Oprah Gail Winfrey (born January 29, 1954) is an American television host, actress, producer, and philanthropist, best known for herself-titled, multi-award winning talk show, which has become the highest-rated program of its kind in history. She has been ranked the richest African American of the 20th century and beyond, the greatest black philanthropist in American history, and was once the world’s only black billionaire. She is also, according to some assessments, the most influential woman in the world.
Winfrey was born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mother and later raised in an inner-city Milwaukee neighborhood. She experienced considerable hardship during her childhood, including being raped at the age of nine and becoming pregnant at 14; her son died in infancy. Sent to live with the man she calls her father, a barber in Tennessee, Winfrey landed a job in radio while still in high school and began co-anchoring the local evening news at the age of 19. Her emotional ad-lib delivery eventually got her transferred to the daytime talk show arena, and after boosting a third-rated local Chicago talk show to first place she launched her own production company and became internationally syndicated.
Credited with creating a more intimate confessional form of media communication, she is thought to have popularized and revolutionized the tabloid talk show genre pioneered by Phil Donahue, which a Yale study claims broke 20th century taboos and allowed LGBT people to enter the mainstream. By the mid 1990s she had reinvented her show with a focus on literature, self-improvement, and spirituality. Though criticized for unleashing confession culture and promoting controversial self-help fads, she is generally admired and has been praised for overcoming adversity to become a benefactor to others. In 2006 she became an early supporter of Barack Obama and one analysis estimates she delivered over a million votes in the close 2008 Democratic primary race, an achievement for which the governor of Illinois considered offering her a seat in the U.S. senate.
Though there are conflicting reports as to how her name became “Oprah”, Winfrey was originally named “Orpah” after the Biblical character in the Book of Ruth. Her family and friends’ inability to pronounce “Orpah” caused them to put the “P” before the “R” in every place else other than the birth certificate.
Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi to unmarried parents. She later explained that her conception was due to a single sexual encounter that her two teenage parents had; they broke up not long after. Her mother, Vernita Lee, was a housemaid. Growing up, Winfrey believed that her biological father was Vernon Winfrey, a coal miner turned barber turned city councilman who was in the Armed Forces when she was born. Decades later, Mississippi farmer and World War II veteran Noah Robinson Sr. claimed to be her biological father.
After her birth, Winfrey’s mother traveled north and Winfrey spent her first six years living in rural poverty with her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, who was so poor that Winfrey often wore dresses made of potato sacks, for which the local children made fun of her. Her grandmother taught her to read before the age of three and took her to the local church, where she was nicknamed “The Preacher” for her ability to recite Bible verses. When Winfrey was a child, her grandmother would take a switch and would hit her with it when she didn’t do chores or if she misbehaved in any way.
At age six, Winfrey moved to an inner-city neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her mother, who was less supportive and encouraging than her grandmother had been, due in large part to the long hours Vernita Lee worked as a maid. Winfrey has stated that she was molested by her cousin, her uncle, and a family friend, starting when she was nine years old,something she first revealed to her viewers on a 1986 episode of her TV show, when sexual abuse was being discussed.
At 13, after suffering years of abuse, Winfrey ran away from home. When she was 14, she became pregnant, but her son died shortly after birth. Also at that age, her frustrated mother sent her to live with Vernon in Nashville, Tennessee. Vernon was strict, but encouraging and made her education a priority. Winfrey became an honors student, was voted Most Popular Girl, joined her high school speech team at East Nashville High School, and placed second in the nation in dramatic interpretation. She won an oratory contest, which secured her a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, a historically black institution, where she studied communication. Her first job as a teenager was working at a local grocery store.At age 17, Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant. She also attracted the attention of the local black radio station, WVOL, which hired her to do the news part-time. She worked there during her senior year of high school, and again while in her first two years of college.
Winfrey’s career choice in media did not surprise her grandmother, who once said that ever since Winfrey could talk, she was on stage. As a child she played games interviewing her corncob doll and the crows on the fence of her family’s property. Winfrey later acknowledged her grandmother’s influence, saying it was Hattie Mae who had encouraged her to speak in public and “gave me a positive sense of myself.”
Working in local media, she was both the youngest news anchor and the first black female news anchor at Nashville‘s WLAC-TV. She moved to Baltimore‘s WJZ-TV in 1976 to co-anchor the six o’clock news. She was then recruited to join Richard Sher as co-host of WJZ’s local talk show People Are Talking, which premiered on August 14, 1978. She also hosted the local version of Dialing for Dollars there as well.
Career and success
In 1983, Winfrey relocated to Chicago to host WLS-TV‘s low-rated half-hour morning talk show, AM Chicago. The first episode aired on January 2, 1984. Within months after Winfrey took over, the show went from last place in the ratings to overtaking Donahue as the highest rated talk show in Chicago. It was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, expanded to a full hour, and broadcast nationally beginning September 8, 1986. On her 20th anniversary show, Oprah revealed that movie critic Roger Ebert was the one who persuaded her to sign a syndication deal with King World. Ebert predicted that she would generate 40 times as much revenue as his television show, At the Movies. Already having surpassed Donahue in the local market, Winfrey’s syndicated show quickly doubled Donahue’s national audience, displacing Donahue as the number one day-time talk show in America. Their much publicized contest was the subject of enormous scrutiny.
