It’s fairly safe to say that you have reached mega celebrity status when you become known by just your first name. Such is the case with Oprah Gail Winfrey. Born in a small town in Mississippi to unmarried parents, Oprah spent her early years living in poverty with her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee. Life was good until, at the age of 7, her mother returned, and moved Oprah to an inner city neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Years of personal trauma followed, a period that included sexual abuse and rape at the hands of family members, running away from home and becoming pregnant at 14, but losing the baby boy shortly after birth.
Throughout all those ordeals, Oprah remained focused on her schoolwork and was a model student. Her education really took off when her mother, frustrated at her daughter’s runaway tendencies, shipped her off to live with her father in Nashville, Tennessee. She fairly blossomed under her father, Vernon’s, strict regime and in the next few years she became an honor student at her high school, was voted, “Most Popular Girl,” and won an oratory contest which led to her earning a full scholarship to Tennessee State University where she studied communications. This led to a number of small radio and television host spots that would eventually lead to her big break in TV land.
That break came in 1984 when, shortly after her move to Chicago, she was named as host of a ratings starved morning show called, “Chicago AM.” Within a matter of months, the show went for the ratings cellar to overtake talk show juggernaut, Phil Donahue, for top spot. The show was quickly re-named, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and started reaching a national audience in 1986, at which time Oprah decided to opt for syndication, a move that would put her face on even more household TV’s and make her incredibly wealthy in the years that followed.
By the mid 90’s the show was firmly ensconced at top spot, but rather than continuing to churn out the same tabloid style show, so popular in the daytime talk show world, Oprah decided to switch formats, choosing to follow a more spiritual, less trashy path, a move which cemented her popularity. Her popularity has rubbed of on a number of her recurring guests and has made household names out of, Dr Phil McGraw, Rachael Ray, and interior designer, Nate Berkus, to name just a few. It is also believed that books featured on, “Oprah’s Book Club,” could expect to an additional one million books sold on the back of that feature.
Oprah’s success and popularity has gone way beyond her TV show, and she has also enjoyed success in film as both actress (The Color Purple, for which she garnered an Oscar nod) and producer, print media (O magazine) and radio, where she has a show on XM satellite radio. All of those combined have made her one of the most wealthy and powerful women in the world, a title that she has used to do a lot of good. Her philanthropic exploits are nothing short of incredible, and she had touched hundreds of thousands of people through her charity, “Oprah’s Angel Network.”
Oprah’s personal life remains mostly that, personal, but she has remained unmarried, opting instead for a, “spiritual union,” with longtime partner, Stedman Graham. Her focus, for now, seems to be on her show and charity work, but that could change when her current contract ends in 2011, at which point the show will be in its 25th year. Even if it ends then, it is safe to say that the legacy she has created will continue long after its demise.