Oprah Winfrey Biography: Success Story of American Media Mogul

Oprah Winfrey Biography

Oprah Winfrey

In this success story, we will share the biography of Oprah Winfrey, an American media mogul, TV host, actress, producer, and philanthropist. She is known not only in the USA but also all over the world. People believe her words and her fees are enormous. She is more popular than Elvis and Superman and ranked first according to VH1’s “The 200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons” list.

From September 8, 1986, to May 25, 2011, 34 million American women and 15 million American men sat down glued to the TV when Oprah Winfrey’s show began. It was a sacred ritual in 117 countries of the world. Her audience was 55% larger than that of her closest competitors. Since its debut, The Oprah Winfrey Show’s rating was higher than the combined rating of three other daytime programs aired simultaneously.

Oprah Winfrey is one of the wealthiest and most influential American women. She is America’s alter ego, a woman loved and admired by everyone, worshipped by all types of TV audiences. Oprah Winfrey is also the Chairwoman, CEO, and CCO of her company, Oprah Winfrey Network. Winfrey does it all uniquely sincerely, never bulldozing her way to the top. She is the embodiment of American spirit and commercial success.

Oprah Winfrey’s life story is an excellent example of a woman who has moved from rags to riches, risen from poverty to the top of the world, and changed America and the world for the better. She is the first African-American female billionaire.

Early Life

Oprah Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi, United States. Oprah’s real name was “Orpah.” She was named after the biblical character Ruth’s daughter-in-law in the Book of Ruth. However, nobody called the girl Orpah. Neither her parents nor her friends could pronounce Orpah. That is why they changed it even in her birth certificate to Oprah.

Oprah Winfrey had a tough childhood. Her mother, Vernita Lee, a housemaid, and biological father, Vernon Winfrey, a miner and later a barber, were never married. When Oprah Winfrey was born, her father was far away in the army, serving at a naval base. Oprah’s mother moved to Milwaukee to work as a maid, leaving little Oprah on a farm with her strict grandmother. If Winfrey misbehaved or did not do what she was ordered, her grandmother often beat her with a stick.

In her early childhood, Oprah had no idea what the shoes were. Neither did she have a dress, a luxury that she first received to go to school. The seclusion of the farm where Oprah was growing up forced her to make up and create her own ways of entertainment. She made friends with household animals and found a true consolation in books. There was no television on the farm, and according to Winfrey, her grandmother, Hattie Mae (Presley) Lee, gave her the most precious gift in life and taught her to read and write before she even turned three.

Oprah recalls her strict granny as her first role model. In one of the interviews, she said that her strength and way of thinking are all the results of her grandmother’s work and effort. Every Sunday, Hattie Mae took little Oprah Winfrey to a church where people nicknamed her “The Preacher.” When this little but at the same time, such a mature girl was reciting Bible verses uniquely and inimitable, people in the church stood in awe, and many believed that the Holy Spirit touched her. Sensitive Oprah had never forgotten that early success and made her dream of becoming a missionary or a preacher. Later, Winfrey’s fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan, inspired her to become a teacher.

When Oprah started kindergarten at age five, she diligently wrote a request letter to her teacher asking her to move her straight to the first grade. A surprised teacher did so. Having studied in the first grade, Oprah was transferred directly to the third, an early sign of the enormous potential of a poor, lonely girl from Mississippi.

When she was six, Oprah Winfrey returned to her mother. With her half-brother and sister, she moved to an inner-city neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the morals and manners were utterly different from the ones of the rural countryside.

Despite horrible poverty, constant humiliation, and complicated life, the girl continued to perform publicly and participate in poetic competitions at black public clubs and church meetings where everybody called her “The Little Speaker.” Later, in one of her interviews, Oprah Winfrey said that despite all hardships and difficulties and at the darkest times, somewhere deep inside, she had always known that she would become the person she was one day.

The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams. – Oprah Winfrey Click To Tweet

Oprah Winfrey lived with her mother for only two years. At eight, having stolen some money from her mom, she ran away to live with her father and his new family. Oprah stayed with them for a year until her mother, her legal guardian, did not force her to leave her dad and move back to Milwaukee’s ghetto, where despair and tragedy were in the air.

Later in her show, Oprah had a series of interviews with the women who their relatives sexually abused in childhood. In one of those shows, Oprah Winfrey with all the details shared her own story about being raped by her nineteen-year-old cousin at the age of nine. She even remembered how, afterward, he bought her an ice cream. Her misfortunes did not end then. As it turned out later, the mother’s numerous friends and relatives repeatedly molested Oprah.

