Born to an unwed teenage mother, Oprah Winfrey spent her first years on her grandmother's farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi, while her mother looked for work in the North. Life on the farm was primitive, but her grandmother taught her to read at an early age, and at age three Oprah was reciting poems and Bible verses in local churches. Despite the hardships of her physical environment, she enjoyed the loving support of her grandmother and the church community, who cherished her as a gifted child.
Her world changed for the worse at age six, when she was sent to Milwaukee to live with her mother, who had found work as a housemaid. In the long days when her mother was absent from their inner city apartment, young Oprah was repeatedly molested by male relatives and another visitor. The abuse, which lasted from the ages of nine to 13, was emotionally devastating. When she tried to run away, she was sent to a juvenile detention home, only to be denied admission because all the beds were filled. At 14, she was out of the house and on her own. By her own account, she was sexually promiscuous as a teenager. After giving birth to a baby boy who died in infancy, she went to Nashville, Tennessee to live with her father.
Vernon Winfrey was a strict disciplinarian, but he gave his daughter the secure home life she needed. He saw to it that she met a curfew, and he required her to read a book and write a book report each week. "As strict as he was," says Oprah, "he had some concerns about me making the best of my life, and would not accept anything less than what he thought was my best." In this structured environment, Oprah flourished, and became an honor student, winning prizes for oratory and dramatic recitation.
At age 17, Oprah Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant and was offered an on-air job at WVOL, a radio station serving the African American community in Nashville. She also won a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, where she majored in Speech Communications and Performing Arts. Oprah continued to work at WVOL in her first years of college, but her broadcasting career was already taking off. She left school and signed on with a local television station as a reporter and anchor.
In 1976, she moved to Baltimore to join WJZ-TV News as a co-anchor. There, she co-hosted her first talk show, People Are Talking, while continuing to serve as anchor and news reporter. She had found a niche that perfectly suited her outgoing, empathetic personality, and word soon spread to other cities. In January 1984, she was invited to Chicago to host a faltering half-hour morning program on WLS-TV. In less than a year, she turned AM Chicago into the hottest show in town. The format was soon expanded to an hour, and in September 1985 it was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show.
A year later, The Oprah Winfrey Show was broadcast nationally, and quickly became the number one talk show in national syndication. In 1987, its first year of eligibility, the show received three Daytime Emmy Awards in the categories of Outstanding Host, Outstanding Talk/Service Program and Outstanding Direction. The following year, the show received its second consecutive Emmy as Outstanding Talk/Service Program, and Oprah herself received the International Radio and Television Society's "Broadcaster of the Year" Award. She was the youngest person ever to receive the honor.
By the time America fell in love with Oprah Winfrey the talk show host, she had already captured the nation's attention with her poignant portrayal of Sofia in Steven Spielberg's 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple. Winfrey's performance earned her nominations for an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actress. Critics again lauded her performance in Native Son, a movie adaptation of Richard Wright's classic 1940 novel.
Her love of acting and her desire to bring quality entertainment projects into production prompted her to form her own production company, Harpo Productions, Inc., in 1986. Today, Harpo is a formidable force in film and television production, as well as magazine publishing and the Internet. In 1988, Harpo Productions, Inc. acquired ownership and all production responsibilities for The Oprah Winfrey Show from Capitol Cities/ABC, making Oprah Winfrey the first woman in history to own and produce her own talk show. The following year, Harpo produced its first television miniseries, The Women of Brewster Place, with Oprah Winfrey as star and Executive Producer. It was quickly followed by the TV movies There Are No Children Here (1993), and Before Women Had Wings(1997), which she both produced and appeared in.
Initially, The Oprah Winfrey Show followed a model established by other daytime talk shows, employing sensational stories and outrageous guests to attract viewers, but since the 1990s, Oprah began to emphasize spiritual values, healthy living and self-help, and her program became more popular than ever. Motivated in part by her own memories of childhood abuse, she initiated a campaign to establish a national database of convicted child abusers, and testified before a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of a National Child Protection Act. President Clinton signed the "Oprah Bill" into law in 1993, establishing the national database she had sought, which is now available to law enforcement agencies and concerned parties across the country.
