America's first lady of talk shows, Oprah Gail Winfrey (born 1954), is well known for surpassing her competition to become the most watched daytime show host on television. Her natural style with guests and audiences on the Oprah Winfrey Show earned her widespread adoration, as well as her own production company.
Oprah Gail Winfrey was born to Vernita Lee and Vernon Winfrey on an isolated farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi, on January 29, 1954. Her name was supposed to be Orpah, from the Bible, but because of the difficulty of spelling and pronunciation, she was known as Oprah almost from birth. Winfrey's unmarried parents separated soon after she was born and left her in the care of her maternal grandmother on the farm.
Winfrey made friends with the farm animals and, under the strict guidance of her grandmother, she learned to read at two and a half years old. She addressed her church congregation about "when Jesus rose on Easter Day" when she was two years old. Then Winfrey skipped kindergarten after writing a note to her teacher on the first day of school saying she belonged in the first grade. She was promoted to third grade after that year.
It was her last year on the farm; at six years old she was sent north to join her mother and two half-brothers in the Milwaukee ghetto. Because she missed the farm animals and could not afford a dog, she made pets out of cockroaches and kept them in a jar. Her career as a young speaker continued with poetry readings at African American social clubs and church teas. At 12 years old she was staying with her father in Nashville and earned $500 for a speech at a church. She knew then that she wanted to be "paid to talk."
The poor, urban lifestyle had its negative effect on Winfrey as a young teenager, and her problems were compounded by repeated sexual abuse, starting at age nine, by men that others in her family trusted. Her mother worked strenuously at odd jobs and did not have much time for supervision.
Winfrey became a delinquent teenager, frequently acting out and crying for attention. Once she faked a robbery in her house, smashed her glasses, feigned amnesia, and stole from her mother's purse, all because she wanted newer, more stylish glasses. Another time she spotted Aretha Franklin getting out of a car and convinced her she was a poor orphan from Ohio looking for a way back home. Franklin gave her $100, with which Winfrey rented herself a hotel room for three days until a minister brought her home. Her mother tried to send her to a detention center only to discover there was no room; so she sent her troubled daughter to live with her father in Nashville.
Winfrey said her father saved her life. He was very strict and provided her with guidance, structure, rules, and books. He required his daughter to complete weekly book reports, and she went without dinner until she learned five new vocabulary words each day.
She became an excellent student, participating as well in the drama club, debate club, and student council. In an Elks Club oratorical contest, she won a full scholarship to Tennessee State University. The following year she was invited to a White House Conference on Youth. Winfrey was crowned Miss Fire Prevention by WVOL, a local Nashville radio station, and was hired by that station to read afternoon newscasts.
During her freshman year at Tennessee State, Winfrey became Miss Black Nashville and Miss Tennessee. The Nashville CBS affiliate offered her a job; Winfrey turned it down twice, but finally took the advice of a speech teacher, who reminded her that job offers from CBS were "the reason people go to college." Now seen each evening on WTVFTV, Winfrey was Nashville's first African American female co-anchor of the evening news. She was 19 years old and still a sophomore in college.
When she graduated in 1976, she went to Baltimore to become a reporter and co-anchor at ABC affiliate WJZ-TV. The station sent her to New York for a beauty overhaul, which Winfrey attributes to her assistant news director's attempt to "make her Puerto Rican" and from an incident when she was told her "hair's too thick, nose is too wide, and chin's too big." The New York salon only made things worse by giving her a bad permanent, leaving her temporarily bald and depressed. Winfrey comforted herself with food; so began the weight problem that became so much a part of her persona.
In 1977 WJZ-TV scheduled her to do the local news updates, called cut-ins, during Good Morning, America, and soon she was moved to the morning talk show Baltimore Is Talking with co-host Richard Sher. After seven years on the show, the general manager of WLS-TV, ABC's Chicago affiliate, saw Winfrey in an audition tape sent in by her producer, Debra DiMaio. At the time her ratings in Baltimore were better than Phil Donahue's, and she and DiMaio were hired.
Winfrey moved to Chicago in January 1984 and took over as anchor on A.M. Chicago, a morning talk show which was consistently last in the ratings. She changed the emphasis of the show from traditional women's issues to current and controversial topics, and after one month the show was even with Donahue's program. Three months later it had inched ahead. In September 1985 the program, renamed the Oprah Winfrey Show, was expanded to one hour. Consequently, Donahue moved to New York.
One of the reasons her show became so successful was she decided against using stifling prepared scripts. She refused to research her topics, and, in her own words, she "wings it" in order to carry on normal conversations with her guests. It succeeds because of her sharp personality and quick wit.
In 1985 Quincy Jones saw Winfrey on television and thought she would make a fine actress in a movie he was co-producing with director Stephen Spielberg. The film was based on the Alice Walker novel The Color Purple. Her only acting experience until then had been in a one-woman show, The History of Black Women Through Drama and Song, which she performed during an African American theater festival in 1978.
Winfrey was cast as Sofia, a proud, assertive woman whose spirit is broken by neither an abusive husband nor white authorities. Critics praised her performance, and she was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress.
In 1986 she appeared in Jerrold Freedman's film of Richard Wright's Native Son, playing the crucial role of Bigger Thomas' mother. The film was not as well received as The Color Purple, and critics considered Winfrey's performance overly sentimental.
The popularity of Winfrey's show skyrocketed after the success of The Color Purple, and in September 1985 the distributor King World bought the syndication rights to air the program in 138 cities, a record for first-time syndication. That year, although Donahue was being aired on 200 stations, Winfrey won her time slot by 31 percent, drew twice the Chicago audience as Donahue, and carried the top ten markets in the United States.
