Oprah Winfrey defies easy characterization. She has been a talk show host, an actress, a media mogul, a philanthropist, an author, and many other things. Her success and influence are extraordinary. Oprah Gail Winfrey was born on 29 January 1954 in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to Vernita Lee and Vernon Winfrey, who never married. When Oprah was a baby her mother moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in search of better economic opportunities. Oprah spent her early years in Kosciusko with her maternal grandmother, who taught her to read, enrolled her in kindergarten, and took her to church, where she was introduced to public speaking. When she was six, Winfrey moved to Milwaukee to be with her mother. These were difficult years, because her mother worked long hours as a domestic and came home exhausted to their tiny apartment. In addition, when she was nine years old, Winfrey was raped by a teenage cousin and another family member. A family friend continued the sexual abuse. At fourteen, Winfrey became pregnant, though her son was born prematurely and died. Winfrey ultimately became so rebellious that her mother could not control her, sending the girl to Nashville, Tennessee, to live with her father and his wife.
Winfrey responded favorably to the new environment. She attended East High School, becoming involved in theater, debate, and student council. Winfrey won Nashville’s 1971 Miss Fire Prevention contest, which led to an after-school job as a radio news reader. She went on to win Miss Black Tennessee the same year and to compete in the 1972 Miss Black America Pageant. She enrolled at Tennessee State University on a scholarship, and when she was nineteen, the local CBS affiliate named her coanchor, making her the first black woman to hold that position.
In 1976, during her senior year, Winfrey relocated to Baltimore to anchor the evening news for the local ABC affiliate. Soon thereafter she began providing updates for ABC’s Good Morning America, and later she hosted a morning show, Baltimore Is Talking. In 1983 she moved to Chicago to host AM Chicago, the lowest-rated talk show in the market, airing opposite the popular Phil Donahue Show. Within a month her show equaled Donahue’s ratings. After a several months AM Chicago was extended to an hour and renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 1985, while on a business trip to Chicago, movie producer Quincy Jones saw Winfrey’s show, was impressed by her talent, and offered her the role of Sofia in the movie version of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple (1985), for which she received an Academy Award nomination. She has subsequently appeared in several movies, including Native Son (1986), Beloved (1998), Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013), and Selma (2014).
In 1986 Winfrey started Harpo Productions to create videos, films, and television shows. That same year King World Productions syndicated The Oprah Winfrey Show, making it the highest-rated show in its time slot in virtually every city. It was seen by an estimated forty-six million viewers per week and aired in 143 countries before she ended the program in 2011. While the show was initially sensationalistic at times, later episodes stressed ways that viewers could improve their lives through a variety of means, including personal growth, access to professional help, reading, and writing. Given her willingness to explore the emotional aspects of life, critics sometimes decried the “Oprahization” of American society. In 1996 Winfrey launched Oprah’s Book Club, with featured writers consistently becoming best sellers.
From 1998 to 2011 Winfrey operated a charitable foundation, Oprah’s Angel Network. The foundation raised more than eleven million dollars for Hurricane Katrina relief and rebuilt homes all along the Gulf Coast, including in Mississippi. In 2007 she started the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, a boarding school in South Africa.
Since 2000 she has published the monthly O: The Oprah Magazine. In 1998 Winfrey was one of the founders of the Oxygen television network. After that network was sold, she partnered with Discovery Communications, and in 2011 the former Discovery Health Network became the Oprah Winfrey Network, which was available in more than 70 percent of all US households by 2015. Her website, Oprah.com, offers access to magazine articles, television shows, “lifeclasses,” and many other resources.
Winfrey continues to produce, act, innovate, lead, and speak out on major issues. She has won dozens of Emmys and has received numerous humanitarian awards and honorary degrees. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Pres. Barack Obama in 2013. The first black billionaire in the United States, she is considered one of the most influential people in America.
- Helen S. Garson, Oprah Winfrey: A Biography (2004)
- Henry Louis Gates Jr., Finding Oprah’s Roots: Finding Your Own (2007)
- Kathryn Lofton, Journal of Popular Culture (August 2006)
- Oprah Winfrey website, www.oprah.com