Oprah Gail Winfrey
(born January 29, 1954), often referred to
simply as Oprah
, is an American television presenter, media
mogul and philanthropist. Her internationally-syndicated talk show,
The Oprah Winfrey Show
, has earned her multiple Emmy Awards
and is the highest-rated talk show in the history of television.
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 was once the world's only black billionaire.
She is also, according to some assessments, the most influential
woman in the world.
Born in rural Mississippi to a poor teenage single mother and later
raised in an inner city Milwaukee neighbourhood, Winfrey was raped at
age 9 and at 14-years-old gave birth to a son, who died in infancy.
Sent to live with the man she calls her father, a barber in
Tennessee, Winfrey landed a job in radio while still in high school
and began co-anchoring the local evening news at the age of 19.
Her emotional ad-lib delivery eventually got her transferred to the
daytime talk show arena, and after boosting a third-rated local
Chicago talk show to first place,
she launched her own production company and became internationally
Credited with creating a more intimate confessional form of media
she is thought to have popularized and revolutionized
the tabloid talk show genre pioneered by Phil Donahue,
which a Yale study claimed broke 20th century taboos and allowed
LGBT people to enter the mainstream.
By the mid 1990s she had reinvented her show with a focus on
literature, self-improvement, and spirituality. Though criticized
for unleashing confession culture
and promoting controversial self-help fads, she is generally admired
for overcoming adversity to become a benefactor to others.
In 2006 she became an early supporter of Barack Obama and one
analysis estimates she delivered over a million votes in the close
2008 Democratic primary race.
Oprah Winfrey, (originally Orpah after the Biblical
character in the Book of Ruth), was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi,
to unmarried parents. She later explained that her conception was
due to a single sexual encounter that her two teenage parents had;
they quickly broke up not long after.
There are conflicting reports as to how her name became “Oprah.”
According to an interview with the Academy of Achievement, Winfrey
claimed that her family and friends' inability to pronounce “Orpah”
caused them to put the “P” before the “R” in every place else
other than the birth certificate.
However, there is the account that the midwife transposed letters
while filling out the newborn's birth certificate.
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 grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, who was so poor that Winfrey often
wore dresses made of potato sacks, for which the local children made
fun of her. Her
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 neighborhood in
Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her mother, who was less supportive and
encouraging than her grandmother had been, due in large part to the
long hours Vernita Lee worked as a maid.
Winfrey has stated that she was molested by her cousin, her uncle,
and a family friend, starting when she was nine years old,
something she first revealed to her viewers on a 1986 episode of her
TV show, when sexual abuse was being discussed.
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
Milwaukee suburb of Glendale, Wisconsin
When she was 14, she became pregnant, but her son died shortly after
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 at
East Nashville High School, 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 17,
Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant.
She also attracted the attention of the local black radio station,
WVOL, which hired her to do the news part-time.
She worked there during her senior year of high school, and again
while in her first two years of college.
After suffering years of abuse, at 13 Winfrey ran away from home.
Winfrey's career choice in media did not surprise her
grandmother, who once said that ever since Winfrey could talk, she
was on stage. As a child she played games interviewing her corncob
doll and the crows on the fence of her family's property. Winfrey
later acknowledged her grandmother's influence, saying it was Hattie
Mae who had encouraged her to speak in public and "gave me a
positive sense of myself."
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.
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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.
Already having surpassed Donahue in the local market,
Winfrey's syndicated show quickly doubled his national audience,
displacing Donahue 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 humour 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."
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-oriented 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
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 autumn 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
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 CBS 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.
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 broadcast in the United States on December
23, 2004, by E!.
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
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
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.
She has voiced for Charlotte's Web, the 2006 film as
Gussie the goose. She is also the voice of Judge Bumbleden in Bee
Movie (2007) co-starring the voices of Jerry Seinfeld and Renee
Books and magazines
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.
though its circulation has fallen by more than 10 percent (to 2.4
million) in the last three years, according to the Audit Bureau of
Circulations, and the magazine is now seeking a new editor-in-chief.
