Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey

Winfrey at her 50th birthday party at Hotel Bel-Air, Los Angeles, in 2004
Born Orpah Gail Winfrey
January 29, 1954 (1954-01-29) (age 57)
Kosciusko, Mississippi, United States
Residence Montecito, California, United States
Years active 1983–present
Political party Democratic Party
Partner Stedman Graham

Oprah Winfrey (born Orpah Gail Winfrey[1] on January 29, 1954) is an American media proprietor, talk show host, actress, producer and philanthropist. Winfrey is best known for her self-titled, multi-award-winning talk show, which has become the highest-rated program of its kind in history and was nationally syndicated from 1986 to 2011.[2] She has been ranked the richest African American of the 20th century,[3] the greatest black philanthropist in American history,[4][5] and was for a time the world's only black billionaire.[6][7] She is also, according to some assessments, the most influential woman in the world.[8][9]

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, claiming to be raped at age nine and becoming pregnant at 14; her son died in infancy.[10] 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,[6] she launched her own production company and became internationally syndicated.

Credited with creating a more intimate confessional form of media communication,[11] she is thought to have popularized and revolutionized[11][12] the tabloid talk show genre pioneered by Phil Donahue,[11] which a Yale study claims broke 20th century taboos and allowed LGBT people to enter the mainstream.[13][14] 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,[15] and an emotion-centered approach[16] she is often praised for overcoming adversity to become a benefactor to others.[17] From 2006 to 2008, her support of Barack Obama, by one estimate, delivered over a million votes in the close 2008 Democratic primary race.[18]


Early life

Winfrey was originally named "Orpah" after the Biblical character in the Book of Ruth, but her family and friends "didn't know how to pronounce it", and called her "Oprah" instead.[1]

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.[19] 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.[20] 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 make up was determined to be 89 percent Sub-Saharan African, 8% Native American, and 3% East Asian; however, the East Asian may, due to the imprecisions of genetic testing, actually be Native American markers.[21]

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.[22] 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 switch when she did not do chores or if she misbehaved in any way.[citation needed]

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.[23] Around the time Winfrey moved in, Lee had given birth to another daughter, Winfrey's younger half-sister, Patricia[24] who later (on February 2003, at age 43) died of causes related to cocaine addiction.[25] By 1962, Lee was having difficulty raising both daughters so Winfrey was temporarily sent to live with Vernon in Nashville, Tennessee.[26] While Winfrey was in Nashville, Lee gave birth to a third daughter.[27] Lee gave this daughter, later also named Patricia, up for adoption in the hope of easing the financial straits that had led to Lee's being on Welfare.[28] Winfrey did not learn she had a second half-sister until 2010.[28] 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.[25]

Winfrey has stated she was molested by her cousin, her uncle, and a family friend, starting when she was nine years old, something she first claimed to her viewers on a 1986 episode of her TV show, when sexual abuse was being discussed.[29][30] When Winfrey discussed the alleged abuse with family members at age 24, they refused to accept what she said.[31] Winfrey once commented that she had chosen not to be a mother because she had not been mothered well.[32]

At 13, after suffering years of abuse, Winfrey ran away from home.[1] When she was 14, she became pregnant, her son dying shortly after birth.[33] She later said she felt betrayed by the family member who had sold the story to the National Enquirer in 1990.[34] 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.[35]

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.[citation needed] 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.[36] At age 17, Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant.[37] She also attracted the attention of the local black radio station, WVOL, which hired her to do the news part-time.[29] 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".[38] 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.[39]


Winfrey on the first national broadcast of The 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.[40] It was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, expanded to a full hour, and broadcast nationally beginning September 8, 1986.[41] Winfrey's syndicated show brought in double Donahue's 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.[42]

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."[43] 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"[43] 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."[43]

In the early years of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the program was classified as a tabloid talk show. In the mid 1990s Winfrey then 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.

