Oprah Gail Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954 in rural Kosciuko Mississippi, on a farm. Within thirty years, she was in Chicago to take over “A.M. Chicago”, a talk show that was losing ratings and basically, in danger of becoming canceled. And in less than three months, Oprah had turned the show around so much that it was ‘neck to neck’ with Phil Donahue in ratings. How did she do it? How did this Black female born of unmarried parents, whose father was a soldier (later, a barber) and mother a house maid, become the first Black billionaire and one of the most influential people of any race, of all time? How did she rise from her poor rural Southern roots to the stellar heights she occupies in the business world today?
One of the first challenges Oprah ever faced was overcoming several issues during her childhood: illegitimacy, poverty, sexual abuse, and social deviance. After being sent by her struggling mother to live with her father, a strict disciplinarian, young Oprah’s life was turned around and she became more serious about her education. She also realized, after winning $500 for a speech at a Black church at the age of 12, that she wanted to ‘get paid to talk’. Oprah was chosen leader of the student council, got good grades, was a member of the drama club (she wanted to become an actress), and at age 16 won an oratory contest sponsored by the Elks Club. The prize? A full scholarship to Tennessee State University, where Oprah flourished.
She was offered a job by a local CBS affiliate, twice turning them down until a professor urged her to consider otherwise. As a mere junior in college, Oprah became the first Black woman in Nashville to co-anchor the evening news.
Oprah’s next challenge was turning around the dying show “A.M. Chicago”. Between 1977 and 1984, when Oprah moved to Chicago to revitalize the show, her career took off exponentially. She did local news updates during the show “Good Morning, America” as well as co-hosting “Baltimore is Talking”, a morning show where she remained for seven years until being wooed away by an ABC affiliate in Chicago to breathe life into the show “A.M. Chicago”.
When she left “Baltimore is Talking”, the ratings for that show were higher than Phil Donahue’s. Using Barbara Walters as a role model, Oprah turned “A.M. Chicago” around within a month, finally edging out Phil Donahue in three short months. By 1985, the show had been renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show”. Oprah made improvements to the show by ceasing the use of cue cards and prepared scripts; she also was genuine, reacting sincerely to guests by sharing their miseries before a television audience (though her tears had brought forth a negative reaction when she worked as a co-anchor and reporter for the ABC affiliate in Baltimore, for Oprah was prone to crying along with the victims she interviewed).
|Oprah with Beloved co-star Thandie Newton|
Oprah’s recent venture has been her cable network, OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network). It has been beset with issues ranging from clashes of egos to low ratings, and an executive revolving door. Sources claim that Oprah was not present during many crucial points in the channel’s start up, as she was determined to make sure that the Oprah Winfrey Show ‘went out with a bang’. Others state that the channel was launched far too early, meaning that not enough planning went into it. “The Rosie Show”, one of OWN’s programs, lasted just six months. Rosie O’Donnell is said to have battled things out with Oprah’s production team (some of which was overheard by show guests), and while O’Donnell may have had successful shows in the past, this one bit the dust early, never rising above 185,000 viewers. Undoubtedly, OWN is one of the biggest challenges of Oprah’s life and one she must be determined to salvage. In order to do this, Oprah is going to have to take a personal approach, either by launching a new show of which she is the hostess, or being involved before the cameras (and not just as a producer) in some way. In fact, executives of Discovery stated that viewer ratings are growing now that Oprah has become involved personally in some of the channels’ programs.
Winfrey endorsed presidential candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, the first time she endorsed a political candidate running for office. Winfrey held a fundraiser for Obama on September 8, 2007, at her Santa Barbara estate. In December 2007, Winfrey joined Obama for a series of rallies in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. The Columbia, South Carolina, event on December 9, 2007, drew a crowd of nearly 30,000, the largest for any political event of 2007. An analysis by two economists at the University of Maryland, College Park estimated that Winfrey’s endorsement was responsible for between 420,000 and 1,600,000 votes for Obama in the Democratic primary alone, based on a sample of states that did not include Texas, Michigan, North Dakota, Kansas, or Alaska. The results suggest that in the sampled states, Winfrey’s endorsement was responsible for the difference in the popular vote between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, reported being so impressed by Winfrey’s endorsement that he considered offering Winfrey Obama’s vacant senate seat, describing Winfrey as “the most instrumental person in electing Barack Obama president”, with “a voice larger than all 100 senators combined”. Winfrey responded by stating that although she was absolutely not interested, she did feel she could be a senator.
Several years ago, Oprah Winfrey founded a school for girls in South Africa that was built using $40 million dollars of her own money. It is called the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy and is located in Johannesburg – the first 152 girls to attend were handpicked by Oprah herself. The girls come from families with incomes of less than $700 monthly, and while many critics argued that the school itself was ‘too luxurious’ – china in the canteen, pleated skirts on the uniforms, a yoga center, beauty salon, and theaters both indoors and out – Oprah defended her choices, stating that “These girls deserve to be surrounded by beauty, and beauty does inspire.”
In addition to the Academy, Oprah also formed the Seven Fountains Primary school, also located in South Africa, in the town of KwaZulu-Natal, in 2007 through her Angel Network. Boys are allowed to attend this school along with girls, and more than 1,000 students have their lives enriched by attending the school, which serves as a model for learning throughout the African continent.
Oprah motivates people, particularly women. She has a very strong work ethic and isn’t afraid to shoulder more than her fair share in order to accomplish goals. She isn’t fearful of dreaming big – she started Harpo Productions in 1986 (Oprah in reverse, though her actual name was Orpah, misspelled and mispronounced in her early life as ‘Oprah’), only a year after the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ had been on the air – and she picks out the best people to work with. She has chosen great mentors, she demonstrates a nurturing, caring persona, and has a definite social conscious. She does not “yell at, mistreat, or talk down” to people.
Oprah obviously values her audience (just watch a segment of the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ to see this in action), she has been known to reward her employees lavishly, as well keeping her brand focused and communicating to all of her vision. And in more than 25 years of taping her show, Oprah was never late once nor ever absent. That is not only dedication and focus, it is inspiring behavior and extremely smart.
The Angel Network, a charity foundation started by Oprah in 1998, has raised millions for schools, training, building projects, and other deserving needs around the world. Oprah is especially dedicated to improving the lot of women and children through education and learning to help others. Her Angel Network (since dissolved) built 60 schools in 13 countries; and viewers personally raised $70 million dollars for charitable causes.
Oprah also strives to provide quality programming, rather than just ‘trashy’ talk & reality shows. There came a time in Oprah’s life as a talk show host where she realized that inviting such people as skinheads, mass murderers, and porn stars onto her show was not benefiting anybody. She decided right then to only provide shows, and have guests on her show, that could ‘give something back’ to the studio and television audiences. This is what her vision is today for the OWN network.
|Oprah Winfrey for President?|