The audience for her magazine is considerably more upscale than for
her TV show, earning US $63,000 a year (well above the median for
On February 9, 2006 it was announced that Winfrey had signed a
three-year, $55 million 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, seven days a week on XM Radio Channel 156. Winfrey's
contract requires her to be on the air thirty minutes a week, 39
weeks a year. The thirty-minute weekly show features Winfrey with
friend Gayle King.
In late 2006, Winfrey’s production company and ABC revealed plans
to bring two new reality shows to the air. One of the series,
Oprah's Big Give (a philanthropic reality show) debuted to
significant success, attracted 15.7 million viewers, according to
Nielsen. But it lost nearly 1/3 of its audience during an eight-week
run, averaging 11.1 million viewers a week and finishing the season
32nd in total audience among all prime-time programs. The show will
not be returning.
The second show, tentatively called 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 currently lives on “The Promised Land”, her 42-acre
(170,000 m²) estate with ocean and mountain views in Montecito,
California, outside of Santa Barbara. 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, Colorado,
and property on the island of Maui, Hawaii. She also owns a home on
the island of Antigua. Winfrey's show is based in Chicago, so she
spends time there, specifically in the neighborhood of Streeterville,
but she otherwise resides in California. Her Hawaii property was
featured on the cover of O at Home and on her TV show.
Winfrey also owns a home in the exclusive town of Avalon, New
Winfrey and her partner Stedman Graham have been together since
1986. They were engaged to be married in November 1992, but the
ceremony never took place.
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.
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
said she 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.
Winfrey visited Graceland in 2006 while on her cross-country trip
with Gayle King. While having dinner with Lisa Marie Presley and her
husband Michael Lockwood, she told Presley that her grandmother's
last name was also Presley.
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
percent Sub-Saharan African. She is part Native American (about
eight percent according to the test) and East Asian (about three
percent according to the test).
Winfrey once 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
colour 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, to a boy who died shortly
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
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
Winfrey's early love life was not always so tumultuous. Her high
school sweetheart Anthony Otey recalled 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
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 Kramer 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
According to Mair, when Kramer 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 grovelling 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
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.
Winfrey's best friend since their early twenties is Gayle King.
King was formerly the host of 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.”
Another of Winfrey's best friends is Maria Shriver, the current
First Lady of California.
Winfrey considers Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged
Bird Sings her mentor and close friend; she calls Angelou her
Winfrey hosted a week-long Caribbean cruise for Angelou and 150
guests for Angelou's 70th birthday in 1998, and in 2008, threw her
"an extravagant 80th birthday celebration" at Donald Trump's Mar-A-Lago
club in Palm Beach, Florida.
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.
On October 16, 2007, Winfrey revealed that she was diagnosed with
a thyroid disorder that made her gain 20 pounds. "At the end of May,
I was so exhausted I couldn't figure out what was going on in my
life. I ended up going to Africa and spent a month with my beautiful
daughters there, was still feeling really tired, really tired, going
around from doctor to doctor trying to figure out what was wrong and
finally figured out that I had literally sort of blew out my thyroid
" Winfrey said on her show. She also discusses more about her story
in the October 2007 issue of the Oprah Magazine. Recently Winfrey
decided to become a vegan for three weeks.
Born in rural poverty, then raised by a mother on welfare in a
poor urban neighbourhood, 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.
Winfrey has remained the only African American 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).
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 black people are just under 13%
of the U.S. population,
With a 2000 net-worth of $800 million, Winfrey is believed to be
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."
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.
According to Forbes, Winfrey is worth over $2.7 billion, as of
and has overtaken former Ebay CEO Meg Whitman as the richest
self-made woman in America.
In July 2007 TV Guide reported that Winfrey was the
highest paid TV entertainer in the United States during the past
year. She earned an estimated $260 million during the year. This
amount was more than 5 times what had been earned by the person in
second place - music executive Simon Cowell, who had earned $45
million. By 2008,
her income had increased to $275 million.