Time magazine wrote, “Few people would have bet on Oprah Winfrey’s swift rise to host of the most popular talk show on TV. In a field dominated by white males, she is a black female of ample bulk. As interviewers go, she is no match for, say, Phil Donahue…What she lacks in journalistic toughness, she makes up for in plainspoken curiosity, robust humor and, above all empathy. Guests with sad stories to tell are apt to rouse a tear in Oprah’s eye … They, in turn, often find themselves revealing things they would not imagine telling anyone, much less a national TV audience. It is the talk show as a group therapy session.”
TV columnist Howard Rosenberg said, “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.”
Newsday‘s Les Payne observed, “Oprah Winfrey is sharper than Donahue, wittier, more genuine, and far better attuned to her audience, if not the world.”
In the mid-1990s, Winfrey adopted a less tabloid-oriented format, doing shows about heart disease in women, geopolitics with Lisa Ling, spirituality and meditation, and gift-giving and home decorating shows. She often interviews celebrities on issues that directly involve them in some way, such as cancer, charity work, or substance abuse. In addition, she interviews ordinary people who have done extraordinary things or been involved in important current issues.
In 1993, Winfrey hosted a rare prime-time interview with Michael Jackson, which became the fourth most watched event in American television history as well as the most watched interview ever, with an audience of one hundred million. Another notable show was the first episode of the nineteenth season of The Oprah Winfrey Show in the Autumn of 2004. During the show each member of the audience received a new G6 sedan; the 276 cars were donated by Pontiac as part of a publicity stunt. The show received much media attention, and even more after it came out that members of the audience had to pay taxes up to $ 7000 if they wanted to keep the car.
During a lawsuit against Winfrey (see Influence), she hired Dr. Phil McGraw‘s company Courtroom Sciences, Inc. to help her analyze and read the jury. Dr. Phil made such an impression on Winfrey that she invited him to appear on her show. He accepted the invitation and was a resounding success. McGraw appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show for several years before launching his own show, Dr. Phil, in 2002, which was created by Winfrey’s production company, Harpo Productions, in partnership with CBS Paramount, which produced the show.
Winfrey made a deal to extend her show until the 2010–2011 season, by which time it will have been on the air for twenty-five years. She plans to host 140 episodes per season, until her final season, when it will return to its current number, 130. Her final show will air in September 2011.
In 1985, Winfrey co-starred in Steven Spielberg‘s film adaptation of Alice Walker‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple. She earned immediate acclaim as Sofia, the distraught housewife. The following year Winfrey was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but she lost to Anjelica Huston. The Color Purple went on to become a Broadway musical and opened in late 2005, with Winfrey credited as a producer.
In October 1998, Winfrey produced and starred in the film Beloved, based upon Toni Morrison‘s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. To prepare for her role as Sethe, the protagonist and former slave, Winfrey experienced a 24-hour simulation of the experience of slavery, which included being tied up and blindfolded and left alone in the woods. Despite major advertising, including two episodes of her talk show dedicated solely to the film, and moderate to good critical reviews, Beloved opened to poor box-office results, losing approximately $30 million. Working with delicate subjects, Winfrey managed to keep the cast motivated and inspired. “Here we were working on this project with the heavy underbelly of political and social realism, and she managed to lighten things up”, said costar Thandie Newton. “I’ve worked with a lot of good actors, and I know Oprah hasn’t made many films. I was stunned. She’s a very strong technical actress and it’s because she’s so smart. She’s acute. She’s got a mind like a razor blade.”
In 2005, Harpo Productions released another film adaptation of a famous American novel, Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). The made-for-television film Their Eyes Were Watching God was based upon a teleplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, and starred Halle Berry in the lead female role.
Books and magazines
She has co-authored five books; at the announcement of her future weight loss book (to be co-authored with her personal trainer Bob Greene), it was said that her undisclosed advance fee had broken the record for the world’s highest book advance fee, previously held by the autobiography of former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Winfrey publishes two magazines: O, The Oprah Magazine and O at Home. In 2002 Fortune called O, the Oprah Magazine the most successful start-up ever in the industry. and although its circulation had declined by more than 10 percent (to 2.4 million) from 2005 to 2008, the January 2009 issue was the best selling issue since 2006. The audience for her magazine is considerably more upscale than for her TV show, the average reader earning US $63,000 a year (well above the median for U.S. women).
Oprah.com is a website created by Winfrey’s company to provide resources and interactive content relating to her shows, magazines, book club, and public charity.
Oprah.com averages more than 70 million page views and more than six million users per month, and receives approximately 20,000 e-mails each week.
Winfrey initiated “Oprah’s Child Predator Watch List”, through her show and website, to help track down accused child molesters. Within the first 48 hours, two of the featured men were captured.
On February 9, 2006, it was announced that Winfrey had signed a three-year, $55 million contract with XM Satellite Radio to establish a new radio channel. The channel, Oprah Radio, features popular contributors to The Oprah Winfrey Show and O, The Oprah Magazine including Nate Berkus, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Bob Greene, Dr. Robin Smith and Marianne Williamson. Oprah & Friends began broadcasting at 11:00 am ET, September 25, 2006, from a new studio at Winfrey’s Chicago headquarters. The channel broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week on XM Radio Channel 156. Winfrey’s contract requires her to be on the air thirty minutes a week, 39 weeks a year. The thirty-minute weekly show features Winfrey with friend Gayle King.
