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Born to nineteen-year-old domestic worker, Vernita Lee, Orpah Gail Winfrey came into this world on January 29, 1954 in the small town of Kosciusko, Mississippi. She was originally named after a biblical woman from the Book of Ruth but a spelling mistake on her birth certificate changed her name to Oprah. Soon after her birth, Vernita moved to Milwaukee in search of work and a better life (Lowe 9). Oprah's father, Vernon Winfrey, had traveled north to Nashville, Tennessee after receiving an honorable discharge from the army (Gates, Jr. 44). He first learned about his daughter after receiving a letter from Vernita that contained a birth announcement and a request to send baby clothes. As neither of her parents were around, Oprah was left under the care of her grandparents, Earlest and Hattie Mae. They owned a tiny plot of land where they kept pigs and chickens and grew much of their own produce. The farm had its' own water supply but no indoor plumbing, so Oprah was expected to carry heavy buckets of well water to the house as well as feed the chickens every morning (Lowe 5). Despite the strenuous labor, some of Oprah's fondest early memories were the times spent on the farm with her grandmother.
Hattie Mae was a strict, yet positive influence on her granddaughter. She made sure that Oprah always did the right thing and was not above inflicting physical punishment if she felt her granddaughter had misbehaved. Although she did give whippings from time to time, Hattie Mae also gave Oprah the ability to read. By the age of three, Oprah knew how letters were shaped and what sounds they made. Her grandmother encouraged her to memorize Bible passages and Oprah began to recite and give readings during services at the Buffalo Community Methodist Church. Books allowed her to dream far beyond the city limits of Kosciusko, Mississippi and she began to realize that there was more to life than living on a farm (Nagle 11-13).
At the age of six, Oprah was uprooted from her life in Mississippi as her mother insisted that she move up North to escape the humiliation of the Jim Crow laws. City life was vastly different from rural living. The sudden switch proved to be extremely difficult and traumatic for the young girl. Upon her arrival in Milwaukee, Oprah learned that she was no longer an only child. Vernita had given birth to two children, and Oprah now had a half-brother and a half-sister. The three of them lived with a woman by the name of Miss Miller, as Vernita was collecting welfare and working as a maid to earn extra money. "Miss Miller was a colored lady but a very light-skinned colored lady who did not like colored people," Oprah remembers. "I instantly knew that Miss Miller did not like me because of the color of my skin. And my half sister Pat was light skinned and my mother was staying there because Miss Miller loved my half sister. And I was put out on the porch to sleepâ€¦ I wasn't even allowed in the house to sleep (Oprah qtd in Gates, Jr. 50)." Oprah found escape from her treacherous life in the books that she read. School was the only place where she was appreciated and encouraged, not only in her love of reading, but in her love of learning.
As an early reader and young orator, Oprah entered her first day of kindergarten bored because of the fact that she was already far more advanced than the children just learning their ABC's. She wrote a letter to her teacher, demonstrating her knowledge and was placed in the first grade the very next day. School administrators eventually moved her to the third grade because she was such a good reader. Oprah excelled at learning as school gave her an enormous amount of self-gratification and self-assurance (Gates, Jr. 54-56). She was known as the gifted student and had a higher-than-average intelligence level. By the age of nine, Oprah had begun looking into possible career options ranging from a missionary to a fourth grade teacher! Although it was not until she saw Sidney Poitier become the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Actor that she set her sights on becoming an actress (Nagle 17-18).
