The world knows her simply as Oprah now, but before becoming one of the most important figures on talk television, and one of the richest and most influential women in the world, she was a tenacious black woman who had to face different sorts of adversities and prejudices, but who never gave up in her attempt to succeed and become the important personality that she is now, recognized worldwide as media proprietor, talk show host, actress, producer, and philanthropist.
Oprah Gail Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954 in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Her mother, Vernita Lee, was a housemaid, but there has been some debate regarding who her father was, though Vernon Winfrey, who worked as a coal miner, barber and city councilman in different moments of his life, is usually noted as her father. In any case, Oprah has claimed that her conception was the result of a single sexual encounter, and that her parents broke up soon after the encounter. One interesting thing about her name is that she was originally named Orpah, after a biblical figure in the Book of Ruth. That is how her name appears on her birth certificate. However, people usually mispronounced her name as Oprah, and that is the reason why she is still called like that.
Oprah lived with her grandmother, Hattie Mae (Presley) Lee, until the age of six. This was a hard time for her, since her grandmother lived in extreme poverty. It is said, for example, that other children used to make fun of her. The reason was that she often wore dresses made of potato sacks, given that her grandmother did not have enough resources to buy her a proper dress. But from a different point of view, it was also a good time. Her grandmother taught Oprah to read when she was not even three years old, and encouraged her intellectual abilities to such point that she was nicknamed The Preacher in their local church, due to her capacity to recite verses from the Bible. Oprah has always recognized her grandmother as a very important influence in her life.
When Oprah was six, she moved with her mother to Milkwaukee, Winsconsin. But her mother was not as supportive and encouraging as her grandmother had been with her. She gave birth to two other girls, both named Patricia, though one was put to adoption, and one boy, named Jeffrey. But Oprah did not really have the chance to share a lot of time with them, and did not even know about her second half-sister until 2010. In fact, due to different problems with her mother, and indeed to the state of constant poverty in which they lived, her mother finally decided to send her to live with her father in Nashville, Tennessee.
Despite the different situations that she had to undergo during her childhood, Oprah had always been recognized as a very good student, and her father realized this. He was much stricter than her mother, but at the same time more supportive and encouraging, and thought of her education as a priority for her. She became in this way a very successful student during her high school years, and even won an oratory contest that gave her the chance to earn a full scholarship to go to Tennessee State University, a historically black institution. She studied communication there.
Still a teenager, the local black radio station, WVOL, became interested in her, and hired her part-time to do the news. Later she started working at Nashville’s WLAC-TV, where she was not only the youngest news anchor, but also the first black female news anchor. Then she moved to Baltimore in 1976 to work in WJZ-TV, where she first co-anchored the six o’clock news and later was the co-host with Richard Sher of the local talk show People Are Talking, which premiered on August 14, 1978. After this, she moved to Chicago in 1983 to host Am Chicago, a low-rated half-hour morning talk show in WLS-TV. The show turned out to be a total success within months, and soon became the highest rated talk show in Chicago. Oprah then accepted to sign a syndication deal with King World and to rename it as The Oprah Winfrey Show, expanding it to a full hour and broadcasting it nationally. Its debut took place on September 8, 1986, and it is not an exaggeration to claim that the rest is literally now history. After all, The Oprah Winfrey Show is the highest rated talk show in history.
Oprah has been recognized as the Queen of All Media and the richest African American of the twentieth century. She is in fact the first and only multi-billionaire black person in North America, but is seen at the same time as the greatest black philanthropist in American history. She has received honorary doctorate degrees from universities as prestigious as Duke and Harvard, whereas President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. It is therefore no surprise at all that many regard her as the most influential woman in the world.