Oprah Winfrey

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Oprah Winfrey

Born: January 29, 1954 (age 53)
Flag of United States Kosciusko, Mississippi, United States
Occupation: Talk show host
Net worth: over $1.5 billion USD
(Feb, 2006)
Website: Oprah.com

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.[1] 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,[2] the most philanthropic African American of all time,[3] and the world's only Black billionaire for three straight years.[4][5][6][7] She is also, according to several assessments, the most influential woman in the world.[8]


Early life

Oprah Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to a Baptist family. Her parents were unmarried teenagers.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.

Winfrey's boyfriend from high school, Anthony Otey, would later recall what Winfrey was like during those early years:

…she knew 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.[12]

Winfrey's grandmother 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.[citation needed]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.
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 jugular."

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 roots."

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 became controversial.

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 the show.

Winfrey recently 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.[1]

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.
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."[15]

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 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.[16] In 2002 Fortune called O, the Oprah Magazine the most successful start-up ever in the industry.[17]


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[18] 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.[citation needed]


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 club.

Future projects

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."[19]

Winfrey will also voice a part in Bee Movie coming out in 2007.

Personal life

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![20]…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.”[21]

“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.”[22] Newsweek described a student named Thelasa Msumbi hugging Winfrey extra tight, then whispering “We are your daughters now.”[22] 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.[22]

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.[23] 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.[24][25][26] 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.”[27]

Winfrey's early 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.[28] 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.[29] 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.”[12]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.[29]

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.”[30] 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.”[31]

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.”[32]

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 him.[33]

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.[33] “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.”[34]

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.[34]

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?”[35] “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.”[35]

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.[36][37]

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.
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.[38] 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.[39]


As revealed on a 2004 episode of her television show, Oprah had a half-brother who was gay and had died of AIDS.[40]

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.[41]

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. [42]

Oprah's Legends Weekend

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.
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 in 2006.)[43]

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."[44]

Forbes' international 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.[6][45] According to Forbes, Winfrey is now worth over $1.5 billion.[46] and has overtaken Ebay CEO Meg Whitman as the richest self-made woman in America[47]


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.[48]

Although Winfrey's 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.[49] Despite being the 235th richest American in 2005,[46] Winfrey was the 32nd most philanthropic. Her philanthropy has included a $10 million donation to Hurricane Katrina relief.[50] Winfrey also put 100 black men through college with $7 million in scholarships.[51]

Winfrey was the recipient of the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award at the 2002 Emmy Awards for services to television and film.

South Africa

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,[52] 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 $7,000,000.

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.[53]


Rankings as world's most influential woman

Winfrey was called "arguably the world's most powerful woman" by CNN and Time.com.[54] 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".[55] 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".[56] In 2003 Winfrey edged out both Superman and Elvis Presley to be named the greatest pop culture icon of all time by VH1.[57] In 2005 Forbes named her the world's most powerful celebrity.[58] 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.[59]

Vanity Fair wrote:

"Oprah Winfrey arguably has more influence on the culture than any university president, politician, or religious leader, except perhaps the Pope."[60]

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.[61]

Biographer Kitty 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.[62]… I see her as probably the most powerful woman in our society. I think Oprah has influenced every medium that she's touched.[63]

Winfrey's influence 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 damages. (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.[64]

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.

Winfrey's reach 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.”[65]

Media counterculture

While Phil Donahue has been credited with pioneering the tabloid talk show genre, what has been described as the warmth, intimacy and personal confession[66] Winfrey brought to the format is believed to have both popularized and revolutionized it.[67] [66][68] In the scholarly text Freaks Talk Back,[69] 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."[70]

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.

Winfrey comforts a grieving Nate Berkus.
Winfrey comforts 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 therapy.[71]

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.'"

Communication style

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.[72]

Newsweek stated:

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.[73]

Winfrey's intimate 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 cheerful sensuality."

