All achievers

Oprah Winfrey

Media Entrepreneur

It doesn't matter who you are, where you come from. The ability to triumph begins with you. Always.

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 very early, 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.

June 26, 1978: Oprah Winfrey upon becoming co-anchor of Eyewitness News on WJZ, with cohost Jerry Turner in Baltimore, Maryland. (Getty Images)
June 26, 1978: Oprah Winfrey becomes co-anchor of WJZ’s Eyewitness News in Baltimore, Maryland. (Getty Images)

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.

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1990: The Oprah Winfrey Show aired nationally for 25 seasons from September 8, 1986 to May 25, 2011 in Chicago. Produced and hosted by Oprah Winfrey, it remains the highest-rated talk show in American television history.

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.

Television personality, actress and media entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey with producer and composer Quincy Jones in New York City, 1995. Quincy Jones cast Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple which changed the trajectory of her career. She had never acted, and he said, "Baby, your future is so bright, it burns my eyes." (Time Life Pictures)
Television personality, actress and media entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey with producer and composer Quincy Jones in New York City, 1995. Quincy Jones cast Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple, which changed the trajectory of her career. She had never acted, and he said, “Baby, your future is so bright, it burns my eyes.” (Time Life Pictures)

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.

The 1985 period drama film 'The Color Purple', directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey, based Alice Walker's Pulitzer prize-winning novel. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)
The 1985 period drama film The Color Purple, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel. (John D. Kisch/Getty Images)

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.

Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison joins Oprah Winfrey on Oprah's Book Club in 1996. (© Reuters/CORBIS)
Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison joins Oprah Winfrey on Oprah’s Book Club in 1996. (© Reuters/CORBIS)

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.

TIME magazine featured Oprah on the cover of its October 5, 1998 issue. (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
TIME magazine featured Oprah on the cover of its October 5, 1998 issue. (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

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 Capital 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.

Tina Turner performing with Oprah Winfrey on stage at the launch party for Winfrey's new magazine, O , April 17, 2000 in New York City. (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
April 2000: Tina Turner performing with Oprah on stage at the launch party for her new magazine, O, in New York.

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 100 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.

06 Dec 2002, Henley On Klip, Gauteng Province, South Africa --- Nelson Mandela places his arm around the shoulders of author and talk show host Oprah Winfrey at the launch of her $10 million Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. She described Mandela as her "hero" and he called her a "queen." --- Photo by Louise Gubb/Corbis Saba --- Image by © Louise Gubb/Corbis
December 6, 2002: Henley On Klip, Gauteng Province, South Africa: Nelson Mandela places his arm around the shoulders of author and talk show host Oprah Winfrey at the launch of her $10 million Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. She described Mandela as her “hero” and he called her a “queen.” (Louise Gubb/Corbis)

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 book on weight loss, co-written with her personal trainer, received a publisher’s advance fee reported to be the highest in history.

Oprah Winfrey cuts ribbon at the Leadership Academy, a school for girls in South Africa on January 2, 2007. (© Bettman/CORBIS)
January 2007: Oprah Winfrey cuts ribbon at the Leadership Academy, a school for girls in South Africa. (CORBIS)

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.

Oprah Winfrey joins Barack and Michelle Obama on the presidential campaign trail on December 10, 2007.
December 2007: Oprah joins Senator Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, on the presidential campaign trail.

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.

November 20, 2013: President Barack Obama presents Oprah with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The medal is the country's foremost civilian honor.
November 20, 2013: President Barack Obama presents Oprah with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The medal is the country’s foremost civilian honor.

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.

Oprah Winfrey presents Sidney Poitier with the Gold Medal of the Academy of Achievement in Los Angeles, November 6, 2014. (© Academy of Achievement)
2014: Oprah Winfrey presents Sidney Poitier with the Gold Medal of the Academy of Achievement in Los Angeles.

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.

September 24, 2016: Oprah Winfrey and actor Will Smith greet the crowd before quoting poems of famous African American poets during the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., before the museum opens to the public later that day. The museum is a Smithsonian Institution museum located on the National Mall featuring African American history and culture in the United States. (Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)
September 24, 2016: Oprah Winfrey and actor Will Smith greet the crowd before quoting poems of famous African American poets during the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., before the museum opens to the public later that day. The museum is a Smithsonian Institution museum located on the National Mall featuring African American history and culture in the United States. (Getty)

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 everywhere read, eat, exercise, feel and think about themselves and the world around them. She appears on every list of 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. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded her the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Oprah Winfrey has also donated more than $20 million to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. On September 24, 2016, she participated in a dedication ceremony during the grand opening of the Washington, D.C. museum, which includes the 350-seat Oprah Winfrey Theater, named in her honor.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1989

“I was taught to read at an early age. By the time I was three, I was reciting speeches in the church. They’d put me up on the program, and say, ‘Little Mistress Winfrey will render a recitation,’ and I would do ‘Jesus rose on Easter Day, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, all the angels did proclaim.'”