When she was thirteen, Oprah got so tired of humiliation and harassment that she stole some money from her mom and ran away again. Oprah Winfrey went to her pastor for help when the money was over. However, he returned her home to her furious mother, who immediately renounced her. Oprah Winfrey, already pregnant when she was 14, found herself in the shelter for difficult teenagers. Her father took her home from that dirty and cold place. In her chat with CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, Oprah confessed with tears in her eyes that her father had saved her life. Oprah’s child was born prematurely and died shortly after his birth.

Despite such a miserable childhood, this ambitious young girl continued dreaming about wonderful countries, things, and places she would read about in her books. In 1991, she told Good Housekeeping: “Books showed me there were possibilities in life… Reading gave me hope. For me, it was the open door.”

Oprah lived with her father’s family in Nashville from age fourteen. Her life turned in its direction vividly, reminding her of the American Dream coming true. Oprah’s father, Vernon Winfrey, surrounded her with care and attention, and finally, an ugly duckling turned into a beautiful swan.

In an interview for Good Housekeeping magazine, Oprah Winfrey commented: “My father turned my life around by insisting that I be more than I was and by believing I could be more. His love of learning showed me the way.” Vernon made Oprah learn five new words daily, or she would stay without dinner. Talented by nature, Oprah became a real student. At fifteen, she was chosen to perform with the church choir in California. When Oprah Winfrey saw the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she promised to have her star there one day. After that trip, Oprah became the head of her school council, participated in a school drama club, and notably showed herself in oratory art and disputing. At sixteen, she won an oratory contest at Elks Club, which secured her a full scholarship at Tennessee State University. President Nixon invited Oprah Winfrey to the White House as an outstanding American teenager and representative of the black youth of Nashville. Later, Oprah recalled that it was all the result of her father’s transforming influence on her.

Oprah’s first experience in mass media was at a radio station, WVOL, where John Heidelberg invited her to become an acting program director. Mr. Heidelberg had noticed Oprah’s talent during the contest “Miss Fire Prevention,” where she, with all her eloquence and emotion, was persuading people to look out for their gas stoves and not let children play with fire. She won that contest. Oprah Winfrey combined her senior high school year with a part-time job, which she was good at and for which she received $100 a week. Finally, Winfrey’s speaking abilities started to pay off.

Oprah Winfrey won the Miss Fire Prevention contest in her hometown of Nashville in 1971.

TV Host Career

During Winfrey’s first year at Tennessee University, where she majored in speech and drama, Oprah Winfrey became Miss Black Tennessee and later Miss Black Nashville. In 1971, she participated in a carnival procession in frames of the “Miss Black America” beauty pageant. Shortly afterward, local TV station CBS offered her a job, and Oprah Winfrey became the first black female assistant to Nashville’s evening news anchor. She was only nineteen.

In her second year of college, Oprah Winfrey became the news anchor on Nashville’s television. She was the news anchor and the first African-American woman to take such a position. It may sound not so wondrous to you right now when the President of the United States of America is black; however, at that time of rampant racism, it had seemed more straightforward to get to the Political Bureau of the USSR than to take the top position in the USA’s television industry.

Unfortunately, that job became Oprah’s abject failure. The news was not her cup of tea. Informing viewers about another hurricane overblown California, Oprah Winfrey was swallowing tears. Her voice was trembling when she talked about the decrease in stock rates at the exchange. Oprah’s unique gift of sincere compassion and empathy, which ultimately made her successful and wealthy, was the worst of all vices for a news anchor. In nine months, she was fired from the news. However, that did not put Oprah off; she confidently continued her career path.

Before she graduated from college in 1976, Winfrey was offered a position as a reporter in Baltimore and a co-anchor of 6 o’clock news on WJZ-TV. Oprah accepted the offer. She worked there for two years and then received an invitation to become a host of WJZ’s local talk show, People Are Talking. Surprisingly as it may seem, the audience gave a new fat black female show host a very cordial welcome. Oprah’s ratings surged up. Later, Oprah recalled her first show: “I came off the air and said to myself, ‘This is what I should be doing. It’s like breathing.'”

In 1984, after six years spent on WJZ-TV, Oprah Winfrey, then 29, was invited to Chicago to host WLS-TV’s low-rated half-hour morning talk show, AM Chicago.

My first day in Chicago, September 4, 1983. I set foot in this city, and just walking down the street, it was like roots, like the motherland. I knew I belonged here,” that is how Oprah recalls her move to Chicago.

