Oprah Gale Winfrey was born in the rural town of Kosciusko, Mississippi, on January 29, 1954. She had a troubled childhood with her mother, Vernita where she was sexually abused by several male relatives. She eventually moved to Nashville to live with her father, Vernon.
In 1971, Oprah entered Tennessee State University where she began working in radio and television broadcasting in Nashville. In 1976, she moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where she hosted the TV chat show People Are Talking. The show became a hit and Winfrey stayed with it for eight years, after which she was recruited by a Chicago TV station to host her own morning show, A.M. Chicago. Her major competitor at that time was Phil Donahue but within a few months, she had more viewers than Donahue. Her show went from last place to first place in the ratings.
In 1986, Oprah launched The Oprah Winfrey Show that ran for 25 years, until 2011. She soon gained ownership of the program from ABC, drawing it under the control of her new production company, Harpo Productions (‘Oprah’ spelled backwards) and making more and more money from syndication. In 1994, with talk shows becoming increasingly trashy and exploitative, Winfrey pledged to keep her show free of tabloid topics. Although ratings initially fell, she earned the respect of her viewers and was soon rewarded with an upsurge in popularity. In 2004, Winfrey signed a new contract to continue The Oprah Winfrey Show through the 2010-11 season. In 2009, Winfrey announced that she would be ending her program when her contract with ABC ended, in 2011.
In 1999 Winfrey debuted Oxygen Media, a company she co-founded that’s dedicated to producing cable and Internet programming for women. In doing so, Winfrey ensured her spot in the forefront of the media industry as one of the most powerful and wealthy people in show business. In 2002, she concluded a deal with the network to air a prime-time complement to her syndicated talk show.
Soon after The Oprah Winfrey Show ended in 2011, Winfrey moved to her own network, the Oprah Winfrey Network, a joint venture with Discovery Communications. Despite a financially rocky start, the network made headlines in January 2013, when it aired an interview between Winfrey and Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist and seven-time Tour de France winner who was stripped of his Tour titles in 2012 due to doping charges.
According to Forbes magazine, Oprah was the richest African American of the 20th century and the world’s only black billionaire for three years running. Life magazine hailed her as the most influential woman of her generation. In September 2002, she was named the first recipient of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Bob Hope Humanitarian Award. In 2005, Business Week named Oprah the greatest black philanthropist in American history. Oprah’s Angel Network raised more than $50 million for charitable programs, including girls’ education in South Africa and relief to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
She is a dedicated activist for children’s rights; in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a bill into law that Winfrey had proposed to Congress, creating a nationwide database of convicted child abusers. She founded the Family for Better Lives foundation and also contributes to her alma mater, Tennessee State University. In November 2013, Oprah received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Barack Obama gave her this award for her contributions to her country.
In January 2018, Winfrey became the first African American woman to be honored with the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award, for lifetime achievement. In a powerful speech, she recalled being inspired by seeing Sidney Poitier honored at the Globes decades earlier, before emphasizing the importance of a free press and the power of speaking the truth in a “culture broken by brutally powerful men.” “So I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon,” she said, in closing. “And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say, ‘Me too’ again.”
Oprah has been in a relationship with Stedman Graham, a public relations executive, since the mid-1980s. They became engaged in 1992 but never tied the knot. The couple lives in Chicago. Winfrey also has homes in Montecito, California, Rolling Prairie, Indiana, and Telluride, Colorado.