Oprah Winfrey is the American multiple-Emmy Award winning host of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the highest rated talk show in television history. She is also an influential book critic, an Academy Award-nominated actress, and a magazine publisher.
She has been ranked the richest African American of the 20th century, the most philanthropic African American of all time, and the world's only Black billionaire for three straight years.
She is also, according to several assessments, the most influential woman in the world.
Oprah Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to a Baptist family. Her parents were unmarried teenagers. She was originally named Orpah Gail Winfrey, after one of the people in the Bible's Book of Ruth. Winfrey has said that because of problems spelling or pronouncing Orpah, the "r" and the "p" were reversed.
Her mother, Vernita Lee, was a housemaid, and her father, Vernon Winfrey, was a coal miner and later worked as a barber before becoming a city councilman. Winfrey's father was in the Armed Forces when she was born.
After her birth, Winfrey's mother travelled north and Winfrey spent her first six years living in rural poverty with her Grandma Hattie Mae. Winfrey's grandmother taught her to read before the age of three and took her to the local church, where she was nicknamed "The Preacher" for her ability to recite Bible verses.
When Winfrey was a child, her grandmother would take a switch and would hit her with it when she didn't do chores or if she misbehaved in any way.
At age six, Winfrey moved to an inner city ghetto in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her mother, who was less supportive and encouraging than her grandmother. Winfrey has stated that she was molested by her cousin, uncle, and a family friend, starting when she was 9.
Despite her dysfunctional home life, Winfrey skipped two of her earliest grades, became the teacher's pet, and by the time she was 13 received a scholarship to attend Nicolet High School in the suburbs, known as Glendale, Wisconsin.
Although Winfrey was very popular, she couldn't afford to go out on the town as frequently as her better-off classmates. Like many teenagers at the end of the 1960s, Winfrey rebelled, ran away from home and ran the streets.
When she was 14, she became pregnant, but lost the baby after birth. Also at that age, her frustrated mother sent her to live with her father in Nashville, Tennessee. Vernon was strict, but encouraging and made her education a priority.
Winfrey became an honours student, was voted "Most Popular Girl", joined her high school speech team, and placed second in the nation in dramatic interpretation. She won an oratory contest, which secured her a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, a historically black institution, where she studied communication.
At age 18, Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant.
Winfrey's grandmother has said that ever since Winfrey could talk, she was "on stage". In her youth she played games interviewing her corncob doll and the crows on the fence of her family's property.
But her true media career began at age 17, when Winfrey worked at a local radio station while attending Tennessee State University.
Working in local media, she was both the youngest news anchor and the first black female news anchor at Nashville's WLAC-TV. She moved to Baltimore's WJZ-TV in 1976 to co-anchor the six o'clock news.
She was then recruited to join Richard Sher as co-host of WJZ's local talk show People Are Talking, which premiered on August 14, 1978. She also hosted the local version of Dialing for Dollars there as well.
Career and Success
In 1983, Winfrey relocated to Chicago to host WLS-TV's low-rated half-hour morning talk-show, AM Chicago. The first episode aired on January 2, 1984. Within months after Winfrey took over, the show went from last place in the ratings to overtaking Donahue as the highest rated talk show in Chicago.
It was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, expanded to a full hour, and broadcast nationally beginning September 8, 1986. Its first show was about marrying the right person.
On her 20th anniversary show, Oprah revealed that movie critic Roger Ebert was the one who persuaded her to sign a syndication deal with King World. Ebert predicted that she would generate 40 times as much revenue as his television show, At the Movies.
Having surpassed Donahue in the local market Winfrey quickly doubled his national audience, her show replacing his as the number one day-time talk show in America. Their much publicized contest was the subject of enormous scrutiny.
In the mid-1990s Winfrey adopted a less tabloid-orientated format, doing shows about heart disease in women, geopolitics with Lisa Ling, spirituality and meditation, and gift-giving and home decorating shows.
She often interviews celebrities on issues that directly involve them in some way, such as cancer, charity work, or substance abuse.
In addition, she interviews ordinary people who have done extraordinary things or been involved in important current issues.
In 1993 Winfrey hosted a rare prime-time interview with Michael Jackson which became the fourth most watched event in American television history as well as the most watched interview ever, with an audience of 100-million.
