Among the most successful global media leaders the world has witnessed, Oprah Winfrey has been an American Talk Show host, news anchor, television producer, actress, entrepreneur, author and philanthropist in her career spanning over 40 years. Her mercurial rise as a media mogul is largely credited to her talk show which ran for 25 years in national syndication (not any particular network) from 1986 to 2011. ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ is the highest-rated television program of its kind in history. It helped Oprah discover herself as a host that could find an instant connect with her audiences, making her a household name in the United States and beyond. Oprah has been called the “Queen of All Media”. She has been an academy award nominated actress for her supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 movie “The Color Purple”. She has acted and voiced in over a dozen series, movies and animation films since then. In January 2018, Oprah Winfrey received the prestigious Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award. She was the first African American woman to be honored with it. As an entrepreneur, Oprah established Harpo Incorporated in 1986. She has since ventured into film and television production; radio and print media; and produced several successful products like The Rachael Ray Show, Dr. Phil, Iyanla: Fix My Life, O the Opera Magazine, Precious: Based on a Novel Push by Sapphire among others. Winfrey is considered as one of the most influential people of her time. Among other things, she was a key factor in Barack Obama’s ultimate victory in the Presidential Election. Here are the 10 most important accomplishments of Oprah Gail Winfrey.
** SHORT EARLY BIO
Orpah (not Oprah) Gail Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi to Vernita Lee, an unmarried teenage housemaid. Her father has been identified as Vernon Winfrey, a coal-miner turned barber who had been serving in the Armed Forces when she was born. Interestingly Orpah was named after a biblical figure in the Book of Ruth, but regular mispronunciations of her name as Oprah led her to adopt it as her official name. In her younger years, Oprah attended Lincoln High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. However early success in the federally funded Upword Bound program helped her move to the more reputed suburban Nicolet High School.
Escape From Abuse
Owing to financial and other difficulties, Oprah was raised by her maternal grandmother Hattie Mae (Presley) Lee; and her parents Vernita and Vernon at different stages of her childhood. Aged 13 years and suffering alleged abuse and molestation from male relatives and friends of her mother, Oprah ran away from home. During this time, she narrowly escaped being sent to a juvenile detention center and gave birth to a premature boy, who died soon after birth. In 1968, Winfrey moved to Nashville, Tennessee to live with her father Vernon, now a successful businessman and city-council member.
News Reader And First Talk Show
In 1970, and now at East Nashville High School, Oprah won full scholarship to Tennessee State University where she would pursue a degree in communication. Her oratory skills also landed her a job as a part time news reader at WVOL, a local radio station. A year later, Oprah was crowned Miss Black Tennessee and went on to participate in the Miss Black America pageant. In 1973, Oprah graduated with a Degree in Speech and Performing Arts and became the youngest and the first African American to work as a news anchor at the local Nashville WTVF-TV. Oprah moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1976 and began working for the CBS owned WJZ-TV. Here she co-hosted her first talk show “People are Talking” in August 1978. She also worked on the local version of “Dialing for Dollars”.
The Oprah Winfrey Show
In 1983, Winfrey relocated again to Chicago and took the job of hosting WLS-TV’s AM Chicago, a low rated half an hour talk show on the ABC’s owned network. Within a few months of her taking over, the show saw a phenomenal rise in viewership, jumping from last place to overtaking the Phil Donahue Show and becoming the highest rated talk show in Chicago. The success of the show led Oprah to sign a syndication deal with King World Inc. on behest of movie critic and friend Roger Ebert. The show was thereafter renamed to the Oprah Winfrey Show and expanded to an hour, with the first episode telecast nationwide on September 8, 1986. Oprah’s syndicated show was quick to gain popularity with twice the audience compared to Donahue, thus making it the number one daytime talk show in America.