On January 15, 2008, Winfrey and Discovery Communications announced plans to change Discovery Health Channel into a new channel called OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. Oprah has announced that OWN will debut on January 1, 2011. It was scheduled to launch in 2009, but has since been delayed. It will be available in more than 70 million homes because of the present position of Discovery Health Channel. This was a non-cash deal with Winfrey turning control of her website Oprah.com to Discovery Communications.
Winfrey currently lives on “The Promised Land”, her 42-acre (170,000 m2) estate with ocean and mountain views in Montecito, California. Winfrey also owns a house in Lavallette, New Jersey, an apartment in Chicago, an estate on Fisher Island off the coast of Miami, a house inDouglasville, Georgia (which she bought in 2005), a ski house in Telluride, Colorado, and property on the island of Maui, Hawaii. She also owns a home on the island of Antigua. Winfrey’s show is based in Chicago, so she spends time there, specifically in the neighborhood ofStreeterville, but she otherwise resides in California. Her Hawaii property was featured on the cover of O at Home and on her TV show.
Winfrey has no surviving biological children, once explaining that she chose not to be a mother because she was not mothered well–as previously mentioned, her only child, a son, died weeks after his birth—however Winfrey has also described maternal feelings towards the girls at Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls:
|“||I never had children, never even thought I would have children. Now I have 152 daughters; expecting 75 more next year. That is some type of gestation period!…I said to the mothers, the family members, the aunts, the grannies — because most of these girls have lost their families, their parents — I said to them, “Your daughters are now my daughters and I promise you I’m going to take care of your daughters. I promise you.||”|
Winfrey, who will teach a class at the school via satellite, plans to spend much of her retirement in a house she is building on the campus where she plans to use the same dishes, sheets, and curtains that the students do. “I want to be near my girls and be in a position to see how they’re doing”, said Winfrey.
In the February 2006 issue of her magazine, O, Winfrey said she felt “betrayed” by her family member who had revealed to the National Enquirer that as a teenager Winfrey had given birth to a baby who then died in the hospital some weeks later.
Winfrey had her DNA tested for the 2006 PBS program African American Lives. The genetic test determined that her maternal line originated among the Kpelle ethnic group, in the area that today is Liberia. Her genetic make up was determined to be 89 percent Sub-Saharan African.
Winfrey once dated movie critic Roger Ebert, whom she credits with advising her to take her show into syndication.
Winfrey and her partner Stedman Graham have been together since 1986. They were engaged to be married in November 1992, but the ceremony never took place. The relationship of Winfrey and Graham has been documented through the years with numerous romantic tabloid articles often accompanied by color spreads of the couple at home and on lavish vacations. Prior to meeting Graham, Winfrey’s love life was a lot less stable. A self-described promiscuous teen who was a victim of sexual abuse, Winfrey gave birth at the age of 14, to a boy who died shortly after. In 1997, a former boyfriend named Randoph Cook tried to sue Winfrey for $20 million for allegedly blocking a tell-all book where he claimed they lived together for several months in 1985 and did drugs. Cook’s claims mark the second time reports surfaced about Winfrey’s involvement in a drug related love affair. In 1995 Winfrey herself confessed to drug use. “And I’ve often said over the years…in my attempts to come out and say it, I’ve said many times I did things in my 20s that I was ashamed of, I did things I felt guilty about, but that is my life’s great big secret that’s always been held over my head”, she explained on her show. “I always felt that the drug itself is not the problem but that I was addicted to the man.” She added: “I can’t think of anything I wouldn’t have done for that man.”
Winfrey’s early love life was not always so tumultuous. Her high school sweetheart Anthony Otey recalled an innocent courtship that began in Winfrey’s senior year of high school, from which he saved hundreds of love notes; Winfrey conducted herself with dignity and as a model student. The two spoke of getting married, but Otey claimed to have always secretly known that Winfrey was destined for a far greater life than he could ever provide. On Valentine’s Day of her senior year, Otey’s fears came true when Winfrey took Otey aside and told him they needed to talk. “I knew right then that I was going to lose the girl I loved”, Otey recalled. “She told me she was breaking up with me because she didn’t have time for a relationship. We both sat there and cried. It broke my heart.” Years later, Otey was stunned to discover details from Winfrey’s promiscuous and rebellious past at the end of the 1960s, and the fact that she had given birth to a baby several years before they met.
In 1971, several months after breaking up with Otey, Winfrey met William “Bubba” Taylor at Tennessee State University. According to CBS journalist George Mair, Taylor was Winfrey’s “first intense, to die for love affair”. Winfrey helped get Taylor a job at WVOL, and according to Mair, “did everything to keep him, including literally begging him on her knees to stay with her.” Taylor however was unwilling to leave Nashville with Winfrey when she moved to Baltimore to work at WJZ-TV in June 1976. “We really did care for each other”, Winfrey would later recall. “We shared a deep love. A love I will never forget.”
According to author Kitty Kelley both Winfrey and John Tesh were a romantic item back in the 1970s. Tesh told the New York Daily News, “Oprah and I were cub reporters in Nashville nearly 40 years ago and we dated for a short time. We remain friends to this day.” Kelley claims that Tesh split with Winfrey over the pressure of having an interracial relationship.
