“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”
It takes a great deal of resilience to become the ‘Queen of All Media’. Born on January 29, 1954 in Kosciusko, Mississippi to a single teenage mother, the animated host of the Oprah Winfrey Show did not always have it easy.
“Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a new way to stand.”
Many perhaps wouldn’t know but Oprah was born as Orpah Gail Winfrey after the biblical figure. The name was however mispronounced and Oprah stuck. Her mother, Vernita Lee was a housemaid and Oprah grew up in an impoverished household with her maternal family. Winfrey’s grandmother helped her in learning biblical verses, as a result of which Winfrey was known as ‘The Preacher’ due to her ability to recite Bible verses.
At the tender age of six, Winfrey’s half-sister, Patricia was born. The mother hence found it increasingly difficult to bring up two daughters. Lee later gave birth to another daughter, who was also named Patricia and then gave birth to a son, Jeffrey. Winfrey got to know about her second half sister not until 2010.
At the tender age of 14, Winfrey became pregnant with a child. Her son was however born prematurely and died shortly after his birth. From a very young age, Winfrey often came face-to-face with the poverty stricken life she was living. One of her often cited experiences includes her wearing potato sacks, as she could not afford good clothing.
“Turn your wounds into wisdom.”
Speaking on her show about sexual abuse later in 1986, Winfrey talked about her own experiences, when she was molested by her uncle, her cousin and by a family friend.
During her early school years, Winfrey used to steal money from her mother, in order to keep up with the free-spending peer pressure. Frustrated by this behavior, Winfrey’s mother sent her away from home in Nashville. This episode was perhaps a blessing in disguise.
Early taste of success
“Doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.”
At the East Nashville High School, Winfrey became part of the high school speech team. This was perhaps the first time when she came face-to face with her destiny. She secured the second place in the nation’s dramatic interpretation.
This episode further encouraged Winfrey to hone her oratory skills. She conquered another milestone when she achieved a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, where she studied Communication. Not only in oratory abilities, Winfrey always had a charming personality. In her previous schools years too, Winfrey was voted one of the popular girls in the school. At the age of seventeen, she won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant.
“Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.”
This was perhaps the first stepping stone into Winfrey’s later successful career into media. It is said, ‘what you seek, is seeking you.’ During these years, Winfrey was spotted by a local black radio station, WVOL. Winfrey worked part time with news.
Even as a child, Winfrey used to interview her corncob dolls and crows resting on her family home’s fence. It was ultimately Winfrey’s destiny to enter into a career of media. While speaking about her career choice, Winfrey has often credited her grandmother, as she said it was Hattie Mae, who “gave me a positive sense of myself.” Her grandmother on the other hand had recognized Winfrey’s potential at a very young age, when she said she could talk as if she were on stage.
Career in Television
“Surround yourself only with people who are going to take you higher.”
Winfrey is best known for being the first black female news anchor, along with being the youngest news anchor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV. Winfrey began her career as a news anchor which later took her into her journey of talk shows. She found the first recognition with the morning show, AM Chicago. Within months after Winfrey took over, the show soared from the last place and become one of the highest rated shows in Chicago.
The Oprah Winfrey Show
After her success with AM Chicago which surpassed the ratings of the highest-rated talk show of Chicago, Donahue.
This attracted the attention of Roger Ebert who persuaded Winfrey to sign a deal with King World. Ebert had alleged that Winfrey had the potential to raise 40 times as much revenue as his television show, At the Movies.
This was then renamed as The Oprah Winfrey Show which turned out to be a full hour broadcast and was released for the first time on September 8, 1986.
The show’s success won double the audience in comparison to that of Donahue, which then became the number-one daytime talk show in America.
“The great courageous act that we must all do, is to have the courage to step out of our history and past so that we can live our dreams.”
The Oprah Winfrey Show was at the peak of its popularity during 1991-92 season when it was viewed by 13.1 million viewers in the U.S. While in 2003, its ratings declined, in 2005 they picked up. In 2008, the show was ranked the highest rated talk show.