Winfrey signed a four-year contract with an annual fee of two hundred thousand dollars. At first, she was a bit worried about how the audience would like a morning talk show hosted by a black presenter. Moreover, that was not her only anxiety at that time. Her show was aired simultaneously with the most famous American program of the day, The Phil Donahue Show. Oprah was distraught by how the viewers and her colleagues would assess her work and whether she could grasp the attention of people who had an option of immediately switching to the well-known and loved show hosted by such an experienced and respected showman.

Fortunately, her fears never came true. A month after Winfrey had made her debut, AM Chicago achieved its highest rating for a year. Donahue moved to New York within a couple of months, which was wise, considering that competition with Oprah Winfrey was impossible. People watched only Winfrey’s show. Over a year, the rating of the morning program hosted by Oprah soared by 50%!

Winfrey soon became the best friend of all American housewives. Her show was a complete and utter mystery of success. One day, she would host Donny and Marie Osmond, and the next day – here we go! – welcome some homosexual couple. She explained her ability to hear viewpoints opposite hers by saying she was trying to show people who they were rather than change them. In the fourth grade, Oprah wanted to become a teacher. Now, every day, she was giving lessons to an audience of attentive and interested listeners from around the country, which was her consolation. Oprah herself regarded her job as an excellent opportunity to educate people and make their lives easier. Winfrey’s ability to communicate with drug addicts and those who chose alternative lifestyles made her understand that “we are each responsible for our own life – no other person is or even can be.” She loved every minute of her shows, and her viewers loved her for that.

Acting Experience

In 1985, Quincy Jones, who was a producer of a film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, saw Oprah Winfrey on TV when he was flipping through channels in his hotel room in Chicago. He was looking for somebody to play Sofia. Although Winfrey had no acting experience, not counting the drama club at her college and a cameo role in the series “American Masters,” Jones offered her a job. In December 1985, the movie was released and received glowing reviews from the audience. Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune praised Winfrey’s work and characterized her debut as “shockingly good.” Winfrey was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the movie.

In June 1986, the National Organization for Women awarded Oprah the Woman of Achievement Award for her sensitive performance. Winfrey’s success led her to work in a film adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son in 1986. She played the main character’s mother. However, the film was not a success. Winfrey confessed that it was hard for her to identify with a mother because, at 32, she still did not have much experience with such emotions.

Nevertheless, her overall success at the cinema benefited The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her fame skyrocketed. In the future, Oprah did several other full-length films, acted in many series, and voiced several famous cartoons. In 1986, Oprah Winfrey met Stedman Graham, Jr. They remain longtime partners until nowadays. Stedman Graham is an entrepreneur and CEO of S. Graham & Associates.

Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher. – Oprah Winfrey Click To Tweet

Popularity Growth

Oprah Winfrey’s biography is full of episodes that led her to success. One such episode happened in 1986 when Oprah Winfrey became the television presenter of her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, which later helped her skyrocket her career. On September 8 of the same year, TV syndication company King World Production included The Oprah Winfrey Show in its broadcasting, covering 138 cities and towns. This was supposed to bring in a profit of 125 million dollars during the 1987-1988 TV season. Such a drastic turn of events made Oprah the highest-paid television presenter in the show business. By 1993, the show had spread its influence on an unprecedented number of markets – 198 markets, which comprised 99% of all existing in the country, and 64 foreign markets, including Japan, Norway, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, and The Netherlands. During 27 years of her career, Oprah Winfrey has interviewed and hosted an infinite number of politicians: Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama. In 1993, she interviewed Michael Jackson, who rarely agreed to socialize with the press. Oprah interviewed the creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg; the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates; the developer and co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin; CEO of Oracle Corporation, Larry Ellison; businessman and investor Richard Branson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Michael Jordan, and many others. It would be easier to say who had not visited Oprah at her show.

Winfrey’s Word is as Good as Gold

The power of the Oprah Winfrey Show is such that it can make a person famous and successful in just one evening, as with Marianne Williamson and her self-help book A Return to Love.

On Tuesday, February 4, 1992, Williamson appeared in Winfrey’s show. On Wednesday, over just one day, the audience bought thirty-five thousand book copies. Over the next eight days, according to the publisher, the remaining three hundred thousand copies were sold. This resulted from just one appearance of the book’s author in The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was an unprecedented case in the history of the book business where, on average, no more than ten thousand copies of hardcover books were sold.

