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Oprah Winfrey
1954 -

 


She didn't create the talk-show format. But the compassion and intimacy she put into it have created a new way for us to talk to one another
By DEBORAH TANNEN for Time Magazine

 

The Sudanese-born supermodel Alek Wek stands poised and insouciant as the talk-show host, admiring her classic African features, cradles Wek's cheek and says, "What a difference it would have made to my childhood if I had seen someone who looks like you on television." The host is Oprah Winfrey, and she has been making that difference for millions of viewers, young and old, black and white, for nearly a dozen years.

Winfrey stands as a beacon, not only in the worlds of media and entertainment but also in the larger realm of public discourse. At 44, she has a personal fortune estimated at more than half a billion dollars. She owns her own production company, which creates feature films, prime-time TV specials and home videos. An accomplished actress, she won an Academy Award nomination for her role in The Colour Purple, and this fall will star in her own film production of Toni Morrison's Beloved.

But it is through her talk show that her influence has been greatest. When Winfrey talks, her viewers — an estimated 14 million daily in the U.S. and millions more in 132 other countries — listen. Any book she chooses for her on-air book club becomes an instant best seller. When she established the "world's largest piggy bank," people all over the country contributed spare change to raise more than $1 million (matched by Oprah) to send disadvantaged kids to college. When she blurted that hearing about the threat of mad-cow disease "just stopped me cold from eating another burger!", the perceived threat to the beef industry was enough to trigger a multimillion-dollar lawsuit (which she won).

Born in 1954 to unmarried parents, Winfrey was raised by her grandmother on a farm with no indoor plumbing in Kosciusko, Miss. By age 3 she was reading the Bible and reciting in church. At 6 she moved to her mother's home in Milwaukee, Wis.; later, to her father's in Nashville, Tenn. A lonely child, she found solace in books. When a seventh-grade teacher noticed the young girl reading during lunch, he got her a scholarship to a better school. Winfrey's talent for public performance and spontaneity in answering questions helped her win beauty contests — and get her first taste of public attention.

Crowned Miss Fire Prevention in Nashville at 17, Winfrey visited a local radio station, where she was invited to read copy for a lark — and was hired to read news on the air. Two years later, while a sophomore at Tennessee State University, she was hired as Nashville's first female and first black TV-news anchor. After graduation, she took an anchor position in Baltimore, Md., but lacked the detachment to be a reporter. She cried when a story was sad, laughed when she misread a word. Instead, she was given an early-morning talk show. She had found her medium.

In 1984 she moved on to be the host of A.M. Chicago, which became The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was syndicated in 1986 — when Winfrey was 32 — and soon overtook Donahue as the nation's top-rated talk show.

Women, especially, listen to Winfrey because they feel as if she's a friend. Although Phil Donahue pioneered the format she uses (mike-holding host moves among an audience whose members question guests), his show was mostly what I call "report-talk," which often typifies men's conversation. The overt focus is on information. Winfrey transformed the format into what I call "rapport-talk," the back-and-forth conversation that is the basis of female friendship, with its emphasis on self-revealing intimacies. She turned the focus from experts to ordinary people talking about personal issues. Girls' and women's friendships are often built on trading secrets. Winfrey's power is that she tells her own, divulging that she once ate a package of hot-dog buns drenched in maple syrup, that she had smoked cocaine, even that she had been raped as a child. With Winfrey, the talk show became more immediate, more confessional, more personal. When a guest's story moves her, she cries and spreads her arms for a hug.

When my book You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation was published, I was lucky enough to appear on both Donahue and Oprah — and to glimpse the difference between them. Winfrey related my book to her own life: she began by saying she had read the book and "saw myself over and over" in it. She then told one of my examples, adding, "I've done that a thousand times" — and illustrated it by describing herself and Stedman. (Like close friends, viewers know her "steady beau" by first name.)

Winfrey saw 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, Oprah exhorts viewers to improve their lives and the world. 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.
 


