How did a poor girl from Mississippi grow up and touch millions of people’s hearts and change American television forever?
This is the story of Oprah Winfrey. Talk show host, philanthropist, media executive, television producer, actress, author.
“Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.” -Oprah Winfrey
Born January 29, 1954 in Mississippi into a community and family of struggle. Oprah’s name was supposed to be Orpah – the biblical name. But her mom had difficulty with spelling and pronunciation and by her teen years everyone was calling her Oprah. As a child, she bounced around a few times, living with various family members.
At one point, she was living with her mother and siblings in a destitute, low income area. Then in her teens, she was sent to live with her father in Nashville, Tennessee.
Throughout Oprah’s childhood, she was showing signs of leadership and linguistic prowess. She would speak in front of the church, hold mock speeches during break times at school. She said she knew she wanted to be ‘paid to speak’. And one day that dream would become a reality.
As if poverty and a dangerous environment weren’t tough enough, Oprah was sexually abused by various family members from the age of nine until she was sent to live with her father. There she had a more stable family home life with her father who provided a strict environment and taught her the value of discipline.
Big breaks sometimes come in small packages
Throughout her undergraduate and graduate education, Oprah was active in journalism and media. She moved to Chicago in 1984 and became anchor of the morning talk show, AM Chicago. At the time she joined the show, it ranked last in ratings. Oprah began changing the overall theme of the show, and with her at the helm, it inching up in rankings and was eventually renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show.
After her debut film role in The Color Purple in 1985, Winfrey’s popularity began to soar. Back at the show, the rankings quickly climbed higher in the and Oprah’s became a household name. People tuned in from all over the world to watch as she informed and entertained in her most unique, endearing ‘Oprah way’. There was no one else quite like her.
The secret to Winfrey’s success
Oprah worked hard. Her success came from a combination of her diligence, natural talent, and a consistent drive. Nothing was given to her. Everything she accomplished, she earned. And it was hard work.
We often hear stories of success and focus only on the success, the end point. But along the way, there was usually always struggle. And in Oprah’s case it was a long journey to get to success. A journey rife with tiresome hours, public scrutiny, naysayers, and her own personal battles laid bare on camera.
In this inspiring interview at Stanford University, Winfrey talks about the importance of being grounded in self. An important message, especially for others from marginalized communities who are often negatively stereotyped and discriminated against.
The big television shift
The influential Oprah Winfrey show aired nationally in the United States for 25 seasons and won countless awards. It still remains one of the highest rated daytime talk shows in American television history. And the show was not only a success in the United States. It was aired in 149 countries worldwide.
When Oprah came onto the scene, nobody anticipated the impact she would have on the industry and the world. Her competitors at the time, namely Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael, never saw her coming and didn’t for a second think that an average-looking black woman – the opposite of what’s popular on national television – would make it big. They were wrong. Very wrong.
Her impact on daytime television was revolutionary and birthed the era of ‘self-help- daytime shows and experts. But more significantly, the networks began to see that a black face could draw a crowd, command rankings, and even become the most popular face of daytime television.
Oprah Winfrey today
When the Oprah wrapped up the final season of her show, the world wondered what was next for Winfrey. Well, she wasn’t quite done. Oprah owns the OWN network, O magazine, and is host of the Emmy-award winning show, Supersoul Sunday.
The power of image
Oprah’s success has fueled inspiration for countless people the world over, particularly black females. I remember tuning into the show and seeing a powerful woman who had skin like mine right there on mainstream television. Telling people what to do, how to live, interviewing the biggest celebrities, and commanding the room. This type of inspiration cannot come in words. Its purest form is an image. And what a powerful image Oprah is.