Just as she had started to dream about the bright and illustrious future ahead of her, reality quickly grounded the nine-year-old, as she was to face some of the most emotional, confusing, and traumatic events of her young life. At this young age, Oprah was raped for the first time, by a cousin who was ten years her senior. She was then molested by the boyfriend of her mother's cousin who remained a constant sexual molester for the next several years. Until the time she was fourteen, Oprah was molested repeatedly, too afraid to tell anyone because she felt that she would have been blamed. She also used her body as a bargaining tool. Her cousin was a battered woman and to protect her, Oprah would have sex with her cousin's boyfriend if he would promise not to beat her cousin (Gates, Jr. 51-53). At the age of fourteen, Oprah was living on the streets of Milwaukee. She became rebellious as she lied to her mother, stayed out late, ran away from home, and continued to be sexually promiscuous. According to her half-sister Patricia, while Vernita was out, Oprah would return home and invite boys over to the apartment. One of these boys got her pregnant, which she managed to keep a secret for a very long time. Realizing that her daughter was so out of control, Vernita tried to send Oprah to a juvenile detention home only to be turned away because there was no room in the facility. Oprah was then sent to live with her father and stepmother in Nashville (Nagle 21-23). It was only then when her life would begin to change for the better.
Life with her father provided Oprah with authority, stability, and a "real tough, very strong disciplinarian (Lowe 15)" stepmother, Zelma, as a role model. These three factors would transform the teenager and get her back on track to the road of success. Unlike Vernita, Vernon Winfrey encouraged Oprah's love of learning and set high standards for her because he knew she was capable (Lowe 14). In his attempts to restore order to his daughter's life, he sat down with her and explained that the rules were the rules. If she chose not to follow them, she was no longer welcomed in his house. One of his biggest rules was that there was to be no association with boys as he would rather "see a daughter of his dead floating down the Cumberland River than to bring shame on the Winfrey name (Gates, Jr. 57)." The stress of her father's expectations caused Oprah to go into premature labor. She lied to her stepmother about the pregnancy, as neither Zelma nor Vernon had known about her past living with Vernita. Once alone with the doctor in the examination room, Oprah confessed to her pregnancy. Her father was devastated and overwhelmed with shame upon hearing the news. Seeing her father's disappointment, Oprah fell farther into a state of depression, the thought of suicide always on her mind. She soon went into full labor and gave birth to a premature baby who died a few months proceeding his birth (Gates, Jr. 57-58). The traumatic, heartbreaking death of her child brought the realization to Oprah that her son's death was God's way of giving her a second chance at life.
Once again, she began to excel in school, studying academics both at home and at East Nashville High School. Under the discipline of Zelma and Vernon, Oprah's family made her write book reports and study at least twenty vocabulary words a week that were to be spoken and used correctly. These lessons helped her achieve a sense of self worth and pride as well as the status of honors student (Nagle 27). Her reputation as a public speaker continued to spread as she performed recitations in churches across Nashville. Based on her abilities, Oprah was chosen as the only student from the state of Tennessee to attend the White House Conference on Youth during her sophomore year. She then became actively involved in school as a member of the drama club, vice president of the student council, and oratorical champion. She was even voted most popular (Gates, Jr. 59)! In addition to her already impressive resume, at the age of seventeen, Oprah won the Miss Fire Prevention pageant in which she first discussed the idea of choosing a career in broadcasting. When she went to claim her prize from WVOL, the radio station that sponsored the pageant, executives invited her to read news copy and hear what her voice sounded like in playback. They were so impressed with her abilities that they hired her to read on air, part time (Nagle 30). Her job at the radio station began what would be a long, eminent career in the world of media.
In the fall of 1971, Oprah enrolled at Tennessee State University after winning a four-year scholarship for her speaking abilities. She would double major in speech communication and dramatic arts, as she still wanted to pursue a career in acting. Oprah continued to work part time at WVOL for her first few semesters of college before receiving an offer from CBS affiliate, WTVF-TV where she became the youngest, and first African American to co-anchor television in Nashville history. The arduous schedule of both school and work became too much for Oprah as she spent mornings in school and entire afternoons and evenings in the newsroom. She would come home and study for school and then begin the cycle all over again. In 1976, Oprah dropped out of college and pursued a career as a full time television broadcaster (Nagle 31-35).