Perhaps Winfrey's most famous show was the first episode of the 19th season of The Oprah Winfrey Show in the fall of 2004. During the show each member of the audience received a new G6 sedan; the 276 cars were donated by Pontiac as part of a publicity stunt. The show received so much media attention that even the taxes on the cars became controversial.
During a lawsuit against Winfrey she hired Dr. Phil McGraw's company Courtroom Sciences, Inc. to help her analyze and read the jury. Dr. Phil made such an impression on Winfrey that she invited him to appear on her show. He accepted the invitation and was a resounding success.
McGraw appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show for several years before launching his own show, Dr. Phil, in 2002, which was created by Winfrey's production company, Harpo Productions in partnership with Paramount which produced the show.
Winfrey recently made a deal to extend her show until the 2010 – 2011 season, by which time it will have been on the air for 25 years. She plans to host 140 episodes per season, until her final season, when it will return to its current number, 130.
The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Concert was hosted by Oprah and Tom Cruise. There were musical performances by Cyndi Lauper, Andrea Bocelli, Joss Stone, Chris Botti, Diana Krall, Tony Bennett and others. The concert was broadcasted in the United States on Dec. 23, 2004 by E!. An unofficial Winfrey fan-club also organized a petition drive in 2005 to nominate Oprah for the Nobel Peace Prize.
As well as hosting and appearing on television shows, Winfrey co-founded the women's cable television network Oxygen. She is also the president of Harpo Productions (Oprah spelled backwards).
In 1985, Winfrey co-starred in Steven Spielberg's epic film adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple. She earned immediate acclaim as Sofia, the distraught housewife.
The following year Winfrey was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but she lost to Anjelica Huston. The Color Purple has now been made into a Broadway musical and opened late 2005, with Winfrey credited as a producer.
In October 1998, Winfrey produced and starred in the film Beloved, based upon Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name.
To prepare for her role as Sethe, the protagonist and former slave, Winfrey experienced a 24-hour simulation of the experience of slavery, which included being tied up and blindfolded and left alone in the woods.
Despite major advertising, including two episodes of her talk show dedicated solely to the film, and moderate to good critical reviews, Beloved opened to poor box-office results, losing approximately $30 million.
In 2005, Harpo Productions released another film adaptation of a famous American novel, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). The made-for-television film Their Eyes Were Watching God was based upon a teleplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, and starred Halle Berry in the lead female role.
Books and magazines
Winfrey publishes two magazines: O, The Oprah Magazine and O at Home. She has co-authored five books; at the announcement of her future weight loss book (to be co-authored with her personal trainer Bob Greene), it was said that her undisclosed advance fee had broken the record for the world's highest book advance fee, previously held by former U.S. President Bill Clinton for his autobiography My Life.
In 2002 Fortune called O, the Oprah Magazine the most successful start-up ever in the industry.
Oprah.com is a website created by Winfrey's company to provide resources and interactive content relating to her shows, magazines, book club, and public charity. Through Oprah.com Winfrey raised over three million dollars for Katrina victims and helped to capture four accused child predators.
On February 9, 2006 it was announced that Winfrey signed a $55-million, three-year contract with XM Satellite Radio to establish a new radio channel.
The channel will be called Oprah & Friends and will feature popular contributors to The Oprah Winfrey Show and O, The Oprah Magazine including Nate Berkus, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Bob Greene, Dr. Robin Smith and Marianne Williamson.
Oprah & Friends airs 24/7 on XM Radio Channel 156. Winfrey's contract requires her to be on air 30 minutes a week, 39 weeks a year. The 30-minute weekly show will feature Winfrey with friend Gayle King.
Winfrey's audience is extremely loyal and XM hopes that the "Oprah Effect" can have the same effect on XM subscription sales that she does on the New York Times Best Seller List, thanks to her book club.
The channel broadcasted from a new studio at Winfrey's Chicago headquarters and went on the air at 11 a.m. ET, September 25th, 2006 on XM Channel 156.
In late 2006 Winfrey's Harpo production and ABC revealed plans to bring two new reality TV shows to the air. One of the series is tentatively titled Oprah Winfrey's The Big Give, and presents 10 people with large sums of money and resources and they must compete to find "the most powerful, sensational, emotional and dramatic ways to give to others."
The second show, tentatively titled Your Money or Your Life, will unleash an "expert action team" every week to aid a family in overcoming a crisis through a "total money and life makeover."
Winfrey will also voice a part in Bee Movie coming out in 2007.