Oprah's Book Club

In late 1996,[74] 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.[75]

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 $5000.

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,[76] 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, 2007.

Spiritual icon

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."[77] The sentiment was seconded by Marcia Z. Nelson in her book The Gospel According to Oprah.[78] 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" exists.

Fan base

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).[79] 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 publicly disparaged.

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 Winfrey Show?"[80]

Criticisms and controversies

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.[81][82]

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:

"Oprah Winfrey 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."[83]

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."[84]

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.[85]

Winfrey has also been criticized for not being "tough" enough in questioning celebrity or politician guests on her show that she appears to like.[86] 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 book club."[87]

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,[88] and features such amenities as a beauty salon and yoga studio.[19] 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.[89]

Recently, Oprah has been accused by magician and skeptic James Randi of being deliberately deceptive and uncritical in how she handles paranormal claims on her show. [90]

In 2007, Oprah began to endorse the controversial self-help program The Secret. The Secret claims that people can change their lives through positive thoughts, which will then cause vibrations that result in good things happening to them. Critics argue that this idea is pseudoscience and psychologically damaging, as it trivializes important decisions and promotes a quick-fix material culture, and suggest Oprah's promotion of it is irresponsible given her influence.[91]

Despite the occasional media controversy, best-selling biographer Kitty Kelley, known for making scandalous allegations of such celebrated figures as Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor and the Bush family, stated that two months into researching Winfrey, she and her staff have been unable to uncover a single nasty rumor or story: "So far, I don't see anything negative on this woman. I think she's a real icon.”[92]



Year Title Role Other notes
1997 Ellen Therapist Episode, "The Puppy Episode"
1997 Before Women Had Wings Miss Zora (also producer)
1993 There Are No Children Here LaJoe Rivers
1992 The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Herself Episode, "A Night at the Oprah"
1992 Lincoln Narrator (documentary)
1990 - 1991 Brewster Place Mattie Michael
1989 The Women of Brewster Place Mattie Michael (also executive producer)
1988 Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special Herself (guest star)
1986 - present The Oprah Winfrey Show Presenter


Year Title Role Other notes
2007 Bee Movie
2006 Charlotte's Web Gussy the Goose (voice only)
2005 Emmanuel's Gift Narrator (documentary)
2004 Brothers of the Borderland Narrator (short subject)
2003 Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives Narrator (documentary)
1998 Beloved Sethe
1990 Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones (documentary)
1987 Throw Momma from the Train (cameo)
1986 Native Son Janet Thomason
1985 The Color Purple Sofia (academy award nomination)


Year Title Role Other notes
2006 Oprah & Friends Herself


Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
  • "I was taught to read at an early age. By the time I was three, I was reciting speeches in the church. They'd put me up on the program, and say, 'Little Mistress Winfrey will render a recitation,' and I would do 'Jesus rose on Easter day, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, all the angels did proclaim.'"
  • "It doesn't matter who you are, where you come from. The ability to triumph begins with you — always."
  • "I really became frustrated with the fact that all I did was write check after check to this or that charity without really feeling like it was a part of me."[93]


  • Make the Connection : Ten Steps to a Better Body and a Better Life, by Bob Greene and Oprah Winfrey, 1999; ISBN 0-7868-8298-0.
  • Journey to Beloved, by Oprah Winfrey and Ken Regan, 1998; 0786864583.
  • The Uncommon Wisdom of Oprah Winfrey : A Portrait in Her Own Words, by Bill Adler (ed) and Oprah Winfrey, 1997; ISBN 1-55972-419-6.
  • A Journal of Daily Renewal : The Companion to Make the Connection, by Bob Greene and Oprah Winfrey, 1996; ISBN 0-7868-8215-8.
  • In The Kitchen With Rosie: Oprah's Favorite Recipes, by Rosie Daley and Oprah Winfrey, 1994; ISBN 0-679-43404-6.


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See also

External links

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