When WJZ-TV management criticized Winfrey for crying on the air while reporting tragedies and were unhappy with her physical appearance (especially when her hair fell out as the result of a bad perm), Winfrey turned to reporter Lloyd Kramer for comfort. “Lloyd was just the best”, Winfrey would later recall. “That man loved me even when I was bald! He was wonderful. He stuck with me through the whole demoralizing experience. That man was the most fun romance I ever had.”
According to Mair, when Kramer moved to NBC in New York Winfrey became involved with a man whom friends had warned her to avoid. Winfrey would later recall:
|“||I’d had a relationship with a man for four years. I wasn’t living with him. I’d never lived with anyone—and I thought I was worthless without him. The more he rejected me, the more I wanted him. I felt depleted, powerless. At the end I was down on the floor on my knees groveling and pleading with him.||”|
According to Mair’s reporting “the major problem with this intense love affair arose from her lover’s being married, with no plans to leave his wife”. Winfrey became so depressed that on September 8, 1981, she wrote a suicide note to best friend Gayle King instructing King to water her plants. “That suicide note had been much overplayed” Winfrey told Ms.magazine’s Joan Barthel. “I couldn’t kill myself. I would be afraid the minute I did it; something really good would happen and I’d miss it.”
According to Winfrey, such emotional ups and downs gradually led to a weight problem:
|“||The reason I gained so much weight in the first place and the reason I had such a sorry history of abusive relationships with men was I just needed approval so much. I needed everyone to like me, because I didn’t like myself much. So I’d end up with these cruel self-absorbed guys who’d tell me how selfish I was, and I’d say “Oh thank you, you’re so right” and be grateful to them. Because I had no sense that I deserved anything else. Which is also why I gained so much weight later on. It was the perfect way of cushioning myself against the world’s disapproval.
Winfrey’s best friend since their early twenties is Gayle King. King was formerly the host of The Gayle King Show and is currently an editor of O, the Oprah Magazine. Since 1997, when Winfrey played the therapist on an episode of the sitcom Ellen in which Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet, Winfrey and King have been the target of persistent rumors that they were gay. “I understand why people think we’re gay”, Winfrey says in the August 2006 issue of O magazine. “There isn’t a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women. So I get why people have to label it—how can you be this close without it being sexual?” “I’ve told nearly everything there is to tell. All my stuff is out there. People think I’d be so ashamed of being gay that I wouldn’t admit it? Oh, please.” Another of Winfrey’s best friends is Maria Shriver, the current First Lady of California. Winfrey considers Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings her mentor and close friend; she calls Angelou her “mother-sister-friend” Winfrey hosted a week-long Caribbean cruise for Angelou and 150 guests for Angelou’s 70th birthday in 1998, and in 2008, threw her “an extravagant 80th birthday celebration” at Donald Trump‘s Mar-A-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida.
In 1989, Winfrey was personally touched by the 1980s AIDS crisis so frequently discussed on her show when her long time aide, Billy Rizzo, became afflicted by the disease. Rizzo was the only man among the four-person production team whom Winfrey relied on in her early years in Chicago long before she had a large staff. “I love Billy like a brother”, she said at the time. “He’s a wonderful, funny, talented guy, and it’s just heartbreaking to see him so ill.” Winfrey visited him daily during his last days.
On October 16, 2007, Winfrey revealed that she was diagnosed with a thyroid disorder that made her gain 20 pounds.
Entrepreneurship and wealth
Born in rural poverty, then raised by a mother on welfare in a poor urban neighborhood, Winfrey became a millionaire at age 32 when her talk show went national. Winfrey was in a position to negotiate ownership of the show and start her own production company because of the success and the amount of revenue the show generated. Considered the richest woman in entertainment by the early 1990s, at age 41 Winfrey’s wealth crossed another milestone when, with a net worth of $340 million, she replaced Bill Cosby as the only African American on the Forbes 400. Although black people are just under 13% of the U.S. population, Winfrey has remained the only African American wealthy enough to rank among America’s 400 richest people nearly every year since 1995.
With a 2000 net worth of $800 million, Winfrey is believed to be the richest African American of the 20th century. To celebrate her status as a historical figure, Professor Juliet E.K. Walker of the University of Illinois created the course “History 298: Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon.”
Forbes’ international rich list has listed Winfrey as the world’s only black billionaire in 2004, 2005, and 2006 and as the first black woman billionaire in world history. According to Forbes, as of September 2009 Winfrey is worth over $2.3 billion and has overtaken former eBay CEO Meg Whitman as the richest self-made woman in America.
In July 2007 TV Guide reported that Winfrey was the highest paid TV entertainer in the United States during the past year. She earned an estimated $260 million during the year. This amount was more than 5 times the sum earned by second-place music executive Simon Cowell, who had earned $45 million. By 2008, her income had increased to $275 million.
Rankings as world’s most influential woman
Winfrey was called “arguably the world’s most powerful woman” by CNN and Time.com, “arguably the most influential woman in the world” by the American Spectator, “one of the 100 people who most influenced the 20th Century” and “one of the most influential people” of from 2004 to 2010 by Time. Winfrey is the only person in the world to have appeared in the latter list on all eight occasions.
