American talk show host, Academy
Award-nominated actress, and producer (1954-)
"What a difference it would have mad
to my childhood if I had seen someone who looks like you on television." The
host is Oprah Winfrey, and she has been making that difference for millions of viewers,
young and old, Black and White, for nearly a dozen years. Winfrey stands as a
beacon, not only in the worlds of media and entertainment but also in the larger realm of
public discourse. At 48, she had a personal fortune estimated at more than a half a
billion dollars. She owns her own production company, which creates feature films,
prime-time TV specials, and home videos.
An accomplished actress, she won an
Academy Award nomination for her role in "The Color Purple," and she starred in
her own film production of Toni Morrison's "Beloved," But it is through her talk
show that her influence has been the greatest. When Winfrey talks, her viewers an
estimated 14 million daily in the U.S. and millions more in 132 countries listen.
Any book she chooses for her on-air book club becomes an instant best seller. When
she established "world's largest piggy bank," people al over the country
contributed spare change to raise more than $1million (matched by Oprah) to send
disadvantaged kids to college. When she blurted that hearing about the threat of
mad-cow disease " just stopped me cold from eating another burger,!" the
perceived threat to the beef industry was enough to trigger a multimillion-dollar lawsuit
(which she won).
Born in 1954 to unmarried parents,
Winfrey was raised by her grandmother on a farm with no indoor plumbing in Kosciusko,
Mississippi. By age 3 she was reading the Bible and reciting in church. At 6,
she moved to her mother's home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin later, to her father's in
Nashville, Tennessee. A lonely child, she found solace in books. When a
seventh-grade teacher noticed the young girl reading during lunch, he got her a
scholarship to a better school. Winfrey's talent for public performance and
spontaneity in answering questions helped her win beauty contests--and get her first taste
of public attention. Crowned Miss Fire Prevention in Nashville at 17, Winfrey visited a
local radio station, where she was invited to read copy for a lark--and was hired to read
news on the air.
Two years later, while a sophomore at Tennessee State University, she was hired as
Nashville's first female and first Black TV news anchor. After graduation, she took
an anchor position in Baltimore, Maryland, but lacked the detachment to be a reporter.
She cried when a story was sad, and laughed when she misread a word. Instead,
she was given an early-morning talk show. She had found her medium. In 1984,
she moved on to be the host of "A.M. Chicago," which became "The Oprah
Winfrey Show." It was syndicated in 1986--when Winfrey was 32--and soon
overtook Donahue as the nation's top-rated talk show. I used to speak in the church
all the time, and the sisters in the front row would say to my grandmother, "Hattie
Mae, this child sure can talk." Women, especially, listen to Winfrey because
they feel as if she's a friend.