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#1 THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW IS THE HIGHEST-RATED TELEVISION PROGRAM OF ITS KIND
In 1983, Oprah moved to Chicago and began hosting WLS-TV’s low rated half hour show AM Chicago. Oprah’s show premiered in January 1984 and in less than a year moved from the bottom of the rankings to become the most watched and highest rated talk show in Chicago. Winfrey’s open, warm-hearted personal style and ability to connect with audiences was able to attract much higher viewership that the “Phil Donahue Show”, among America’s most favorite programs and one which ran simultaneously with her show. In 1986, the program was renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, expanded to 1 hour and was running in 138 cities and towns, following a deal with TV syndication company King World Inc. In its first season the show garnered $125 million with a dedicated audience of 10 million across 120 channels, also making Oprah the highest paid television presenter ($30 MN) in show business. In 1987, the show received three Daytime Emmy Awards in the categories of Outstanding Host, Outstanding Talk/Service Program and Outstanding Direction. In 1988, it won an additional ”Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show” and Oprah herself received the International Radio and Television Society’s “Broadcaster of the Year” Award. Together, Winfrey and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” received a total of 16 Daytime Emmy Awards for “Outstanding Talk Show Host” and “Outstanding Talk Show”, which led her to remove her name from the competition in 2000.
The show continued its phenomenal journey over 25 years making it the highest rated television program of its kind in history, winning every notable award and making it to every prominent list. In this time, Oprah interviewed and interacted with a host of guests from everyday Americans to the most prominent politicians, musicians, actors, writers, business leaders and other celebrities. The show was being broadcast in 117 countries at one time and was being followed by 34 million American women and 15 million American men. Her viewership was 55 percent more than her closest competitor.
In the early years, The Oprah Winfrey Show was classified as a tabloid talk show, but it later moved onto broader topics such as heart disease, geopolitics, spirituality and meditation. Oprah interviewed celebrities on social issues they were directly involved with, such as cancer, charity work or substance abuse. She also hosted televised giveaways. The Oprah Winfrey Show ran 4,562 episodes from September 8, 1986 to May 25, 2011. It is still one of the longest-running daytime TV talks shows in history.
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Harris, Paul. (Nov 20, 2005). “You Go Girl“. The Guardian.
#2 SHE HAS A SUCCESSFUL ACTING CAREER AND PRODUCTION COMPANY
Oprah Winfrey was as aspiring actress during her early days in television. She was however not actively pursuing her dream and her only chance was to be discovered by someone. As luck would have it, Quincy Jones was producing a film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel “The Color Purple” in 1985, and spotted Oprah while flipping channels in his hotel room. Jones was looking for someone to play the role of Sofia and offered Oprah the role. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring actors like Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover, The Color Purple was a high point in Oprah’s career which also assisted her in her show. Acting in her first film, Oprah was nominated in the category of Best Supporting Actress at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.
The next year Oprah was seen in “Native Son” alongside Elizabeth McGovern and Matt Dillon. In 1986, she also launched her production company Harpo Studios, which would eventually buy The Oprah Winfrey Show and produce several series, miniseries and films. Harpo’s 1989 miniseries “The Women of Brewster Palace” was received quite well by the audiences and saw Winfrey play the role of Mattie Michael. Oprah would also star in and produce two TV movies from Harpo, including “There Are No Children Here” (1993) and “Before Women Had Wings” (1997). In 1998, she was seen on the silver screen again in “Beloved”; the movie was however unable to attract audiences.
Oprah has also voice acted some of the most beloved children’s characters like Gussie the Goose in the 2006 animated adaptation of “Charlotte’s Web”, Judge Bumbleton in the 2007 “Bee Movie”, Eudora in the 2009 “The Princess and the Frog” and Deborah the Camel in the 2017 “The Star”. She has been seen more frequently as an actress after the completion of her talk show in 2011. Her performance in the 2013 film “The Butler” was widely appreciated winning her nominations in the Best Supporting Actress category at several awards including the BAFTA. A year later, her co-production “Selma”, in which she also plays the role of Annie Lee Cooper, was nominated as the best film at the Oscars. In 2016-17, she has starred in and produced the TV series “Greenleaf” and the TV movie “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.
(Feb 21, 1991). “The Queen of Daytime TV“. The Academy of Achievement Interview.
Mandell, Zack. (Aug 30, 2013). “Oprah Winfrey’s Diverse Acting Career in TV and Film“. Ezine Articles.
