Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Ryan Neal
Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: RidiculouslyExtraordinary. Posted by Ryan Neal
The Oprah Winfrey Show
Currently Known For:
Chairwoman, CEO and CCO of the Oprah Winfrey Network, Author, and TV Producer
The Oprah Winfrey Show
“Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.” Often dubbed the “Queen of All Media,” Oprah Winfrey overcame a troubled childhood in the 1950s and a long list of hardships in her teens to become the most influential woman in the world. She got her start in the 1970s in Tennessee where she co-anchored for the local evening news. Before long, she made her way to various daytime talk shows and was eventually transferred to Chicago where her hosting gig boosted the then third-rated talk show into a first-rate show. Because of this, she was inspired to take her career into her own hands and started her own production company, Harpo Productions, in what is known as the birth of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Creating an intimate confessional style and hosting thousands of guests on the show throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Winfrey tackled highly controversial topics like homosexuality, sex education, AIDS, and more. Then, in the mid-1990s, she reinvented her image and the show to focus more on self-improvement, literature, and spirituality. This marked a huge shift in her audience as millions tuned in to see and learn more about Winfrey’s latest celebrity interview, best-selling book, or self-help topic. During this time, Winfrey’s influence was undeniable as her suggested book list made titles international best-sellers and her political ideas gave additional backing to candidates like a young Barack Obama. So, how did the young girl raised in poverty in Mississippi build such a lasting empire?
“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.” Oprah Gail Winfrey came into this world on January 29, 1954, in the small, rural town of Kosciusko, Mississippi as the daughter of an unmarried teenage girl named Vernita Lee and a coal miner named Vernon Winfrey. Originally named Orpah from the Book of Ruth, Winfrey’s name was often mispronounced as Oprah, a nickname that eventually stuck.
With her father leaving town for Tennessee shortly after she was born, Winfrey was raised in poverty in Mississippi where she and her mother lived with her maternal grandmother, Hattie Mae. Winfrey was often bullied for wearing potato sack dresses, which was all the family could afford. However, she learned to brush off her harshest critics from her grandmother, a woman Oprah credits with teaching her how to read and the value of a good book. This gift allowed the young Winfrey to immerse herself in the words of The Bible and any other book she could find.
By the age of six, Winfrey and her mother settled down in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where Vernita gave birth to Winfrey’s half-sister, Patricia. Over the next few years, Winfrey endured ongoing sexual abuse from her cousin, uncle, and a family friend from the age of nine to the age of 13, which is when she finally ran away from home. A year later, she became pregnant with a son who was born prematurely and died shortly after birth. Vernita struggled to take care of Winfrey and her younger sister, so she sent Winfrey to live with her father in Nashville, Tennessee. During this time, Vernita gave birth to another daughter and a son before Winfrey returned to Milwaukee for high school.
Winfrey wasn’t in Milwaukee long when she started having trouble at Lincoln High School. Transferred to the more affluent Nicolet High School, Winfrey excelled academically but was bullied by her classmates since she was one of the few African Americans in the school. Vernita sent her back to Tennessee—this time permanently—where Vernon’s influence was a breath of fresh air for Winfrey. Living under her father’s watchful eye, her education was a priority as she became an honors student and was voted Most Popular Girl at East Nashville High School.
Winning an oratory contest and earning a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, Winfrey was also crowned Miss Black Tennessee at the age of 17. Once in college, she majored in communications and was hired as a news reporter for the local black radio station, WVOL. Winfrey’s eloquence and reporting style garnered attention from Nashville’s local news station WLAC-TV, who added her to the team as the youngest and the first black news anchor ever hired.
Winfrey spent the next few years honing her talents before she moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1976 to take a co-anchor job on the evening news with WJZ-TV. After one year, she was demoted to menial off-camera work, but this didn’t last long since she was later recruited to join Richard Sher as the co-host of a local talk show called People Are Talking. The show premiered in August 1978 and became a huge hit among local audiences, which gave Winfrey a place to call home over the next five years.Catching Her Break: From Reporter to Talk Show Host
“Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another steppingstone to greatness.” In 1983, Chicago television station WLS-TV offered Winfrey a chance to host their low-rated A.M. Chicago, a half-hour morning show that struggled in the same time slot opposite Donahue, which was the highest-rated talk show in Chicago at the time. After Winfrey took over as host, the ratings for A.M. Chicago dramatically improved and surpassed Donahue, which garnered Winfrey even more attention from film critic Roger Ebert who convinced the young television host to sign a contract with King World to put the show in syndication. The show was soon renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show and given a one-hour time slot that was broadcast throughout the entire country. Before long, Donahue was a forgotten name as audiences couldn’t get enough of the young Winfrey.