Although she had the gift, mentality, and charismatic personality to read the news, Oprah knew nothing about broadcast journalism or how to obtain the stories that she was expected to compose and present on her own. She admits that she was "thrown into television without the proper qualifications to handle the job (Oprah qtd in Nagle 41)." Eventually, with a lot of hard work and determination, Oprah became a great journalist and was promoted to weeknight co-anchor as opposed to the strict weekends she'd had before. Her perseverance also caught the eye of ABC affiliate, WJZ-TV in Baltimore, Maryland. Executives were looking for a co-anchor to expand their news coverage and Oprah decided that she could not pass up the opportunity, and moved to Maryland at the age of twenty-two (Nagle 38-42).
When she arrived in Baltimore, Oprah was met with many challenges including coworker disgruntlement and an inability to view stories with detachment. Her management could not fire her without breaking her contract, so she was demoted to anchoring a five-minute, early morning news spot. Just as she began to morning anchor, executive Bill Carter pitched an idea for a morning talk show that focused on local Baltimore people and events. He realized that Oprah's empathetic reporting style would be perfect for his new morning show. She and Richard Sher were hired as co-hosts and People Are Talking premiered on August 14, 1978 (Nagle 42-47). The show became a huge hit and continually beat the ratings of the Phil Donahue Show, whose host at the time, was the reining king of talk television (Keedle 13). Due to its immense popularity, WJZ-TV attempted to syndicate the show but proved to be unsuccessful as it was too local to gain momentum in other, nearby cities. Of course, Oprah tried to make the show better by turning its attention to more serious and personal issues as opposed to constantly focusing on local talent. As the show shifted towards new, universal content, it was extended an extra half-hour and the ratings skyrocketed (Nagle 49)! Oprah served as co-host for another six years before making one final move that would forever change her life.
People Are Talking producer, Debra DeMaio had recently moved to Chicago where she was hired to produce a struggling, local public affairs program entitled AM Chicago for television station, WLS. The show had lost its host shortly after Debra's arrival and she suggested the station manager interview Oprah for the position. Oprah flew to Illinois to audition, as she was excited about the opportunity to further her career in one of the top broadcast markets. The station manager was blown away and she given a four-year contract, estimating $200,000 a year. Just three weeks prior to her thirtieth birthday, Oprah debuted as co-host of AM Chicago. She was able to quickly turn the program into one of the top rated shows because she became comfortable in her new hometown rather quickly and always did her research, knowing everything about guests she interviewed and the audience who watched the show. Her connection with the audience allowed AM Chicago to blossom even more as Oprah began taking her microphone into the audience and letting individuals speak about the issues or topics on their minds. People were not afraid to talk to Oprah as she was very open with her audience and was not afraid to discuss her past. This bond between host and audience proved phenomenal for the ratings, as she was able to pull in twice as many viewers than Phil Donahue. Her rating triumphs in both Maryland and Illinois solidified Oprah as a strong staple in daytime television. When the show began airing for an hour at a time, AM Chicago was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, in honor of the woman who gave the program new life (Nagle 50-53 & 56-60). After the name change, Oprah became more involved in the production of the show as she voiced her own opinions about what guests to bring by and what topics were discussed. She eventually joined forces with the Kings Brothers Corporation who decided to nationally syndicate the program after it received much media buzz. To her delight, The Oprah Winfrey Show made its nationwide debut on September 8, 1986 (Nagle 62). The syndication made Oprah extremely wealthy, as she became the official 'Queen of Talk.'
Unsurprisingly, it only took The Oprah Winfrey Show about one year to become the top rated syndicated talk show in the United States. The show was graciously accepted by both new audience members and critics. During its first year of eligibility, the program won the top three prizes at the Daytime Emmy Awards, Outstanding Host, Outstanding Talk/Service Program, and Outstanding Direction (Nagle 63). As her show continued to gain success, Oprah began to branch out into other areas of media in hopes of fulfilling some childhood dreams. In 1985, music producer Quincy Jones discovered Oprah after turning on his television and believed that she would be right to play the part of Sofia in the film adaptation of The Color Purple, for which he was writing the music. She auditioned for the part against many other experienced actresses and knew that she did not have much of a chance of obtaining the role. Oprah was amidst a prayer of defeat, when she received the news that she had won the part. Her performance earned her both an Oscar and Golden Globe nomination (Keedle 15). She has since appeared in various feature films as well as multiple television movies.