In July 1993, the appearance of Deepak Chopra on Oprah’s show had the same impact on the sales of his new book Ageless Body Timeless Mind. Oprah’s audience bought more than 100,000 copies of the book Ageless Body Timeless Mind that day.

In 1998, Texas cattle ranchers issued a lawsuit against Oprah. “Oprah accused of whipping up anti-beef ‘lynch mob” – those were the headlines of most of the newspapers in 1998 after Winfrey’s very emotional reaction to the information disclosed by her show’s guest Howard Lyman. He was reporting on Mad Cow disease (a few weeks before a British newspaper made headlines on this disease and throughout the world) that the cows were being fed to cows. Having heard that, Oprah exclaimed: “It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!” As it turned out, one phrase had led to unpredictable fluctuations in beef prices and instability of the whole meat market, which had been in steep decline already due to the burning and widely elucidated by the media topic of Mad Cow disease. Texas cattle ranchers filed a $10.3 million lawsuit against Oprah. On August 27, 2002, after almost six years, the Federal Judge dismissed the case and signified that the case belonged in Federal Court. The statute of limitations has expired, and the claim cannot be filed again, including by the Supreme Court. Oprah and Howard won the case.

George Bush Junior was a guest on Winfrey’s talk show not long before the presidential elections. During the interview, he incidentally noticed that he regarded Oprah as an idol of a typical American woman and bound his statement with an innocent kiss on the cheek. In response, Winfrey gave him a big smile and complimented him back. Such a touching scene deeply moved the female part of the audience, and having brushed away some tears, they made up their minds about their definite choice for the upcoming presidential elections. During the elections of 2007, Oprah Winfrey openly supported Barack Obama.

When I look into the future, it's so bright it burns my eyes. – Oprah Winfrey Click To Tweet

Indeed, it may only be a coincidence that both George Bush Junior and Barack Obama won the elections. Nevertheless, aren’t there just too many coincidences connected with the name of Oprah Winfrey? Overall, it would not hurt anyone aiming at the President’s office to ensure the support of this prominent orator, just in case, to be safe.

True Success Is Diverse

Having become the highest-paid figure in show business, Oprah Winfrey had no intentions of resting on laurels. In October 1988, she registered her own company, HARPO Entertainment Group (the name “Harpo” is “Oprah” spelled backward), which produces multimedia programs for television.

The newly fledged businesswoman began by buying a film studio of 9,000 square meters in Chicago for $20 million. At her own studio, she filmed all the episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Besides the show, which is the main product and brand of the company, HARPO Entertainment Group also produces documentaries and sells them to various TV channels.

In just five years of the company’s existence, according to the Forbes magazine of September 1993, Oprah’s income amounted to $98 million. For comparison, the payment of the king of cinematography, Steven Spielberg, did not exceed $72 million in the same year. Oprah became the first African-American woman to own her own production company in entertainment. She also became the third woman in the world after Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball, who held their studios and ran personal shows.

As the owner of HARPO Entertainment Group, Oprah Winfrey recognizes and trusts her business to only one person – her longtime lawyer and partner Jeffrey D. Jacobs, the President and Chief Operating Officer of HARPO Entertainment Group. Even so, as Mr. Jacobs considers Oprah the only one who runs her show and money, she ultimately takes any important decision personally. Jacobs states that Winfrey still single-handedly signs each check and light-heartedly does any routine task of the lowest-positioned clerk of her corporation.

In 2000, Winfrey created the O, The Oprah Magazine, which became one of the most successful titles in the history of the periodic press, with its print run exceeding 2 million copies. In addition, she opened an Eccentric restaurant in Chicago, bought a cable channel, and invested in real estate. Oprah Winfrey is the lucky owner of an estate on the ocean coast in Santa Barbara worth $50 million, a ranch in Colorado purchased for $4.3 million, a Global Express XRS jet with the budgeted annual operating costs of $1.4 million, four residences and a mansion in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as a farm in Indiana.

In 2006, Winfrey signed a $55 million contract with XM Satellite Radio. Moreover, Oprah Winfrey owns the website with a monthly audience reach of 2.8 million people, according to SimilarWeb as of March 29, 2015. As of October 2023, the website’s monthly audience is 1.2 million.

The Final Show?

On May 25, 2011, Oprah Winfrey aired the last episode of her show. The show was recorded without a usual guest. Most of the time, Oprah was on stage alone. A living legend of American television wanted to stay face-to-face with her audience and, together with them, say goodbye to her dear creation. Only once did she invite all her staff to join her on the stage to thank them for their longstanding work and loyalty. “I won’t say goodbye. I’ll just say…until we meet again,” said Oprah, fighting back her tears.