Oprah's show also continued to attract the top names in the entertainment industry; a 1993 interview with the reclusive entertainer Michael Jackson drew a hundred million viewers, making it the most watched interview in television history. Oprah Winfrey was named one of the "100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century" by Time magazine, and in 1998 received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Despite her complete dominance of the daytime talk show field, Oprah Winfrey had not given up her acting ambitions. In 1998, she produced and starred in the feature film Beloved, adapted from the book by the Nobel Prize-winning American author Toni Morrison. Winfrey has long used her television program to champion the works of authors she admires, including Morrison, and her longtime friend Maya Angelou. Her influence over the publishing industry exploded when she began her on-air book club in 1996. "Oprah Book Club" selections became instant bestsellers, and in 1999 Winfrey received the National Book Foundation's 50th anniversary gold medal for her service to books and authors. She herself has authored five books. A proposed book on weight loss, to be co-written with her personal trainer, has received a publisher's advance fee reported to be the highest in history.
Oprah Winfrey's business interests have extended well beyond her own production company. She is one of the partners in Oxygen Media, Inc., a cable channel and interactive network presenting programming designed primarily for women. With her success, she has also become one of the world's most generous philanthropists. In 2000, Oprah's Angel Network began presenting a $100,000 "Use Your Life Award" to people who are using their own lives to improve the lives of others. She now publishes two magazines, O, The Oprah Magazine, and O at Home. The launch of her first magazine was the most successful start-up in the history of the industry. When Forbes published its list of America's billionaires for the year 2003, it disclosed that Oprah Winfrey was the first African-American woman to become a billionaire.
The Oprah Winfrey Show remained as popular as ever, airing in 140 countries around the world. Many of her regular guests, including Dr. Phil McGraw and Dr. Mehmet Oz, have gone on to shows of their own, produced by Oprah's Harpo Productions. Over the years, she has also used her program to promote the many philanthropic ventures she supports. After filming a Christmas program in South Africa, she established the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, near Johannesburg. Her legendary generosity has extended not only to her favorite charities, but to her loyal viewers. She celebrated the beginning of her 20th season on national television by giving every member of the studio audience a brand new Pontiac automobile.
Two decades after she first established herself as a national presence, Oprah Winfrey was still devoting much of her prodigious energy to film and television production. In 2005, she produced a film adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, with a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks. The same year, she produced a successful Broadway musical version of The Color Purple. As an actress, she has been heard in a number of successful animated films, including Charlotte's Web, Bee Movie and The Princess and the Frog.
In the 2008 presidential election, Winfrey publicly endorsed a political candidate for the first time, hosting a fundraiser for Senator Barack Obama and appearing with him at campaign events. It is widely believed that her support was crucial to his winning the Democratic nomination -- and the Presidency itself. In that election year, she also announced plans for a new broadcasting venture with the Discovery Health Channel, to be renamed Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). In a 2010 interview on the Larry King program at the end of that year, she announced her decision to end her run on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The final broadcast took place on May 25, 2011, after 24 seasons and over 5,000 broadcasts. The end of the syndicated program was not the end of Oprah Winfrey's broadcasting career. She now hosts a nightly program, Oprah's Lifeclass, on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Oprah Winfrey makes her principal home on a 42-acre ocean-view estate in Montecito, California, just south of Santa Barbara, but also owns homes in another six states and the island of Antigua. The business press measures her wealth in numerous superlatives: the highest-paid performer on television, the richest self-made woman in America, and the richest African-American of the 20th century. More difficult to calculate is her profound influence over the way people around the world read, eat, exercise, feel and think about themselves and the world around them. She appears on every list of the world's leading opinion-makers, and has been rightly called "the most powerful woman in the world." Her wide-ranging philanthropic efforts were recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2011 with a special Oscar statuette, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.