The producers at WLS were not thrilled that the host of their most popular television show was having scheduling troubles in relation to filming The Color Purple. This was when Oprah decided that in order to take control of her future; she needed total control of her television show. Harpo Productions was formed in 1986, and two years later had complete control over The Oprah Winfrey Show. The name of the company soon changed to Harpo Entertainment Group because she wanted to produce all types of media. She has since completed several films under the banner 'Oprah Winfrey Presents' and has added five new television shows to Harpo's production list, including Dr. Phil and The Rachael Ray Show (Nagle 68-70).
At the request of Ellen Levine, from Good Housekeeping magazine, Oprah was asked to publish a magazine. She had turned down previous offers for she believed that her show was the perfect portal to discuss whatever she wanted to say as well as the fact that it took up too much of her time for her to produce a quality magazine. Ellen brought up the point that Oprah's printed word would far outlast any television broadcast and O: The Oprah Magazine hit newsstands in April of 2000. It became the most successful magazine launch in all of publishing history and by 2008, had almost 16 million readers. She has since created a South African version of the magazine and has even developed a second publication entitled O at Home, which focuses on home design (Keedle 21).
Soon after conquering the world of print journalism, Oprah returned to television in hopes of making more improvements. She along with former Nickelodeon executive Geraldine Laybourne and producers Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner, and Caryn Mandabach founded Oxygen Media, which now operates television's Oxygen Network. Oprah also went back to her roots in radio when she signed a contract with XM Satellite Radio to produce her own channel known as Oprah & Friends. The programming consists of a variety of topics and shows. Listeners can even call in and interact with the show hosts, who truly are friends of Oprah (Nagle 74-75). Her latest and greatest endeavor involved a deal with Discovery Communications to launch her own television network. OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network debuted on January 1, 2011 with the intent to "entertain, inform, and inspire people to live their best lives ("The Oprah Winfrey Network")."
Having mastered all branches of media, it is no wonder that Oprah has been named one of Time magazine's Most Influential People. Despite the amount of wealth and fame that she was gained over the years, she never fails to forget where she came from. She uses her notoriety to bring change to the world and help those who are unable to help themselves.
It all began with one little girl who had come on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Nora had raised $400,000 simply by collecting pennies. Oprah began to think about what she could do to make a difference with the help of a hugely popular television show. Oprah launched her Angel Network during an episode of her television show in 1997. She explained to her audience that the hopes for the movement were to get "ourselves and other people to open up your hearts and see the world in a different way by using your time and talents to try to improve the lives of others (The Oprah Winfrey Show: 20th Anniversary Collection)." So inspired by Nora, one of the first goals of the network was to become the world's largest piggybank in order to raise money for needy students. Even then first lady, Hillary Clinton brought Oprah a piggybank while making an appearance on the show to celebrate her birthday! Within a year of the campaign, Oprah had managed to raise $3,557,083.94. This gave fifty students from across the United States a $25,000 scholarship to attend the school of their dreams and because the network had raised so much, Oprah's audiences provided an additional 100 students with the same opportunity over the next two years. Oprah's Angel Network was not only limited to needy students but soon expanded to women, children, and families with educational and empowerment initiatives ("Oprah Winfrey's Official Biography"). In September of 1997, the network helped build 200 homes for needy families across the nation and of course, Oprah's followers came out in droves to help people realize the dream of having a home of their own. From the years 2000-2003, Oprah rewarded these selfless individuals with the Use Your Life Award in which she gave $50,000 to people who were "using their life to improve their lives of others (The Oprah Winfrey Show: 20th Anniversary Collection)."
