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Oprah Winfrey - Biography

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Updated: November 28, 2023
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"I don't think of myself as a businesswoman," said Oprah Winfrey in 2002. Well, Forbes magazine certainly does. She's made their rich list every year since 1995. An abuse survivor born to a teenage mum and raised in poverty, the woman now known simply by her first name is today the head of a billion-dollar media empire.

Early life

Oprah Gail Winfrey was born at home in Kosciusko, Mississippi, on January 29, 1954, her existence was the result of what she called "a one-day fling under an oak tree". Her mum, a part-time maid, was 18; her father, 20. After spending her first years on her grandmother's Mississippi farm, the bright six-year-old went to live with her single mother, who struggled on welfare in a poor Milwaukee, Wisconsin, neighborhood. 

She was just nine years old when her life was changed forever when she was assaulted by her teenage cousin. Over the next five years, she was molested by three other men, all friends of the family. As a young teen, the intelligent girl with butterfly-rimmed glasses became a rebel, breaking curfew and stealing behavior that would have sent her to a detention centre had her father, a Nashville barber, not taken her in. 

Under her father's disciplined and loving care he immediately banned her from calling him "Pops" and wearing short skirts she went from delinquent to honour student. The 5ft 7in pupil was voted the most popular student at Nashville High School and competed in the Miss Black America pageant. She won an oratory scholarship to Tennessee State University in 1971 and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in speech and drama. 


When she was 19, still a college student and living at home, Oprah took a job as a broadcaster at a local TV station. She may have been appearing onscreen nightly as the first black person and first woman hired to anchor the news in Nashville but that didn't stop her dad insisting she be home by midnight.

 In 1976, she took a job as an evening news co-anchor in Baltimore, but after breaking into tears when reporting sad stories, she realized hard news was not her forte. Instead, she signed for a stint on a local morning show. Seven years later, having moved to Illinois, the seal was set on her career when the show she presented, AM Chicago, became The Oprah Winfrey Show. Suddenly, 30-year-old Oprah was competing with silver-haired veteran chat show icon Phil Donahue on Chicago screens.

 Folksy yet street-smart, she was unlike anything TV had ever seen before. In September 1985 The Oprah Winfrey Show made its national debut and trounced rival Donahue in the ratings, addressing a broad mix of human issues, from family disputes to racism. The same year, Hollywood came knocking. Producer Quincy Jones had spotted her on Chicago TV and asked Steven Spielberg to consider her for a role in The Color Purple.

 Her powerful acting debut brought her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in 1986. Throughout her career, she has continued to act, including a role in the screen adaptation of Toni Morrison's Beloved, which she also produced. In the early Eighties, she met the love of her life, a 6ft 6in PR executive with a graduate degree in education, Stedman Graham. And the answer to the oft-asked question: after nearly 20 years together, why not tie the knot? Says the never-married mogul: "Once we settled we were going to be together, it ceased to be an issue. It just never comes up." 

Honesty about her weight struggles only brought her closer to audiences. Her program was at number one for nearly two decades, while being included in her Oprah's Book Club show increases the sales of a publication tenfold. Also under the Oprah umbrella are Harpo Productions and O, The Oprah Magazine, the paid circulation of which beats that of US Vogue. She's also ventured into the cable TV game with a stake in women's channel, Oxygen. Such successful ventures led her to become the first black woman to join the ranks of Forbes magazine's billionaires list in 2003. 

A philanthropist who set up two charitable organizations: Oprah's Angel Network and A Better Chance she donates at least ten percent of her massive income to good causes, mostly anonymously. The girl from Mississippi, who announced in 2002 that she would be quitting her successful show after 20 years, dedicates her success to her black female forerunners: author Maya Angelou (now a close friend), 19th-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth, and entrepreneur Madame CJ Walker. "I believe I am the seed of the free," she says. "I believe those women are a part of my legacy and the bridges that I crossed to get where I am today. They are looking out for me."

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