Winfrey currently lives on "The Promised Land", her 42 acre (170,000 m²) ocean and mountain view estate in Montecito, California, outside of Santa Barbara.
Rumours state that Winfrey was at a party the previous owners were throwing and fell so in love with the estate that she was reported to have purchased it by writing a personal check for $50,000,000 USD, although it was not for sale.
Winfrey also owns a house in Lavallette, New Jersey, an apartment in Chicago, an estate on Fisher Island off the coast of Miami, a ski house in Telluride, CO and property on the island of Maui, Hawaii.
Winfrey and her partner Stedman Graham have been together for over 20 years. Sophie and Soloman are her two Cocker Spaniels.
She previously dated movie critic Roger Ebert, whom she credits with advising her to take her show into syndication.
The relationship of Winfrey and Graham has been documented through the years with numerous romantic tabloid articles often accompanied by colour spreads of the couple at home and on lavish vacations.
Prior to meeting Graham, Winfrey's love life was a lot less stable. A self-described promiscuous teen who was a victim of sexual abuse, Winfrey gave birth at the age of 14, though her son died while still in infancy.
In 1997 a former boyfriend named Randoph Cook tried to sue Winfrey for $20-million for allegedly blocking a tell-all book where he claimed they lived together for several months in 1985 and did drugs.
Cook's claims mark the second time reports surfaced about Winfrey's involvement in a drug-related love affair. In 1995 Winfrey herself confessed to drug use.
Winfrey's early love life had not always been so tumultuous. Her high school sweetheart Anthony Otey would recall an innocent courtship that began in Winfrey's senior year of high school, from which he saved hundreds of love notes; Winfrey conducted herself with dignity and as a model student.
The two spoke of getting married, but Otey claimed to have always secretly known that Winfrey was destined for a far greater life than he could ever provide.
On Valentine's day of her senior year, Otey's fears came true when Winfrey took Otey aside and told him they needed to talk. "I knew right then that I was going to lose the girl I loved," Otey recalled. "She told me she was breaking up with me because she didn't have time for a relationship. We both sat there and cried. It broke my heart."
Years later, Otey was stunned to discover details from Winfrey's promiscuous and rebellious past at the end of the 1960s, and the fact that she had given birth to a baby several years before they met.
In 1971, several months after breaking up with Otey, Winfrey met William "Bubba" Taylor at Tennessee State University. According to CBS journalist George Mair, Taylor was Winfrey's "first intense, to die for love affair".
Winfrey helped get Taylor a job at WVOL, and according to Mair, "did everything to keep him, including literally begging him on her knees to stay with her."
Taylor however was unwilling to leave Nashville with Winfrey when she moved to Baltimore to work at WJZ-TV in June 1976.
When WJZ-TV management criticized Winfrey for crying on the air while reporting tragedies and were unhappy with her physical appearance (especially when her hair fell out as the result of a bad perm), Winfrey turned to reporter Lloyd Kramar for comfort.
"Lloyd was just the best," Winfrey would later recall. "That man loved me even when I was bald! He was wonderful. He stuck with me through the whole demoralizing experience. That man was the most fun romance I ever had."
According to Mair, when Kramar moved to NBC in New York Winfrey became involved with a man who friends had warned her to avoid. Winfrey would later recall:
"I'd had a relationship with a man for four years. I wasn't living with him. I'd never lived with anyone—and I thought I was worthless without him. The more he rejected me, the more I wanted him. I felt depleted, powerless. At the end I was down on the floor on my knees groveling and pleading with him.
Winfrey became so depressed that on September 8, 1981, she wrote a suicide note to best friend Gayle King instructing King to water her plants.
According to Winfrey, such emotional ups and downs gradually lead to a weight problem:
"The reason I gained so much weight in the first place and the reason I had such a sorry history of abusive relationships with men was I just needed approval so much. I needed everyone to like me, because I didn't like myself much.
"So I'd end up with these cruel self-absorbed guys who'd tell me how selfish I was, and I'd say 'Oh thank you, you're so right' and be grateful to them. Because I had no sense that I deserved anything else. Which is also why I gained so much weight later on. It was the perfect way of cushioning myself against the world's disapproval."
In 1989, Winfrey was personally touched by the 1980s AIDS crisis so frequently discussed on her show when her long time aide, Billy Rizzo, became afflicted by the disease. Rizzo was the only man among the four-person production team who Winfrey relied on in her early years in Chicago long before she had a large staff.
