Oprah Winfrey

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Oprah Winfrey born January 29, 1954 is an American media proprietor, talk show host, actress, producer, and philanthropist. She is best known for her talk show “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, which was the highest-rated television program of its kind in history and was nationally syndicated from 1986 to 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. Dubbed the “Queen of All Media”, she was the richest African American of the 20th century, North America’s first multi-billionaire black person and has been ranked the greatest black philanthropist in American history.Forbes’ list of The World’s Billionaires has listed Winfrey as the world’s only black billionaire from 2004 to 2006 and as the first black woman billionaire in the world that was achieved in 2003. As of 2019, Winfrey has a net worth in excess of $2.5 billion.  She has also been sometimes ranked as the most influential woman in the world.

Winfrey’s first name was spelled “Orpah” on her birth certificate after the biblical figure in the Book of Ruth, but people mispronounced it regularly and “Oprah” stuck. Winfrey was born into poverty in Kosciusko, Mississippi,  to a teenage single mother Vernita Lee and later raised in an inner-city Milwaukee neighborhood.  Her mother was a housemaid. Winfrey’s biological father is usually noted as Vernon Winfrey a coal miner turned barber turned city councilman who had been in the Armed Forces when she was born. However, Noah Robinson Sr., has claimed to be her biological father.After Winfrey’s birth, her mother traveled north and Winfrey spent her first six years living in rural poverty with her maternal grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee.  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.  She encouraged Oprah to speak in public and take part in stage activities.

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, largely as a result of the long hours she worked as a maid.

Due to the difficulty her mum had in taking care of Winfrey, she was sent to live with the man she calls her father, Vernon Winfrey, a barber in Tennessee.

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At 13, after suffering what she described as years of abuse, Winfrey ran away from home.  When she was 14, she became pregnant but her son was born prematurely and he died shortly after birth. She began attending Lincoln High School, Milwaukee; but after early success in the Upward Bound program, was transferred to the affluent suburban Nicolet High School, where she says her poverty was constantly rubbed in her face as she rode the bus to school with fellow African-Americans, some of whom were servants of her classmates’ families. She began to steal money from her mother in an effort to keep up with her free-spending peers, to lie to and argue with her mother, and to go out with older boys. Winfrey’s attitude left her mother frustrated and had no choice but to send her to Vernon for the second time, although this time she did not take her back. Vernon was strict but encouraging and made her education a priority. Winfrey became an honors student, was voted Most Popular Girl, and joined her high school speech team at East Nashville High School, placing 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. Her first job as a teenager was working at a local grocery store.  At the age of 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. Soon Oprah landed a job as an anchor at a local TV station. This led to another job in Baltimore where she was co-anchor at WJZ-TV News. Her first talk show ‘People Are Talking’ became quite popular.

Her outgoing and ardent personality started grabbing the public’s attention. After devoting seven years to make this show successful, she was offered to host a morning show in the Windy City, Chicago.  In 1983, Winfrey hosted a half-hour morning talk show called AM Chicago. Within months of Oprah becoming the host, the show went from last place in the ratings to becoming the highest rated show in Chicago. Soon Oprah’s popularity grew and everyone was predicting the heights that Oprah would reach in the near future. Soon the show AM Chicago was made into a full hour show and renamed as ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’. This show began broadcasting nationally on September 8, 1986.  In the next three years it won several awards including three Daytime Emmy Awards in 1987 and another Emmy the next year.

The show targeted various issues such as women empowerment and significance and human rights, which appealed to people of all ethnicities, genders and soon the whole of America was in love with this talented and magnetic personality who ran the show brilliantly.  Oprah soon started introducing topics such as meditation, spirituality, cancer, substance abuse which helped build a larger audience day by day. She interviewed Michael Jackson in 1993 which had an audience of approximately 36 million. During the 1991-1992 seasons, the daily viewership of her show was around 13 million. It remained the highest rated talk show in the country till 2008. And it was being aired in close to 140 countries in the World.

Her passion for producing high standard entertainment programs encouraged her to form her own production company that she called ‘Harpo’ (which was her name spelled backwards). Harpo Productions Inc. gained the ownership and production rights to the Oprah Winfrey Show from 1998 onwards. And the company produced several movies which lead to her film debut in 1985 movie, ‘The Color Purple’. She won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance.

Credited with creating a more intimate confessional form of media communication, she is thought to have popularized and revolutionized the tabloid talk show genre pioneered by Phil Donahue, through which, according to a Yale study, she broke 20th-century taboos and allowed LGBT people to enter the mainstream. Winfrey became a millionaire at the age of 32 when her talk show received national syndication. At the age of 41, Winfrey had a net worth of $340 million and replaced Bill Cosby as the only African American on the Forbes 400.

Yearning for media transformation, she co-founded a successful cable station called ‘Oxygen’ and changed the Discovery Health Channel to OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network that launched in January 2011. Oprah has authored five books and publishes a magazine ‘O, The Oprah Magazine’. Her website Oprah.com has an average of 70 million views and 6 million users every month. She signed a 55 million dollars contract with XM Satellite Radio to launch a new channel named ‘Oprah Radio’.

As much as she had influenced millions of lives through the media, she obligated to affect lives, ranking her the greatest black philanthropist in American history.  Winfrey became the first black person to rank among the 50 most generous Americans and she remained among the top 50 until 2010.  By 2012, she had given away about $400 million to educational causes. In 2013, Winfrey donated $12 million to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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 of 2006.

Her success speaks for itself when considering the numerous awards, and honours she has received.  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” from 2004 to 2011 by TIME. Winfrey is the only person in the world to have appeared in the latter list on ten occasions.  Oprah Winfrey was the recipient of the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award at 2002 Emmy Awards for services to television and film.  Forbes named her as the World’s most powerful celebrity in the years 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013.  In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

There has been a course taught at the University of Illinois focusing on Winfrey’s business acumen, namely: “History 298: Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon”.

Rightfully called the ‘world’s most powerful woman’ by Time.com and CNN, Oprah has influenced the lives of millions of people by building a consummate association with them.  From being born in rural America to being raised up in a dangerous environment, Oprah has journeyed to become one of the most powerful women on the planet. She is a source of inspiration to countless women in the world who are fighting for equal rights and freedom.  Her endeavors as a media leader and philanthropist have made her as one of the most admired people of our time.