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Oprah Winfrey: her controversial weight loss, sex trafficking claims, and multi-billion-dollar empire explored

Oprah sparked controversy when she admitted to using weight loss medication 

oprah winfrey weight loss
Jenni McKnight
US Lifestyle Editor
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Following her milestone 70th birthday on January 29, Oprah Winfrey has been constantly in the headlines, whether about her controversial weight loss, stepping down from the WeightWatchers board after 10 years, or her ABC special supporting weight loss drugs like Ozempic.

The self-made billionaire has come a long way, both personally and professionally, since she got her first media job at age 17. 

The former chat show star has not only turned herself into a household name but she's also used her fame to create opportunities for others, including donating millions of dollars of her own money to various charities, alongside setting up her own. 

Look back at Oprah's life and career, as well as some of her biggest controversies...

Rise to fame 

Oprah in 1978 © Getty Images
Oprah's media career began in the 70s

Oprah got her first taste of working in media when she was 17 and landed a part-time job at a local radio station. 

One credit short of finishing her communications degree at Tennessee State University, she dropped out of college after she was offered a role at WLAC-TV Nashville, becoming the network's first black female news anchor. 

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Oprah hosted People Are Talking

In 1976, she became a co-anchor on the 6 p.m. news at WJZ-TV in Baltimore. However, she was soon demoted to host the affiliate's local talk show, People Are Talking, which she later said made her realize that hosting a talk show was the career for her.

Oprah took her newfound passion to WLS-TV Chicago's morning talk show, AM Chicago, and turned it from the network's lowest-rated show to the number-one local talk show in a matter of months. 

Oprah got her big break on Am Chicago© Getty Images
Oprah got her big break on Am Chicago

One year later, Oprah struck a deal, and the program was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. It went on to become the highest-rated talk show in television history and ran from 1986 to 2011.

Illustrious career 

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Oprah was nominated for an Oscar for The Color Purple

Being the queen of talk shows wasn't enough for Oprah – she had other plans for her lucrative career. 

She made her acting debut in 1985's The Color Purple, which earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars and a Golden Globe nomination. 

Oprah has since appeared in TV shows, including Greenleaf, and starred in over 15 movies, including Selma, Beloved, The Butler, and The Color Purple remake. 

oprah george w bush the oprah winfrey show© Getty Images
Oprah interviewed George W. Bush on The Oprah Winfrey Show

In 2011, she launched her cable channel, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, and in 2020 she sold most of her stake to Warner Bros. Discovery in exchange for shares in the company.

She also has her own production company, Harpo Productions, which has produced her TV shows, films, and books. 

Oprah Radio is another string to her bow, as well as her magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine – which became digital and was rebranded as Oprah Daily in 2021. She is also a successful author. 

Self-made billionaire 

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Oprah is worth $2.8 billion

With all her successful businesses and savvy investments – including a stake in WW (formerly Weight Watchers) whose stock reportedly rose 500% after her involvement – it's not surprising that Oprah has built up a sizeable net worth. ,

According to Forbes, she is estimated to be worth a whopping $2.8 billion! 

During her heyday on The Oprah Winfrey Show, she was reportedly making around $315 million a year. Although now, her annual income varies depending on her projects, in 2019 she is believed to have made a staggering $37 million. 

Oprah looked amazing © MICHAEL TRAN
Oprah earns millions of dollars a year

While she may not have a talk show anymore, Oprah still commands a hefty fee for her one-off interviews. In 2021, when she sat down with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, she was reportedly paid between $7 million and $9 million by CBS. 

That same year, CBS reportedly forked out between $5 million and $7 million for her interview with Adele, which featured in the special, Adele: One Night Only.

Oprah is also said to charge between $1.5 million and $2.5 million for speaking engagements.


oprah winfrey panel discussion essence festival© Getty
Oprah donates millions of dollars to charities

Oprah doesn't keep her billions to herself. Over the years she has donated an estimated $400 million through her charities, the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, and the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation, to organizations that "serve children, families, and communities, with a specific focus on youth education". 

In 1998, she created the public charity, Oprah's Angel Network, which helped establish 60 schools in 13 countries, created scholarships, supported women's shelters, and built youth centers and homes. 

Before it was dissolved around 2010, Oprah's Angel Network raised more than $80 million. 

Oprah set up the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls © Michelly Rall
Oprah set up the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls

In 2007, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls opened its doors in South Africa. The school provides education for academically gifted girls from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"I wanted to build a school for girls like me," Oprah said. Over the years, she has contributed more than $200 million to the school. 

Her philanthropy efforts haven't gone unnoticed. In 2013, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In 2018, she received the Cecil B. de Mille Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. 