The people in the audience of the finale, women mostly, as usual, could not hold themselves together and burst into tears. Housewives all around the world will miss Oprah. During the finale, the brightest clips from previous shows were shown; Paul Simon composed the background music, especially for the occasion. At the show’s end, Oprah went down to the audience and high-fived her guests and staff on her way out.

On January 01, 2011, Oprah Winfrey launched her channel, OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network). The audience of its first broadcast in the USA reached 80 million people. Oprah is a host and producer of her new prime-time show on OWN, Oprah Prime (originally named Oprah Next Chapter), which has already aired for three seasons with the highest ratings ever, and it isn’t hard to predict that it’s going to be just as popular and successful as everything that Oprah does.

In 2014, The Oprah Winfrey Network leased three-floor office space on The Lot in West Hollywood, California.


Oprah is pleased to donate money to various charities and funds supporting children. Oprah’s Angel Network, a charity she established, spends millions of dollars for multiple purposes, from financing schools in the poorest countries of Africa to providing financial assistance to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. In 1994, she proposed a bill to Congress to create a single database to help track child abusers. President Bill Clinton approved and signed the bill into law.

In December 2011, with a charity mission, Oprah Winfrey and Sean Penn arrived at a settlement camp in Haiti where the earthquake of 2010 killed more than 200,000 people and made millions homeless. Sean, whose charity organization had already helped more than 50,000 people, shared with journalists that everybody who spent time in Haiti knew how important it was for the world to see what was happening there. He appreciated that Oprah was there with them. Oprah, in return, commented to the journalists: “This is part of the next chapter, going around the world to see interesting and fascinating cases of profound examples of what can be done to make a difference in the world.”

Oprah’s Book List

Oprah loves self-help books. Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 has 74 must-read books, and she continues picking out books on her list that made a difference to her. Some of them are “Ruby” by Cynthia Bond, “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” by Ayana Mathis, and many others.

Oprah Winfrey’s Secrets of Success

According to Forbes, as of March 29, 2015, Oprah Winfrey’s net worth was $3 billion. As of October 2023, her net worth is $2.8 billion. So, what is the secret of the success of The Oprah Winfrey’s Show, which ran on TV for more than 25 years? On the other hand, is there a secret at all?

Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you. – Oprah Winfrey Click To Tweet

The answer is obvious – the secret lies in the unique personality of the show’s host. Primarily, the show was not just a simple job for Oprah. It was the realization of her childhood dream to teach people and help them. Oprah Winfrey has never put money in the first place on her priority list, maybe on the second. For example, she never received any commission for the goods and products she advertised in her show. However, she only spoke about things she considered truly good and necessary. As paradoxically as it may sound, Oprah’s colossal fortune results from never trading her principles for wealth and money.

Oprah Winfrey’s personality traits include sincerity, courage, and hard work. Winfrey is uniquely capable of communicating without being boring, raising delicate topics without causing nuisances, motivating without sounding didactic, and teaching without lecturing. Only Oprah could ask the adult movie star in one of her shows if they ever arose at shooting and get full approval from the audience. Oprah’s charisma and sensitivity are catching. This quality allows her to be a successful talk show host and deal with subjects that would be taboo in any other place. Winfrey’s straightforwardness and sincerity are unique qualities for her profession. Her ability to self-identify with the interlocutor during their conversation in a room of people allows her to ask questions other journalists would not even consider.

Oprah Winfrey’s close friend and mentor, Maya Angelou, once called her America’s cheapest and most honest shrink. Angelou, an outstanding American poet, described Oprah as the one who bravely walks where others do not dare to set foot, the one who paves the way for others. Indeed, Oprah’s ability to stride boldly where others do not take a risk is close to mystical. She instinctively knows the underbelly of a person and has a unique talent for bringing to light exactly what the audience wants to know about a person. She has the capability and patience to listen attentively to sadists, friends, and assassins without expressing a tiny bit of judgment or personal emotional attitude.

“The big secret in life is that there is no big secret. Whatever your goal, you can get there if you’re willing to work,” Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah Winfrey had to overcome countless obstacles on her way to success. It would be impossible to tell of all the difficulties and failures she had to surmount, for there were many. But Oprah did it, and so can everyone. We hope you have enjoyed exploring Oprah Winfrey’s biography and her success story, inspiring you to make discoveries.

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