In 2002, Oprah, her friends, and her television crew set off on a three-week journey to South Africa on a mission named ChristmasKindness. It was their goal to hand deliver 50,000 Christmas presents to children, most of whom had never received a gift in their life. To prepare for the trip, it took over five months and one hundred people to package the presents. There would be Christmas celebrations and parties complete with individual gifts for thousands of children. Each would go home with a backpack full of clothes, toys, books, school supplies, and a special front pocket for candy. Upon their arrival, every child's foot was measured as they were to also go home with a new pair of shoes. Oprah traveled over one hundred miles where she also visited over sixty-three different schools with dirt floors and broken windows. Teachers had a difficult time teaching without pens, pencils, or paper. These women were left with books, school supplies, and sporting equipment. After visiting one of South Africa's only orphanages, Oprah threw an additional three parties for the children hit hardest by HIV and poverty. It was upon seeing the joy on these children's faces that made her realize why she was born, why she is not married, and why she does not have children of her own. "I knew these are my children," Oprah said. "It was for me, like coming home. And I made a decision to be a voice for those children. To empower them, to help educate them, so that the spirit that burns alive inside each of them, does not die (The Oprah Winfrey Show: 20th Anniversary Collection)." She would eventually return to South Africa in 2005 to provide more than $1,000,000 worth of school supplies, uniforms, and shoes to 18,000 impoverished children ("About Us"). Many of Oprah's viewers were touched by her journey and they donated a collective $7,000,000 to The Angel Network, which helped to fund the ChristmasKindness program (Nagle 90).
Shortly after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Oprah pledged $10,000,000 to help the survivors rebuild their lives. She planned to help build homes and take on "other Katrina-worthy projects" through the Oprah's Angel Network Katrina Home Registry. The registry provided viewers with the opportunity to donate whatever they could whether it was a toaster, or an entire house ("Oprah Winfrey's Official Biography"). Audiences responded by donating over $15,000,000$. The project helped over 1,000 families back into their homes and built or restored over 400 households in eight communities across Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama ("About Us").
The Angel Network has also funded smaller, but equally important projects. In conjunction with Free The Children, Oprah has helped build more than fifty-five schools in twelve countries. Through her book club awards, she has been able to provide books for the poverty-stricken in regions where a book club selection has been set. The network has also given grants to programs that provide life-changing assistance to women and children. Up until May 24, 2010, society has been able to make donations to Oprah's Angel Network ("About Us").
During her trip to South Africa back in 2002, Oprah pledged $10,000,000 to former South African President Nelson Mandela, to build what would be the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. The school is designed to "teach girls to be the best human beings they can ever be; it will train them to become decision-makers and leaders; it will be a model school for the rest of the world ("Mission and History")." Teachers and administrators were chosen from the best that South Africa has to offer and cutting-edge technology provides the Oprah the opportunity to teach from Chicago (Nagle 90). She knows that the greatest gift one can give, is the gift of learning and The Academy provides its students with the intellectual and social skills needed to transform themselves, their communities, and the world at large ("Mission and History"). Intended to be a safe haven for these growing, young women to live and learn, The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls opened its doors to 152 ladies in January of 2007 and housed 450 by the start of this year ("Oprah Winfrey's Official Biography").
Outside of her personal foundations, it is estimated that Oprah had given $250,000,000 to charity by the year 2005 (Nagle 84). It is also reported that she donated about $32,000,000 of that money to African and African-American causes under The Oprah Winfrey Foundation, which furthers education and welfare for low-opportunity populations (Davis). Oprah is also the national spokeswoman for A Better Chance, a nonprofit organization that gives scholarships to students with merit (Jones). She has transformed the lives of so many people with her generous surprises of vacations, homes, educations, and cars, to name a few gifts. "But," Oprah admits. "The best gift anyone can give, I believe, is the gift of sharing themselves."
The life and career of Oprah Winfrey has been anything but easy. She struggled to overcome extreme poverty and was forced to learn some of life's hardest lessons at a very young age. Of course, Oprah has used her fame to give back to the people who are now living as she did, growing up. She is living proof that you do not have to come from money or wealth to be successful in life. In the words of the woman herself, "What material success does is provide you with the ability to concentrate on other things that really matter. And that is being able to make a difference, not only your own life, but in other people's lives. (Winfrey)"