Friday, February 8, 2013
Oprah Winfrey: Living Legend
Winfrey was born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mother and later raised in an inner-city Milwaukee neighborhood. She experienced considerable hardship during her childhood, saying she was raped at age nine and became pregnant at 14; her son died in infancy. Sent to live with the man she calls her father, a barber in Tennessee, Winfrey landed a job in radio while still in high school and began co-anchoring the local evening news at the age of 19. Her emotional ad-lib delivery eventually got her transferred to the daytime-talk-show arena, and after boosting a third-rated local Chicago talk show to first place, she launched her own production company and became internationally syndicated.
Credited with creating a more intimate confessional form of media communication, she is thought to have popularized and revolutionized the tabloid talk show genre pioneered by Phil Donahue, which a Yale study says broke 20th-century taboos and allowed LGBT people to enter the mainstream. By the mid 1990s, she had reinvented her show with a focus on literature, self-improvement, and spirituality. Though criticized for unleashing confession culture, promoting controversial self-help ideas, and an emotion-centered approach she is often praised for overcoming adversity to become a benefactor to others. From 2006 to 2008, her support of Barack Obama, by one estimate, delivered over a million votes in the close 2008 Democratic primary race.
Winfrey was intended to be named “Orpah” after the biblical character in the Book of Ruth, but it was misspelled on her birth certificate, and Oprah stuck.
After Winfrey's birth, her mother traveled north and Winfrey spent her first six years living in rural poverty with her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, who was so poor that Winfrey often wore dresses made of potato sacks, for which the local children made fun of her. Her grandmother taught her to read before the age of three and took her to the local church, where she was nicknamed “The Preacher” for her ability to recite Bible verses. When Winfrey was a child, her grandmother would hit her with a stick when she did not do chores or if she misbehaved in any way.
Winfrey has stated she was molested by her cousin, uncle, and a family friend, starting when she was nine years old, something she first announced to her viewers on a 1986 episode of her TV show regarding sexual abuse. When Winfrey discussed the alleged abuse with family members at age 24, they refused to accept what she said. Winfrey once commented that she had chosen not to be a mother because she had not been mothered well.
At 13, after suffering years of abuse, Winfrey ran away from home. When she was 14, she became pregnant but her son died shortly after birth. She later stated she felt betrayed by the family member who had sold the story to the National Enquirer in 1990. She began going to Lincoln High School; but after early success in the Upward bound program, was transferred to the affluent suburban Nicolet High School, where she says her poverty was constantly rubbed in her face as she rode the bus to school with fellow African-Americans, some of whom were servants of her classmates' families. She began to steal money from her mother in an effort to keep up with her free-spending peers, to lie to and argue with her mother, and to go out with older boys.
Her frustrated mother once again sent her to live with Vernon in Nashville, Tennessee, though this time she did not take her back. Vernon was strict, but encouraging, and made her education a priority. Winfrey became an honors student, was voted Most Popular Girl, and joined her high school speech team at East Nashville High School, placing second in the nation in dramatic interpretation. She won an oratory contest, which secured her a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, a historically black institution, where she studied communication. Her first job as a teenager was working at a local grocery store. At age 17, Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant. She also attracted the attention of the local black radio station, WVOL, which hired her to do the news part-time. She worked there during her senior year of high school, and again while in her first two years of college.
Winfrey's career choice in media would not have surprised her grandmother, who once said that ever since Winfrey could talk, she was on stage. As a child, she played games interviewing her corncob doll and the crows on the fence of her family's property. Winfrey later acknowledged her grandmother's influence, saying it was Hattie Mae who had encouraged her to speak in public and “gave me a positive sense of myself“. Working in local media, she was both the youngest news anchor and the first black female news anchor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV. She moved to Baltimore’s WJZ-TV in 1976 to co-anchor the six o'clock news. She was then recruited to join Richard Sher as co-host of WJZ's local talk show “people Are Talking”, which premiered on August 14, 1978. She also hosted the local version of Dialing For Dollars there as well.
In 1983, Winfrey relocated to Chicago to host WLS-TV’s low-rated half-hour morning talk show, “AM Chicago”. The first episode aired on January 2nd, 1984. Within months after Winfrey took over, the show went from last place in the ratings to overtaking Donahue as the highest rated talk show in Chicago. The movie critic Roger Ebert persuaded her to sign a syndication deal with King World. Ebert predicted that she would generate 40 times as much revenue as his television show, “At The Movies” It was renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, expanded to a full hour, and broadcast nationally beginning September 8th, 1986. Winfrey's syndicated show brought in double Donahue's national audience, displacing Donahue as the number-one daytime talk show in America. Their much publicized contest was the subject of enormous scrutiny.
In addition to her talk show, Winfrey also produced and co-starred in the 1989 drama miniseries “The Women of Brewster Place”, as well as a short-lived spin-off, “Brewster Place”. As well as hosting and appearing on television shows, Winfrey co-founded the women's cable television network ’Oxygen’. She is also the president of Harpo Productions. On January 15th, 2008, Winfrey and Discovery Communications announced plans to change Discovery Health Channel into a new channel called “OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network”. It was scheduled to launch in 2009, but was delayed, and actually launched on January 1st, 2011. The series finale of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” aired on May 25th, 2011.