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.[44][dead link]

The series finale of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired on May 25, 2011.[45]

Celebrity interviews

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.[46] On December 1, 2005, Winfrey appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman to promote the new Broadway musical The Color Purple,[47][dead link] 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.[48] 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, David Letterman made his first appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", as its season premiere was filmed in New York City.[49]

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 claimed that he wasn't initially invited on the show with the rest of the cast.[50] 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[51] reported that Winfrey refused to have Sarah Palin on her show allegedly due to Winfrey's support for Barack Obama.[52] Winfrey denied the report, maintaining that there never was a discussion regarding Palin's appearing on her show.[52] 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.[52] Although Obama appeared twice on her show, these 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.[52]

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.[53] Critics have also suggested that Winfrey is not tough enough when questioning celebrity guests or politicians that she appears to like.[54] Lisa de Moraes, a media columnist for The Washington Post, stated, "Oprah doesn't do follow-up questions unless you're an author who's embarrassed her by fabricating portions of a supposed memoir she's plugged for her book club."[55]

Other media


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 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. 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."[56] In 2005, Harpo Productions released 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.[57] 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 Renee 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 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.[58]

Winfrey publishes magazines: O, The Oprah Magazine; from 2004 to 2008, Oprah also published a magazine called O at Home.[59] In 2002 Fortune called O, the Oprah Magazine the most successful start-up ever in the industry.[60][dead link] Although its circulation had declined by more than 10 percent (to 2.4 million) from 2005 to 2008,[61] the January 2009 issue was the best selling issue since 2006.[62] 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.[60]


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.[63] 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.[64]


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


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.

Romantic history

A self-described promiscuous teen who was a victim of sexual abuse, Winfrey gave birth at the age of 14, to a boy who died shortly after.[10]

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.[65] 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.[66] She broke up with him on Valentine's Day of her senior year.[66][67]

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."[68] 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."[69]

In the 1970s, Winfrey had a romantic relationship with John Tesh.[70] Biographer Kitty Kelley claims that Tesh split with Winfrey over the pressure of having an interracial relationship.[71]

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."[72]

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.[73] 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".[73] 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.[73] "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."[74]

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."[74]

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."[75]

Winfrey was allegedly involved in a second drug-related love affair. Self-proclaimed former boyfriend Randoph Cook claimed 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.[76][77]

Also, in the mid 1980s, Winfrey briefly dated movie critic Roger Ebert, whom she credits with advising her to take her show into syndication.[40]

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 claims Winfrey ended the relationship when she met Stedman Graham.[78]

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.[79]

Close friends

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?"[80] "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."[80]

Winfrey has also had a long friendship with Maria Shriver after they met in Baltimore.[81][82] 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"[83] 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.[84]

Personal 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. At age 41, Winfrey had a net worth of $340 million and replaced Bill Cosby as the only African American on the Forbes 400.[85] Although black people are just under 13% of the U.S. population,[86] Winfrey has remained the only African American to rank among America's 400 richest people nearly every year since 1995.[87] With a 2000 net worth of $800 million, Winfrey is believed to be the richest African American of the 20th century. Due to 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."[88] Winfrey was the highest paid TV entertainer in the United States in 2006, earning an estimated $260 million during the year, five times the sum earned by second-place music executive Simon Cowell.[89] By 2008, her yearly income had increased to $275 million.[90]

Forbes' international rich list has listed Winfrey as the world's only black billionaire from 2004 to 2006 and as the first black woman billionaire in world history.[85] According to Forbes, in September 2010 Winfrey was worth over $2.7 billion[91] and has overtaken former eBay CEO Meg Whitman as the richest self-made woman in America.[92]



Winfrey at the White House for the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors

Winfrey was called "arguably the world's most powerful woman" by CNN and Time.com,[93] "arguably the most influential woman in the world" by the American Spectator,[94] "one of the 100 people who most influenced the 20th Century" and "one of the most influential people" from 2004 to 2011 by TIME. Winfrey is the only person in the world to have appeared in the latter list on all eight occasions.[95]

At the end of the 20th century Life listed Winfrey as both the most influential woman and the most influential black person of her generation, and in a cover story profile the magazine called her "America's most powerful woman".[96] In 2007 USA Today ranked Winfrey as the most influential woman and most influential black person of the previous quarter century.[97] Ladies Home Journal also ranked Winfrey number one in their list of the most powerful women in America and senator Barack Obama has said she "may be the most influential woman in the country".[98] In 1998 Winfrey became the first woman and first African-American to top Entertainment Weekly's list of the 101 most powerful people in the entertainment industry.[99] Forbes named her the world's most powerful celebrity in 2005,[100] 2007,[101] 2008[90] and 2010[102] In 2010 Life magazine named Winfrey one of the 100 people who changed the world, along side such luminaries as Jesus Christ, Elvis Presley and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Winfrey was the only living woman to make the list.[103]

