From Rags To Riches: The Life And Times Of Oprah

Most of us will never forget many of the iconic TV moments given to us over the years by the Queen of TV Talk, Oprah Winfrey. The Oprah Winfrey Show gave us Tom Cruise jumping on a couch, the Oprah Book Club, and even the unforgettable moment when she gave away 276 free cars to her audience. Oprah’s impact on American culture led her to become one of the most influential celebrities of the 20th century.

However, Oprah’s rise to fame and fortune did not come easy. Poverty, abuse, and stigma all stood in her way to success. From rough-and-tough rural roots to a self-made billionaire, Oprah is not only a household name, but she is someone who embodies the American dream.

Humble Roots

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Orpah Gail Winfrey was born January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi to a young, unmarried, single mother. Her mother, Vernita Lee, was a housemaid while her biological father, Vernon Winfrey, was a coal miner and barber. Vernita and Vernon were not together during the time of Oprah’s conception, but the two would part ways shortly after her birth.

Oprah was actually born “Orpah”, named by Vernita after a female character in the Book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible. Apparently, people mispronounced her name so much that she eventually came to adopt “Oprah” as her first name.

Poverty And Potato Sack Dresses

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After her birth, Vernita struggled to care for Oprah on her own, so they traveled north to live with her maternal grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee. Oprah recalls Hattie as being the most encouraging and supportive figure in her young life. Hattie taught Oprah to read by the age of three, and by age six Oprah was known as “The Preacher” in her town because she could recite Bible verses.

Despite the love and support received from Hattie, the three lived in extreme rural poverty. Oprah often only had dresses made from old potato sacks to wear, which many other children made fun of her for. At that moment, who would have guessed one day she’d be giving away cars? While rural life was hard, the next few years would prove to be even worse.

Into The Inner City

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At the age of six, Vernita moved her family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Here, inner city life proved to be even more difficult than rural poverty. Vernita worked long hours as a housemaid which left her tired and unsupportive when she was home.

Vernita also gave birth to a second child, Oprah’s half-sister, Patricia, during this time. Unable to raise two children, Vernita sent Oprah to Nashville, Tennessee briefly to live with her father Vernon. When Oprah arrived back in Milwaukee, Vernita had given birth to a son, Oprah’s half-brother, Jeffrey.

Struggling With Abuse

Struggling With Abuse

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During this time, Oprah dealt with a variety of abuse in her young adult life. She has stated that she was molested by her uncle, cousin, and a family friend. Fed up with years of abuse, she tried to run away from home at the age of 13. She became pregnant at the age of 14, but her child, Canaan, was born prematurely and died not long after birth.

Having to return back home, Oprah would struggle with this continued abuse for years. When she was 24 she opened up to family members to discuss her abuse, but they dismissed her story as false. This dismissal would send Oprah on a destructive path throughout her early teenage years.

Rebellious Teenager

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Oprah began high school in Milwaukee at a small, rural high school. She was such a bright and successful student that through the Upward Bound program, she was successfully transferred to Nicolet High School, a prestigious high school is a wealthier neighborhood. Unfortunately, this was not the blessing it appeared to be.

She shared the bus to her new school with several of her African American friends who worked as servants in the wealthy neighborhood. In an attempt to fit in, Oprah began to steal money from her mother, lie, argue, and date older boys.

Straightening Out

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Vernita was fed up with the rebellious Oprah, so she sent her off for good to live with her father in Nashville. Under her father Vernon’s strict but supportive guidance, Oprah began to excel. She grew into an honors student who was voted Most Popular Girl In School. She participated in pageants, eventually winning the title of Miss Black Tennessee at the age of 17.

Oprah had joined her high school speech team and with the skills she learned, was able to win an oratory contest and secure herself a scholarship to college. Oprah studied communications at Tennessee State University. It wasn’t long before Oprah would stumble upon her passion in life.

Dominating Local Media

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Oprah caught the attention of the local black radio station, WVOL, and began to do the news part-time during college. From there, she continued to work at a variety of different radio stations, eventually transitioning to TV. She even became the youngest news anchor and first black female anchor of Nashville’s WLAC-TV.

