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Oprah Winfrey
January 29, 1954 -
Media Mogul and Philanthropist


Oprah Gail Winfrey is an American television host, producer, and philanthropist, best known for her self-titled, multi-award winning talk show, which has become the highest-rated program of its kind in history. She has been ranked the richest African American of the 20th century and beyond, the greatest black philanthropist in American history, and was once 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, including being raped at the age of nine and becoming 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 claims 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, an achievement for which the governor of Illinois considered offering her a seat in the U.S. senate.

Early Life

Though there are conflicting reports as to how her name became "Oprah", Winfrey was originally named "Orpah" after the Biblical character in the Book of Ruth. 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.

Winfrey 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. 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 traveled 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. 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. 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.

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.

Career and Success

Television

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 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."

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 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. Another notable 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 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 CBS Paramount which produced the show.

Winfrey 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. Her final show will air in September 2011.

The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Concert was hosted by Winfrey 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 backwards).

Film

In 1985, Winfrey co-starred in Steven Spielberg's 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 went on to become a Broadway musical and opened in 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."

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 Zellweger.

In late 2008, Winfrey's company Harpo Films signed an exclusive output pact with HBO.

In 2009, Winfrey provided the voice for the character of Eudora, the mother of Princess Tiana, in Disney's The Princess and the Frog.

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. and 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, earning US $63,000 a year (well above the median for U.S. women).

Online

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.

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.

Radio

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 thirty minutes a week, 39 weeks a year. The thirty-minute weekly show features Winfrey with friend Gayle King.

Personal life

Motherhood

Winfrey has no surviving biological children, once explaining that she chose not be a mother because she was not mothered well[54] however Winfrey has also described maternal feelings towards the girls at Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls:

”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.”

Winfrey also has stated:

”For many years, people always asked me why didn't I have children? Why didn't I have children? Now I know why I didn't have children. Because I now have all of these daughters, all of these daughters and I want you to know that these are now our daughters.”

“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.

Winfrey later confirmed to Larry King that she now felt like she was mother of 151 girls.

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

In the February 2006 issue of her magazine, O, Winfrey said she felt "betrayed" by her family member who had revealed to the National Enquirer that as a teenager Winfrey had given birth to a baby who then died in the hospital some 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).

Entrepreneurship and Wealth

Born in rural poverty, then raised by a mother on welfare in a poor urban neighborhood, Winfrey became a millionaire at age 32 when her talk show went national. Winfrey was in a position to negotiate ownership of the show and start her own production company because of the success and the amount of revenue the show generated. 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 black people are just under 13% of the U.S. population, Winfrey has remained the only African American wealthy enough to rank among America's 400 richest people nearly every year since 1995.

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, as of September 2009 Winfrey is worth over $2.3 billion 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.[88] By 2008, her income had increased to $275 million.

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