At the end of the 20th century Life listed Winfrey as both the most influential woman and the most influential black person of her generation, and in a cover story profile the magazine called her “America’s most powerful woman”. In 2007 USA Today ranked Winfrey as the most influential woman and most influential black person of the previous quarter century.Ladies Home Journal also ranked Winfrey number one in their list of the most powerful women in America and senator Barack Obama has said she “may be the most influential woman in the country”. In 1998 Winfrey became the first woman and first African-American to top Entertainment Weekly‘s list of the 101 most powerful people in the entertainment industry. In 2003 Winfrey edged out both Superman and Elvis Presley to be named the greatest pop culture icon of all time by VH1. Forbes named her the world’s most powerful celebrity in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010
Columnist Maureen Dowd seems to agree with such assessments:
Vanity Fair wrote:
Bill O’Reilly said:
Biographer Kitty Kelley states that she has always been fascinated by Winfrey:
Winfrey’s influence reaches far beyond pop culture and into unrelated industries where many believe she has the power to cause enormous market swings and radical price changes with a single comment. During a show about mad cow disease with Howard Lyman (aired on April 16, 1996), Winfrey exclaimed, “It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!” Texas cattlemen sued her and Lyman in early 1998 for “false defamation of perishable food” and “business disparagement”, claiming that Winfrey’s remarks subsequently sent cattle prices tumbling, costing beef producers some $12 million. On February 26, after a trial spanning over two months in an Amarillo, Texas court in the thick of cattle country, a jury found Winfrey and Lyman were not liable for damages. (After the trial, she received a postcard from Roseanne Barr reading, “Congratulations, you beat the meat!”) In June 2005 the first case ofmad cow disease in a cow native to the United States was detected in Texas. The USDA concluded that it was most likely infected in Texas prior to 1997.
In 2005 Winfrey was named the greatest woman in American history as part of a public poll as part of The Greatest American. She was ranked #9 overall on the list of greatest Americans.
Polls estimating Winfrey’s personal popularity have been inconsistent. A November 2003 Gallup poll estimated that 73% of American adults had a favorable view of Winfrey. Another Gallup poll estimated the figure at 74% in January 2007, although it dropped to 66% when Gallup conducted the same poll in October 2007. A December 2007 Fox News poll put the figure at 55%.
According to Gallup’s annual most admired poll, Americans consistently rank Winfrey as one of the most admired women in the world. Her highest rating came in 2007 when she was statistically tied with Hillary Clinton for first place.
While Phil Donahue has been credited with pioneering the tabloid talk show genre, what has been described as the warmth, intimacy and personal confession Winfrey brought to the format is believed to have both popularized and revolutionized it. In the scholarly text Freaks Talk Back, Yale sociology professor Joshua Gamson credits the tabloid talk show genre with providing much needed high impact media visibility for gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transgender people and doing more to make them mainstream and socially acceptable than any other development of the 20th century. In the book’s editorial review Michael Bronski wrote “In the recent past, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered people had almost no presence on television. With the invention and propagation of tabloid talk shows such as Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Oprah, and Geraldo, people outside the sexual mainstream now appear in living rooms across America almost every day of the week.”
An example of one such show by Winfrey occurred in the 1980s where for the entire hour, members of the studio audience stood up one by one, gave their name and announced that they were gay. Also in the 1980s Winfrey took her show to West Virginia to confront a town gripped by AIDS paranoia because a gay man living in the town had HIV. Winfrey interviewed the man who had become a social outcast, the town’s mayor who drained a swimming pool in which the man had gone swimming, and debated with the town’s hostile residents. “But I hear this is a God fearing town”, Winfrey scolded the homophobic studio audience; “where’s all that Christian love and understanding?” During a show on gay marriage in the 1990s, a woman in Winfrey’s audience stood up to complain that gays were constantly flaunting their sex lives and she announced that she was tired of it. “You know what I’m tired of”, replied Winfrey, “heterosexual males raping and sodomizing young girls. That’s what I’m tired of.” Her rebuttal inspired a screaming standing ovation from that show’s studio audience.
Gamson credits the tabloid talk show with making alternative sexual orientations and identities more acceptable in mainstream society. Examples include a Time magazine article describing early 21st century gays coming out of the closet younger and younger and gay suicide rates plummeting. Gamson also believes that tabloid talk shows caused gays to be embraced on more traditional forms of media. Examples include sitcoms like Will & Grace, primetime shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Oscar nominated feature films likeBrokeback Mountain.
While having changed with the times from her tabloid talk show roots, Winfrey continues to include gay guests by using her show to promote openly gay personalities such as her hairdresser Andre Walker, makeup artist Reggie Wells, and decorator Nate Berkus, who inspired an outpouring of sympathy from middle America after grieving the loss of his partner in the 2004 tsunami on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey’s “therapeutic” hosting style and the tabloid talk show genre has been credited or blamed for leading the media counterculture of the 1980s and 1990s, which some believe broke 20th century taboos, led to America’s self-help obsession, and created confession culture. The Wall Street Journal coined the term “Oprahfication”, which means public confession as a form of therapy.