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Coming from life in a home with no electricity or running water and having suffered misery and severe abuse, Oprah Gail Winfrey became one of the most influential people in history as host of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which reached more than 20 million Americans five days a week and tens of millions more in 107 other countries. By age 49 she was a self-made billionaire, ruler of a vast entertainment and communications empire. Indeed, she was a symbol of what an individual person could achieve in America, and around the world were people who, when asked, declared that the person they most wished to be like was "Oprah Winfrey."


Misery

Winfrey was born out of wedlock to an impoverished young woman, Vernita Lee, in Mississippi at a time when segregation in that state denied basic civil rights to African Americans. Her mother named several different men as potential fathers to Winfrey, but only one man, Vernon Winfrey, a sailor in the U.S. Navy, took responsibility for the child. Throughout her life, Winfrey would refuse to have the tests done that would determine whether Vernon was her biological father.

Lee left her baby daughter with her own mother, the owner of a remote pig farm. Her grandmother provided Winfrey with a stern disciplinary environment in which church played a big role. In 1956 Winfrey astonished church members by delivering a reading and interpretation of a part of the Bible. Her grandmother had taught her to read, and reading would always be a source of inspiration and solace for Winfrey. In 1960 she was sent from the farm that lacked electricity and running water to her mother's Milwaukee home, which was tiny; Winfrey missed being able to play with animals but kept roaches as pets. Unable to care for her daughter, Lee soon sent her to Nashville to live with her father and his wife, Zelma, who loved the little girl. When Lee asked to have her daughter back for a summer's visit, the Winfreys reluctantly let her go; she would not return until 1968.

At first, Winfrey did well in school; she skipped over kindergarten to first grade and then over second grade to third grade. But in 1963 Winfrey was raped by a 19-year-old cousin; at least two other relatives molested her. To encourage boys to like her, she was sexually promiscuous. She was very rebellious; her mother tried to have her put in juvenile hall, which had no room to spare, so she sent Winfrey back to her father. At 14, Winfrey became pregnant, and, at first, she named several possible fathers. Eventually she insisted the father had to be her own father's brother. The baby was stillborn. Her father was a remarkable man, who accepted Winfrey as his daughter without question and who made it clear to her that he wanted her to be his daughter. He and his wife gave Winfrey a disciplined home environment. She was required to read books and, every two weeks, to write a report about what she had read, instilling a habit of reading that Winfrey continued for the rest of her life. She had to wear conservative, standard schoolgirl clothing at all times, to do her homework, and to behave respectfully toward grownups. Winfrey would often tell others that her father had saved her life.


Talking for a Living

Even as a small child, Winfrey would say that she wanted to make her living by talking, for she was a gifted, quick-witted speaker. In 1971, partly on the basis of her brilliant public speaking, she won the Miss Nashville Fire Prevention beauty and talent contest, which led to a job reading the news at the WVOL radio station. She chafed under her father and stepmother's curfew rules, because she was earning $15,000 per year—a good salary at the time—and felt that she was demonstrating grownup responsibility. Even after she took a job anchoring the news broadcasts of Nashville's WTVF-TV, the restrictions required by her parents remained. When, in 1976, Baltimore's WJZ-TV offered her a job anchoring the news, she leaped at the chance. She was a senior at Tennessee State University with only a few months to go for her degree, but as a friend pointed out to her, the WJZ-TV job was the chance of a lifetime. Her bosses at WJZ-TV wanted her to have plastic surgery to move her eyes closer together and to narrow her nose (she refused). They sent her to a hairdresser to make her hair more chic; the hairdresser burned the hair off her head, making her bald save for three little hairs over her forehead; her head proved too big for wigs, so she wore scarves while she was on the air, until her hair grew back.