In 1993, Winfrey hosted a rare prime-time interview with Michael Jackson, which became the fourth most watched event in American television history as well as the most watched interview ever, with an audience of 36.5 million. On December 1st, 2005, Winfrey appeared on the “Late Show With David Letterman” to promote the new Broadway musical “The Color Purple” of which she was a producer, joining the host for the first time in 16 years. The episode was hailed by some as the “television event of the decade” and helped Letterman attract his largest audience in more than 11 years: 13.45 million viewers. Although a much-rumored feud was said to have been the cause of the rift, both Winfrey and Letterman balked at such talk. “I want you to know, it's really over, whatever you thought was happening“, said Winfrey. On September 10th, 2007, Letterman made his first appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as its season premiere was filmed in New York City.
In 2009, Winfrey was criticized for allowing actress Suzanne Somers to appear on her show to discuss hormone treatments that are not accepted by mainstream medicine. Critics have also suggested that Winfrey is not tough enough when questioning celebrity guests or politicians whom she appears to like.
In 1985, Winfrey co-starred in Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” as distraught housewife, Sofia. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance. The film went on to become A Broadway musical which opened in late 2005, with Winfrey credited as a producer. In October 1998, Winfrey produced and starred in the film “Beloved”, based on Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel fo the same name. To prepare for her role as Sethe, the protagonist and former slave, Winfrey experienced a 24-hour simulation of the experience of slavery, which included being tied up and blindfolded and left alone in the woods. Despite major advertising, including two episodes of her talk show dedicated solely to the film, and moderate to good critical reviews, “Beloved” opened to poor box-office results, losing approximately $30 million.
In late 2008, Winfrey's company Harpo Films signed an exclusive output pact to develop and produce scripted series, documentaries and movies for HBO. Oprah voiced Gussie the goose for “Charlotte’s Webb” (2006) and the voice of Judge Bumbleden in “Bee Movie” (2007) co-starring the voices of Jerry Seinfeld and Renee Zellweger. In 2009, Winfrey provided the voice for the character of Eudora, the mother of Princess Tiana, in Disney's “The Princess and the Frog” and in 2010, narrated the US version of the BBC nature program “Life” for Discovery.
Winfrey has co-authored five books. At the announcement of a weight loss book in 2005, co-authored with her personal trainer Bob Greene, it was said that her undisclosed advance fee had broken the record for the world's highest book advance fee, previously held by the autobiography of former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Winfrey publishes magazines: “O, The Oprah Winfrey magazine” from 2004 to 2008, Oprah also published a magazine called “O at Home”. In 2002, “Fortune” called “O, The Oprah Magazine” the most successful start-up ever in the industry. Although its circulation had declined by more than 10 percent (to 2.4 million) from 2005 to 2008, the January 2009 issue was the best selling issue since 2006. The audience for her magazine is considerably more upscale than for her TV show, the average reader earning well above the median for U.S. women.
On February 9th, 2006, it was announced that Winfrey had signed a three-year, $55 million contract with XM Satellite Radio to establish a new radio channel. The channel, ’Oprah Radio’, features popular contributors to The Oprah Winfrey Show and O, The Oprah Magazine including Nate Berkus, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Bob Greene, Dr. Robin Smith and Marianne Williamson. Oprah & Friends began broadcasting at 11:00 am ET, September 25th, 2006, from a new studio at Winfrey's Chicago headquarters. The channel broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week on XM Radio Channel 156. Winfrey's contract requires her to be on the air 30 minutes a week, 39 weeks a year. The 30-minute weekly show features Winfrey with friend Gayle King.
A self-described promiscuous teen who was a victim of sexual abuse, Winfrey gave birth at the age of 14, to a boy who died shortly after. Winfrey's high school sweetheart Anthony Otey recalled an innocent courtship that began in Winfrey's senior year of high school, from which he saved hundreds of love notes; Winfrey conducted herself with dignity and as a model student. The two spoke of getting married, but Otey claimed to have always secretly known that Winfrey was destined for a far greater life than he could ever provide. She broke up with him on Valentine's Day of her senior year.
In 1971, several months after breaking up with Otey, Winfrey met William "Bubba" Taylor at Tennessee State University. According to CBS journalist George Mair, Taylor was Winfrey's “first intense, to die for love affair“. Winfrey helped get Taylor a job at WVOL, and according to Mair, “did everything to keep him, including literally begging him on her knees to stay with her.” Taylor, however, was unwilling to leave Nashville with Winfrey when she moved to Baltimore to work at WJZ-TV in June 1976. “We really did care for each other“, Winfrey would later recall. “We shared a deep love. A love I will never forget.”
In the 1970s, Winfrey had a romantic relationship with John Tesh. Biographer Kitty Kelley claims that Tesh split with Winfrey over the pressure of having an interracial relationship.
