Oprah Gail Winfrey
born January 29, 1954, Kosciusko, Mississippi
US-American Media Figure, Producer, Actress, Business Woman ... etc etc etc.
Oprah Winfrey is best known, perhaps, for her unique, compelling style and personal revelations as talk show host of The Oprah Winfrey Show, seen by 21 million viewers a week, in 105 countries. A shrewd and responsible businesswoman, Oprah has parlayed her initial success in television into numerous other ventures, including the creation of her own production company which now owns and produces her talk show. Despite her now legendary Midas touch – fame, power, and wealth virtually spring from all of her projects – Oprah has a different view of her status; for her, success is “getting to the point where you are absolutely comfortable with yourself ... to have the kind of internal strength and internal courage it takes to say, ‘No, I will not let you treat me this way’ is what success is all about.”
Her journey to this self-realization has not been easy.
For her first six years, Oprah was raised on a farm in rural Mississippi by her grandmother who taught her to read at a young age. Reading was her “outlet to the world,” which she credits with saving her life by opening “the door to all kinds of possibilities.” A born talker, Oprah’s practice of reciting in church, starting at age three, earned her the nickname “the Preacher” among her peers. The security and discipline of this early life changed dramatically when Oprah went to live with her mother in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was sexually molested first by an older cousin when she was nine years old, and then suffered repeated molestation by others throughout her youth. When Oprah began to misbehave and ran away from home, she was sent to live with her father in Nashville, Tennessee. A strict disciplinarian who demanded a great deal more from Oprah than she was accustomed, he helped to inspire her self-confidence and self-discipline. She became an honors student, joined the drama club, student council, and was chosen as one of two students in the state to go to the White House Conference on Youth.
Discovered for the quality and strength of her voice during a beauty contest, Oprah began her career as a radio newscaster while in high school. She began to work for a local TV station as a reporter and co-anchor while majoring in speech and performing arts college at Tennessee State University. She was the first African-American woman newscaster in Nashville. Yet she didn’t last long as a reporter because of her lack of emotional detachment from the stories she covered. While working in Baltimore, Oprah was moved from the news to an early morning talk show. In this format, Oprah found with relief she was able to be herself for the first time: “It was like breathing to me. Like breathing. You just talk.”
Oprah’s meteoric rise to fame began when she took over a local Chicago talk show in 1984, which soon became The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 1985 she realized her dream of becoming an actress, earning critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for her supporting role as Sophia in the film The Color Purple. A year later her show became the number one talk show after going national.
The popularity of the show stems from Oprah’s emotion, vulnerability, and compassion as a host and interviewer. She was the first to establish a special connection with her audience by sharing her personal life, ranging from anecdotes about her life-time partner Stedman Graham, to her emotional revelation of her own childhood sexual abuse. Although there have been the usual sensational topics on her talk show, Oprah says she views the show as “a teaching tool” and a platform to help people change their lives.
Phenomenal material success has allowed Oprah to pursue “other things that really matter ... being able to make a difference ... in other people’s lives.” She has begun several ventures in this spirit of social consciousness, including an on-air book club to inspire excitement about reading, O, The Oprah Magazine as “a personal-growth guide,” and Oxygen, a women-centered cable network and web-site. Many of these projects have been influenced by her fundamental belief that education is liberation. Through her company Harpo Productions, she has brought to the small and big screen a variety of substantial literary works that feature the black female experience, including Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Dorothy West’s The Wedding, and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place.
Oprah has given considerable time and money to her numerous philanthropic ventures as well, focusing especially on funding and supporting educational initiatives and those who help others in their communities. Along with many awards for achievements in entertainment, Oprah has won great recognition for her humanitarian efforts.
And, you know, part of the process for me as an adult has been recognizing that my inability as an adult female to say “No,” my disease to please as a female, is the same thing that caused me to be victimized as a child. Because many times, I would get myself into situations as an adult where I didn’t want to say “no” because I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. I didn’t want to say “No” because I didn’t want anybody angry with me. I didn’t want to say “No” because I didn’t want people to think I’m not nice. And that, to me, has been the greatest lesson of my life: to recognize that I am solely responsible for it, and not trying to please other people, and not living my life to please other people, but doing what my heart says all the time. That’s the biggest lesson for me.
It’s very difficult for me to even see myself as successful because I still see myself as in the process of becoming successful. To me, “successful” is getting to the point where you are absolutely comfortable with yourself. And it does not matter how many things you have acquired.
As long as I can be an influence and make a difference, that’s what I want to do. But I also want to act because I think that it’s very important to create work that for one, puts the black cultural experience on screen. I’ve been black, I’ve been female all my life. That’s the only thing I know. So I know that experience. I love being a woman, and I love being a black woman. I read mostly female literature because I just find that I’m drawn to it. If I’m in a book store, I’m drawn to the women writers because that’s what I know. And so I want to be able to put that on screen. I want to be able to do work that encourages, enlightens, uplifts and entertains people.
For me, education is about the most important thing because that is what liberated me. Education is what liberated me. The ability to read saved my life. I would have been an entirely different person had I not been taught to read when I was an early age. My entire life experience, my ability to believe in myself, and even in my darkest moments of sexual abuse and being physically abused and so forth, I knew there was another way. I knew there was a way out. I knew there was another kind of life because I had read about it. I knew there were other places, and there was another way of being. It saved my life, so that’s why I now focus my attention on trying to do the same thing for other people.
All quotes from an interview, Feb 21.1991, Chicago, at the Gallery of Achievement.
Johnson, Marilyn. 1997. “Oprah Winfrey: A Life in Books.” Life, September 1997: 44–60.
King, Norman. 1987. Everybody Loves Oprah. New York. Morrow.
Winfrey, Oprah and Bill Adler. 1997. The Uncommon Wisdom of Oprah Winfrey: A Portrait in Her Own Words. Birch Lane Press.
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