“She’s a roundhouse, a full course meal, big, brassy, loud, aggressive, hyper, laughable, lovable, soulful, tender, low-down, earthy, and hungry. And she may know the way to Phil Donahue’s jugular,” television columnist Howard Rosenberg wrote. Time magazine had similar praise and covered Winfrey’s overnight fame and succession over Donahue. “Few people would have bet on Oprah Winfrey’s swift rise to host of the most popular talk show on TV. In a field dominated by white males, she is a black female of ample bulk. As interviewers go, she is no match for, say, Phil Donahue… What she lacks in journalistic toughness, she makes up for in plainspoken curiosity, robust humor, and, above all, empathy. Guests with sad stories to tell are apt to rouse a tear in Oprah’s eye… They, in turn, often find themselves revealing things they would not imagine telling anyone, much less a national TV audience. It is the talk show as a group therapy session.”
That group therapy session made The Oprah Winfrey Show a resounding success throughout the 1980s and early 1990s when it was classified as a tabloid talk show known for tackling controversial topics like homosexuality, AIDs, sexual abuse, and more. By the mid-1990s, Winfrey reinvented the show and made it more about self-improvement, literature, and spirituality. She turned her attention to celebrities, books, health concerns, and social issues that garnered an even broader audience and made celebrities out of guests like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz.Expanding Her Reach: Actress, Author, Media Mogul
“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” Amid her growing success on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey established her multimedia production company, Harpo Productions, in 1986. Over the years, the studio expanded to include the Harpo Print publishing house, Harpo Films, and Harpo Radio, in addition to owning a portion of the Oprah Winfrey Network, which is Winfrey’s joint cable network with Discovery Communications. The media conglomerate is also behind O, The Oprah Magazine and O At Home.
Beyond her massive footprint with Harpo Productions, Winfrey also established herself as an actress for the first time in 1985 when she co-starred in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Sophia and, two decades later, was behind the scenes as a producer when the Alice Walker novel was turned into a Broadway musical. Her other acting credits include Native Son (1986), The Women of Brewster Place (1989), Brewster Place (1990), Before Women Had Wings (1997), Beloved (1998), Charlotte’s Web (2006), The Butler (2013), and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017).
With her talk show and her widespread influence, Winfrey became an international icon as Harpo Productions took over The Orpah Winfrey Show and helped Winfrey build a massive media empire that made her the richest African American in the world. That empire and billionaire-status are what led Winfrey to retire as a daytime talk show host on May 25, 2011, when the final episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired. With one chapter closing, Winfrey turned the page with the launch of her own network—OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, which has given Winfrey a new platform for series like Oprah’s Master Class (2011-present), Oprah’s Life Class (2011-2014), Super Soul Sunday (2011-present), Oprah Prime (2012-2015), and Oprah: Where Are They Now? (2012-present).Life Today
“You can either see yourself as a wave in the ocean or you can see yourself as the ocean.” As The Oprah Winfrey Show came to an end in 2011, many wondered what Winfrey would do next or if she had any regrets from ending her long-running talk show. It turns out, Winfrey has a few interviews that got away. “Who got away was Elvis Presley. When I was a kid, I always wanted to talk to Elvis. Another was Jackie Onassis,” Winfrey said. “I had the pleasure and honor of meeting her—I actually ate her clam chowder at my friend Maria Shriver’s wedding shower. There’s a picture from the shower where I’m wearing one of those appliqued sweaters and Jackie’s wearing a cashmere sweater and a Hermes scarf—classic, classic, classic. I look like 1985 and she looks like Jackie O. Later, because she was a book editor, she called and asked if I could write a book. As much as I loved Jackie O, I said no. I was not ready to do a book. But I said, ‘If you ever want to do an interview…’ and she said, ‘I probably will never do an interview…’”
Although Winfrey will never get the chance to interview Elvis or Jackie O, she is incredibly grateful for those she has interviewed over the years even if living in the spotlight has taken a toll on her life. After all, she’s been widely criticized for never marrying her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, and has been painted as a closet lesbian for her close friendship with Gayle King. But, over the years, Winfrey has learned not to let the criticism cut too deep.
“Years ago, it made me cry a lot because I’m such a pleaser. I would say that’s my single greatest character flaw: the importance I put on wanting to be liked,” Winfrey says. “I was trained to believe that other people’s feelings were more important than my own, and that only through pleasing somebody could I be loved. It has taken me 56 years to overcome that. And by the way, in all those 56 years, I have never once called my parents to share anything with them. Not ‘I got a job,’ ‘I met a guy,’ I made a million dollars’ –not once, not ever. I’m in awe of people who felt their parents’ love every day of their lives. They start out in the world with a full cup. The rest of us go through life trying to fill ours.”
Now 64 years old and worth over $2.9 billion, Winfrey shares her joy with her close circle of friends (Stedman and Gayle) in addition to giving back as one of the most generous Americans in the world. Over the years, she’s given millions of dollars in scholarships to students around the country, launched Oprah’s Angel Network to support organizations around the globe, and established the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. It’s this philanthropy and her incredible influence that make Winfrey the Queen of All Media and one of the most influential women in the world.