"I love Billy like a brother," she said at the time. "He's a wonderful, funny, talented guy, and it's just heartbreaking to see him so ill". Winfrey visited him daily during his last days.
Winfrey's best friend since their early twenties is Gayle King. King was formerly the host on "The Gayle King Show," and is currently an editor of "O," the Oprah Magazine.
Since 1997, when Winfrey played the therapist on an episode of the sitcom Ellen in which Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet, Winfrey and King have been the target of persistent rumours that they were gay.
Her celebrity status notwithstanding, the billionaire Winfrey served in 2004 on a murder trial jury. The trial was held in Chicago, and involved a man accused of murder after an argument over a counterfeit 50 dollar bill. The jury voted to convict the man of murder.
In June 2005, Winfrey was denied access to the Hermès company's flagship store in Paris, France. Winfrey arrived 15 minutes after the store's formal closing time, though the store was still very active and high end stores routinely extend hours for VIP customers.
Winfrey believed she would have been allowed in the store if she were a white celebrity. "I know the difference between a store that is closed and a store that is closed to me," explained Winfrey.
In September 2005, Hermès USA CEO Robert Chavez was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show and sincerely apologized for a rude employee.
On December 1, 2005, Winfrey appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman to promote the new Broadway musical The Color Purple, of which she was a producer, joining the host for the first time in 16 years.
The episode was hailed by some as the "television event of the decade" and helped Letterman attract his largest audience in more than 11 years: 13.45 million viewers.
Winfrey's show is based in Chicago, so she spends time there, specifically in the neighbourhood of Streeterville, but otherwise resides in California. She purchased at least one property on Maui, Hawaii, which was featured on the cover of O at Home and on her TV show.
For the 2006 PBS program, African American Lives, Winfrey had her DNA tested. The genetic test determined that her maternal line originated among the Kpelle ethnic group, in the area that today is Liberia.
Her genetic make up was determined to be 89% Sub-Saharan Africa. She is part Native American (about 8% according to the test) and East Asian (about 3% according to the test).
To celebrate two decades on national TV, and to thank her employees for their hard work, Winfrey took her staff and their families (1065 people in total) on vacation in Hawaii in the summer of 2006.
As revealed on a 2004 episode of her television show,Oprah had a half-brother who was gay and had died of AIDS.
In the February 2006 issue of her magazine, O, Winfrey felt "betrayed" by her family member, who revealed to the National Enquirer that Winfrey gave birth as a teen to a baby who died in the hospital weeks later.
Born in rural poverty, then raised by a mother on welfare in the ghetto, Winfrey became a millionaire at age 32 when her talk show went national. Because of the amount of revenue the show generated, Winfrey was in a position to negotiate ownership of the show and start her own production company.
By 1994 the show's ratings were still thriving and Winfrey negotiated a contract that earned her nine figures a year.
Considered the richest woman in entertainment by the early 1990s, at age 41 Winfrey's wealth crossed another milestone when with a net worth of $340-million, she replaced Bill Cosby as the only African American on the Forbes 400.
Although blacks are 12% of the U.S. population, Winfrey has remained the only black person wealthy enough to rank among America's 400 richest people nearly every year since 1995. (BET founder Bob Johnson briefly joined her on the list from 2001-2003 before his ex-wife reportedly acquired part of his fortune, though he returned in 2006.)
With a 2000 net-worth of $800-million, Winfrey is believed to have been the richest African American of the 20th century. To celebrate her status as a historical figure, Professor Juliet E.K. Walker of the University of Illinois created the course "Oprah the tycoon".
Forbes' international rich list has listed Winfrey as the world's only black billionaire in 2004, 2005, and 2006 and as the first black woman billionaire in world history.
In 1998, Winfrey began Oprah's Angel Network, a charity aimed at encouraging people around the world to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged others.
Accordingly, Oprah's Angel Network supports charitable projects and provides grants to nonprofit organizations around the world that share this vision.
To date, Oprah's Angel Network has raised more than $51,000,000 ($1-million of which was donated by Jon Bon Jovi). Winfrey personally covers all administrative costs associated with the charity, so 100% of all funds raised go to charity programs.
Although Winfrey's show is known for raising money through her public charity and the cars and gifts she gives away on TV are often donated by corporations in exchange for publicity, behind the scenes Winfrey personally donates more of her own money to charity than any other show-business celebrity in America.