Rankings as world's most influential
Winfrey was called "arguably the world's most powerful woman" by
CNN and Time.com,
"arguably the most influential woman in the world" by the American
Spectator, "one of
the 100 people who most influenced the 20th Century" and
"one of the most influential people" of 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and
2008 by Time. Winfrey is the only person in the world to have
made all six 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 1998 Winfrey became the first woman and first Black to top
Entertainment Weekly's list of the 101 most powerful people in the
In 2003 Winfrey edged out both Superman and Elvis Presley to be
named the greatest pop culture icon of all time by VH1.
Forbes named her the world's most powerful celebrity in 2005,
2007, and 2008.
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
Biographer Kitty Kelley 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
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.
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.
Polls estimating Winfrey's personal popularity have been
inconsistent. A Nov 2003 Gallup poll estimated that 73% of American
adults had a favourable view of Winfrey, 74% in Jan 2007, though the
figure had dropped to 66% when Gallup conducted the same poll in Oct
2007. A Dec 2007 Fox News poll put the figure at 55%.
However Gallup’s annual poll of who Americans admire most showed an
increase in Winfrey’s popularity. An estimated 6% of American adults
considered Winfrey one of the women they most admired in Dec 2002,
but by Dec 2007, the figure had nearly tripled to 16%, higher than
any other woman in the world except Hillary Clinton.
Among American women, the poll estimated Winfrey was the single most
admired woman in the world.
While Phil Donahue has been credited with pioneering the tabloid
talk show genre, what has been described as the warmth, intimacy and
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 Winfrey 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
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.
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 Andre Walker,
makeup artist Reggie Wells, 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.
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."
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:
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
||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
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
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 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.
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 "Oprahism" is
a mainstream religion in 3000 AD.
Winfrey's reach extends far beyond the shores of the U.S.; her
show airs in 140 countries around the world.
In the U.S. alone her show is viewed by an estimated 30 million
people a week
though her U.S. audience has fallen by half over the past 10 years.
In 1998, her show had an estimated 14 million daily viewers,
in 2005, her show averaged nearly an estimated 9 million American
viewers per day, and by 2008 it was averaging an estimated 7.3
million viewers, though it remained the highest rated talk show.
Outside the U.S., Winfrey has become increasingly popular in the
Arab world. The Wall Street Journal reported that MBC 4, an Arab
satellite channel, centred its entire programming around reruns of
her show because it was drawing record numbers of female viewers in
The New York Times reported that "The Oprah Winfrey Show," with
Arabic subtitles, is now broadcast twice each weekday on MBC 4.
Winfrey's modest dress, combined with her triumph over adversity and
abuse has caused some women in Saudi Arabia to idolize her.
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 non-profit
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.
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 $303 million.
Winfrey was the 32nd most philanthropic. She has also been
repeatedly ranked as the most philanthropic celebrity
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Oprah asked her viewers to open
their hearts—and they did. As of September 2006, donations to the
Oprah Angel Network Katrina registry total more than $11 million.
Homes have been built in four states—Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana,
Alabama—before the one year anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and
also matched her viewers' donations by personally giving $10 million
to the cause.
Winfrey has also put 250 African-American men through college
Winfrey was the recipient of the first Bob Hope Humanitarian
Award at the 2002 Emmy Awards for services to television and film.
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 to Hawaii in the summer
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
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
Winfrey has recently exerted political influence, endorsing
presidential candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential
election. This is the first time she has publicly made such an
endorsement. Winfrey held a fundraiser for Obama on September 8,
2007 at her Santa Barbara, CA estate.
In December 2007, Winfrey joined Obama for a series of rallies in
the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
The Columbia, South Carolina event on December 9, 2007 drew a crowd
of nearly 30,000, the largest for any political event of 2007.
An analysis by two economists at the University of Maryland, College
Park concluded that Winfrey's endorsement translated into over a
million extra votes for Obama and was especially important in caucus
states like Iowa.
