She grew-up in abject poverty in America’s racially-divided Bible belt region. Yet, Oprah Winfrey’s rough-around- the-edges upbringing prepared her for a life less ordinary. The talk-show veteran,Academy Award-nominated actress, publisher, executive producer, philanthropist and mediatycoon has since been dubbed “The Queen of All Media”. Priya Kumar discovers herrecipe for success and how she’s maintained her cult-like following for over a quarter-century
In late 1996 when The Oprah Winfrey Show had been reigning the television airwaves for 10 years, host Oprah Winfrey debuted a new segment titled “Oprah’s Book Club”. The purpose of the segment was to entice her electronic-media dependent viewership to pick up books again. Initially she reviewed only classic novels, but soon introduced contemporary authors. “I wanted to open the door and broaden the field,” Winfrey told the American press back in 2005. “That allows me the opportunity to do what I like to do most, which is sit and talk to authors about their work.” When a book appeared as a selection for the Book Club, sales would spike to more than million copies. The phenomenon was a boon for a fledgling publishing industry where the sale of a few thousand copies was considered a success.
But Oprah’s seal of approval was not only limited to the literary world. In the late ‘90s when the show aired a segment about Mad Cow Disease—an epidemic afflicting the world’s beef supply—she commented that the findings by guests on the show had stopped her cold from ever eating another burger. The ripple effect from this comment was purported to have sent the price of cattle plummeting, resulting in an $11 million loss for Texas ranchers. A lawsuit resulted—and was promptly dismissed, leading analysts to coin the term “The Oprah Effect” to describe this truly tangible economic trend.
Her ability to influence public opinion from consumer purchasing decisions to political opinion is unparalleled. In reference to her support of Barack Obama, former Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich described Winfrey as “the most instrumental person in electing [the] president.” She has, “a voice larger than all 100 senators combined.” Although she has downplayed her ability to sway America’s political leanings, the University of Maryland estimated her endorsement of Obama resulted in votes between 420,000 and 1,600,000 in his favour; it was the margin he required to win.
How is it that the voice of an entertainer could have such a profound impact on public opinion? The answer lies in the brand Oprah has created. During her 25-year tenure as a talk show host on The Oprah Winfrey Show, she became a figure of empathy and spirituality. The sincerity with which she would bare her soul to her audience of millions was ground breaking for its time. In a world of low-grade daytime television, Winfrey created a program that morally rose above the competition, focusing on topics of self-improvement, stories of overcoming adversity and the importance of philanthropy. From the early‘90s until the series finale in 2011, The Oprah Winfrey Show covered health, politics, meditation, illness, charity and countless other social issues. Her annual give-away show—titled “Oprah’s Favourite Things”— involved the televised giveaways of new cars or trips to Australia to the whole audience. Not only were these shows the most watched of the year for the programme, but also proved incredibly lucrative for the donors from a public relations perspective.
Giving to others has always been an innate part of the Oprah Winfrey persona. Perhaps her drive to do so was fueled by her own past. Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1954 to teenaged parents, Winfrey faced adversity from day one. Named after the biblical figure Orpah, her birth certificate was written incorrectly inverting letters to read Oprah; the name stuck. Her mother Vernita Lee was a housemaid and father Vernon Winfrey was a coal miner turned barber turned businessman. Due to her mother’s young age, Winfrey spent her early childhood being raised by her maternal grandmother Hattie Mae Lee. They lived in poverty in rural Mississippi. In interviews after Winfrey found success, she would recall the lack of running water and electricity. The family was so impoverished, a young Oprah wore dresses made of potato sacks to school, for which she was mercilessly teased. Her less than idyllic childhood led to Winfrey becoming a rebellious young teen. By the time she turned 14-years-old Winfrey tried to run away from home and her maternal family had had enough. They sent her to live with Vernon Winfrey in Nashville, Tennessee.
Vernon was a strict but fair father. Under his guidance Winfrey became an honours student, joined the public speaking team at school and received a full scholarship to Tennessee State University. At the age of 17, Winfrey entered Nashville’s Miss Fire Prevention pageant. Although up against many attractive and poised Caucasian girls—specifically notable in America’s deep south—she won. The pageant sponsor, a radio station, offered Winfrey a spot on-air reading headlines. The role was her first taste of broadcast journalism. Two years later, not yet even in her twenties, she became the anchor of a local television station’s evening news. She was the first female African-American news anchor in the city of Nashville.
She moved from Nashville to the larger city of Baltimore, Maryland to pursue a larger audience. Quickly rising the ranks of WJZ-TV in Baltimore from correspondent to anchor to the co-host of talk show People are Talking, Oprah would spend eight years total with the station. By the age of 29, Oprah was offered the role of host for Chicago AM. It was a show that was up against the also Chicago-based, national hit talk-show The Phil Donahue Show. Ratings showed the two neck-in-neck and as a result, the program was re-christened The OprahWinfrey Show. In the show’s first year producer Quincy Jones saw Winfrey’s show while on business in Chicago. So impressed by her on-screen presence, he reached out to cast her in Steven Spielberg’s The Colour Purple (1985). Her scene-stealing portrayal of Sofia garnered the talk show host an Oscar-nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Due to the popularity of Winfrey’s talk show in Chicago, King World Syndicate picked the show up to broadcast it nationally. This resulted in a massive raise for Oprah allowing her to purchase her own studio. The production facility and company were named Harpo—Oprah spelled backwards. Winfrey was by 1990 the wealthiest Africa-American woman in the US.
Her popularity stemmed from her ability to bring herself to the same level as her subjects. Her prime-time special interview with the King of Pop, Michael Jackson in 1994 was the most watch interview of all time, drawing an audience of almost 40 million. Her more recent interviews with a post-rehab Lindsay Lohan, the Houston family after legendary songstress Whitney Houston’s untimely death and disgraced Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong have proven after decades on-air, Winfrey remains the go-to interviewer for public confessionals with her uncanny knack for eliciting empathy from her audience. Her talents have not been limited to the small-screen. In 2000, she launched a monthly magazine titled O, The Oprah Magazine. It has been called the most successful start-up in publishing. In January 2007, Winfrey undertook her most profound project yet. With an investment of $40 million, she established the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls south of Johannesburg, South Africa. The independent school was established for disadvantaged girls, allowing them to reach their full potential: “These girls deserve to be surrounded by beauty, and beauty does inspire,” Winfrey mused when faced with criticisms that the school was unnecessarily extravagant. “I wanted this to be a place of honour for them because these girls have never been treated with kindness. They’ve never been told they are pretty or have wonderful dimples. I wanted to hear those things as a child.” Set on 22 acres, the state-of-the-art institution includes computer and science labs, libraries, a theater and sports facilities. Prior to his death, Nelson Mandela offered praise to Winfrey for overcoming her own adversity and acting as a benefactor for the disadvantaged. From pleating the uniforms, to selecting the sheets for the dorms and china for the canteen,Winfrey has her hands in every aspect of the school. She even teaches a class via satellite from her home in California when she’s not in South Africa. The first graduating class matriculated in 2012 and all 75 went on to higher education in South Africa and the US. Ultimately, the impact this school has on the life of one girl is intended to cause a ripple effect in the community at large. Winfrey has called the school “the fulfillment of my work on earth.”
Cover photo by: Vera Anderson/Contour/Getty Image