She moved to Baltimore in 1976 to co-anchor the 6 pm news. She was finally on primetime, but it didn’t last long as the station demoted her. Always resilient, Oprah bounced back by securing another co-anchor spot, this time on Richard Sher’s local daytime show.

Rocky Relationships

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The 1970’s and early 1980’s were a time of turmoil not only in Oprah’s career but in her personal life as well. Her relationship with her father began to suffer, and she did not speak much with her mother who was still in Milwaukee.

Romantically, Oprah began a relationship with musician John Tesh but it ended because of the pressure of having an interracial relationship at that time. She later entered into a relationship with a married man, which caused a lot of emotional turmoil. She claimed she felt worthless and powerless without him. According to Oprah herself, she even slipped into a depression so severe that at one point she even wrote a suicide note. But even the worst relationships couldn’t stop Oprah once she set her mind to something.

Her Slow Climb Up The Ladder

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After nearly a decade of breaking down barriers in local news and television, Oprah relocated to Chicago on an invitation to host one of the lowest-rated morning talk shows, AM Chicago. Despite being low in the ratings, Oprah was determined to step out from the role as a co-anchor and be front and center on TV.

Her charisma and appeal skyrocketed the morning show within a few months. By 1984, the show had overtaken Donahue for the top spot. In a field that was dominated by white males, she became the first black female to find great success and a wide audience.

From The Small Screen To The Big Screen

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Not only was Oprah now dominating daytime television, she was beginning to try her hand at acting on the silver screen. While Oprah had found success in radio and TV, she held a deep secret — she always wanted to be an actress.

Her opportunity came when Steven Spielberg approached her to star in the film adaptation of the novel, The Color Purple, in 1985. Oprah was ecstatic, later telling Vanity Fair, “I never wanted anything in my life more than I wanted to be in ‘The Color Purple.'” Her portrayal in the film would earn her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She had barely scratched the surface of success, but her path to greatest was about to open.

The Oprah Winfrey Show

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Working off the success of The Color Purple, Oprah caught the eye of famous film critic Roger Ebert. Ebert, who briefly had a relationship with Oprah, believed she had something special and should sign a syndication deal and create her own talk show. They renamed AM Chicago into The Oprah Winfrey Show, extended it to an hour, and on September 8, 1986, American’s began to tune in.

The Oprah Winfrey Show found huge success, but not without its hurdles. Oprah admitted it was exhausting, but she knew she had a responsibility as a black female in a position of power. She wasn’t stopping anytime soon.

TV Host Turned Therapist

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Many attribute the success of The Oprah Winfrey Show to “Oprahfication.” The term, coined by The Wall Street Journal, is “the process of public confession as a form of therapy.” While Oprah may not have been a hard-hitting journalist, her compassion, curiosity, and genuine nature made people open up to millions of people and speak about personal issues that they would never have dared to.

The audience could feel a personal connection to both Oprah and her guests. While it was deemed a tabloid show in the first few seasons, Oprah recognized the power of her show and began covering more difficult topics like heart disease, AIDS, and geopolitics. She now had the career of her dreams, but could she finally find the right man?

Finding A Lifelong Partner

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Oprah began dating her longtime boyfriend, Stedman Graham, in 1986. Oprah was initially skeptical of the tall and handsome Graham, a public relations expert and activist. But she took and chance and the two began a slow but meaningful relationship that continues on to this day.

The two never married, but they were engaged in 1992. When asked why, Oprah said, “Nobody believes it, but it’s true. The only time I brought it up was when I said to Stedman, ‘What would have happened if we had actually gotten married?’ And the answer is: ‘We wouldn’t be together,’” she says. “We would not have stayed together, because marriage requires a different way of being in this world.”