Columnist Maureen Dowd seems to agree with such assessments: "She is the top alpha female in this country. She has more credibility than the president. Other successful women, such as Hillary Clinton and Martha Stewart, had to be publicly slapped down before they could move forward. Even Condi has had to play the protegé with Bush. None of this happened to Oprah – she is a straight ahead success story.[104] Vanity Fair wrote: "Oprah Winfrey arguably has more influence on the culture than any university president, politician, or religious leader, except perhaps the Pope.[105] Bill O'Reilly said: "this is a woman that came from nothing to rise up to be the most powerful woman, I think, in the world. I think Oprah Winfrey is the most powerful woman in the world, not just in America. That's – anybody who goes on her program immediately benefits through the roof. I mean, she has a loyal following; she has credibility; she has talent; and she's done it on her own to become fabulously wealthy and fabulously powerful.[106]

In 2005 Winfrey was named the greatest woman in American history as part of a public poll as part of The Greatest American. She was ranked No.9 overall on the list of greatest Americans, however polls estimating Winfrey's personal popularity have been inconsistent. A November 2003 Gallup poll estimated that 73% of American adults had a favorable view of Winfrey. Another Gallup poll in January 2007 estimated the figure at 74%, although it dropped to 66% when Gallup conducted the same poll in October 2007. A December 2007 Fox News poll put the figure at 55%.[107] According to Gallup's annual most admired poll, Americans consistently rank Winfrey as one of the most admired women in the world. Her highest rating came in 2007[108] when she was statistically tied with Hillary Clinton for first place.[109] In a list compiled by the British magazine New Statesman in September 2010, She was voted 38th in the list of "The World's 50 Most Influential Figures 2010".[110]


The Wall Street Journal coined the term "Oprahfication", meaning public confession as a form of therapy.[111] By confessing intimate details about her weight problems, tumultuous love life, and sexual abuse, and crying alongside her guests, Time magazine credits Winfrey with creating a new form of media communication known as "rapport talk" as distinguished from the "report talk" of Phil Donahue: "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, ...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."[112]

Observers have also noted the "Oprahfication" of politics such as "Oprah-style debates" and Bill Clinton being described as "the man who brought Oprah-style psychobabble and misty confessions to politics."[113] Newsweek stated: "Every time a politician lets his lip quiver or a cable anchor 'emotes' on TV, they nod to the cult of confession that Oprah helped create.[114] Winfrey's disclosures about her weight (which peaked at 108 kg (238 lb)) also paved the way for other plus-sized women in media such as Roseanne Barr, Rosie O'Donnell and Star Jones. The November 1988 Ms. observed that "in a society where fat is taboo, she made it in a medium that worships thin and celebrates a bland, white-bread prettiness of body and personality [...] But Winfrey made fat sexy, elegant – damned near gorgeous – with her drop-dead wardrobe, easy body language, and cheerful sensuality."[115]

Mainstream acceptance of gays and lesbians

While Phil Donahue has been credited with pioneering the tabloid talk show genre, Winfrey's warmth, intimacy and personal confession, popularized and changed it.[11][12] Her success at popularizing of the tabloid talk show genre, had opened up a thriving industry that has included Ricki Lake, The Jenny Jones Show, and The Jerry Springer Show. Sociologists such as Vicki Abt criticized tabloid talk shows for redefining social norms. In her book Coming After Oprah: Cultural Fallout in the Age of the TV talk show, Abt warned that the media revolution that followed Winfrey's success was blurring the lines between "normal" and "deviant" behavior. In the book Freaks Talk Back,[13] Yale sociology professor Joshua Gamson credits the tabloid talk show genre with providing much needed high impact media visibility for gay, bisexual, transsexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and doing more to make them mainstream and socially acceptable than any other development of the 20th century. In the book's editorial review Michael Bronski wrote "In the recent past, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered people had almost no presence on television. With the invention and propagation of tabloid talk shows such as Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Oprah, and Geraldo, people outside the sexual mainstream now appear in living rooms across America almost every day of the week."[116] Gamson credits the tabloid talk show with making alternative sexual orientations and identities more acceptable in mainstream society. Examples include a Time magazine article describing early 21st century gays coming out of the closet younger and younger and gay suicide rates plummeting. Gamson also believes that tabloid talk shows caused gays to be embraced on more traditional forms of media. Examples include sitcoms like Will & Grace, primetime shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Oscar nominated feature films like Brokeback Mountain.

