Happy Birthday

Oprah Winfrey, television talk show host, actress and philanthropist
Evan Agostini/AP

Happy Birthday, Oprah Winfrey, Influential Talk Show Host

January 29, 2010
by Rachel Balik
Oprah Winfrey, television talk show host, actress and philanthropist, is one of the richest and most powerful people in America. She defied odds by surviving an extremely damaging childhood and although primarily an entertainer, she is committed to education, enrichment and cultural expansion.

Early Days

Oprah Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954, to unmarried parents in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Her childhood was difficult; her father and mother went their separate ways, leaving their daughter to be raised by a grandmother on an isolated, impoverished farm in Mississippi. Winfrey’s grandmother was involved with the church and shared her strong religious faith with her granddaughter. Winfrey showed great resiliency as a child. A profile of the star in the Independent reveals that for lack of friends or money, she made cockroaches into pets, naming and nurturing them.

She exhibited an early talent for public speaking: at age three, she was already speaking at her church. But her childhood would be marked by severe disturbances. When she was six, she went to live with her mother. Her time with her mother was troubled and marked by abuse; Winfrey was raped at age nine. Fortunately, she eventually moved to Nashville to live with her father. Her Britannica biography indicates that her father was able to provide her better emotional support. She was able to survive a teenage pregnancy in which she lost the child. Undeterred by hardship, she was a news anchor by 19 and after graduating college in 1976, continued anchoring for a year before moving on.

Notable Accomplishments

Winfrey found that she was better suited to hosting a talk show than anchoring a news desk, and started on a show in Baltimore in 1977 a year after her college graduation. In 1984, she moved to Chicago in attempt to revive a local talk show that was doing poorly. Big screen success (including an Oscar nomination) followed when she was cast in a major role in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film “The Color Purple.”

After the film, her show did so well it was renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and became nationally syndicated. She grew wealthy from revenues, purchased the show from ABC and started her own production company, Harpo (Oprah spelled backwards). Winfrey went on to sign film deals with Disney, launch the Oxygen Network, which is committed to providing television for women, and found O: The Oprah Magazine. She has become a well-regarded expert on many topics. Her regular feature, “Oprah’s Book Club,” has had an enormous impact on the sales of the books she recommends.

In addition to her success as an entertainer, Oprah has become a notable philanthropist. Winfrey founded Oprah’s Angel Network in 1997, after she suggested viewers collect change for scholarships. Now the organization supports worldwide efforts in education and leadership development through donations.

The Rest of the Story

Unfortunately, not all of Winfrey’s projects have gone as smoothly as she had hoped. She started a school in South Africa for disadvantaged young women, but one of the dorm matrons was abusing the girls. Although many were shocked, Time magazine reports that in South Africa, newspapers criticized the country’s tradition of abusing children, not the philanthropic American celebrity. Winfrey personally traveled to Africa to investigate and rectify the situation.

Winfrey also got a great deal of attention when she endorsed then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. Winfrey joined Obama on the Iowa campaign trail starting in Iowa in 2007. The New York Times reported that Oprah was quite modest about her ability to have influence in the political sphere and wondered if she would be taken seriously.

Whether Winfrey contributed to Obama’s success is unclear, but her influence in other areas is now under question. Lately, she has exhibited some skewed judgment in her memoir selection. She heavily promoted James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” which later proved to be mainly false. More recently, she made the same mistake with a Holocaust memoir. She called Herman Rosenblat’s “Angel at the Fence” the best love story she had ever heard. Unfortunately it was, in fact, just a story, and not the truth. The book’s publication was cancelled, although another publisher plans to reprint it as fiction.

On Forbes magazine’s 2008 “Celebrity 100,” Oprah ranked number one and the magazine calls her ability to earn “bulletproof.” Although ratings for the show have gone down slightly, Oprah has several other projects in the works, including the Oprah Winfrey Network and a lucrative contract with XM satellite radio. Her production company, Harpo, is also responsible for the “Rachael Ray Show” and “Dr. Phil.”

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