In 2005 she became the first black person listed by Business Week as one of America's top 50 most generous philanthropists, having given an estimated $250-million.
Despite being the 235th richest American in 2005, Winfrey was the 32nd most philanthropic. Her philanthropy has included a $10-million donation to Hurricane Katrina relief. Winfrey also put 100 black men through college with $7-million in scholarships.
Winfrey was the recipient of the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award at the 2002 Emmy Awards for services to television and film.
In 2004, Winfrey and her team filmed an episode of her show entitled Oprah's Christmas Kindness, in which Winfrey, her best friend Gayle King, her partner Stedman Graham, and some crew members travelled to South Africa to bring attention to the plight of young children affected by poverty and AIDS.
During the 21-day whirlwind trip, Winfrey and her crew visited schools and orphanages in poverty-stricken areas, and at different set-up points in the areas distributed Christmas presents to 50,000 children, with dolls for the girls and soccer balls for the boys.
In addition, each child was given a backpack full of school supplies and received two sets of school uniforms for their gender, in addition to two sets of socks, two sets of underwear, and a pair of shoes.
Throughout the show, Winfrey appealed to viewers to donate money to Oprah's Angel Network for poor and AIDS-affected children in Africa, and pledged that she personally would oversee where that money was spent. From that show alone, viewers around the world donated over $7,000,000.
Winfrey invested $40-million and much of her time establishing the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls near Johannesburg in South Africa. The school opened in January, 2007.
Nelson Mandela praised Winfrey for overcoming her own disadvantaged youth to become a benefactor for others and for investing in the future of South Africa.
Rankings as world's most influential woman
Winfrey was called "arguably the world's most powerful woman" by CNN and Time.com. Time named Winfrey one of the 100 people who most influenced the 20th century, as well as one of the 100 most influential people of 2004, 2005, and again in 2006.
Winfrey and Bill Gates are the only two people in the world to make all four lists.
At the end of the 20th century Life magazine listed Winfrey as both the most influential woman and the most influential black person of her generation, and in a cover story profile the magazine called her "America's most powerful woman".
Ladies Home Journal also ranked Winfrey number one in their list of the most powerful women in America and senator Barack Obama has said she "may be the most influential woman in the country".
In 2003 Winfrey edged out both Superman and Elvis Presley to be named the greatest pop culture icon of all time by VH1. In 2005 Forbes named her the world's most powerful celebrity.
Winfrey's influence reaches far beyond pop-culture and into unrelated industries where many believe she has the power to cause enormous market swings and radical price changes with a single comment.
During a show about mad cow disease with Howard Lyman (aired on April 16, 1996), Winfrey exclaimed, "It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!"
Texas cattlemen sued her and Lyman in early 1998 for "false defamation of perishable food" and "business disparagement," claiming that Winfrey's remarks subsequently sent cattle prices tumbling, costing beef producers some USD$12 million.
On February 26, after a trial spanning over two months in an Amarillo, Texas court in the thick of cattle country, a jury found Winfrey and Lyman were not liable for damages. (After the trial, she received a postcard from Roseanne Barr reading, "Congratulations, you beat the meat!")
In June 2005 the first case of mad cow disease in a cow native to the United States was detected in Texas. The USDA concluded that it was most likely infected in Texas prior to 1997.
In 2005 Winfrey was named the greatest woman in American history as part of a public poll as part of The Greatest American. She was ranked #9 overall on the list of greatest Americans.
Winfrey's reach extends far beyond the shores of the U.S., where 49 million U.S. viewers see her talk show weekly. The show airs in 117 countries around the world "from Australia to Zimbabwe."
While Phil Donahue has been credited with pioneering the tabloid talk show genre, what has been described as the warmth, intimacy and personal confession, Winfrey brought to the format is believed to have both popularized and revolutionized it.
In the scholarly text Freaks Talk Back, Yale sociology professor Joshua Gamson credits the tabloid talk show genre with providing much needed high impact media visibility for gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transgender people and doing more to make them mainstream and socially acceptable than any other development of the 20th century.
In the book's editorial review Michael Bronski wrote "In the recent past, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered people had almost no presence on television. With the invention and propagation of tabloid talk shows such as Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Oprah, and Geraldo, people outside the sexual mainstream now appear in living rooms across America almost every day of the week."
An example of one such show by Winfey occurred in the 1980s where for the entire hour, members of the studio audience stood up one by one, gave their name and announced that they were gay.