#3 HER “O MAGAZINE” BECAME THE MOST SUCCESSFUL START-UP IN THE HISTORY OF THE INDUSTRY
On April 19, 2000, Winfrey debuted a monthly American magazine, “O, The Oprah Magazine” or “O”, with the help of Hearst Communications. The magazine aimed to encourage young, confident & intelligent women to reach for their dreams, express their individual style and make wise choices. In addition, it also features celebration of life, lifestyle, spirituality, arts and culture. In a quick span of 1 month of its launch, “O” was outselling top American women’s magazines, with a circulation of more than 2 million copies. In 2002, Fortune lauded “O” as the most successful start-up in the history of the industry. It has since been nominated several times for the American Society of Magazine Editors General Excellence Award. In April 2002, its first International edition was launched in South Africa, with an average readership of over 300,000. By 2008, O Magazine claimed a readership of more than 16 million. When most US magazine sales declined in 2009, O Magazine increased its newsstand sales by 5.8 percent to 662,304 copies. Winfrey’s close involvement with the publication has inspired its editorial content and shaped all aspects of its design. In the last decade, as advertisers gradually moved online, the O magazine has built a significant online audience which is close to 8 million monthly visitors.
Berr, Jonathan. (Jul 28, 2020) “‘O: The Oprah Magazine’ May End Its Print Edition But Still Dominates”. Forbes.
Sellers, Patricia. (Apr 8, 2002) “The Business of Being Oprah”. Fortune.
#4 SHE BECAME THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN ON FORBES’ LIST OF BILLIONAIRES
In February 2003, at the age of 49, Oprah Winfrey created history by becoming the first African American woman to feature in the Forbes “World’s Richest People” list. She joined the list at 427 and was the first African-American woman to become a billionaire. Moreover, she was one of 37 women to feature in the prestigious list of the world’s 476 Billionaires. This was a remarkable achievement after being born into rural poverty and sustaining on government welfare payments in a poor urban neighborhood. In order to honor her triumph, University of Illinois introduced a course focusing on Winfrey’s business astuteness, namely: “History 298: Oprah Winfrey, The Tycoon”. Apart from this, from 2004 to 2006, Oprah was listed as the world’s only Black Billionaire on Forbes’ list. In 2019, she has been ranked 10thon Forbes’ list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women. According to Forbes, Winfrey has a reported net worth of $2.6 billion with cash flow coming from her cable channel OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network), work as a film producer, and from serving as a board member and brand ambassador for Weight Watchers.
Dambrosio, Christina. (Jan 22, 2019). “9 things Oprah did first”. Insider.
Nsehe, Mfonobong. (Mar 20, 2017). “The Black Billionaires 2017”. Forbes.
(Jun 4, 2019). “America’s Richest Self Made Women”. Forbes.
#5 SHE IS ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE OF HER TIME
Oprah has been one of the most influential personalities in the world during the course of her long successful career. In 1991, she testified before the US Senate Judicial Committee speaking about her personal story of child abuse in favor of the National Child Protection Act. With Winfrey’s support the Act was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993. It was informally dubbed as the “Oprah Bill” and called for the establishment of a national database of all indictments and convictions on child abuse and sex offense charges, violent crimes, arson and felony drug charges. In 2008, Oprah once again put her political pull to the test, using her show as a megaphone to call attention to the Combating Child Exploitation bill. On air, she urged her audience to contact their senators in favor of the bill, leading the bill to be passed into law.
Oprah has made it to the TIME list of 100 most influential people in the world 10 times since 2004, including her being named as one of the 100 most influential of the 20th century. She is only behind Barack Obama’s 11 appearances on the list. Oprah has wielded tremendous influence through her talk show. This gave rise to the term “Oprah Effect”. In simple terms it referred to the effect that an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, or an endorsement by Oprah Winfrey, can have on a business. The Oprah Effect was most pronounced for the publishing industry. According to available statistics, 59 books chosen by Oprah for her book club appeared on USA Today’s top ten list and 29 reached the No.1 position. For example, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s books are supposed to have received a bigger boost in sales from Oprah’s recommendations than from winning the prize itself.
