It’s not an easy task to write a short biography of a person that “may be the most influential woman in the country” (according to Barack Obama), is “arguably the most influential woman in the world” (according to the American Spectator), is “arguably the world’s most powerful woman” (according to Time.com and CNN), and is definitely the first black woman billionaire in history (according to Forbes). Oh, and rest assured, the list of impressive ranking continues.
More than just a very successful African-American woman, Oprah Winfrey is a person that has definitely changed the world in which she lives. Life Magazine even named her among their 2010 list of 100 people who changed the world, next to the likes of Elvis Presley and Jesus Christ. She’s a living legend. Some even say that “Today, no truly epochal moment in the history of the Republic occurs unless it is validated by her presence” (Mark Stein in the National Review, 1998). But before she got to such heights, Oprah went to a lot of painful and shameful experiences. And this is exactly what makes her story so fascinating.
So let’s start with January 29, 1954, when an unmarried teenage mother, Vernita Lee, gave birth to a lovely little girl, Orpah Gail Winfrey. Vernita was 19 years old when she had her, and the name that she chose for the baby (notice that Orpah is slightly different than Oprah) was the name of a biblical character from the Book of Ruth. It is said that her friends and family didn’t know how to pronounce the uncommon name, so they ended up calling her Oprah, which eventually became the name that everybody knows her by.
Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, but her mother decided to move up North in search for a better life, leaving Oprah to be raised by her grandmother, in a rural environment. Speaking about this episode of her life, Oprah said in an interview in 1991 that “It actually probably saved my life. It is the reason why I am where I am today, because my grandmother gave me the foundation for success that I was allowed to continue to build upon.” Hattie Mae, her grandmother, taught young Oprah to read at a very early age and by the time she was old enough to start kindergarten, she was capable of writing notes…to her teacher. Yes, she wrote a note to her kindergarten teacher, in which she insisted that she should be in first grade.
She was truly a prodigy and her luck was that Hattie Mae was there to encourage her in developing her talents. They went together at the local church where Oprah would recite Bible verses, determining people to affectionately call her “The Preacher”. Impressed by her aptitudes, they would often say that the little girl was gifted, which led to Oprah’s personal belief that she was special. She had an innate talent for oratory (as a child she used to interview her corncob doll and the crows on the fence), and the six years that she spent with her grandmother had helped her feel good about her gift.
Unfortunately, the encouraging and supportive education that she had received in her early childhood was later replaced by the difficult life that awaited her up north in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, near her mother. Here her problems were no longer about the poor dresses that she had to wear (sometimes made of potato sacks): she was now facing much worse situations. On a 1986 episode of her show she publicly declared that she had been molested by her uncle, her cousin and a family friend. At only 14 years old, she gave birth to a premature baby boy who died two weeks later.
Oprah’s teenage years were very troubled, but when Vernita Lee sent her to his father, Vernon Winfrey, things started to change for the better. Vernon was a very strict paternal figure, who made Oprah respect curfews and study hard. He would not accept anything less then what he thought was her best. He had her read a book and then write a report on it every week, which helped the young and talented teenager flourish and develop her speaking skills. She won prizes for dramatic recitation and oratory. When she was 17 she won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant and soon after that she was offered a job at a Nashville radio station, WVOL.
From here, her career was characterized by a continuous and uninterrupted growth. She went from WVOL to a local television station as a an anchor and a reporter. Then, in 1976, she moved to Baltimore where she co-anchored WJZ-TV News and later co-hosted her first talk-show, “People Are Talking”. Her talent and empathetic listening skills led her to another job offer in Chicago, where she was invited to host a 30-minutes morning program on WLS-TV, called “AM Chicago”. In only a matter of months, Oprah took the low-rated show from last place to first place, even leaving Donahue’s famous show behind. Later, “AM Chicago” was renamed to “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, it was expanded to a full hour and the rest, as they say, it’s history.
The first Oprah Winfrey Show was broadcasted nationally on September 8, 1986 and after 25 years of success, the beloved talk show will end with the last original episode scheduled for May 25, 2011. Now this past quarter century many, many things have happened. The warm, strong, friendly and fun hostess of the show actually reinvented the tabloid talk show genre which Phil Donahue had pioneered. She had all sorts of guests, she approached all sorts of topics and she did all that in her own, original way. During the mid 1990s she started choosing new and broader topics, including geopolitics, heart disease, meditation and spirituality (she is considered to be a very influential spiritual leader) and celebrity interviews on all sorts of social issues like charity, cancer or substance abuse.
Of course, as her success grew, so did the controversies around her, and most of them were related to the huge influence that she began to have on the people watching her show. For instance, in an episode about mad cow disease, Oprah said something about not wanting to ever eat a hamburger again, which upset Texas cattlemen. They sued Winfrey and her guest, Howard Lyman, claiming that her remarks affected their business in a very negative manner, costing beef producers some $11 million. The jury found Lyman and Winfrey not liable for damages.
Her influence over her audience became so big, that it actually determined sociologist to add new concepts to their vocabulary, like “Oprahfication” and “The Oprah Effect”. The first one refers to public confessions as a new (and quite controversial) form of therapy. During Winfrey’s shows, people often come out of the closet or reveal personal problems on air, like in a large therapy group that involves million of viewers. For this reason, Oprah has been both criticized and appreciated. Some believed she was making it difficult for people to distinguish between normal and deviant behaviors by inviting LGBT people (LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) into the mainstream. Others pointed out that due to her public support for people who choose alternative sexual orientations, the rate of gay suicide dropped considerably, as people had started to come out of the closet at much younger ages. Oprah’s show is actually believed to have contributed significantly to the mainstream integration of LGBT, which can be seen the fact that more and more primetime televisions shows, sitcoms and movies present gay people as completely acceptable.
The second term that we mentioned above was “The Oprah Effect”. This one refers to Winfrey’s power to influence public opinion on diverse issues related to politics (she is said to have brought over one and a half million votes for Obama), beef market, book reading (every book that she recommends in her book club becomes instantly a best seller), spirituality and more.
Besides influence, another thing that usually accompanies great success is great wealth. Indeed, the poor little girl who barely had anything to wear, turned out to be one of the richest people in the world: according to Forbes’ latest list of billionaires, Oprah Winfrey has got a net worth of $2.7 billion. She now has got her own production company, called Harpo Productions (“Harpo” spelled backwards is “Oprah”), her own radio channel, “Oprah Radio”, her own magazine, “O, The Oprah Magazine” and she is the first woman in history to own and produce her own talk show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show”. She also starred in Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple”, playing a supporting role that brought her Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for best supporting actress.
With so many important media appearances (and we didn’t even mention them all), Winfrey managed to build herself an entire empire of fame, success and money. She has got more than one luxurious homes, among which we mention an amazing 42-acre estate in Montecito, California, with breathtaking ocean and mountain views, another estate on Fisher Island, Florida, a house in Lavallette, New Jersey, a house in Douglasville, Georgia, an apartment in Chicago, a property on Maui, Hawaii and a ski house in Telluride, Colorado. But Oprah doesn’t only spend for herself. She has been repeatedly named the most philanthropic celebrity, contributing to numerous different causes. So having said all that, we believe it’s safe to say that Oprah Winfrey really deserves all the appreciation in the world.