The Oprah Winfrey Show featured such topics and guests as a group of nudists without clothing in the studio (with only their faces shown), a live birth, white supremacists, transsexuals, pet death, gorgeous men, well-dressed women, and Winfrey's own struggle with her weight and coming to terms with the abuse she endured as a child. She holds interviewees' hands during difficult discussions and often breaks into tears right along with them. One show's topic was incest, during which she revealed to her audience she had been raped by a cousin when she was nine years old.
She once taped a show with an all-white audience in Forsyth County, Georgia, where no African American had lived since 1912. This program was prompted after an incident on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, when 20,000 people marched in Forsyth County to protest racism after the Ku Klux Klan had broken up a previous civil rights march in that town. Another program featured a man who had contracted AIDS and as a result had been harassed, beaten, jailed, and run out of his hometown. The studio audience was made up of the residents of that town.
In 1986 she received a special award from the Chicago Academy for the Arts for unique contributions to the city's artistic community and was named Woman of Achievement by the National Organization of Women. The Oprah Winfrey Show won several Emmys for Best Talk Show, and Winfrey was honored as Best Talk Show Host.
Winfrey formed her own production company, Harpo, Inc., in August 1986 in order to produce the topics that she wanted to see produced, including the television drama miniseries based on Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, in which Winfrey was featured, along with Cicely Tyson, Robin Givens, Olivia Cole, Jackee, Paula Kelly, and Lynn Whitfield. The miniseries aired in March 1989, and a regular series called Brewster Place, also starring Winfrey, debuted on ABC in May 1990. Winfrey also owned the screen rights to Kaffir Boy, Mark Mathabane's autobiographical book about growing up under apartheid in South Africa, as well as Toni Morrison's novel Beloved.
Winfrey is also politically active. In 1991 the tragic story of a four-year-old Chicago girl's molestation and murder prompted Winfrey, as a former abuse victim, "to take a stand for the children of this country," she explained in People. With the help of former Illinois governor James Thompson, she proposed federal child protection legislation designed to keep nationwide records on convicted child abusers. In addition, Winfrey pursued a ruling that would guarantee strict sentencing of individuals convicted of child abuse.
In September 1996 Winfrey started an on-air reading club. For 10 years publishers had watched as self-help, inspirational, and celebrity titles rose to best-seller status on the tides of telegenic emotion flooding each day across the screens of Winfrey's 14 million American viewers. Think of Simple Abundance, The Soul's Code, Don't Block the Blessings, Down in the Garden, and Winfrey's own Make the Connection, written with Bob Greene. They all received their sales starts because of Winfrey's reading club. The book club has taken her power to sell books to a different level. On September 17 Winfrey stood up in an evangelist mode and announced she wanted ''to get the country reading." She told her adoring fans to hasten to the stores to buy the book she had chosen. They would then discuss it together on the air the following month.
The initial reaction was astonishing. The Deep End of the Ocean had generated significant sales for a first novel; 68,000 copies had gone into the stores since June. But between the last week in August, when Winfrey told her plans to the publisher, and the September on-air announcement, Viking printed 90,000 more. By the time the discussion was broadcast on October 18, there were 750,000 copies in print. The book became a number one best-seller, and another 100,000 were printed before February 1997.
The club ensured Winfrey as the most powerful book marketer in the United States. She sends more people to bookstores than morning news programs, other daytime shows, evening magazines, radio shows, print reviews and feature articles combined. As of May 1997, Make the Connection was rated number nine on the New York Times Best Seller List.
On April 30, 1997, Winfrey appeared in the role of a therapist on a controversial episode of the sitcom Ellen, in which the show's character reveals her homosexuality. The controversey deepened when the show's star, comedian Ellen DeGeneres, announced that she herself was a lesbian. As a result, rumors quickly spread questioning Winfrey's sexuality. Distressed by the rumors, Winfrey issued a statement declaring that she is heterosexual.
Although one of the wealthiest women in America and the highest paid entertainer in the world, Winfrey has made generous contributions to charitable organizations and institutions such as Morehouse College, the Harold Washington Library, The United Negro College Fund, and Tennesse State University.
In addition to her numerous Daytime Emmys, Winfrey has received other awards. She was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1994 and received the George Foster Peabody Individual Achievement Award following the 1995-1996 season, one of broadcasting's most coveted awards. Further, she received the IRTS Gold Medal Award, was named one of "Americas's 25 Most Influential People of 1996" by Time magazine, and was included on Marjabelle Young Stewart's 1996 list of most polite celebrities. In 1997 Winfrey received TV Guide's Television Performer of the Year Award and was named favorite Female Television Performer at the 1997 People's Choice Awards.
Winfrey lives in a condominium on Chicago's Gold Coast and owns a 162-acre farm in Indiana. She spends four nights a week lecturing for free at churches, shelters, and youth organizations. Winfrey also spends two Saturdays a month with the Little Sisters program she set up at Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project.
Further Reading on Oprah Gail Winfrey
Three informative and anecdotal books have been written about Oprah Winfrey: Everybody Loves Oprah! (1987) by Norman King, Oprah (1987) by Robert Waldron, and Oprah Winfrey by Lillie Patterson (1988). "The Importance of Being Oprah," a June 11, 1989, feature story in the New York Times Magazine by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, is an excellent in-depth profile of Winfrey. She is the subject of countless magazine articles in the popular media.