Oprah Winfrey’s public speaking career began in 1957. At three, she was speaking in church, by her teens she was touring the churches of Nashville, reciting the sermons of James Weldon Johnson. Other children sang, Oprah talked. And she’s still talking — but to much larger audiences. The path that led from her grandmother’s farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi to becoming the first African American woman billionaire is a story of unwavering focus and unrelenting determination.

Taught to read by her grandmother at an age when most children are only learning to talk, Oprah became a voracious reader — a habit she retains to this day. Books became her outlet to the world and the basis of her passionate belief in education. An actress of uncommon talent, her first feature film, The Color Purple, brought her an Oscar nomination. Some call her lucky, but Oprah Winfrey doesn’t believe in luck. She believes “luck is preparation meeting opportunity.” Her rise from reading the news on a small radio station to being the first woman in history to own and produce her own television talk show proves her point.

Her syndicated television program, The Oprah Winfrey Show, ran for 24 seasons, reaching millions of homes around the world. Today, she continues to host her own program on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. A seeker of truth in herself and in others, her empathy, honesty, and love of people have made Oprah Winfrey one of the most beloved women in America; a teacher who educates a devoted audience about subjects as varied as sexual abuse, divorce, children’s issues, and countless other important subjects. Her international philanthropic activities have been honored by the Motion Picture Academy with its special Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

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Your career was kind of a skyrocketing success. But there was a time you were working as a news anchor that sounds less comfortable. Did you have to make a mistake or two in order to find what you do best?

Oprah Winfrey: Well, you know…

Keys to success — Preparation

I think that success is a process. And I believe that my first Easter speech, at Kosciusko Baptist Church, at the age of three and a half, was the beginning. And that every other speech, every other book I read, every other time I spoke in public, was a building block. So that by the time I first sat down to audition in front of a television camera, and somebody said, “Read this,” what allowed me to read it so comfortably and be so at ease with myself at that time, was the fact that I had been doing it a while. If I’d never read a book, or never spoken in public before, I would have been traumatized by it. So the fact that we went on the air with The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986, nationally, and people said, “Oh, but you are so comfortable in front of the camera; you can be yourself.” Well, it’s because I’ve been being myself since I was 19, and I would not have been able to be as comfortable with myself had I not made mistakes on the air and been allowed to make mistakes on the air and understand that it doesn’t matter.

There is no such thing to me as an embarrassing moment. No such thing. If I tripped and fell, if my bra strap showed, if my slip fell off, if I fell flat on my face. There’s no such thing as an embarrassing moment, because I know that there is not a moment that I could possibly experience on the air that somebody else hasn’t already experienced. So, when it happens, you say, “Oh, my slip fell off!,” and it’s no big deal. I was on TV the other day, and somebody says, “Oh Oprah, you have a run!” Have you not seen a run before in your life? Well, I get them too. Let me tell you. So I can’t be embarrassed. When I first started out, that was not true because I was pretending to be somebody I was not.

I was pretending to be Barbara Walters. So I’d go to a news conference, and I was more interested in how I phrased the question and how eloquent the question sounded, as opposed to listening to the answer. Which always happens when you are interested in impressing people instead of doing what you are supposed to be doing. And it took me a while. It took me messing up on the air during a live newscast. I was doing a list of foreign countries, and all these foreign names, then Canada got thrown in. And I called Canada “ca-NAD-a.” I got so tickled. “That wasn’t caNADa, that was CANada. Excuse me, ha ha. That wasn’t caNADa, that was CANada.” And then I started laughing. Well, it became the first real moment I ever had. And the news director later said to me, “If you do that, then you should just keep going, you shouldn’t correct yourself and let people know.” Well, I know who’s ever heard of caNADa? So that was, for me, the beginning of realizing that, “Oh, you can laugh at yourself and you can make a mistake and it’s not the end of the world.” You don’t have to be perfect — biggest lesson for me for television, because then it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. “Oh, sorry, bra strap’s showing!”

How did you come to host your first talk show?

Oprah Winfrey: I only came to co-host a talk show because I had failed at news and I was going to be fired. And, the news director was paying me $22,000 a year. God only knows what my co-anchor was making. Paying me $22,000 a year, and they thought they were paying me too much money to only just do news stories. So I had been taken off the six o’clock news, and was put on the early morning, like 5:30, cut-ins. And they tried to convince me at the time that, “You are so good that you need your own time period, so we are going to give you five minutes at 5:30 in the morning.” I was devastated because up until that point, I had sort of cruised. I really hadn’t thought a lot about my life, or the direction it was taking. I just happened into television, happened into radio. I don’t believe in luck. I think luck is preparation meeting opportunity. I felt like I had somewhat prepared myself, but that I had “happenstanced” into it.