Animal rights activism
Winfrey was named as the '2008 Person of the Year' by
animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
According to PETA, Winfrey uses her fame and listening audience to
help the less fortunate, including animals. PETA praised Winfrey for
using her talk show to uncover horrific cases of cruelty to animals
in puppy mills and on factory farms, and Winfrey even used the show
to highlight the cruelty-free vegan diet that she tried.
Criticisms and controversies
Although Winfrey has continually changed the focus of her show
since the mid-1990s, her success has been seen as popularizing of
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
criticized 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
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.
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.
However, liberal filmmaker Michael Moore came to Winfrey’s
defence, praising her for showing antiwar footage no other media
would show and
begging her to run for president.
A February 2003 series Winfrey did, in which she showed clips from
people all over the world asking America not to go to war, was
interrupted in several east coast markets by network broadcasts of a
press conference in which President George W. Bush, joined by Colin
Powell, summarized the case for war.
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
Oprah Winfrey Show and apologized for a rude employee.
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
On December 1, 2005, Winfrey appeared on The Late Show with
David Letterman to promote the new Broadway musical The Color
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-rumoured 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. On September 10, 2007, David Letterman made his first
appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", as its season
premiere was filmed in New York City.
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
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 book club."
In early 2007, Winfrey funded a $40 million school complex for
girls in South Africa. The school will have an initial enrolment of
152 but will gradually accommodate 450,
and features such amenities as a beauty salon and yoga studio.
Criticism arose that the money would be better utilized to educate a
larger number of children in either North America or South Africa;
however, Winfrey insists that beautiful surroundings will inspire
greatness in the future leaders of Africa.
Recently, Winfrey has been accused by magician and sceptic James
Randi of being deliberately deceptive and uncritical in how she
handles paranormal claims on her show.
In 2007, Winfrey 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 Winfrey's promotion of it is
irresponsible given her influence.
In September 2008, Winfrey received a storm of criticism after
Matt Drudge of the Drudgereport
 reported that
Winfrey refused to have Sarah Palin on her show allegedly due to
Winfrey's support for Barack Obama.
Winfrey denied the report, maintaining that there never was a
discussion regarding Palin appearing on her show.
She said that after she made public her support for Obama she
decided that she would not let her show be used as a platform for
any of the candidates.
Although Obama appeared twice on her show, these appearances were
prior to him declaring himself a candidate. Winfrey added that Palin
would make a fantastic guest and that she would love to have her on
the show after the election.
In December, 2008, a Holocaust survivor who appeared on Winfrey's
show was accused of being untruthful about how he met his wife.
Herman Rosenblat and his wife, Roma Radzicki Rosenblat were hosted
by Winfrey on her show twice, beginning in 1996. They claimed to
have met while he was a child imprisoned in a Nazi concentration
camp and she, disguised as a Christian farm girl, tossed apples over
the camp's fence to him. Winfrey called their tale "the single
greatest love story" she had encountered in her 22 years on the
show. Following Winfrey's endorsement, Rosenblat put his fabricated
story into book form and called it Angel at the Fence, The True
Story of a Love that Survived. After several historians
questioned the narrative, the publisher canceled the book's release.
This story is one of several narratives that have been lauded by
Winfrey or her magazine, only later to have had their authenticity
challenged, including Margaret Seltzer's "Love and Consequences"
which her magazine described as "startlingly tender".
This latest controversy involving a disputed holocaust love story
has triggered questions as to how much weight Winfrey's future book
endorsements will carry.
Others however defended Winfrey, arguing that it's unreasonable to
expect her to have denied the experience claimed by an authentic
Another book controversy in 2008 occurred when Winfrey endorsed
philosopher Eckhart Tolle and his book, A New Earth: Awakening to
Your Life's Purpose which sold several million copies after
being selected for her book club. During a Webinar class, in which
she promoted the book, Winfrey stated "God is a feeling experience
and not a believing experience. If your religion is a believing
experience…then that's not truly God."
Frank Pastore, a Christian radio talk show host on KKLA, was among
the many Christian leaders who criticized Winfrey's views, saying
"if she's a Christian, she's an ignorant one, because Christianity
is incompatible with New Age thought."