The Oprah Effect

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Oprah Winfrey / Facebook

As The Oprah Winfrey Show continued to have success, Oprah’s own thoughts and opinions even began to sway Americans.People soon realized that if Oprah endorsed something, or trashed it, then sales were heavily affected. The Oprah Book Club had the power to launch an unknown author from obscurity to prominence. Who knew that a once poverty-stricken child would one day hold the ability to make or break someone else’s career?

Some people were not as pleased about The Oprah Effect. In 1998, Oprah was sued by Texas cattlemen because, in response to mad-cow disease, Oprah said she would not eat another burger and they claimed it had negatively affected their sales. With lawsuits and a new love interest, at least Oprah had her best friend to lean on. But her best friend would end up fueling some of the wildest rumors.

BFF’s Or More?

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Gayle King has been best friend’s with Oprah since 1976. Gayle and Oprah are so close that in her 1981 suicide note, Oprah asked Gayle if she would continue to water her plants. Oprah has always been skeptical of newcomers in her life once she was successful, so its no wonder so trusts Gayle so much!

But such a deep bond and friendship comes with rumors. Many have speculated over the years that the two may be more than just friends. Oprah has always been aware of the rumors the two are gay, and has simply argued that “there isn’t a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women.”

Family Lost And Family Reunited

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Both of Oprah’s half-siblings died due to unfortunate circumstances. Her half-sister Patricia passed in 2003 as a result of a cocaine addiction, and her half-brother Jeffrey died in 1989 due to AIDS-related complications. While Oprah was never close with either sibling, both events would thrust Oprah’s personal life into the limelight.

Oprah lived without siblings for another 7 years until 2010, when both Oprah and America were shocked by the existence of her long-lost half-sister. Also named Patricia, Oprah’s mother gave birth to her in 1963 and put her up for adoption. Patricia lived her life not knowing she was related to one of the most powerful women in the world. Oprah introduced Patricia to the world on her show in 2010, and even attended her college graduation in 2017. At 56, Oprah finally had a stable relationship, a healthy family, and a successful show. Now it was time to give back.

Expanding Harpo Productions

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Another one of the positive results of The Oprah Effect is it allowed Oprah to quickly and successfully expand her own media company, Harpo Productions. Harpo (Oprah spelled backward) has produced both film and television. Most notably, Harpo Productions is known for launching the television shows, Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray, and The Dr. Oz Show.

Upon the end of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Harpo Productions even launched an entire TV channel, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. OWN is now home to Super Soul Sunday, Oprah’s Master Class, and Oprah: Where Are They Now? Talk about diversification!

She Never Stopped Giving

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Oprah makes sure to use her power for good! She has always been an advocate for children. Her website oprah.com receives more than 20,000 emails a week. She used that platform to launch “Oprah’s Child Predator Watch List” in 2005, which successfully caught two of the featured accused child molesters within 48 hours. Oprah was also influential in helping pass the National Child Protection Act in 1993. She even testified to her own abuse history on Capitol Hill.

Oprah also raised more than $11 million for Hurricane Katrina relief, she donated $12 million to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and just celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. As her syndicated show ended, Oprah’s love of activism and charity work began to pave a new path for her future.

End Of An Era

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The final episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired on May 25, 2011. The two-part farewell show ended off a season of extravagant episodes. In the premiere of the final season, Oprah announced that she was flying all 300 audience members with her to Australia and that John Travolta would be the pilot. The finale ended with thank yous and tears.

Despite ending her show, the OWN cable channel has still provided fans with the Oprah outlet they need. With multiple shows that Oprah still hosts, it seems Oprah isn’t ready to be away from the small screen yet.

Our New Political Powerhouse?

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Without The Oprah Winfrey Show to keep her busy, Oprah has since moved into a greater activist role. The only political endorsement of her career was during Barack Obama’s campaigns, but many have wondered if she will step into politics herself. Following an inspirational speech at the 2018 Golden Globes, her fanbase has been questioning if she’s the next President.

She has denied any request to enter politics. For now, it looks like she will continue to cultivate her home garden and enjoy some well-deserved time away from the limelight. After going through poverty, abuse, and systemic setbacks to get to where she is now, we think Oprah deserves it.