Known as a talk show host, actress, producer, and philanthropist, Oprah Gail Winfrey has achieved enormous success as a communicator and is considered by many to be the most influential woman in the world. Born into poverty, Oprah overcame many hardships, including a teen pregnancy and childhood molestation, to become a world-beating media mogul and the richest African-American woman in history. Here are some facts about O you need to know.
Oprah Winfrey was born to an unwed teen. She says her conception was the result of one sexual encounter and that the couple broke up shortly afterwards because, spoiler alert, a teenage boy wasn’t ready to be a father.
According to her birth certificate, her actual name is Orpah, after a biblical character in the Book of Ruth. However, people kept mispronouncing it and eventually it stuck.
As a child, Winfrey played games interviewing her corncob doll and the crows sitting on the fence around her family’s property, which is pretty frickin’ adorable.
She grew up living in poverty in Mississippi and was so poor that her wardrobe included dresses made of potato sacks, which the local children made fun of her for.
Her father is usually noted as Vernon Winfrey, a coal miner turned barber turned city councilman. However, in 2003, Mississippi farmer and World War II vet Noah Robinson Sr., came forward, claiming to be her biological father. Winfrey angrily refused a paternity test and denied us the Oprah/Maury crossover episode we all deserved.
Oprah did take a genetic test in 2006, which determined her makeup to be 89% Sub-Saharan African, 8% Native American, and 3% East Asian. However, the Asian may have just been more Native American markers.
Winfrey moved to Wisconsin at the age of six to live with her mother, Vernita Lee. Vernita struggled to raise Oprah and her sister, Patricia, so she sent Oprah to Tennessee to live with Vernon, the man she believed to be her father. At thirteen, after years of abuse, Winfrey ran away from home.
At fourteen, Winfrey got pregnant, but her son was born premature and died shortly after birth. The story was revealed in the National Enquirer and Winfrey has stated that she felt betrayed by the family member who sold it to them. “I imagined that every person on the street was going to point their finger at me and scream, ‘Pregnant at 14, you wicked girl … expelled!’ ” Reflecting on how people actually reacted, Oprah said, “No one said a word … not strangers, not even people I knew. I was shocked. Nobody treated me differently. For 20 years, I had been expecting a reaction that never came. And I soon realized that having the secret out was liberating. … What I learned for sure was that holding the shame was the greatest burden of all.”
Winfrey has said that she decided to not be a mother because she was not “mothered” well.
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Winfrey had a half-brother who died of AIDS in 1989, a half-sister (Patricia Lloyd) who died of cocaine addiction in 2003, and another half-sister she didn’t find out about until 2010.
After her mother sent Winfrey back to Tennessee for a second time, this time refusing to take her back, Vernon raised her, focusing on her education. Winfrey became an honors student, was voted Most Popular Girl, joined her high school speech team at East Nashville High School, and placed second in the nation in dramatic interpretation.
At the age of 17, Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant.
She studied communication at Tennessee State University, where she had a full scholarship after winning an oratory contest because, apparently, she’s a good speaker.
After graduation, she found work in local media, and became both the youngest news anchor and the first black female news anchor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV.
In 1983, Winfrey moved to Chicago to host WLS-TV’s low-rated morning talk show, “AM Chicago.” Within months of taking over, the show went from last place to overtaking “Donahue” as the highest rated talk show in Chicago and also making this the first time someone has mentioned Donahue in at least a decade.
Movie critic Roger Ebert is the one who persuaded Winfrey to sign a syndication deal with King World, predicting that “The Oprah Winfrey Show” would generate forty times as much revenue as his television show, “At the Movies.” He was right about taking the deal, but his math was just a bit off.
When “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was expanded to a full hour and broadcast nationally, it quickly shot to the top, displacing Donahue as the number one daytime talk show in America with nearly double the audience. On her rapid ascension, TIME magazine wrote, “In a field dominated by white males, she is a black female of ample bulk. As interviewers go, she is no match for Phil Donahue. What she lacks in journalistic toughness, she makes up for in plainspoken curiosity, robust humor, and above all, empathy.”
In 1993, Winfrey conducted a rare prime-time interview with Michael Jackson that was the fourth-most watched event in American television history, as well as the most watched interview ever, with an audience of 36.5 million people. This interview took place before the accusations of child-molestation.