In April 1997, Winfrey played the therapist on the sitcom Ellen to whom the character (and the real-life Ellen DeGeneres) said she was a lesbian. In 1998, Mark Steyn in the National Review wrote of Winfrey “Today, no truly epochal moment in the history of the Republic occurs unless it is validated by her presence. When Ellen said, ‘Yep! I’m gay,’ Oprah was by her side, guesting on the sitcom as (what else?) the star’s therapist.
By confessing intimate details about her weight problems, tumultuous love life, and sexual abuse, and crying alongside her guests, Time magazine credits Winfrey with creating a new form of media communication known as “rapport talk” as distinguished from the “report talk” of Phil Donahue:
Observers even noted the “Oprahfication” of politics by noting “Oprah-style debates” and Bill Clinton‘s empathetic speaking style. Columnist Maureen Dowd commented on the symbolism of Bill Clinton seeking an “Oprah-style” talk show when he left the presidency:
Winfrey’s intimate confessions about her weight (which peaked at 108 kg (238 lb)) also paved the way for other plus sized women in media such as Roseanne Barr, Rosie O’Donnell andStar Jones. The November 1988 Ms. magazine observed that “in a society where fat is taboo, she made it in a medium that worships thin and celebrates a bland, white-bread prettiness of body and personality…But Winfrey made fat sexy, elegant — damned near gorgeous — with her drop-dead wardrobe, easy body language, and cheerful sensuality.
Oprah’s Book Club
Late in 1996, Winfrey introduced a new segment on her television show: Oprah’s Book Club. The segment focused on new books and classics, and often brought obscure novels to popular attention. The book club became such a powerful force that whenever Winfrey introduced a new book as her book-club selection, it instantly became a best-seller (known as theOprah Effect); for example, when she selected the classic John Steinbeck novel East of Eden, it soared to the top of the book charts. Being recognized by Winfrey often means a million additional book sales for an author.
In Reading with Oprah: The book club that changed America, Kathleen Rooney describes Winfrey as “a serious American intellectual who pioneered the use of electronic media, specifically television and the Internet, to take reading — a decidedly non-technological and highly individual act — and highlight its social elements and uses in such a way to motivate millions of erstwhile non-readers to pick up books.”
Oprah’s Book Club has occasionally chosen books that have proven to be controversial. Most notably, author Jonathan Franzen questioned the Club’s selection process and credibility, and there was a live television confrontation over allegations of fabrication regarding James Frey‘s A Million Little Pieces. In May 2009, Winfrey apologized to Frey for the public confrontation years prior.
In 2002, Christianity Today published an article called “The Church of O” in which they concluded that Winfrey had emerged as an influential spiritual leader. “Since 1994, when she abandoned traditional talk-show fare for more edifying content, and 1998, when she began ‘Change Your Life TV’, Oprah’s most significant role has become that of spiritual leader. To her audience of more than 22 million mostly female viewers, she has become a postmodern priestess—an icon of church-free spirituality.” The sentiment was seconded by Marcia Z. Nelson in her book The Gospel According to Oprah. On the season premier of Winfrey’s 13th season Roseanne Barr told Winfrey “you’re the African Mother Goddess of us all” inspiring much enthusiasm from the studio audience. The animated series Futurama alluded to her spiritual influence by suggesting that “Oprahism” is a mainstream religion in 3000 AD.
Winfrey’s reach extends far beyond the shores of the U.S.; her show airs in 140 countries around the world. In the U.S. alone her show is viewed by an estimated 30 million people a week though her U.S. audience has fallen by half over the past 10 years. In 1998, her show had an estimated 14 million daily viewers, in 2005, her show averaged nearly an estimated 9 million American viewers per day, and by 2008 it was averaging an estimated 7.3 million viewers, though it remained the highest rated talk show. According to the Harris poll, Winfrey was America’s favorite television personality in 1998, 2000, 2002–2006, and 2009. Winfrey was especially popular among women, Democrats, political moderates, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Southern Americans and East Coast Americans.
Outside the U.S., Winfrey has become increasingly popular in the Arab world. The Wall Street Journal reported that MBC 4, an Arab satellite channel, centered its entire programming around reruns of her show because it was drawing record numbers of female viewers in Saudi Arabia. The New York Times reported that The Oprah Winfrey Show, with Arabic subtitles, is now broadcast twice each weekday on MBC 4. Winfrey’s modest dress, combined with her triumph over adversity and abuse has caused some women in Saudi Arabia to idealize her.
In 1998, Winfrey began Oprah’s Angel Network, a charity aimed at encouraging people around the world to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged others. Accordingly, Oprah’s Angel Network supports charitable projects and provides grants to nonprofit organizations around the world that share this vision. To date, Oprah’s Angel Network has raised more than $51,000,000 ($1 million of which was donated by Jon Bon Jovi). Winfrey personally covers all administrative costs associated with the charity, so 100% of all funds raised go to charity programs.
Although Winfrey’s show is known for raising money through her public charity and the cars and gifts she gives away on TV are often donated by corporations in exchange for publicity, behind the scenes Winfrey personally donates more of her own money to charity than any other show-business celebrity in America. In 2005 she became the first black person listed byBusiness Week as one of America’s top 50 most generous philanthropists, having given an estimated $303 million. Winfrey was the 32nd most philanthropic. She has also been repeatedly ranked as the most philanthropic celebrity
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Oprah asked her viewers to open their hearts—and they did. As of September 2006, donations to the Oprah Angel Network Katrina registry total more than $11 million. Homes have been built in four states—Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama—before the one year anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Winfrey also matched her viewers’ donations by personally giving $10 million to the cause.