During a show in the 1980s, members of the studio audience stood up one by one, gave their name and announced that they were gay in observance of National Coming Out Day. Also in the 1980s Winfrey took her show to West Virginia to confront a town gripped by AIDS paranoia because a gay man living in the town had HIV. Winfrey interviewed the man who had become a social outcast and the town's mayor who drained a swimming pool in which the man had gone swimming, and debated with the town's hostile residents. "But I hear this is a God fearing town", Winfrey scolded the homophobic studio audience; "where's all that Christian love and understanding?" During a show on gay marriage in the 1990s, a woman in Winfrey's audience stood up to complain that gays were constantly flaunting their sex lives and she announced that she was tired of it. "You know what I'm tired of", replied Winfrey, "heterosexual males raping and sodomizing young girls. That's what I'm tired of." Her rebuttal inspired a screaming standing ovation from that show's studio audience. Winfrey promotes openly gay celebrities on her show, such as her hairdresser Andre Walker, makeup artist Reggie Wells, and decorator Nate Berkus, who inspired an outpouring of sympathy from middle America after grieving the loss of his partner in the 2004 tsunami on the show. In April 1997, Winfrey played the therapist in "The Puppy Episode" on the sitcom Ellen to whom the character (and the real-life Ellen DeGeneres) said she was a lesbian. In 1998, Mark Steyn in the National Review wrote of Winfrey "Today, no truly epochal moment in the history of the Republic occurs unless it is validated by her presence. When Ellen said, 'Yep! I'm gay,' Oprah was by her side, guesting on the sitcom as (what else?) the star's therapist."

"The Oprah Effect"

The power of Winfrey's opinions and endorsement to influence public opinion, especially consumer purchasing choices, has been dubbed "The Oprah Effect".[117] The effect has been documented or alleged in domains as diverse as book sales, beef markets, and election voting. Late in 1996,[118] Winfrey introduced the Oprah's Book Club segment to her television show. The segment focused on new books and classics, and often brought obscure novels to popular attention. The book club became such a powerful force that whenever Winfrey introduced a new book as her book-club selection, it instantly became a best-seller; for example, when she selected the classic John Steinbeck novel East of Eden, it soared to the top of the book charts. Being recognized by Winfrey often means a million additional book sales for an author.[119] In Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America (2005), Kathleen Rooney describes Winfrey as "a serious American intellectual who pioneered the use of electronic media, specifically television and the Internet, to take reading – a decidedly non-technological and highly individual act – and highlight its social elements and uses in such a way to motivate millions of erstwhile non-readers to pick up books."

When author Jonathan Franzen's book was selected for the Book Club, he reportedly "cringed" and said selected books tend to be "schmaltzy".[120] After James Frey's A Million Little Pieces was found to contain fabrications in 2006, Winfrey confronted him on her show over the breach of trust. In 2009, Winfrey apologized to Frey for the public confrontation.[121] During a show about mad cow disease with Howard Lyman (aired on April 16, 1996), Winfrey said she was stopped cold from eating another burger. Texas cattlemen sued her and Lyman in early 1998 for "false defamation of perishable food" and "business disparagement", claiming that Winfrey's remarks sent cattle prices tumbling, costing beef producers $11 million. On February 26, after a two month trial in an Amarillo, Texas court, a jury found Winfrey and Lyman were not liable for damages.[122] During the lawsuit, Winfrey hired Phil McGraw's company Courtroom Sciences, Inc. to help her analyze and read the jury.[citation needed] McGraw made such an impression on Winfrey that she invited him to appear on her show. He accepted the invitation and appeared regularly on The Oprah Winfrey Show before launching his own show, Dr. Phil, created in 2002 by Winfrey's production company, Harpo Productions, in partnership with CBS Paramount, which produced the show.[citation needed] Winfrey's ability to launch other successful talk shows such as Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Rachael Ray has also been cited as examples of "The Oprah Effect".[123]

Winfrey joins Barack and Michelle Obama on the campaign trail (December 10, 2007).

