Monica & Oprah 1986
Winfrey at her 50th birthday party at Hotel Bel-Air, Los Angeles, in 2004
Oprah Gail Winfrey (born January 29, 1954) is an American media proprietor,talk show host, actress, producer, and philanthropist. Winfrey is best known for her multi-award-winning talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show which was the highest-rated program of its kind in history and was nationally syndicated from 1986 to 2011. She has been ranked the richest African-American of the 20th century, the greatest black philanthropist in American history, and was for a time the world’s only black billionaire. She is also, according to some assessments, the most influential woman in the world.
Winfrey was born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mother and later raised in an inner-city Milwaukee neighborhood. She experienced considerable hardship during her childhood, saying she was raped at age nine and became pregnant at 14; her son 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 syndicated.
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, which a Yale study says 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, promoting controversial self-help ideas, and an emotion-centered approach she is often praised for overcoming adversity to become a benefactor to others. From 2006 to 2008, her support of Barack Obama, by one estimate, delivered over a million votes in the close 2008 Democratic primary race.
Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to an unmarried teenage mother. She later said that her conception was due to a single sexual encounter and the couple broke up not long after. Her mother, Vernita Lee (born c. 1935), was a housemaid. Winfrey had believed that her biological father was Vernon Winfrey (born 1933), a coal miner turned barber turned city councilman who had been in the Armed Forces when she was born. Decades later, Mississippi farmer and World War II veteran Noah Robinson, Sr. (born c. 1925) claimed to be her biological father. A genetic test in 2006 determined that her maternal line originated among the Kpelle ethnic group, in the area that today is Liberia. Her genetic makeup was determined to be 89% Sub-Saharan African, 8% Native American, and 3% East Asian; however, the East Asian may, given the imprecisions of genetic testing, actually be Native American markers.
After Winfrey’s birth, her mother traveled north and Winfrey spent her first six years living in rural poverty with her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee (April 15, 1900 – February 27, 1963), 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 hit her with a stick when she did not 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 Vernita Lee, who was less supportive and encouraging than her grandmother had been, largely as a result of the long hours she worked as a maid. Around this time, Lee had given birth to another daughter, Winfrey’s younger half-sister, Patricia who later (in February 2003, at age 43) died of causes related to cocaine addiction. By 1962, Lee was having difficulty raising both daughters so Winfrey was temporarily sent to live with Vernon in Nashville, Tennessee. While Winfrey was in Nashville, Lee gave birth to a third daughter who was put up for adoption (in the hope of easing the financial straits that had led to Lee’s being on welfare) and later also named Patricia. Winfrey did not learn she had a second half-sister until 2010. By the time Winfrey moved back in with Lee, Lee had also given birth to a boy named Jeffrey, Winfrey’s half-brother, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1989.
Winfrey has stated she was molested by her cousin, uncle, and a family friend, starting when she was nine years old, something she first announced to her viewers on a 1986 episode of her TV show regarding sexual abuse. When Winfrey discussed the alleged abuse with family members at age 24, they refused to accept what she said. Winfrey once commented that she had chosen not to be a mother because she had not been mothered well.
At 13, after suffering years of abuse, Winfrey ran away from home. When she was 14, she became pregnant but her son died shortly after birth. She later stated she felt betrayed by the family member who had sold the story to the National Enquirer in 1990. She began going to Lincoln High School; 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.
Her frustrated mother once again sent her to live with Vernon in Nashville, Tennessee, though 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 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.
Winfrey’s career choice in media would not have surprised 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.
Television – The Oprah Winfrey Show
Winfrey on the first national broadcast ofThe Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986
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. The movie critic Roger Ebert 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. It was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, expanded to a full hour, and broadcast nationally beginning September 8, 1986. Winfrey’s syndicated show brought in double Donahue’s national audience, displacing Donahue as the number-one daytime talk show in America. Their much publicized contest was the subject of enormous scrutiny.
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” and 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 early years of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the program was classified as a tabloid talk show. In the mid-1990s, Winfrey adopted a less tabloid-oriented format, hosting shows on broader topics such as heart disease, geopolitics, spirituality and meditation, interviewing celebrities on social issues they were directly involved with, such as cancer, charity work, or substance abuse, and hosting televised giveaways including shows where every audience member received a new car (donated by General Motors) or a trip to Australia (donated by Australian tourism bodies).
In addition to her talk show, Winfrey also produced and co-starred in the 1989 drama miniseries The Women of Brewster Place, as well as a short-lived spin-off, Brewster Place. 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). On January 15, 2008, Winfrey and Discovery Communications announced plans to change Discovery Health Channel into a new channel called OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. It was scheduled to launch in 2009, but was delayed, and actually launched on January 1, 2011.
The series finale of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired on May 25, 2011.
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 36.5 million. 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. 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. On September 10, 2007, 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 said that he wasn’t initially invited on the show with the rest of the cast. Winfrey responded by saying that she is 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. In September 2008, Winfrey received criticism after Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report reported that Winfrey refused to have Sarah Palin on her show, allegedly because of Winfrey’s support for Barack Obama. Winfrey denied the report, maintaining that there never was a discussion regarding Palin’s 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, those appearances were prior to his 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, which she did on November 18, 2009.
