Winfrey was born Orpah Gail on Jan. 19, 1954 in Kosciusko, MS, and named after the Biblical character, Orpah. When people could not pronounce her name correctly, it was eventually changed to Oprah. Her birth parents were unmarried and her conception was the result of a one-night fling between teenaged mother Vernita Lee, a housemaid, and Vernon Winfrey, who was in the armed forces at the time. Winfrey spent her early years raised by her paternal grandparents on a Mississippi farm with no indoor plumbing, but while the living was hard, Winfrey credited her strict but fair grandmother Hattie Mae for giving her a positive image of herself and ultimately being the strongest influence in her life. Winfrey first began to dream big when she learned to read at age three, discovering a whole world outside the farm. She was reciting sermons in church by age three and a half, and throughout her youth, remained active as an orator at local churches wherever she lived. At age six, Winfrey’s mother called for her daughter to join her in a poor inner city neighborhood in Milwaukee, WI, where from age nine onwards, Winfrey endured molestation and rape from a cousin, an uncle and a family friend. The abuse would inform her life; not only in her personal relationships and behavior, but also in her later quest to channel her empathy to help the have-nots, the abused and the forgotten.
Her home life was extraordinarily difficult, but the avid reader excelled in school, though her mother was not encouraging and was, in fact, threatened by her daughter’s constant reading. Winfrey skipped several early grades and through the help of a teacher who recognized the budding orator’s potential, she landed a scholarship to a better suburban school in Glendale, WI at the age of 13. But her restless, rebellious side threatened to squelch her chances of success. The child of a single mother who desperately craved a “normal” family life ran away from home and became pregnant; her premature baby dying only weeks after birth. Unable to control or provide for her daughter, mother Lee sent Winfrey to live in Nashville with her father, who owned a barbershop and grocery store and was a respected member of the city council. The new environment proved life-changing for Winfrey, and under the strict guidance of Vernon and his wife, Winfrey was earning academic honors, competing in oratory competitions, speaking at local churches, and working part time reading the news on-air at local radio station WVOL. When she graduated from East Nashville High in 1971, she was named “Most Popular,” and won a full scholarship to Tennessee State University.
Winfrey further gained confidence for a promising future when she won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant at age 18. Meanwhile, she studied speech and performing arts at TSU and began working at WTVF-TV, where at age 19, Winfrey found herself Nashville’s first female black evening news anchor, in addition to being its youngest. Having beaten the considerable odds of growing up as a black, Southern female in abject poverty, the former teenage delinquent was unmistakably on the path to success. In 1976 she was offered a job in Baltimore, MD, as co-anchor of the evening news at WJZ-TV. Smart, charming and personable, Winfrey was a natural onscreen, and the network leveraged her particular talent by making her the host of their morning magazine show, “People are Talking.” After years spent gaining valuable experience in Baltimore, Winfrey made the jump to the Chicago market in 1984, where she was hired to host the half-hour morning show, “A.M. Chicago” on WLS-TV. Within a year, the show’s positive response led to its expansion to a one-hour format, and it was renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Among the Chicago audience of the enormously popular program that eclipsed talk show veteran Phil Donahue in the ratings was music producer Quincy Jones, who was serving as the executive producer on an adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical epic, “The Color Purple” (1985).
The untrained screen actress caught Jones’ attention and went on to fulfill a lifelong dream when she was cast in one of her favorite stories as Sofia, a gutsy, outspoken survivor of abuse in the turn-of-the-century South who struggles with lifelong humiliation at the hands of her white employers. The Steven Spielberg-directed success starring seasoned fellow film newcomer Whoopi Goldberg and screen veteran Danny Glover was a box office success, jettisoning the local Chicago television figure into the national spotlight with her Oscar-nominated performance. In September of 1986, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was syndicated nationally and quickly became the highest-rated talk show in television history. As in the local Chicago market, Winfrey offered an appealing alternative to daytime dominator Phil Donahue with her woman-to-woman empathy and flair for self-revelation. Unlike any television figure that had come before her, Winfrey examined social issues with intelligence and candor, engaging the heart. In 1987, Winfrey earned her first Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Show Host, while her show was named Outstanding Talk Show. That same year, Winfrey created the Oprah Winfrey Foundation to support, empower and educate women, children and their families all over the world. Over the next decades, the Foundation donated millions of dollars to everything from academic scholarships, to university endowments, to Boys and Girls Clubs, to the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.
In 1988, the rising media mogul took control of the show from WLS, established Harpo Productions, Inc., and built her own production facility, making her only the third woman in American history to own a studio, after Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball. In recognition of her accomplishments, the International Television and Radio Society named her Broadcaster of the Year. The same year, the host, who was open with audiences about her ongoing struggle to control her weight, went on a diet and worked with a personal trainer to lose 60 pounds. In keeping with the sensationalist tone of the era’s growing glut of competitive “tell-all” talk shows, Winfrey memorably brought a wheelbarrow filled with 60 pounds of animal fat onstage to illustrate her achievement. While Winfrey continued to dominate daytime ratings she also ventured into primetime, executive producing and starring in the highly acclaimed TV miniseries, “The Women of Brewster Place” (ABC, 1989), based on the novel by Gloria Naylor. A subsequent weekly TV series spin-off, “Brewster Place” (ABC, 1990), starring Winfrey was cancelled after only a handful of episodes. In 1990, during an interview with an abuse survivor on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Winfrey made the startling on-air revelation that she had been sexually abused as a child. Proving that her candid admissions were about more than just getting ratings, Winfrey became an outspoken advocate of children’s issues, initiating the National Child Protection Act and testifying before Congress. The bill was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993, and established a national database of convicted child abusers.
For Winfrey’s next television production, she starred in “There Are No Children Here” (ABC, 1993) as a Chicago housing project resident determined for her children to receive an education and a chance at a better life. The film rated well, but nothing could compete with a primetime special that year in which Winfrey was granted access to a live interview with Michael Jackson at home at his Neverland Ranch. The television landmark reached an audience of 100 million, and showcased Jackson, still in fine form, but only months before child molestation charges began tarnishing the image of the beloved performer. Two years later, Winfrey became the first woman to head the Forbes Top 40 Entertainers list, making her the only entertainer and the only African-American person on Forbes’ list of 400 richest Americans. But despite her runaway success, Winfrey decided to reconstruct the format and focus of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which had occasionally strayed into the trashier realms of her dubious competitors, like Geraldo Rivera and Jenny Jones. “I won’t have people yelling and screaming and trying to humiliate one another,” Winfrey confirmed. Her new commitment was to focus on the positive – lifting the spirit, stimulating the mind, and exhorting viewers to improve their lives and the world around them. Among those goals was to get America reading again – a surprising move from someone whose career was largely owed to the TV medium, until she explained how reading had changed her life. Winfrey championed literacy via “Oprah’s Book Club,” a once-a-month segment that was an unexpected success, guaranteeing any Winfrey-endorsed title increased sales of up to a million copies.