Forbes 400 list
- 1996: Started Reading club
- 1998: Founded Oprah's Angel Network
- 1998: Founded women's cable, Oxygen
- 1998: Topped Entertainment Weekly's list of the 101 most powerful people
- 1998, 2000, 2002–2006, and 2009: Emerged as America's favorite television personality in Harris Poll
- 1999: Called America's Most Powerful Woman by Life
- Dubbed as the richest African-American woman of the 20th century
- 2000: Awarded with Spingarn Medal by the NAACP
- 2002: Received the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award
- 2002: Her O, the Oprah Magazine was named the most successful startup by Forbes
- 2004 - 2006: The only billionaire included in the Forbes list
- 2004 - 2010: Named one of the 50 most generous Americans
- 2004 - 2011: The only person who appeared in Time 8 times as The Most Influential
- 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010: Named by Forbes as the Most Powerful Celebrity in the world
- 2005: Voted as the greatest woman in American history
- 2006: Launched Oprah Radio
- 2006 - Present: Remains to be the highest-paid entertainer
- 2007: Considered by USA Today as Most Influential Woman and Black Person of the last 25 years
- 2007: Established Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls
- 2008: Person of the Year by animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
- 2010: Life included her in their list of 100 people who changed the world
- 2010: Landed on the 38th spot in New Statesman's 50 Most Influential Figures
- 2011: Launched OWN
- Called the Most Powerful Woman by CNN and Time.com
- Dubbed as the Most Influential Woman by the American Spectator
- Considered as one of the 100 people who influence the 20th century
- Ranked no. 1 in Ladies Home Journal's list of the most powerful women in America
- The Oprah Winfrey Show took home 40 trophies from Emmy’s for being the Best Talk Show
- Oprah received several trophies from Emmy’s as the Best Talk Show Host