Childhood abuse 

oprah 1978© Getty Images
Oprah was sexually abused as a child

Oprah has revealed that she was abused by several of her relatives when she was just a child. At the age of 14, she fell pregnant with her uncle's baby. Two weeks after she gave birth, her son – whom she later named Canaan – died in hospital.

In 2021, Oprah opened up about the sexual abuse she was subjected to by her then-19-year-old cousin. "At nine and 10 and 11 and 12 years old, I was raped by my 19-year-old cousin," she said on her Apple TV+ mental health series, The Me You Can't See. 

"I didn't know what rape was. I certainly wasn't aware of the word. I had no idea what sex was, I had no idea where babies came from, I didn't even know what was happening to me. And I kept that secret."

She added: "The telling of the story, the being able to say out loud, 'This is what happened to me,' is crucial." 

Weight loss

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Oprah weighed 237lbs at her heaviest

Oprah's weight loss journey has been a talking point throughout most of her career. At her heaviest, she weighed 237lbs, but in recent months she has been displaying noticeable weight loss

While she previously credited WW with helping her lose 40lbs, she recently sparked controversy after admitting she has turned to weight-loss medication.

Her revelation sparked outrage as she previously said drugs like Ozempic were an "easy way out". 

In her recent ABC special, Shame, Blame and the Weight Loss Revolution, Oprah shared her support for using medications like Ozempic, Wegovy, and Mounjaro.

Oprah looks incredible in purple gown© Instagram
Oprah turned to weight loss medication to help maintain her diet

"All these years, I thought all of the people who never had to diet were just using their willpower, and they were for some reason stronger than me," she said.

While she didn't share what medication she is taking, she did admit it has helped her to stop "obsessing" about food.

"You weren't thinking about the food! You weren't obsessing about it!" she said. "That is the big thing I learned."

Despite any backlash, Oprah stands by her decision to turn to weight loss medication and said during the special: "I am absolutely done with dealing with shaming from other people. The number one thing I hope people come away with is knowing that [obesity] is a disease, and it's in the brain."

Echoing her sentiments, she previously told People: "I now use it as I feel I need it, as a tool to manage not yo-yo-ing. 

"The fact that there's a medically approved prescription for managing weight and staying healthier, in my lifetime, feels like relief, like redemption, like a gift, and not something to hide behind and once again be ridiculed for."

Sex trafficking claims 

Oprah Winfrey sat at home© Getty Images
Oprah denied any involvement in sex trafficking

After years of suffering abuse from her family members, Oprah was horrified to discover in 2020 that she was at the center of sex trafficking claims. 

Fake news reports began circulating online during the coronavirus pandemic, claiming that Oprah's Florida home had been raided by police and she was arrested for sex trafficking. 

View post on Twitter

Shutting down the rumors, Oprah wrote on Twitter: "Just got a phone call that my name is trending. And being trolled for some awful FAKE thing. It’s NOT TRUE. 

"Haven’t been raided, or arrested. Just sanitising and self distancing with the rest of the world. Stay safe everybody."

Love life 

oprah and stedman graham© Getty Images
Oprah and Stedman have been together almost 40 years

Oprah has been in a relationship with Stedman Graham for almost 40 years after they met at a charity event in 1986. The couple got engaged in 1992 but called it off one year later after she realized she didn't want a marriage. 

"I realized I didn’t actually want a marriage. I wanted to be asked,” she wrote in an essay for O, The Oprah Magazine in 2020.

"I wanted to know he felt I was worthy of being his missus, but I didn’t want the sacrifices, the compromises, the day-in-day-out commitment required to make a marriage work," she added.

oprah stedman graham © Getty Images
Oprah and Stedman Graham met in 1986

The couple credits their decision to not marry as the reason they are still together today. "Both he and I now say, 'If we had married, we would not be together,'" she told People. "No question about it — we would not stay married."

Oprah now refers to her relationship with Stedman as a "spiritual partnership", a term she learned from author Gary Zukav, which means a "partnership between equals for the purpose of spiritual growth". 


oprah winfrey red carpet essence festival© Getty
Oprah has no regrets about not having children

Oprah and Stedman share no children – and she has no regrets about her decision not to become a mom. 

She previously explained that during her years on The Oprah Winfrey Show, she witnessed "the depth of responsibility and sacrifice that is actually required to be a mother".

“I realized, ‘Whoa, I’m talking to a lot of messed-up people, and they are messed up because they had mothers and fathers who were not aware of how serious that job is,'" she told People.

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Oprah Winfrey has immense respect for stay-at-home mothers

"I don't have the ability to compartmentalize the way I see other women do. It is why, throughout my years, I have had the highest regard for women who choose to be at home [with] their kids. 

"I don’t know how you do that all day long. Nobody gives women the credit they deserve." 

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