Oprah Winfrey and former South African President Nelson Mandela break ground at the future location of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, December 6, 2002. (© Bettman/CORBIS)
Oprah Winfrey and former South African President Nelson Mandela break ground at the future location of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, December 6, 2002. (© Bettman/CORBIS)
Keys to success — Vision

I was working in Nashville, and so I moved to Baltimore, and I thought, “Well, I’ll do this for a while, and then I don’t know what I’ll do.” So when I was called in and put on the edge of being fired, and certainly demoted, and knew that firing was only a couple weeks away, I was devastated. I was 22 and embarrassed by the whole thing because I had never failed before. And it was that failure that led to the talk show. Because they had no place else to put me, they put me on a talk show in the morning. And I’m telling you, the hour I interviewed — my very first interview was the Carvel Ice Cream Man, and Benny from All My Children — I’ll never forget it. I came off the air, thinking, “This is what I should have been doing.” Because it was like breathing to me, like breathing. You just talk. “Be yourself” is really what I had learned to do.

So, from the very first day I did my very first talk show, I knew it, I knew it was the right thing to do. I felt the same thing about acting too. Only I was so terrified that it was a little bit more difficult for me.

What’s the turn-on for you in acting?

Oprah Winfrey: For me the turn-on is the ability to express another person’s life. If you can internalize, and then manifest externally, the essence of another being, that is the ultimate in understanding — what it takes to take somebody else’s life, make it your own, and put it out there. The ultimate. You understand things about people that you just could never imagine. It’s almost like getting to live somebody else’s life for a while, without having to experience all of the “experience” that comes with creating another life.

Didn’t Quincy Jones have an important role in your acting career?

Oprah Winfrey: I would not even say an important role; I would say the role in my acting career.

Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey at the 1995 Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, where Jones received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. (Steve Starr/CORBIS)
Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey at the 1995 Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, where Jones received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. (Steve Starr/CORBIS)

Quincy Jones discovered me. And it’s so interesting to me because when I was working as a television newswoman in Baltimore, and really, all I wanted to do was be an actress, but I was doing television, and I felt at the time, “I can’t quit this job because this is what everybody else wants to do. And if I quit this job, what am I going to do?” And I was going to a speech coach at the time that the station had sent me to, the broadcasting school. They sent everybody to the same woman. And I was telling her, “I really don’t want to do this. What I want to do is act.” And she says, “My dear, you don’t want to act because if you wanted to act, you would be doing it. What you want to be, my dear, is a star. Because if you wanted to act, you’d be waiting tables in New York.” And I thought, “Now why am I going to wait tables if I’m already working in TV?” So I said, “Well, what I think is going to happen is I will be discovered because I want it so badly. Somebody is going to have to discover me.” And she said, “You just dream. You are a dreamer.”  So when it happened, I called her up. I said, “You will not believe this! I got discovered!” And it really was a discovery. It’s like one of those Lana Turner stories, only it wasn’t a drugstore. He was in his hotel room and saw me on TV. It was unbelievable.

I truly believe that thoughts are the greatest vehicle to change power and success in the world. Everything begins with thoughts. The chair that we are sitting in, the room that we are in, all started because somebody thought it.

Keys to success — Passion

I thought of The Color Purple for myself. I know this is going to sound strange to you. I read the book. I got so many copies of that book. I passed the book around to everybody I knew. If I was on the bus, I’d pass it out to people. And when I heard that there was going to be a movie, I started talking it up for myself. I didn’t know Quincy Jones or Steven Spielberg, or how on Earth I would get in this movie. I’d never acted in my life. But I felt it so intensely that I had to be a part of that movie. I really do believe that I created it for myself. I wanted it more than anything in the world, and would have done anything to do it, anything to do it.

It was an incredibly moving performance, especially for your first film.

Oprah Winfrey: Scared to death, too. Scared to death. But yeah, I think I did create it for myself. I talked it up. I made people sick talking about it.

There was a particular, incredibly powerful scene. And I want you to tell us how that came about, and what you went through.

Keys to success — Perseverance

Oprah Winfrey: Well, the most powerful scene in The Color Purple for me was the scene where Sofia walks through the cornfield, and proclaims herself to Celia, defines and proclaims herself. Where she says, “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my cousins. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my uncles. But I ain’t never thought I had to fight in my own house.” I did that scene in one take because it was the essence, I thought, of my life, and very liberating to live it through Sofia. Because, at the time that I spoke it, I wasn’t there yet. Because, what she is saying is “I fought people all my life, and I’m not going to fight in my own house anymore, in my own space anymore. I’m going to have what I deserve.” And it’s taken me a while to get to where Sofia was. But it was so liberating. It was all, I think, a part of the process of growth for me, to recognize it can be done.

Oprah Winfrey, 2008. (© Bettman/CORBIS)
2008: The Oprah Winfrey Show received 47 Daytime Emmy Awards and was one of the longest-running daytime television tabloid talk shows in history. The show was highly influential and many of its topics have penetrated into the American pop cultural consciousness. Oprah utilized the show as an educational platform featuring a popular book club, self-improvement segments, and philanthropic initiatives throughout the world. (© Bettman/CORBIS)