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Oprah Winfrey Biography


Home > Actresses > W > Winfrey, Oprah > Biography


Birth Name: Oprah Winfrey
Born: 01/29/1954
Birth Place: Kosciusko, Mississippi, USA


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.

This eye-opening evidence of the power of Winfrey's word unfortunately worked against her when, during a segment about mad cow disease in 1996, Winfrey responded to a report from expert Howard Lyman by commenting that she had stopped eating hamburgers over fears of mad cow disease. Beef industry representatives went on the defensive, claiming Winfrey's remarks were false and her all-powerful opinion was costing them millions of dollars in sales. They sued Winfrey for libel in a Texas court and after a two-month courtroom trial, in which Winfrey defended herself - the jury decided Winfrey and Lyman were not liable for damages. Winfrey was back in the headlines again when she made a guest appearance as a therapist on "Ellen" (ABC, 1994-98), in the famous episode where DeGeneres' character comes out as a lesbian. Winfrey had long been a champion of gay rights, having been a pioneer during the 1980s for addressing issues affecting homosexuals - from the AIDS crisis to teens who struggled with coming out of the closet. Her appearance in one of the most talked-about TV events of the year ignited the rumor mill over her own love life. Winfrey had been in a relationship with Steadman Graham, a teacher and entrepreneur, since 1986, with the pair engaged to be married in 1992. That marriage did not happen, and over the years, Graham became less and less visible, with Winfrey often attending events with her best friend - and editor of Winfrey's O: The Oprah Magazine - Gayle King. King and Winfrey had met in Baltimore in the 1970s, and stayed close over the years as both friends and co-workers. Amid swirling speculations, Winfrey pointed out that she had shared every intimate detail about her life with the world - did they really think she would be embarrassed or ashamed if she were gay? The point was taken, but the rumors would continue to swirl.

Meanwhile, Winfrey expanded on her personal mission to inspire self-improvement and showcase success stories of people rising above adversity, with the creation of Harpo Films. The shingle's first offering was "Before Women Had Wings" (ABC, 1997), a well-received TV movie starring Winfrey as a woman who gives refuge to a child fleeing an alcoholic home. The following year, she produced the miniseries "The Wedding" (ABC, 1998), starring Halle Berry and based on Dorothy West's novel about an affluent black family living on Martha's Vineyard. Winfrey executive produced "David and Lisa" (ABC, 1998) featuring one of her idols, Sidney Poitier, and finally realized a long-held dream of acting in an adaptation of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-winning novel, "Beloved" (1998) with her own Harpo Films production. Under the sensitive guidance of director Jonathan Demme, Winfrey portrayed an escaped slave haunted by the ghost of the child she murdered. As if Winfrey's output in 1998 had not exceeded most people's lifetime achievements, that same year she launched Oxygen media and created Oprah's Angel Network, a charity enabling viewers to make a difference by helping to fund projects like building schools, youth centers and women's shelters. Over the years, loyal Oprah fans consistently rose to the challenge and donated over $60 million dollars to make impactful, lasting improvements in communities around the world. Winfrey was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences that year, and following another slew of Emmy nominations, had herself removed from future Emmy consideration to make way for those who had long been looked over.

In 1999, Harpo Films produced "Tuesdays with Morrie," (ABC, 1999), based on the acclaimed memoir by Mitch Albom, and the television queen expanded into publishing when she teamed with Hearst Magazines to launch O: The Oprah Magazine, a "women's personal growth guide for the new century." In September 2002, Harpo Productions created the self-help "spin-off" "Dr. Phil" (syndicated, 2002- ), featuring Oprah's frequent self-help guru, Dr. Phil McGraw. The show was consistently rated the No. 2 daytime offering right behind its originator. Winfrey remained untouched in the daytime ratings, especially when she launched the immensely popular "Oprah's Favorite Things" special in 2002; an annual event often aired around Thanksgiving that always garnered the show's best ratings. Once a year, Winfrey gifted an unsuspecting audience with her preferred appliances, computers, jewelry, luxury items, books, and trendy must-haves that not only thrilled surprised audience members but boosted sales and brand recognition for the companies whose wares had been publicized by the tastemaker. But the woman with unending kindness who could seemingly do no wrong incited backlash the following year during a series of episodes dedicated to the discussion of America's involvement in the Middle East crisis, when Winfrey posed the question "Is war the only answer?" The woman who for many years was deemed by many as a viable U.S. presidential candidate was instantly labeled "un-American" and inundated with angry letters simply for asking to explore a complicated issue.