Also in the 1980s Winfrey took her show to West Virginia to confront a town gripped by AIDS paranoia because a gay man living in the town had HIV. Winfrey interviewed the man who had become a social outcast, the town's mayor who drained a swimming pool in which the man had gone swimming, and debated with the town's hostile residents.
"But I hear this is a God fearing town" Winfrey scolded the homophobic studio audience, "where's all that Christian love and understanding?"
During a show on gay marriage in the 1990s, a woman in Winfrey's audience stood up to complain that gays were constantly flaunting their sex lives and she announced that she was tired of it.
"You know what I'm tired of," replied Winfrey, "heterosexual males raping and sodomizing young girls. That's what I'm tired of." Her rebuttal inspired a screaming standing ovation from that show's mostly gay studio audience.
Gamson credits the tabloid talk show fad with making alternative sexual orientations and identities more acceptable in mainstream society.
Examples include a Time magazine article describing early 21st century gays coming out of the closet younger and younger and gay suicide rates plummeting. Gamson also believes that tabloid talk shows caused gays to be embraced on more traditional forms of media.
Examples include sitcoms like Will & Grace, primetime shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Oscar nominated feature films like Brokeback Mountain.
While having changed with the times from her tabloid talk show roots, Winfrey continues to include gay guests by using her show to promote openly gay personalities like her hairdresser, makeup artist, and decorator Nate Berkus who inspired an outpouring of sympathy from middle America after grieving the loss of his partner in the 2004 tsunami on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Winfrey's "therapeutic" hosting style and the tabloid talk show genre has been credited or blamed for leading the media counterculture of the 1980s and 1990s which some believe broke 20th century taboos, led to America's self-help obsession, and created confession culture.
The Wall Street Journal coined the term "Oprahfication" which means public confession as a form of therapy.
In April 1997, Winfrey played the therapist on the sitcom Ellen to whom the character (and the real-life Ellen DeGeneres) said she was a lesbian.
In 1998, Mark Steyn in the National Review wrote of Winfrey "Today, no truly epochal moment in the history of the Republic occurs unless it is validated by her presence. When Ellen said, 'Yep! I'm gay,' Oprah was by her side, guesting on the sitcom as (what else?) the star's therapist.
"She is, of course, therapist to an entire nation. If only it weren't so hard for the rest of us to get an appointment. Asked to explain the cause of the 1992 riots, one angry black looter from South Central said: 'We had to do something to get Oprah to Los Angeles.'"
By confessing intimate details about her weight problems, tumultuous love life, and sexual abuse, and crying alongside her guests, Time Magazine credits Winfrey with creating a new form of media communication known as "rapport talk" as distinguished from the "report talk" of Phil Donahue:
"Winfrey saw television's power to blend public and private; while it links strangers and conveys information over public airwaves, TV is most often viewed in the privacy of our homes. Like a family member, it sits down to meals with us and talks to us in the lonely afternoons.
"Grasping this paradox, ...She makes people care because she cares. That is Winfrey's genius, and will be her legacy, as the changes she has wrought in the talk show continue to permeate our culture and shape our lives."
Observers even noted the "Oprahfication" of politics by noting "Oprah-style debates" and Bill Clinton's empathetic speaking style.
Winfrey's intimate confessions about her weight (which peaked at 108kg), also paved the way for other plus sized women in media such as Roseanne Barr, Rosie O'Donnell and Star Jones.
The November 1988 Ms. magazine observed that "in a society where fat is taboo, she made it in a medium that worships thin and celebrates a bland, white-bread prettiness of body and personality...But Winfrey made fat sexy, elegant — damned near gorgeous - with her drop-dead wardrobe, easy body language, and cheerful sensuality."
Oprah's Book Club
In the late 1990s, Winfrey introduced a new segment on her television show: Oprah's Book Club. The segment focused on new books and classics, and often brought obscure novels to popular attention.
The book club became such a powerful force that whenever Winfrey introduced a new book as her book-club selection, it instantly became a best-seller (known as the Oprah Effect); for example, when she selected the classic John Steinbeck novel East of Eden, it soared to the top of the book charts.
Being recognized by Winfrey often means a million additional book sales for an author.
Oprah's Book Club is so influential that, when she selected his memoir Night in 2006, just a few months later Time Magazine named author Elie Wiesel as one of the 100 most influential people on the planet.
