Oprah Winfrey, the award winning television talk show host was born at 7:51pm EST on the 21st January 1954 in Kosciuskco, Mississippi, USA. Originally she was supposed to be named Orpah after a biblical figure in the book of Ruth, but due to an unforseen circumstance, most likely a spelling mistake, was named Oprah Gail Winfrey on her birth certificate. Another unconfirmed rumour is that people couldn't pronouce Orpah, so it was changed to something more pronouncable.
Oprah had a rocky start to life, for she was born to an unmarried couple in the fifties which was frowned upon. Her father, Vernon Winfrey was a barber and a member of the city council who never married Oprah's mother, Vernita Lee. He did however marry Oprah's stepmother, Zelma, who died in 1996.
Earlier in Oprah's life, her parents had separated and Oprah went to live with her grandparents. This was the case until she was 6 when she went to Milwaukee to live with mother. Here she found life was difficult being raised in poverty, so much so that she was bought her first pair of shoes in 1959 at the age of 6. Along with money troubles, by the age of 9 Oprah was being sexually abused by male family members and acquaintances which she kept hidden until much later in life, in the 1980's. However, this did have a very deep impact on her life, and her ambitions.
At 14, Oprah gave birth to a baby boy who died at the age of two weeks from complications, as he was born two months prematurely. Soon after this Oprah went to live with her father in Nashville, Tennessee, to try and make a fresh start and put the pieces of her life back together. In Nashville, her dad made her work hard, insisting that discipline would help her improve her life. Her father was right, and Oprah won a scholarship to Tennessee State University where she studied Speech, Communications and Performing Arts. Whilst at university, she worked part time at WVOL in Nashville as a radio announcer. She also was the 1971 Miss Fire Prevention in Nashville, and 1971 Miss Black Tennessee.
After receiving her BA from Tennessee State University, Oprah became a reporter at WTVF-TV in Nashville. She worked there for the next 4 years, until she moved to Baltimore to co-anchor the six o' clock news. In Baltimore she was recruited to co-host People Are Talking with Richard Sher. This was for ABC affiliate WJZ-TV in Baltimore.
In 1984, Oprah moved again, this time to Chicago to present morning televeision show "A.M.Chicago", in an attempt to boost ratings for the flagging show. By September the next year, the show was so successful that it was lengthened to an hour and renamed the Oprah Winfrey Show. On this show, Oprah made her name. It is one of the most popular shows in television history. Even with its success, she has had her troubles on her show, namely when she was sued by Texas cattlemen after Oprah did a show about BSE. When the case went to trial in which Oprah was acquitted, she moved the whole show to Amarillo, Texas for the duration of the trial.
The Colour Purple
Oprah starred in her film debut in 1985 in The Colour Purple as Sophia, a bossy abused woman in the Stephen Spielberg movie based on the novel by Alice Walker. For this role Oprah received nominations for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for best supporting actress. She was also listed in John Willis' Screen World as one of the twelve most promising new actors of 1985.
The Colour Purple had quite an effect on Oprah's life, and she has referred to the time she spent working on the film quite frequently in the past on her talk show. In 1986, she even named her own production company Harpo after the character in the film payed by Willard E. Pugh. Harpo is also Oprah spelt backwards. Also in this year, The Oprah Winfrey Show went in to syndication, and started its fourteen-year reign as the number one talk show. Since it started, it has gained 34 Emmys, seven of which were for Oprah herself as host. In 1998 she withdrew her name from consideration for the Emmy's after winning the lifetime achievement award. She says this was because
"...after you've achieved it for a lifetime, what else is there?"
1989 was the year when Oprah produced and starred in The Women of Brewster Place. Oprah herself played Mattie Michael in this television series which tells the lives of the female residents of an inner city brownstone. This was followed by a busy year in 1990 when Oprah hosted the 17th Annual Daytime Emmy Award show, was the executive producer and star of Brewster Place, and continued recording her talk show.
National Child Protection Act
Oprah had numerous experiences in the years that followed. In 1991, she testified in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee after initiating the National Child Protection Act to try and establish a national database of convicted child abusers, which culminated in President Clinton signing a bill to authorise the database in 1993.
In 1995, Oprah, a vegetarian, ran the Marine Corps marathon in Washington D.C. for her 40th birthday. It took her 4 hours, 29 minutes and 15 seconds. This is a major triumph, considering her constant televised battle with being overweight, a fight she has now won. Of food, she now says,
"My idea of heaven is a great big baked potato and someone to share it with"
In 1997, Winfrey launched Oprah's Angel Network. This was a campaign to encourage people to help the needy. This included helping to fund numerous students to go to college, and to build homes. In later years, starting September 2000, Oprah presented weekly cash prizes to people who help others in their everyday life in a hope to improve life for others.
Beloved, a film based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Toni Morrison, premiered in 1998. In this film Oprah plays the part of a woman called Sethe who escapes from slavery but is haunted by it for many years.
This year was particularly busy for Oprah as she also went into partnership with Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, of Carsey Warner fame, alongside Geraldine Laybourne from Nickelodeon, to launch their own cable channel for women called Oxygen Media Inc.
The next year, Oprah became a professor at Northwestern University's J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management along with partner Stedman Graham where they both taught a dynamics of leadership class. Graham, a former basketball player, now public relations officer, and Winfrey have been partners since they met in 1986, and have been engaged since November 1992.
Oprah has been very successful, especially when her upbringing is taken into consideration. She says of her life,
"I'm glad I was raised in Mississippi at a time when being colored and female meant low expectations. Now I'm grateful for my days of emptying slop jars, hauling water from the well and going to the outhouse and thinking I was going to fall in. It makes walking through the house with the many bathrooms and marble floors and great view that much better." - USA Today, May 15, 1997
She has received many awards and accolades in her career. Included in these are:
- 1986 -
The first woman to own and produce her own talk show
- 1997 -
One of the 50 most beautiful people in the world by People magazine
The most important person in books and media by Newsweek
Television Performer of the Year by TV Guide
- 1998 -
The most powerful person in industry in Entertainment Weekly
One of the most influential people of the 20th century in Time Magazine
The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Lifetime achievement award
Being on the front cover of Vogue
- 1999 -
An honorary National Book Award for her influential contribution to reading
A 50th anniversary medal by the National Book Foundation