In 2009, Winfrey was criticized for allowing actress Suzanne Somers to appear on her show to discuss hormone treatments that are not accepted by mainstream medicine. Critics have also suggested that Winfrey is not tough enough when questioning celebrity guests or politicians whom she appears to like. Lisa de Moraes, a media columnist for The Washington Post, stated, “Oprah doesn’t do followup questions unless you’re an author who’s embarrassed her by fabricating portions of a supposed memoir she’s plugged for her book club.”
Other media – Film
Winfrey as Sofia in The Color Purple.
In 1985, Winfrey co-starred in Steven Spielberg‘s The Color Purple as distraught housewife, Sofia. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance. The film went on to become a Broadway musical which opened in late 2005, with Winfrey credited as a producer. In October 1998, Winfrey produced and starred in the film Beloved, based on Toni Morrison‘s Pulitzer Prizewinning 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. While promoting the movie, co-star Thandie Newton described Winfrey as “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 Productionsreleased a film adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston‘s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. The made-for-television film was based upon a teleplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, and starred Halle Berry in the lead female role.
In late 2008, Winfrey’s company Harpo Films signed an exclusive output pact to develop and produce scripted series, documentaries and movies for HBO. Oprah voiced Gussie the goose for Charlotte’s Web (2006) and the voice of Judge Bumbleden in Bee Movie (2007) co-starring the voices of Jerry Seinfeld and Renée Zellweger. In 2009, Winfrey provided the voice for the character of Eudora, the mother of Princess Tiana, in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog and in 2010, narrated the US version of the BBC nature program Life for Discovery.
Publishing and writing
Winfrey on the cover of Live Your Best Life, a collection of features from O, The Oprah Magazine.
Winfrey has co-authored five books. At the announcement of a weight loss book in 2005, 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 the autobiography of former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Winfrey publishes magazines: O, The Oprah Magazine; from 2004 to 2008, Oprah also published a magazine called O at Home. In 2002, Fortune called O, the Oprah Magazine the most successful start-up ever in the industry. Although its circulation had declined by more than 10 percent (to 2.4 million) from 2005 to 2008, the January 2009 issue was the best selling issue since 2006. The audience for her magazine is considerably more upscale than for her TV show, the average reader earning well above the median for U.S. women.
Winfrey’s company created the Oprah.com website to provide resources and interactive content relating to her shows, magazines, book club, and public charity. Oprah.com averages more than 70 million page views and more than six million users per month, and receives approximately 20,000 e-mails each week. Winfrey initiated “Oprah’s Child Predator Watch List”, through her show and website, to help track down accused child molesters. Within the first 48 hours, two of the featured men were captured.
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 Radio, 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 30 minutes a week, 39 weeks a year. The 30-minute weekly show features Winfrey with friend Gayle King.
Personal life – Homes
Aerial view of Oprah’s Montecito estate
Winfrey currently lives on “The Promised Land”, her 42-acre (170,000 m2) estate with ocean and mountain views in Montecito, California. Winfrey also owns a house in Lavallette, New Jersey; an apartment in Chicago, an estate on Fisher Island, Florida, a house in Douglasville, Georgia; a ski house in Telluride, Colorado; and property on Maui, Hawaii and Antigua. Her base during filming of Winfrey’s show is Chicago, so she spends time in the neighborhood of Streeterville.
Winfrey’s 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. She broke up with him on Valentine’s Day of her senior year.
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 ever had.”
According to Mair, when Kramer moved to NBC in New York, Winfrey had a love affair with a married man who had no intention of leaving his wife. 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.” 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. “I couldn’t kill myself. I would be afraid the minute I did it; something really good would happen and I’d miss it.”
According to Winfrey, her emotional turmoil 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 later confessed to smoking crack cocaine with a man she was romantically involved with during the same era. 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.”
Winfrey was allegedly involved in a second drug-related love affair. Self-proclaimed former boyfriend Randoph Cook said they lived together for several months in 1985 and did drugs. In 1997, Cook tried to sue Winfrey for $20 million for allegedly blocking a tell-all book about their alleged relationship.
Also, in the mid-1980’s, Winfrey briefly dated movie critic Roger Ebert, whom she credits with advising her to take her show into syndication.
In 1985, before Winfrey’s Chicago talk show had gone national, Haitian filmmaker Reginald Chevalier claims he appeared as a guest on a look-alike segment and began a relationship with Winfrey involving romantic evenings at home, candlelit baths, and dinners with Michael Jordan and Danny Glover. Chevalier says Winfrey ended the relationship when she met Stedman Graham.
Winfrey and her boyfriend Stedman Graham have been together since 1986. They were engaged to be married in November 1992, but the ceremony never took place.
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 rumors 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.”
Winfrey has also had a long friendship with Maria Shriver after they met in Baltimore.Winfrey considers Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her mentor and close friend; she calls Angelou her “mother-sister-friend” 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.