The name Oprah Winfrey is well recognized throughout the world—it’s become the definition of success for a wide range of people, including African Americans, women, and die-hard fans of her popular talk show.
Yet, even those familiar with Oprah Winfrey’s biography and her massive wealth know little about the challenges Oprah overcame to become one of the best-known women entrepreneurs in the world.
Her powerful story shows that no matter your circumstances in life, drive, ambition, determination, and talent can lead to a better future. She would not let her abusers put a cap on who she’d become. Throughout her long-lasting career, she has inspired others to do the same, teaching them that they have the power to reject how others see them and change the direction of their lives.
Learn more about:
- What happened to Oprah, and how she overcame the odds.
- How she built a multi-billion dollar media empire.
- Oprah’s top accomplishments in life.
- And the answer to the question, “Where Oprah is now?”
Who is Oprah Winfrey?
Suffering a Traumatizing Childhood
On January 29, 1954, Oprah Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, a tiny rural town near Jackson, Mississippi. Oprah grew up in poverty and had a tough childhood. Because she had a teenage mother, she rarely had a stable place to live. In addition to this, she was molested as a young child by her cousin, uncle, and family friends. Because her family also had no money to buy her nice clothing, Oprah wore dresses made from potato sacks. As a result, kids from her elementary school bullied her.
During her teenage years, Oprah found herself going down a dark path. To escape the turmoil she faced at home, she ran away, and was later sent to a juvenile detention center. At this time, she also became sexually active, which resulted in a pregnancy at age 14. The baby was born prematurely and passed away two weeks after she delivered him. At this time in her life, Oprah admitted to Piers Morgan, she contemplated suicide. “I did stupid things like drinking detergent and all that kind of crazy stuff that you do when you’re trying to get attention when you’re really just trying to cry for help,” she told Morgan.
Finding a Loving Home
At the age of 14, Oprah moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to live with her father, Vernon, who was a veteran, city councilman, and barber. While there is evidence that Vernon is not her biological father, she refers to him as such. Despite their possible lack of relation, Vernon served as a positive influence. “My father turned my life around, insisting I be more than I was and by believing I could be more,” she once explained, describing the impact he had on her life. “If I hadn’t been sent to my father, I would have gone in another direction. I could have made a good criminal. I would have used these same instincts differently,” Oprah told The Washington Post in 1986.
Vernon raised her in the Faith-United Missionary Baptist Church, guiding her to become more disciplined and ethical. He also taught her to be more modest and humble, how to protect herself from predatory men, how to be a good person, and ways to tap into her purpose and potential.
Above all, he valued education. When Oprah brought home C’s on her report card, he let her know he would not accept this from her. He told her, “If you were a child who could only get C’s, then that is really all I would expect of you. I wouldn’t demand any more from you than C’s. But you are not. And so in this house, for you, C’s are not acceptable.” Additonally, her stepmother, Zelma, took her to the library every two weeks. Each time she went, she would choose five books to write reports on. When she finished, she would present these to her parents.
In short, her father understood she was a gifted child who needed structure, encouragement, and a challenge to thrive. By having her needs met by Vernon and Zelma, Oprah was able to point her life in a positive direction.
Jumpstarting Her Successful Career
Winfrey’s successful career as a famous talk show host did not come overnight. When she was 17, she earned a full scholarship to Tennessee State University. As a freshman in 1972, she became Miss Black Nashville and Miss Tennessee, which led to a job offer at WVOL, a local radio station. Furthermore, at 19, she broke records at Nashville’s WTFV-TV, becoming both its first African American and its youngest anchorwoman. This led to a job in Baltimore in 1976, where she co-anchored WJZ-TV’s Six O’Clock News.