Winfrey endorsed presidential candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election,[124][125][126] the first time she endorsed a political candidate running for office.[127] Winfrey held a fundraiser for Obama on September 8, 2007, at her Santa Barbara estate. In December 2007, Winfrey joined Obama for a series of rallies in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. The Columbia, South Carolina event on December 9, 2007, drew a crowd of nearly 30,000, the largest for any political event of 2007.[128] An analysis by two economists at the University of Maryland, College Park estimated that Winfrey's endorsement was responsible for between 423,123 and 1,596,995 votes for Obama in the Democratic primary alone, based on a sample of states that did not include Texas, Michigan, North Dakota, Kansas, or Alaska. The results suggest that in the sampled states, Winfrey's endorsement was responsible for the difference in the popular vote between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.[129] The governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, reported being so impressed by Winfrey's endorsement that he considered offering Winfrey Obama's vacant senate seat describing Winfrey as "the most instrumental person in electing Barack Obama president", with "a voice larger than all 100 senators combined".[130] Winfrey responded by stating that although she was absolutely not interested, she did feel she could be a senator.[131]

Spiritual leadership

In 2002, Christianity Today published an article called "The Church of O" in which they concluded that Winfrey had emerged as an influential spiritual leader. "Since 1994, when she abandoned traditional talk-show fare for more edifying content, and 1998, when she began 'Change Your Life TV', Oprah's most significant role has become that of spiritual leader. To her audience of more than 22 million mostly female viewers, she has become a post-modern priestess—an icon of church-free spirituality."[111] The sentiment was echoed by Marcia Z. Nelson in her book The Gospel According to Oprah.[132] Since the mid 1990s, Winfrey's show has emphasized uplifting and inspirational topics and themes and some viewers claim the show has motivated them to perform acts of altruism such as helping Congolese women and building an orphanage.[133] A scientific study by psychological scientists at the University of Cambridge, University of Plymouth, and University of California used an uplifting clip from the Oprah Winfrey Show in an experiment that discovered that watching the 'uplifting' clip caused subjects to become twice as helpful as subjects assigned to watch a British comedy or nature documentary.[134][135]

On the season premier of Winfrey's 13th season Roseanne Barr told Winfrey "you're the African Mother Goddess of us all" inspiring much enthusiasm from the studio audience. The animated series Futurama alluded to her spiritual influence by suggesting that "Oprahism" is a mainstream religion in 3000 AD.[136] Twelve days after the September 11 attacks, New York mayor Rudy Guliani asked Winfrey to serve as host of a Prayer for America service at New York city's Yankee stadium which was attended by former president Bill Clinton and New York senator Hillary Clinton.[137] Leading up to the U.S.-led 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, less than a month after the September 11 attacks Winfrey aired a controversial show called "Islam 101" in which she portrayed Islam as a religion of peace, calling it "the most misunderstood of the three major religions".[138] In 2002, George W. Bush invited Winfrey to join a US delegation that included adviser Karen Hughes and Condoleezza Rice, planning to go to Afghanistan to celebrate the return of Afghan girls to school. The 'Oprah strategy' was designed to portray the war on terror in a positive light, however when Winfrey refused to participate, the trip was postponed.[139]

Leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Winfrey's show received criticism for allegedly having an anti-war bias. Ben Shapiro of Townhall.com wrote: "Oprah Winfrey is the most powerful woman in America. She decides what makes the New York Times best-seller lists. Her touchy-feely style sucks in audiences at the rate of 14 million viewers per day. But Oprah is far more than a cultural force, she's a dangerous political force as well, a woman with unpredictable and mercurial attitudes toward the major issues of the day."[140] In 2006, Winfrey recalled such controversies: "I once did a show titled Is War the Only Answer? In the history of my career, I've never received more hate mail – like 'Go back to Africa' hate mail. I was accused of being un-American for even raising the question."[141] Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore came to Winfrey's defence, praising her for showing antiwar footage no other media would show[142] and begging her to run for president.[143] A February 2003 series, in which Winfrey showed clips from people all over the world asking America not to go to war was interrupted in several east coast markets by network broadcasts of a press conference in which President George W. Bush and Colin Powell summarized the case for war.[144][145]

In 2007, Winfrey began to endorse the self-help program The Secret. The Secret claims that people can change their lives through positive thoughts or 'vibrations', which will then cause them to attract more positive vibrations that result in good things happening to them. Peter Birkenhead of Salon magazine argued that this idea is pseudoscience and psychologically damaging, as it trivializes important decisions and promotes a quick-fix material culture, and suggest Winfrey's promotion of it is irresponsible given her influence.[146] In 2007, skeptic and magician James Randi accused Winfrey of being deliberately deceptive and uncritical in how she handles paranormal claims on her show.[147] In 2008 Winfrey endorsed author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle and his book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, which sold several million copies after being selected for her book club. During a Webinar class, in which she promoted the book, Winfrey stated "God is a feeling experience and not a believing experience. If your religion is a believing experience [...] then that's not truly God."[148] Frank Pastore, a Christian radio talk show host on KKLA, was among the many Christian leaders who criticized Winfrey's views, saying "if she's a Christian, she's an ignorant one, because Christianity is incompatible with New Age thought."[148]

Winfrey was named as the 2008 Person of the Year by animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for using her fame and listening audience to help the less fortunate, including animals. PETA praised Winfrey for using her talk show to uncover horrific cases of cruelty to animals in puppy mills and on factory farms, and Winfrey even used the show to highlight the cruelty-free vegan diet that she tried.[149] Winfrey also refuses to wear fur or feature it in her magazine.[150]

Winfrey filming in Denmark in 2009.

