Oprah Gail Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954, on a farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to Vernita Lee and Vernon Winfrey, who were not married. Her parents had planned to name her Orpah, after Ruth’s sister-in-law in the Bible; however, the midwife transposed the letters of her name on the birth certificate and the infant became Oprah. Oprah’s parents separated when she was young, leaving her to be raised by her strict maternal grandmother. To amuse herself, Oprah began speaking and play acting at a very early age. She also began reading early, and her interest in reading eventually developed into a crusade to combat illiteracy.
When Oprah reached the age of 6 she was sent to live with her mother and two half brothers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Instead of living on a farm, she lived in a ghetto. With her mother struggling to make ends meet, Oprah had little supervision and started getting into trouble. When her mother could no longer handle her, Oprah was sent to Nashville, Tennessee, to live with her father and his wife, Zelma.
Vernon Winfrey, a barber who became a city council member, was a strict disciplinarian, but he also encouraged his daughter to read and engaged her in discussions. He demanded that his daughter add five new words to her vocabulary before she could have dinner each day. Under her father’s guidance, Winfrey blossomed as a student. At 16 she won an oratorical contest that guaranteed her a full scholarship to the University of Tennessee. She also received an invitation to the White House Conference on Youth. At Tennessee State, Winfrey entered and won several beauty contests. She was subsequently offered a position by the local CBS affiliate television station and became Nashville’s first black female coanchor while she was still in college.
After graduating in 1976, Winfrey accepted an offer from the ABC affiliate in Baltimore, Maryland. The next few years were difficult. She battled with her own emotions when reporting sad news and went through a humiliating experience when a news director decided to bill her as being Puerto Rican. When the station switched her to an early-morning talk show, she was relieved and felt that she had found her place. Winfrey spent the next few years honing her skills and was not afraid to tackle difficult subject matter. In 1984, Winfrey and her producer, Debra DiMaio, moved to Chicago to liven up the lackluster A.M. Chicago show, which had been dominated in the ratings by Phil Donahue’s show for more than 15 years. Within months Winfrey’s show passed Donahue’s in the ratings.
By 1985 the show was expanded and renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey attracted scores of viewers, primarily women, who were attracted to her combination of boldness and vulnerability. A frank interviewer, Winfrey was equally honest when talking about herself. For years, she shared her uphill battle with her weight with her legions of viewers.Gordon Parks/© 1985 Warner Bros., Inc.; photograph from a private collectionGordon Parks/© 1985 Warner Bros., Inc.; photograph from a private collectionPRNewsFoto/Oxmoor House/AP ImagesPRNewsFoto/Oxmoor House/AP Images
Winfrey’s break as an actress came when she was cast by producer Quincy Jones and director Steven Spielberg in the feature The Color Purple (1985). A devoted fan of author Alice Walker, Winfrey leapt at the chance to appear in the movie version of Walker’s book. She received Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for her performance. In 1986, Winfrey formed a production company, Harpo, Inc. (The name Harpo is her first name spelled backward.) Syndication of her show earned her millions of dollars, making her, by the mid-1990s, the highest-paid female in the country. She purchased the film rights to many works of literature by black women. In 1995 she signed a deal with ABC to produce six made-for-television movies. Her production of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prizewinning book Beloved, in which she starred, was released in 1998. She later lent her voice to several animated films, including Charlotte’s Web (2006) and The Princess and the Frog (2009), and appeared inLee Daniels’ The Butler (2013).Winfrey broke new ground in 1996 by starting an on-air book club. She announced selections two to four weeks in advance and then discussed the book on her show with a select group of people. Each book chosen quickly rose to the top of the best-seller charts, and Winfrey’s effect on the publishing industry was significant. Winfrey further expanded her presence in the publishing industry with the highly successful launch of O, the Oprah Magazine in 2000 and O at Home in 2004; the latter folded in 2008.PRNewsFoto/Discovery Communications, George Burns/AP ImagesPRNewsFoto/Discovery Communications, George Burns/AP Images
In 1998 Winfrey expanded her media entertainment empire when she cofounded Oxygen Media, which launched a cable television network for women. In 2006 the Oprah & Friends channel debuted on satellite radio. She brokered a partnership with Discovery Communications in 2008, through which the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) replaced the Discovery Health Channel in January 2011. In 2009 Winfrey announced that her television talk show would end in 2011; it was speculated that she would focus on OWN. The last original episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired in May 2011, and Oprah’s Next Chapter, a weekly prime-time interview program on OWN, debuted in January 2012.APAP
Winfrey engaged in numerous philanthropic activities, including the creation of Oprah’s Angel Network, which sponsors charitable initiatives worldwide. In 2007 she opened a $40 million school for disadvantaged girls in South Africa. She became an outspoken crusader against child abuse and received many honors and awards from civic, philanthropic, and entertainment organizations. In 2010 she was named a Kennedy Center honoree, and the following year she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Winfrey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.