Oprah named her production company Harpo, which is Oprah spelled backwards, the name of her husband in “The Color Purple,” her first film role, and a Marx brother/mime. It probably has nothing to do with the last one.
In the 19th season of her show, Winfrey gave all 276 members of her studio audience a free car, an unprecedented stunt that changed lives, generated controversy (the audience members still had to pay taxes on the car), and didn’t prevent the eventual demise of Pontiac. Still, it was better than the episode where Oprah gave away swarms of bees.
In 2010, Volkswagen repeated the stunt almost exactly, and to avoid controversy, smartly paid for the taxes. However, they gave away 275 copies of the 2012 Beetle, which wouldn’t be released until the next year, so the car was only shown as a silhouette, which isn’t nearly as exciting to jump into as part of the celebration.
Winfrey co-founded the women’s cable television network Oxygen, which was named after the gas that had to be pumped into Phil Donahue’s face after he learned Oprah had taken the top spot away from him.
In 1985, Winfrey co-starred in “The Color Purple” as the beaten but defiant housewife, Sofia. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.
Winfrey starred in and produced the film Beloved, based on Toni Morrison’s book of the same name. Despite plugs on her show and a major advertising push, the film opened to poor box office results, losing $30 million because, for some reason, America was not interested in seeing a movie about a slave haunted by a poltergeist and the memories of the daughter she murdered.
To prepare for her role in as Sethe, the protagonist in Beloved and former slave, Winfrey had herself tied up and blindfolded and left in the woods in order to get a 24-hour slave experience.
Winfrey has lent her voice to a number of animated roles including as Gussie the Goose for Charlotte’s Web (2006), Judge Bumbleden in Bee Movie (2007), and as Eudora, the mother of Princess Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog (2010).
Oprah launched Dr. Phil’s TV career.
Oprah Winfrey is the first black woman to become a billionaire (currently at $2.9 billion and counting) and is the richest African-American woman. Of all the black billionaires, and there are only a handful, Oprah is the only one to qualify for Forbes’ 2009 list of the world’s 20 most powerful billionaires.
She has five dogs: cocker spaniel Sadie, golden retrievers Luke and Layla, and springer spaniels Sunny and Lauren. Word is, she’s trained them to eat everything she doesn’t.
Oprah’s 2005 weight loss book garnered an undisclosed advance fee that set a record for the highest ever, a slot previously held by U.S. President Bill Clinton. Yes, that’s right. Oprah’s diet book was more highly anticipated than the autobiography of a man who received sexual favors in the Oval Office.
Somewhat ironically, Bill was promoting his book on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
She launched her famous book club with “The Deep End of the Ocean” by Jacquelyn Mitchard. After being anointed by the great O, the book was later made into a movie.
However, she also chose “A Million Little Pieces” by James Frey, a book touted as a memoir but later revealed to be fiction. After discovering that the book was largely exaggerated, she reamed him out on national television, which is probably exactly as uncomfortable as it sounds.
Through her show and website (Oprah.com) Winfrey initiated an “Oprah’s Child Predator Watch List,” which helps to track down accused child molesters.
She and Stedman Graham have been together since 1986 and, despite the fact that he proposed in 1992, they still never wed. It’s just as well… that prenup would be heavy enough to crush a yak. In all seriousness, Oprah discussed why she didn’t want to wed in several interviews. "It's not because I never had time — if I wanted to get married, I could've made the time.” She later explained, "If you were to ask him, he would say the same thing… He's a pretty traditional man. I've taught him to be non-traditional. But the very idea of what it means to be a wife and the responsibility and sacrifice that carries — I wouldn't have held that very well.”
In 2013, Winfrey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by former President Barack Obama. She received the award alongside Gloria Steinem, Cub great Ernie Banks, and, oh Bill Clinton. She put the award atop the giant pile of awards she’s received in her long and storied career.
In order to bring more awareness to the serious subject of sexual assault, Winfrey revealed on a 1986 episode of her show that she had been molested by her cousin, uncle, and a family friend, starting when she was nine years old. Her family refused to accept what she said. Despite this, Oprah has fought to protect children from sexual abuse, using her show and her immense fame to launch projects like Oprah’s Child Predator Watch List.
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