In 1977 she was switched to co-hosting a morning talk show; her gift of gab and her knack for asking the questions most listeners wanted to have answered turned the show into a hit. In 1984 her producer at WJZ-TV, Debra DiMaio, took a job in Chicago at WLS-TV. She brought with her a tape of Winfrey at work and showed it to Dennis Swanson, who immediately wanted to hire Winfrey to host the morning talk show A.M. Chicago. Winfrey was afraid that a heavyset black woman would be unwelcome on television in Chicago, which had a reputation for racial conflict, but Swanson insisted. Winfrey accepted the job, and WJZ-TV let her out of her contract. She then visited a Chicago lawyer, Jeff Jacobs, to gain his help with her contract negotiations; he became her lifelong adviser and business manager. Smart, honest, and devoted to Winfrey's well-being, he had a hand in all of her business dealings from 1984 onward. Within four weeks, opposite the dominating Donahue talk show (with host Phil Donahue), Winfrey's show went from last in the ratings in Chicago to first for its time slot. She had shown that her appeal transcended ethnicity.


Going National

The year 1985 was momentous for Winfrey. Her talk show was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Jacobs negotiated a national syndication deal with the owners of syndication company King World, Mike and Roger King, two persuasive salesmen who quickly sold the show to 138 stations in the United States. Jacobs got Winfrey 25 percent of the gross King World made from the show, and from a salary of $230,000 per year at WLS-TV, Winfrey's income leaped to over $30 million for her first year in syndication. Also in 1986 The Colour Purple, a motion picture based on one of her favorite books, came out. In it, she played Sofia, and her dazzling performance received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for best supporting actress, although she did not win.

She played the mother of the protagonist in the motion picture Native Son; though she was praised for her performance by critics, she was unhappy with the motion picture, which quickly died at the box office. Wanting to control the content of her productions, in 1986 Winfrey founded Harpo Productions, giving a 5 percent share to Jacobs. ("Harpo" was "Oprah" spelled backward.) This studio was set up in a former ice-skating rink and became a large production company that made motion pictures and miniseries for the ABC network and eventually produced The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was in May 1986 that she met Stedman Graham Jr., a tall, movie-star-handsome, successful businessman, and the two fell in love. Although they announced their engagement in 1992, they did not marry.

In 1989 Winfrey made Jacobs president of Harpo. Like Winfrey, he had a great deal of common sense, and he gave the young business stability. That year Winfrey produced and acted in the television miniseries The Women of Brewster Place, based on one of her favourite novels. It did well, and a dramatic series Brewster Place starring Winfrey was spun off in 1990, but it failed after only a few episodes were aired.


Empire

In 1992 Winfrey began a series of prime-time specials called Oprah: Behind the Scenes, about Winfrey's interviews of famous people. In a separately produced show, syndicated to more than 50 countries by King World, Winfrey interviewed the singer Michael Jackson for prime time; the interview aired February 10, 1993, and 39 percent of American homes tuned in to the show. Winfrey typically hired friends for jobs at Harpo Productions, people whose characters she knew and whom she trusted. This may be why by 2000 her top 10 executives each had logged over 10 years' employment at Harpo Productions. One such friend was Tim Bennett, who had been program director for Chicago's WLS-TV when Oprah first worked there. Bennett became chief operations officer for Harpo Productions, and he organized the company into departments and clarified the company's capital structure.

Ever since coming to Chicago, Winfrey had given 10 percent of her income to charities, mostly having to do with youths, education, and books. In 1996 she began Oprah's Book Club to promote reading, for which she recommended a recently published book each month. One show each month would focus discussion on the book. Such was her influence that within minutes of her recommendations, booksellers would be swamped with orders for the books; sales for the books typically increased by 500,000 to one million copies, and previously obscure authors would become major literary figures. In 2000 Winfrey began O: The Oprah Magazine, which topped two million in circulation. In 2001 the magazine grossed over $140 million. On April 4, 2002, Winfrey announced that she was exhausted by reading so many books to single out ones to recommend, and she ended her book club, but in March 2003 she announced that she was going to start a classics book club, featuring three authors per year. She called it "Travelling with the Classics." In 2002 Harpo Productions began producing Dr. Phil, featuring a forensic psychiatrist who had frequently appeared on Winfrey's show as a family counsellor, becoming a fixture. In 2003 her personal fortune topped $1 billion.
 


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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 controversy 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.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 18 December, 2008