In 2009 Winfrey filmed a series of interviews in Denmark highlighting its citizens as the happiest people in the world. In 2010 Bill O'Reilly of Fox News criticized these shows for promoting a left-wing society.[151]

Fan base

In 1998, Winfrey's show had an estimated 14 million daily viewers,[152] dropping to approximately 9 million in 2005 and to around 7.3 million viewers in 2008, though it remained the highest rated talk show.[153] In 2008, Winfrey's show was airing in 140 countries internationally and seen by an estimated 46 million people in the US weekly.[154][155] According to the Harris poll, Winfrey was America's favorite television personality in 1998, 2000, 2002–2006, and 2009. Winfrey was especially popular among women, Democrats, political moderates, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Southern Americans and East Coast Americans.[156]

Outside the U.S., Winfrey has become increasingly popular in the Arab world. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2007 that MBC 4, an Arab satellite channel, centered its entire programming around reruns of her show because it was drawing record numbers of female viewers in Saudi Arabia.[157] In 2008 the New York Times reported that The Oprah Winfrey Show, with Arabic subtitles, was broadcast twice each weekday on MBC 4. Winfrey's modest dress, combined with her triumph over adversity and abuse has caused some women in Saudi Arabia to idealize her.[158]


In 1998, Winfrey created the Oprah's Angel Network, a charity that supported charitable projects and provided grants to nonprofit organizations around the world. Oprah's Angel Network raised more than $80,000,000 ($1 million of which was donated by Jon Bon Jovi). Winfrey personally covered all administrative costs associated with the charity, so 100% of all funds raised went to charity programs. The charity stopped accepting donations in May 2010 and was later dissolved.[159][160] Winfrey's show raises money through promotion of her public charity and she personally donates more of her own money to charity than any other performer in America.[161] In 2005 she became the first black person listed by Business Week as one of America's 50 most generous philanthropists, having given an estimated $303 million as of 2007.[161] Winfrey was the 32nd most philanthropic. She has also been repeatedly ranked as the most philanthropic celebrity.[162]

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Oprah created the Oprah Angel Network Katrina registry which raised more than $11 million for relief efforts. Winfrey personally gave $10 million to the cause.[163] Homes were built in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama before the one year anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.[164] Winfrey has also helped 250 African-American men continue or complete their education at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.[165] Winfrey was the recipient of the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award at the 2002 Emmy Awards for services to television and film. To celebrate two decades on national TV, and to thank her employees for their hard work, Winfrey took her staff and their families (1065 people in total) on vacation to Hawaii in the summer of 2006.[166]

South Africa

In 2004, Winfrey and her team filmed an episode of her show, Oprah's Christmas Kindness , in which Winfrey travelled to South Africa to bring attention to the plight of young children affected by poverty and AIDS. During the 21-day trip, Winfrey and her crew visited schools and orphanages in poverty-stricken areas, and distributed Christmas presents to 50,000 children,[167] with dolls for the girls and soccer balls for the boys, and school supplies. Throughout the show, Winfrey appealed to viewers to donate money to Oprah's Angel Network for poor and AIDS-affected children in Africa. From that show alone, viewers around the world donated over $7,000,000. Winfrey invested $40 million and some of her time establishing the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Henley on Klip south of Johannesburg, South Africa. The school set over 22 acres, opened in January 2007 with an enrollment of 150 pupils (increasing to 450) and features state-of-the-art classrooms, computer and science laboratories, a library, theatre and beauty salon. Nelson Mandela praised Winfrey for overcoming her own disadvantaged youth to become a benefactor for others. A minority of critics considered the school elitist and unnecessarily luxurious.[168]

Winfrey, who has no surviving biological children, described maternal feelings towards the girls at Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls:[169][170] Winfrey teaches a class at the school via satellite.[169]



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