A woman so iconic, she doesn’t even need a last name.
She escaped abject poverty and shocking sexual abuse to become one of the most successful and powerful women in the world by using her remarkable gifts of communication and empathy to connect with people and help them tell their stories.
This is herstory.
Oprah Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1954.
She was in fact named Orpah, after a figure in The Bible, but due to mispronunciations she eventually became Oprah.
She was born to a single teenage mom and grew up between her mother, father and grandmother.
Her childhood was marred by poverty and sexual abuse by family members, a horror that she would later speak about on her show.
At age 14, she got pregnant. He was born prematurely and died soon after.
But while her childhood was marked by brutal hardship, it was also marked by the seeds of her greatness.
Oprah excelled in high school and became a spectacular public speaker. She would later attribute this budding confidence in part to her grandmother, but also to her intrinsic willpower.
“I don’t think of myself as a poor deprived ghetto girl who made good. I think of myself as somebody who from an early age knew I was responsible for myself, and I had to make good,” she later said.
She secured a scholarship to attend Tennessee State University and went on to a career in broadcast journalism.
Winfrey worked as a news anchor in Nashville and Baltimore, where she met her best friend, Gayle King.
When she was 29, she moved to Chicago to take over A.M. Chicago, an ABC talk show that was doing poorly in the ratings.
Over the next few months, Winfrey brought the show to the top of the charts.
On the advice of film critic and former boyfriend Roger Ebert, she inked a syndication deal for her show. It formally became The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986.
She became the most widely watched daytime talk show host in the United States.
Analysts were puzzled. Here was a black woman with a curvy frame in a profession dominated by white men.
But her warmth and energy, confessionalism, enthusiasm for life and ability get her subjects to reveal their most private thoughts drew people in.
“The struggle of my life created empathy,” she later said. “I could relate to pain, being abandoned, having people not love me.”
A slightly more cynical view at the time came from Time Magazine, which noted that the format was a talk show as group-therapy session.
Winfrey also proved to be a keen businessperson. She gained ownership of her show from ABC, which allowed her to reap significantly more profit.
And she proved more than adept as an actress and was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in The Color Purple.
Later, she added to her brand with a magazine and her own television network.
No wonder that she’s the most successful self-made woman in America, with an estimated net worth of about $3 billion.
But Winfrey has never lost her generosity of spirit. She gives lavish gifts to her talk show guests and friends.
She’s raised tens of millions of dollars for causes from girls’ education in Africa to gun control to Hurricane Katrina relief.
In 1994, she successfully lobbied then-President Bill Clinton to create a national database of child abusers.
Her endorsement of 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama was thought to have inspired hundreds of thousands of voters to head to the polls.
She ended her talk show in 2011, but has hardly put her career on pause. In 2013, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2018, she won the Golden Globes lifetime achievement award.
Her speech led some observers to encourage her to run for president.
As she once said: “The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.”
Oprah – proof that with belief, all goals are achievable.