Winfrey and Wiesel traveled together back to the Auschwitz concentration camp with Wiesel telling Winfrey that he would not have made the trip with just anyone and that it was probably his last trip there.
"What you did was so respectful," Wiesel told Oprah. 50,000 high school students competed to be part of a follow-up show in which only 50 winners of an essay contest were selected to meet Winfrey and Wiesel.
Consistent with the book's theme, many of the winning students had endured their own forms of discrimination including homophobia and surviving the Rwandan Genocide (and being reunited with lost family on the show).
The students were surprised to learn that AT&T had given them all a $5,000 scholarship to the college of their choice, and even more surprised when Winfrey decided to double their scholarships herself by adding an additional $5,000.
Oprah's Book Club has occasionally chosen books which have proven to be controversial. Most notably, Jonathan Franzen questioned the Club's selection process and credibility, and there was a live television confrontation over allegations of fabrication regarding James Frey's A Million Little Pieces.
In 2002, Christianity Today published an article called "The Church of O" in which they concluded that Winfrey had emerged as an influential spiritual leader.
"Since 1994, when she abandoned traditional talk-show fare for more edifying content, and 1998, when she began 'Change Your Life TV', Oprah's most significant role has become that of spiritual leader. To her audience of more than 22 million mostly female viewers, she has become a postmodern priestess—an icon of church-free spirituality."
The sentiment was seconded by Marcia Z. Nelson in her book The Gospel According to Oprah.
On the season premier of Winfrey's 13th season Rosanne Barr told Winfrey "you're the African Mother Goddess of us all" inspiring much enthusiasm from the studio audience.
The animated series Futurama alluded to her spiritual influence by suggesting that, a thousand years from now, a religion known as "Oprahism" exists.
The audience for her magazine is considerably more upscale than those who watch her show, earning US$63,000 a year (well above the median for U.S. women).
Although Winfrey's audience is sometimes spoofed for their fanatical devotion by shows like Saturday Night Live, Winfrey has been very protective of them and gets very offended when they are publicly disparaged.
Some of Winfrey's biggest fans are gay males. For example, one of the stars of the reality TV show The Benefactor was a gay African American man named Kevin who was so obsessed with Winfrey that he would ask "What would Oprah do?" before making any strategic decision.
Another gay man included Oprah on his published list of women worshipped by gay men and asked, "What gay man hasn't watched at least 1,000 episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show?"
Criticisms and Controversies
Although Winfrey has continually changed the focus of her show since the mid-1990s, her success has been blamed for popularizing the "tabloid talk show" genre, and turning it into a thriving industry that has included Ricki Lake, The Jenny Jones Show, and The Jerry Springer Show.
Sociologist Vicki Abt criticised tabloid talk shows for redefining social norms. In her book Coming After Oprah: Cultural Fallout in the Age of the TV talk show, Abt warned that the media revolution that followed Winfrey's success was blurring the lines between "normal" and "deviant" behaviour.
Leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Winfrey's show received criticism for having an anti-war bias. Ben Shapiro of Townhall.com wrote:
"Oprah Winfrey is the most powerful woman in America. She decides what makes the New York Times best-seller lists. Her touchy-feely style sucks in audiences at the rate of 14-million viewers per day.
"But Oprah is far more than a cultural force — she's a dangerous political force as well, a woman with unpredictable and mercurial attitudes toward the major issues of the day."
In 2006, rappers Ludacris, 50 Cent and Ice Cube criticized Winfrey for what they perceived as an anti-hip hop bias. In an interview with GQ magazine, Ludacris said that Winfrey gave him a "hard time" about his lyrics, and edited comments he made during an appearance on her show with the cast of the film Crash.
He also claimed that he wasn't initially invited on the show with the rest of the cast.
Winfrey responded by saying that she's opposed to rap lyrics that "marginalize women", but enjoys some artists, including Kanye West, who appeared on her show.
She said she spoke with Ludacris backstage after his appearance to explain her position, and said she understood that his music was for entertainment purposes, but that some of his listeners might take it literally.
In early 2007, Winfrey was criticized for building a $40-million school complex for girls in South Africa. The school will have an initial enrollment of 152 but will gradually accommodate 450, and features such amenities as a beauty salon and yoga studio.
It has been argued that the money would be better utilized to educate a larger amount of children in either North America or South Africa, however Winfrey insists that beautiful surroundings will inspire greatness in the future leaders of Africa.
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