Winfrey has also helped 250 African-American men continue or complete their education at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.
To celebrate two decades on national TV, and to thank her employees for their hard work, Winfrey took her staff and their families (1065 people in total) on vacation to Hawaii in the summer of 2006.
In 2004, Winfrey and her team filmed an episode of her show, Oprah’s Christmas Kindness , in which Winfrey, her best friend Gayle King, her partner Stedman Graham, and some crew members travelled to South Africa to bring attention to the plight of young children affected by poverty and AIDS. During the 21-day whirlwind trip, Winfrey and her crew visited schools and orphanages in poverty-stricken areas, and at different set-up points in the areas distributed Christmas presents to 50,000 children, with dolls for the girls and soccer balls for the boys. In addition, each child was given a backpack full of school supplies and received two sets of school uniforms for their gender, in addition to two sets of socks, two sets of underwear, and a pair of shoes. Throughout the show, Winfrey appealed to viewers to donate money to Oprah’s Angel Network for poor and AIDS-affected children in Africa, and pledged that she personally would oversee where that money was spent. From that show alone, viewers around the world donated over $7,000,000.
Winfrey invested $40 million and some of her time establishing the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls near Johannesburg, South Africa. The school opened in January 2007.Nelson Mandela praised Winfrey for overcoming her own disadvantaged youth to become a benefactor for others and for investing in the future of South Africa. Others, including Allison Samuels of Newsweek, remarked on the “extravagance” of the school and questioned whether the $40 million might have been spent to benefit a far greater number of students, had the money been spent with less emphasis on luxurious surroundings and more emphasis on practicality.
Winfrey endorsed presidential candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. This is the first time she publicly made such an endorsement. Winfrey held a fundraiser for Obama on September 8, 2007, at her Santa Barbara estate. In December 2007, Winfrey joined Obama for a series of rallies in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. The Columbia, South Carolina event on December 9, 2007, drew a crowd of nearly 30,000, the largest for any political event of 2007. An analysis by two economists at the University of Maryland, College Parkestimated that Winfrey’s endorsement was responsible for between 423,123 and 1,596,995 votes for Obama in the Democratic primary alone, based on a sample of states that did not include Texas, Michigan, North Dakota, Kansas, or Alaska. The results suggest that in the sampled states, Oprah’s endorsement was responsible for the difference in the popular vote between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Senate seat consideration
The governor of Illinois reported being so impressed by Winfrey’s influence on the election of Barack Obama that he considered offering Winfrey Obama’s vacant senate seat. Governor Blagojevich summarized his reasons for considering Winfrey on various talk shows:
|“||To begin with, she was perhaps the most instrumental person in electing Barack Obama president. She is a larger-than-life figure in America and around the world. She has a huge bully pulpit and tremendous support across America…She has a voice larger than all 100 senators combined. And if she was a U.S. Senator, she would be a voice for the Obama program, which she supports, and she would be in a position to be able to use an unbelievable bully pulpit to be able to get it done. She obviously can’t be bought. And she’s actually a very, obviously, in my judgment, a very impressive and a very nice person. On the other hand, how likely is it she’d give up what she’s doing for that? I mean, being a senator’s a big deal, but it ain’t Oprah.||”|
Winfrey responded to the disclosure with amusement, noting that although she was absolutely not interested, she did feel she could be a senator.
Although Blagojevich’s Chief of Staff, John Harris, thought such a pick would be unrealistic and self-serving, political analyst Chris Mathews praised the idea of making Winfrey a senator suggesting that in one move it would diversify the senate and raise its collective IQ. Elaborating further he said:
|“||Anybody who doesn’t think Winfrey would be a great senator from Illinois or anywhere is crazy. She gets along with everybody. She brings people together. She finds common ground. She’s way past race politics 20 years ago. She’s so far ahead of most people in human relations. And she listens … I think she is up there with Will Rogers and Bob Hope and some of our great public personalities of the last century.||”|
Animal rights activism
Winfrey was named as the ‘2008 Person of the Year’ by animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). According to PETA, Winfrey uses her fame and listening audience to help the less fortunate, including animals. PETA praised Winfrey for using her talk show to uncover horrific cases of cruelty to animals in puppy mills and on factory farms, and Winfrey even used the show to highlight the cruelty-free vegan diet that she tried. Winfrey also refuses to wear fur or feature it in her magazine.
Inspiring prosocial behavior
Since the mid 1990s, Winfrey’s show has emphazied uplifting and inspirational topics and themes. A scientific study by psychological scientists at the University of Cambridge,University of Plymouth, and University of California discovered that simply watching an uplifting clip on the Oprah Winfrey show caused subjects in their experiment to become twice as helpful as subjects assigned to watch a British comedy or nature documentary. The authors of the study concluded that “by eliciting elevation, even brief exposure to other individuals’ prosocial behavior motivates altruism, thus potentially providing an avenue for increasing the general level of prosociality in society.”