Oprah derived her power from the trust of her 42 million audience and authenticity. Unlike typical celebrity endorsements, she supported independent family businesses. Appearance on her show made several businesses and professionals flourish, while a casual remark on beef in 1996 sent the cattle prices tumbling costing the producers $11 million. In 2015, shares of Weight Watchers rocketed after an announcement that Oprah had taken a 10% stake in the company.
Fetini, Alyssa. (May 25, 2011). “Putting Democracy to Work”. Time.
Ganchrow, Banji. (2015). “Oprah Winfrey’s Greatest Accomplishments”. Vocal.
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Halton, Clay. (Jul 19, 2019). “Oprah Effect”. Investopedia.
#6 SHE HAD AN INFLUENCE ON OBAMA BECOMING AMERICAN PRESIDENT
In 2006, Winfrey expressed that Obama was her favorite senator and she hoped he would run for president, long before he had even declared himself a candidate. After Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States, Winfrey held a fundraiser for him on September 8, 2007, at her Santa Barbara Estate and raised several million dollars. In December 2007, she made her first campaign appearances for him, drawing a crowd of nearly 30,000, the largest for any political event of 2007. Winfrey’s endorsement made a considerable difference. Obama netted 1,015,559 votes in the Democratic primary race. It is widely believed that her support was crucial to his winning the Democratic Nomination and the Presidency itself. Rod Blagojevich, the then Governor of Illinois, was so impressed by Winfrey’s endorsement that he considered offering Obama’s former seat in the Senate to her. Her endorsement of Barack Obama was one of the most widely studied developments of the 2008 Presidential Campaign. Due to it, she was described as the Most Influential Woman in the World. Currently, many media figures have urged Oprah to run in the 2020 Presidential Election, recalling her path-breaking endorsement for Obama in 2007.
MacAskill, Ewen. (Nov 27, 2007). “Oprah Winfrey to campaign for Obama in key states”. The Guardian.
Easley, Jason. (Jan 8, 2018). “Oprah 2020 Could Be Real As Winfrey Is Seriously Considering Running For President”. PoliticusUSA.
Mendoza, Casey & Morona, Amy. (Aug 19, 2020). “Do Celebrity Endorsements Matter? It’s complicated”. Newsy.
#7 SHE OPENED AN ACADEMY FOR IMPOVERISHED GIRLS IN SOUTH AFRICA
Inspired by her own disadvantaged childhood, Winfrey founded the Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa in 2007. Set over 22 acres, the boarding school was inaugurated with an enrollment of 150 pupils which later increased to 450. Winfrey has reportedly spent $40 million opening the school. It opened with the mission to provide educational and leadership opportunities for academically gifted girls from impoverished backgrounds in South Africa, who exhibited leadership qualities for making a difference in the world. Leadership Academy for Girls features state-of-the-art classrooms, computer and science laboratories, library, auditorium/gymnasium, amphitheater, sports fields, modern dormitories and a dining hall. The school has continued to maintain a 100% graduation rate, with a large percentage of these girls going on to college, many of them in the United States. One of the academy’s most vocal fans has been Nelson Mandela, who praised Winfrey for overcoming her own disadvantaged youth to become a benefactor for others, and for investing in the future of South Africa. The Academy was also honored by Bill Clinton when he featured it in his book “Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World” as an example of how to give back to the world.
Page, Clarence. (Jan 7, 2007). “Oprah’s `truth’ shouldn’t hurt”. Chicago Tribune.
(Mar 16, 2007). “Oprah Opens 2nd School In Africa”. CBS News.
#8 SHE IS A GENEROUS PHILANTHROPIST
Winfrey is known for her huge contribution towards community service, and her equally generous donations. She has donated millions of dollars to various charities and organizations, with most of her money going to three foundations: The Angel Network, The Oprah Winfrey Foundation (run exclusively by Oprah and funded by an endowment) and The Oprah Winfrey Operating Foundation.
The Angel Network
Oprah’s Angel Network was created in 1997. It is a charity that supported charitable projects and gave grants to nonprofit organizations around the world. The Network collects millions of dollars in donations and provides grants that concentrate on Winfrey’s charitable initiatives with 100 percent of the money going into funding of the projects and Oprah bearing all the administrative costs. Some examples of the network’s projects include:-
- Building over 55 schools in 12 countries, thus providing education for thousands of children in rural areas throughout the world.