Winfrey outdid her generous track record when she kicked off her 2004 season by giving each audience member a new car donated by Pontiac. Her newsmaker status enabled her to continue snagging the most sought-after interviewees in entertainment. The same year, she landed another coup when she hosted the entire cast of "Friends" (NBC, 1995-2004) on the eve of the beloved series' finale. She made history again with the "Legends Weekend" TV special (ABC, 2005). Held at her estate in Montecito, CA, the TV icon invited 25 notable African-American guests to celebrate and honor great figures in African-American literature and the arts, including writers Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King. Meanwhile, Forbes' international list of the world's wealthiest people identified Winfrey as the world's only black billionaire, Business Week named her one of America's top 50 most generous philanthropists, and Time magazine hailed her as one of the 100 people who had most influenced the 20th century.

Always on top of (in addition to creating) current events, Winfrey was a significant force following 2005's devastating Hurricane Katrina, donating $10 million of her own money to the victims, raising millions more through the Angel Network, and filling her annual "Oprah's Favorite Things" audience with Hurricane Katrina relief volunteers. But despite Winfrey's international acclaim, she was unrecognized during a 2005 trip to Paris when the billionaire was denied entry to the flagship store of designer Hermès. Winfrey was not shy about sharing her story about arriving 15 minutes past closing to find the store still doing business, but management unwilling to unlock the door for another shopper, in an incident that was flagged for its stinging overtones of racial profiling. The story prompted much public debate over lingering racial tensions, and led to Hermès USA chief executive appearing as a guest on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to apologize. For the first time, however, some of the faithful and the press questioned Winfrey's cries of racism, believing the incident was more about hurt pride and denied star treatment than anything. That year Winfrey received a timely induction into the NAACP Hall of Fame and was given the National Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum. In her continuing efforts to highlight the works of great African American novelists, Winfrey's Harpo Films produced a lavish TV movie production of "Their Eyes Were Watching God" (ABC, 2005), based on the novel by Zora Neale Hurston and starring Academy Award winner Halle Berry.

Winfrey added a new twist to her "Favorite Things" in 2006, offering a "Pay It Forward" challenge in the form of $1,000 worth of gift cards for recipients to donate to their charity of choice. Meanwhile the Harpo empire grew with "The Rachael Ray Show" (syndicated, 2006- ), based around the charismatic cooking personality who had been a frequent guest on "Oprah." The same year, Winfrey became a Broadway producer when she brought a stage version of the film "The Color Purple" to New York. The multi-media empress next signed a contract with XM Satellite Radio to form a new radio channel, "Oprah & Friends," which featured daily programming from known "Oprah" and O Magazine contributors as well as its busy founder's own spiritual offering, "Oprah's Soul Series." Winfrey found herself in a moral predicament later that year when her heartily endorsed "Book Club" selection of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, a supposed memoir about his life of addiction and recovery, was exposed as a work of fiction. An angered and embarrassed Winfrey brought Frey on to the show where she leveled him with admonishments of betrayal and encouraged him to apologize to the American public for his deception. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" endured further controversy that year at the hands of several members of the hip-hop industry, including Ludacris, 50 Cent and Ice Cube, who accused Winfrey of an anti hip-hop bias after Ludacris' air time promoting the movie "Crash" (2004) was edited because the host was not a fan of his misogynistic lyrics. Winfrey responded that she was opposed to rap that marginalized women but enjoyed hip-hop as an art form.