Winfrey then became a well-known figure, catching the eye of even the critics who lauded her skills. TV columnist Howard Rosenberg said in praise of her, “She’s a roundhouse, a full course meal, big, brassy, loud, aggressive, hyper, laughable, lovable, soulful, tender, low-down, earthy, and hungry. And she may know the way to Phil Donahue’s jugular.”
While on the other hand, Newsday’s Les Payne remarked, “Oprah Winfrey is sharper than Donahue, wittier, more genuine, and far better attuned to her audience, if not the world”.
Martha Bayles of The Wall Street Journal also chimed in as she wrote, “It’s a relief to see a gab-monger with a fond but realistic assessment of her own cultural and religious roots.”
“Everybody has a calling. And your real job in life is to figure out as soon as possible what that is, who you were meant to be, and to begin to honor that in the best way possible for yourself.”
After gaining much recognition, the Oprah Winfrey Show became featured into a less-tabloid format, after it was popularized as a tabloid talk show. Winfrey began introducing more topics on her show such as geopolitics, heart disease, spirituality, and meditation. She then began interviewing celebrities and became vocal on social issues with which they were directly involved such as charity works, support for cancer and substance abuse.
After completing 25 seasons and doing 4,561 episodes, the Oprah Winfrey Show went on air for the last time on May 25, 2011.
“The key to realizing a dream is to focus not on success but on significance — and then even the small steps and little victories along your path will take on greater meaning.”
Winfrey’s company also created the Oprah.com which became the source for interactive content based on her shows, book club, magazine and her work in public charity. The teenage girl who had once grappled with mockery owning to her poverty stricken lifestyle, now had more than 70 million pages views, with more than six million users per month. Sources allege, Winfrey receives 20,000 emails every week.
In January 2018, Winfrey partnered with Apple on a multi-year contract with an arrangement that Winfrey would create new original programs exclusively for Apple’s streaming service, Apple TV+.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from. The ability to triumph begins with you – always.”
At the mere age of 32, Winfrey became a millionaire, this especially became possible through the national syndication of her talk show. At the age of 41, Winfrey’s net worth was $340 million. With this she replaced Bill Cosby in being the only African American on the Forbes 400. She was listed as the richest African American of the 20th century with a 2000 net worth of $800 million. In 2006, Winfrey became the highest paid television entertainer in the United States and earned about $260 million a year, a figure estimated to be five times greater than Simon Cowell’s net worth. Her annual income had soared to $275 million by 2008.
Winfrey has been the only black billionaire and the only woman from 2004 to 2006 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Billionaires. In 2014, she became worth 2.9 billion dollars, which was greater than eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who is the richest self-made woman in the United States.
“With every experience, you alone are painting your own canvas, thought by thought, choice by choice.”
She also became the first black person to be ranked in the list of 50 most generous Americans. Winfrey retained the position until 2010. By 2012, Winfrey had donated $400 million to educational causes. Later in 2013, she even donated $12 million to Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
In the same year, she was also with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
“Breathe. Let go. And remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know you have for sure.”
The Wall Street Journal coined the term Oprahfication which meant public confession in form of a therapy. Winfrey was lauded by Time magazine for speaking in public about her disturbed love life, weight problems and sexual abuse. This also led to the invention of a new form of media communication known as ‘rapport talk’.
“Winfrey saw television’s power to blend public and private; while it links strangers and conveys information over public airwaves, TV is most often viewed in the privacy of our homes. Like a family member, it sits down to meals with us and talks to us in the lonely afternoons. Grasping this paradox, ... She makes people care because she cares. That is Winfrey’s genius, and will be her legacy, as the changes she has wrought in the talk show continue to permeate our culture and shape our lives,” wrote the Time magazine.
“The whole point of being alive is to evolve into the complete person you were intended to be.”
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