- Providing $1mn worth of supplies to 18,000 impoverished South African children in 2005
- Raising more than $11mn for Hurricane Katrina and Rita recovery efforts in 2007; helping build or restore nearly 300 homes in eight communities across Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. Oprah also personally donated $10 million to the cause.
Oprah’s Christmas Kindness
In 2004, Winfrey and her team filmed an episode of her show, Oprah’s Christmas Kindness, in which Winfrey traveled to South Africa to bring attention to the plight of young children affected by poverty and AIDS. During the 21-day trip, Winfrey and her crew visited schools and orphanages in poverty-stricken areas, and distributed Christmas presents to 50,000 children. As a result of showing their situation in her program and after Oprah’s appeal to donate, they received over $7 million from around the world.
In 2006, to celebrate two decades on national TV, and to thank her employees for their hard work, Winfrey took her staff and their families (1,065 people in total) on vacation to Hawaii. In 2012, she made a record by shelling out around $400 million toward educational causes, including more than 400 scholarships to Atlanta’s Morehouse College. In 2013, Winfrey donated $12 million to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. On the 30th anniversary of Morehouse College, Winfrey announced a $13 million donation to its scholarship fund, bringing her total donation to $25 million, which is the largest endowment in the history of the college, according to the school.
Oprah supports several other charities including the Clinton Foundation, which supports many causes including treating HIV and AIDS; and fighting climate change. She has generously donated to Project Cuddle, Free the Children, UNICEF, ALS Association, among others. Oprah Winfrey has donated more than $300 million of her personal wealth and has pledged $1 billion to donations in her will. She has thus been featured among the 50 most generous Americans and is considered as one of the most generous philanthropists in the 21st century.
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“Giving it Away”. Encyclopedia.com.
#9 SHE WAS AWARDED THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM IN 2013
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is an award bestowed by the President of the United States to recognize people who have made impeccable contribution to the national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. It was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Moreover, along with the Congressional Gold Medal, it is the highest civilian award of the United States. In 2013, Barack Obama, the 44th President of USA, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Oprah Winfrey to honor her meritorious journey of rising from a childhood of poverty and abuse to the pinnacle of the entertainment universe. In the same year, Winfrey received an honorary doctorate from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts for a Law Degree.
Slack, Megan. (Nov 20, 2013) “President Obama Honors Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients”. The White House.
Gicas, Peter. (May 31, 2013). “Oprah Winfrey Receives Honorary Degree at Harvard, Tells Graduates to “Max Out Your Humanity”. E! Entertainment Television.
#10 SHE HAS WROTE A BESTSELLING BOOK TITLED “WHAT I KNOW FOR SURE”
Oprah wrote a monthly column, knows as “What I Know For Sure” in O, The Oprah Magazine. In her column, she mainly encouraged to create a life you want by pursuing excellence, practicing gratitude and leveraging bad experiences to become strong. In 2014, these thought-provoking gems were revised, updated and collected in a book by the same name. The Column turned book was packed with Oprah’s insight and revelations about joy, resilience, connection, gratitude, possibility, awe, clarity and power in essay form. In October of 2014, the book took the top spot on the New York Times Best Sellers list and continued to remain in the top 3 for the next 6 months.
On January 2018, Oprah Winfrey received the prestigious Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award, which is given to a talented individual for outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment. She made history again by becoming the first African American woman to be honored with the award, for lifetime achievement, at the 75th Golden Globe. Winfrey, 63, is also the 15th woman to receive the honor since its inception in 1952. In an inspiring address, she paid tribute to all the women who have endured years of abuse and those who spoke out against sexual abuse. Oprah’s show-stopping Acceptance Speech compelled the Hollywood to honor her with a standing ovation.
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Outlook Web Bureau. (Jan 8, 2018). “In A Powerful Speech At Golden Globes 2018, Oprah Winfrey Speaks Out Against Sexual Abuse, Says ‘Time’s Up’”. Outlook.