In perhaps her show's most iconic moment seen 'round the world, the usually composed A-list actor Tom Cruise professed his love for girlfriend Katie Holmes by hopping on and off the sofa in what became one of the most viral and heavily mocked show business incidents of the year. Winfrey returned to performing after a long absence in 2006, lending her voice to the charming animated family film "Charlotte's Web" (2006) , and recruited by Jerry Seinfeld to appear in his animated "Bee Movie" (2007). For her first feature film production in several years, Winfrey's Harpo Films backed the historic drama "The Great Debaters" (2007), starring Denzel Washington as a professor at a Southern black college during the 1930s who leads the school debate team to a success record that pits them against the all-white team at Harvard University. In her own effort to inspire a new generation of great thinkers, Winfrey invested $40 million to build The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, a boarding school providing top-notch educational opportunities to impoverished girls wanting to develop leadership skills. World-renowned leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela praised Winfrey for rising above the difficulties of her youth and investing in the future of others, while there was expected criticism over the school's "luxury" amenities. Winfrey came to refer to the students of the Leadership Academy as "her daughters," and when a staffer was accused of abusing a number of students, Winfrey immediately went to the facility where the alleged abuser was arrested and the victims were counseled. Her swift handling of the issue and her public statements that abuse would not be tolerated sent a powerful message throughout a nation with one of the highest rates of child sexual abuse in the world.

Winfrey, often referred to in the media as the "most powerful woman" in America; even the world, had never made any official political endorsements in her high profile career until 2007, when she expressed her support for presidential candidate Barack Obama. She had interviewed the then-Senator on her show in 2006, upon the release of his memoir, The Audacity of Hope, helping elevate the book to a No. 1 bestseller. When Obama became the official Democratic party candidate, Winfrey held a number of fundraisers, hit the campaign trail on his behalf, and in the end, and was credited with helping bring in over a million votes towards the victory of America's first African-American president. In the wake of Obama's election, Winfrey made a return to primetime in a memorable guest starring spot on the Emmy-winning NBC sitcom, "30 Rock" (2006- ), playing herself in what turns out to be a hallucination of main character Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), who believes Winfrey to be her advice-dispensing seatmate on a cross-country flight. In 2009, Winfrey unveiled her third "spin-off," "The Dr. Oz Show" (syndicated, 2009- ), featuring health expert Dr. Mehmet Oz whom she had often had on her show. Around the same time, Winfrey teamed with filmmaker and fellow media tycoon Tyler Perry as co-producers of "Precious" (2009), director Lee Daniels' raw and disturbing story of an abused Harlem teenager based on the novel Push by Sapphire. Released at the same time was "The Princess and the Frog" (2009), Disney's first animated fairy tale in over 70 years to feature an African-American princess, voiced by Anika Noni Rose. Winfrey voiced Eudora, Princess Tiana's mother.

With concurrent releases in movie theaters, Winfrey dominated headlines when she announced plans to retire the highly rated "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 2011, after 25 years on the air. Though the announcement was met with emotional reactions from fans and astonishment from the world's press, Winfrey's television presence was hardly poised to fade away. In early 2010, the one-woman media empire unveiled OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, a groundbreaking venture the offered a mix of original series, syndicated repeats and made-for-OWN documentaries. The specialty channel made its debut in January 2011 to much fanfare, though it struggled from the outset to attract viewers despite programming from Suze Orman, Dr. Mehmet Oz and Phil McGraw. Even Rosie O'Donnell, whose evening talker "The Rosie Show" premiered in October 2011 with high expectations, failed to make its mark and was summarily canceled in March 2012. Of all the programming on the network, the shows featuring Winfrey herself fared the best. Her primetime series "Oprah Presents: Master Class" featured in-depth profiles on varied celebrities like Morgan Freeman, Ted Turner, Grant Hill, Reba McEntire and Jane Fonda, and did well in the ratings. Meanwhile, her acclaimed interview show "Oprah's Next Chapter" (2012- ) brought in the network's highest numbers following sit downs with Joel Osteen, Kim Kardashian and Whitney Houston's family, including daughter Bobbi Kristina.