Criticisms and controversies
Although Winfrey has continually changed the focus of her show since the mid-1990s, her success has been seen as popularizing of the “tabloid talk show” genre, and turning it into a thriving industry that has included Ricki Lake, The Jenny Jones Show, and The Jerry Springer Show. Sociologist Vicki Abt criticized tabloid talk shows for redefining social norms. In her book Coming After Oprah: Cultural Fallout in the Age of the TV talk show, Abt warned that the media revolution that followed Winfrey’s success was blurring the lines between “normal” and “deviant” behavior.
|“||Oprah Winfrey is the most powerful woman in America. She decides what makes the New York Times best-seller lists. Her touchy-feely style sucks in audiences at the rate of 14 million viewers per day. But Oprah is far more than a cultural force — she’s a dangerous political force as well, a woman with unpredictable and mercurial attitudes toward the major issues of the day.||”|
In 2006, Winfrey recalled such controversies:
|“||I once did a show titled Is War the Only Answer? In the history of my career, I’ve never received more hate mail-like ‘Go back to Africa’ hate mail. I was accused of being un-American for even raising the question.||”|
Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore came to Winfrey’s defense, praising her for showing antiwar footage no other media would show and begging her to run for president. A February 2003 series Winfrey did, in which she showed clips from people all over the world asking America not to go to war, was interrupted in several east coast markets by network broadcasts of a press conference in which President George W. Bush, joined by Colin Powell, summarized the case for war.
In June 2005, Winfrey was denied access to the Hermès company’s flagship store in Paris, France. Winfrey arrived fifteen minutes after the store’s formal closing time. Winfrey believed she would have been allowed in the store if she were a white celebrity. “I know the difference between a store that is closed and a store that is closed to me”, explained Winfrey. In September 2005, Hermès USA CEO Robert Chavez was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show and apologized for a rude employee.
On December 1, 2005, Winfrey appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman to promote the new Broadway musical The Color Purple, of which she was a producer, joining the host for the first time in 16 years. The episode was hailed by some as the “television event of the decade” and helped Letterman attract his largest audience in more than 11 years: 13.45 million viewers. Although a much-rumored feud was said to have been the cause of the rift, both Winfrey and Letterman balked at such talk. “I want you to know, it’s really over, whatever you thought was happening”, said Winfrey. On September 10, 2007, David Letterman made his first appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show“, as its season premiere was filmed in New York City.
In 2006, rappers Ludacris, 50 Cent and Ice Cube criticized Winfrey for what they perceived as an anti-hip hop bias. In an interview with GQ magazine, Ludacris said that Winfrey gave him a “hard time” about his lyrics, and edited comments he made during an appearance on her show with the cast of the film Crash. He also claimed that he wasn’t initially invited on the show with the rest of the cast. Winfrey responded by saying that she’s opposed to rap lyrics that “marginalize women”, but enjoys some artists, including Kanye West, who appeared on her show. She said she spoke with Ludacris backstage after his appearance to explain her position, and said she understood that his music was for entertainment purposes, but that some of his listeners might take it literally.
Winfrey has also been criticized for not being “tough” enough in questioning celebrity or politician guests on her show that she appears to like. Lisa de Moraes, a media columnist forThe Washington Post, stated, “Oprah doesn’t do follow-up questions unless you’re an author who’s embarrassed her by fabricating portions of a supposed memoir she’s plugged for her book club.”
Early in 2007, Winfrey funded a $40 million school complex for girls, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, in South Africa. The school will have an initial enrollment of 152 but will gradually accommodate 450, and features such amenities as a beauty salon and yoga studio. Criticism arose that the money would be better utilized to educate a larger number of children in either North America or South Africa; however, Winfrey insists that beautiful surroundings will inspire greatness in the future leaders of Africa.
In 2007, Winfrey began to endorse the self-help program The Secret. The Secret claims that people can change their lives through positive thoughts, which will then cause vibrations that result in good things happening to them. Peter Birkenhead of Salon magazine argued that this idea is pseudoscience and psychologically damaging, as it trivializes important decisions and promotes a quick-fix material culture, and suggest Winfrey’s promotion of it is irresponsible given her influence.
In September 2008, Winfrey received a storm of criticism after Matt Drudge of the Drudgereport reported that Winfrey refused to have Sarah Palin on her show allegedly due to Winfrey’s support for Barack Obama. Winfrey denied the report, maintaining that there never was a discussion regarding Palin appearing on her show. She said that after she made public her support for Obama she decided that she would not let her show be used as a platform for any of the candidates. Although Obama appeared twice on her show, these appearances were prior to him declaring himself a candidate. Winfrey added that Palin would make a fantastic guest and that she would love to have her on the show after the election, which she did on 18 November 2009.
Another controversy in 2008 occurred when Winfrey endorsed author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle and his book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, which sold several million copies after being selected for her book club. During a Webinar class, in which she promoted the book, Winfrey stated “God is a feeling experience and not a believing experience. If your religion is a believing experience…then that’s not truly God.” Frank Pastore, a Christian radio talk show host on KKLA, was among the many Christian leaders who criticized Winfrey’s views, saying “if she’s a Christian, she’s an ignorant one, because Christianity is incompatible with New Agethought.”
In 2009 Winfrey was criticised for allowing actress Suzanne Somers to appear on her show to discuss hormone treatments that are not accepted by mainstream medicine.