When WJZ-TV management criticized Winfrey for crying on the air while reporting tragedies and were unhappy with her physical appearance (especially when her hair fell out as the result of a bad perm), Winfrey turned to reporter Lloyd Kramer for comfort. “Lloyd was just the best“, Winfrey would later recall. “That man loved me even when I was bald! He was wonderful. He stuck with me through the whole demoralizing experience. That man was the most fun romance I ever had.”
According to Winfrey, her emotional turmoil gradually led to a weight problem: “The reason I gained so much weight in the first place and the reason I had such a sorry history of abusive relationships with men was I just needed approval so much. I needed everyone to like me, because I didn't like myself much. So I'd end up with these cruel self-absorbed guys who'd tell me how selfish I was, and I'd say 'Oh thank you, you're so right' and be grateful to them. Because I had no sense that I deserved anything else. Which is also why I gained so much weight later on. It was the perfect way of cushioning myself against the world's disapproval.”
Winfrey later confessed to smoking crack cocaine with a man she was romantically involved with during the same era. She explained on her show: “I always felt that the drug itself is not the problem but that I was addicted to the man.” She added: “I can't think of anything I wouldn't have done for that man.”
Winfrey was allegedly involved in a second drug-related love affair. Self-proclaimed former boyfriend Randolph Cook said they lived together for several months in 1985 and did drugs. In 1997, Cook tried to sue Winfrey for $20 million for allegedly blocking a tell-all book about their alleged relationship.
Also, in the mid 1980s, Winfrey briefly dated movie critic Roger Ebert, whom she credits with advising her to take her show into syndication.
Winfrey and her boyfriend Stedman Graham have been together since 1986. They were engaged to be married in November 1992, but the ceremony never took place.
Born in rural poverty, then raised by a mother on welfare in a poor urban neighborhood, Winfrey became a millionaire at age 32 when her talk show went national. Winfrey was in a position to negotiate ownership of the show and start her own production company because of the success and the amount of revenue the show generated. At age 41, Winfrey had a net worth of $340 million and replaced Bill Cosby as the only African American on the Forbes 400. Although black people are just under 13% of the U.S. population, Winfrey has remained the only African American to rank among America's 400 richest people nearly every year since 1995. With a 2000 net worth of $800 million, Winfrey is believed to be the richest African American of the 20th century. Owing to her status as a historical figure, Professor Juliet E.K. Walker of the University of Illinois created the course “History 298: Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon.” Winfrey was the highest paid TV entertainer in the United States in 2006, earning an estimated $260 million during the year, five times the sum earned by second-place music executive Simon Cowell. By 2008, her yearly income had increased to $275 million.
The viewer-ship for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was highest during the 1991-1992 season, when about 13.1 million U.S. viewers were watching each day. By 2003, ratings declined to 7.4 million daily viewers. Ratings briefly rebounded to approximately 9 million in 2005 and then declined again to around 7.3 million viewers in 2008, though it remained the highest rated talk show. In 2008, Winfrey's show was airing in 140 countries internationally and seen by an estimated 46 million people in the US weekly. According to the Harris poll, Winfrey was America's favorite television personality in 1998, 2000, 2002–2006, and 2009. Winfrey was especially popular among women, Democrats, political moderates, Baby Boomers, Generation X , Southern Americans and East Coast Americans.
Outside the U.S., Winfrey has become increasingly popular in the Arab World. The “Wall Street Journal” reported in 2007 that MBC 4, an Arab satellite channel, centered its entire programming around reruns of her show because it was drawing record numbers of female viewers in Saudi Arabia. In 2008, the “New York Times” reported that “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, with Arabic subtitles, was broadcast twice each weekday on MBC 4. Winfrey's modest dress, combined with her attitude of triumph over adversity and abuse has caused some women in Saudi Arabia to idealize her.
In 2004, Winfrey and her team filmed an episode of her show, Oprah’s Christmas Kindness, in which Winfrey traveled to South Africa to bring attention to the plight of young children affected by poverty and AIDS. During the 21-day trip, Winfrey and her crew visited schools and orphanages in poverty-stricken areas, and distributed Christmas presents to 50,000 children, with dolls for the girls and soccer balls for the boys, and school supplies. Throughout the show, Winfrey appealed to viewers to donate money to Oprah's Angel Network for poor and AIDS-affected children in Africa. From that show alone, viewers around the world donated over $7,000,000. Winfrey invested $40 million and some of her time establishing the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Henley on Klip south of Johannesburg, South Africa. The school set over 22 acres, opened in January 2007 with an enrollment of 150 pupils (increasing to 450) and features state-of-the-art classrooms, computer and science laboratories, a library, theatre and beauty salon. Nelson Mandela praised Winfrey for overcoming her own disadvantaged youth to become a benefactor for others. A minority of critics considered the school elitist and unnecessarily luxurious. Winfrey rejected the claims, saying: “If you are surrounded by beautiful things and wonderful teachers who inspire you, that beauty brings out the beauty in you.” Winfrey, who has no surviving biological children, described maternal feelings towards the girls at Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. Winfrey teaches a class at the school via satellite.
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