She then hosted WJZ’s People Are Talking for eight years before being recruited across the country for her own morning show, A.M. Chicago. To no one’s surprise, Oprah held her own in the Windy City, just like she had everywhere else. However, to everyone’s amazement, A.M. Chicago went from last to first place in the ratings, surpassing the famed The Phil Donahue Show by more than 100,000 viewers. As one columnist for Newsday explained, her ability to reign supreme as a host happened because, “[She’s] wittier, more genuine, and far better attuned to her audience, if not the world.“
Taking Television to the Next Level
The nationally-syndicated The Oprah Winfrey Show began in 1986. Part of Oprah Winfrey’s popularity came from her vision of the show. For example, she wanted to offer her viewers something different from the sensational tabloid topics that characterized her competition. Like other hosts, Oprah interviewed celebrity guests and shared interesting stories with her live audience. She also gave real people the opportunity to connect, share their experiences, and educate themselves.
The Oprah Winfrey Show grossed over $125 million in its first year alone.
She and her show were so successful, her influence became known as “The Oprah Effect.” As such, experts, writers, and business owners were often launched into stardom after appearing as a guest. As Dr. Phil once said, “When you get into Oprah’s orbit it doesn’t affect your career, it defines your career.” Because of Oprah, his name, along with Dr. Oz, Suze Orman, Nate Berkus, Gayle King, Rachael Ray, Bob Greene, and Iyanla Vanzant became well-known to millions.
By the time The Oprah Winfrey Show came to an end in 2011, Oprah had taped 4,562 episodes. This made it one of the longest-running chat shows on daytime TV. The New York Times reports at the height of her show, Oprah’s viewership ranged between 12 and 13 million people per day. Today, the show is still ranked as the highest-rated daytime TV show of all time. Over the course of 25 years, Oprah won 46 Emmy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 1998.
In the final episode, Oprah revealed what she’d learned during her 25-years hosting the show:
“I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation. If I could reach through this television and sit on your sofa or sit on a stool in your kitchen right now, I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?’
Understanding that one principle, that everybody wants to be heard, has allowed me to hold the microphone for you all these years with the least amount of judgment . . . Try it with your children, your husband, your wife, your boss, your friends. Validate them. ‘I see you. I hear you. And what you say matters to me.'”
Instilling a Love of Reading Into Her Audience
In Reading with the Stars, Leonard Kniffel captures the role books and reading played in Oprah’s life. “Books were my path to personal freedom . . . I learned to read at age three and soon discovered there was a whole world to conquer that went beyond our farm in Mississippi,” she is quoted as saying.
Placing a high value on education, Oprah’s father and stepmother unknowingly started her book club. For instance, as a child, they made her do reports on the books she read every week. “[A]t 9 years old, nobody wants to have to do book reports in addition to what the school is asking you to do, but my father’s insistence that education was the open door to freedom is what allows me to stand here today a free woman,” she explains.
In 1996, Oprah Winfrey incorporated her love of reading into The Oprah Winfrey Show by starting a book club. Every month, she chose a book for viewers to read and discuss. Most of the books she recommended became bestsellers, with many of them selling over one million copies each. The Oprah Effect changed the lives of many writers she featured in her book club, adding to their sales and public recognition. For instance, in 2000, Oprah suggested Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a book that only sold 2,000 copies when it was released in 1970. After Oprah’s seal of approval, the book sold over 800,000 copies. Other top authors who gained notoriety from her book club recommendations included Cormac McCarthy (The Road), James Frey (A Million Little Pieces), Wally Lamb (She’s Come Undone), and Rhonda Byrne (The Secret). Al Greco, a marketing professor at Fordham University, estimates that the 70 books she suggested have sold more than 55 million copies. In 2019, Oprah Winfrey and Apple Books announced a revival of her book club which can be watched on Apple TV+ or accessed through Oprah.com.
Being an Example of Generosity and Kindness
It’s no secret Oprah loves giving gifts. She recalls in an Oprah.com article that the first time she gave to a person she didn’t know was when working in Baltimore as a news reporter. The story featured a young woman who Oprah could tell was in need. Later that day, she drove back, took her family to the mall, and purchased everyone a winter coat.
“[I] learned how good it feels to do something unexpected for someone. Since that time in the late ’70s, I’ve been blessed with the ability to give really great gifts—everything from cashmere sheets to college educations. I’ve given homes. Cars. Trips around the world. The services of a wonderful nanny. But the best gift anyone can give, I believe, is the gift of sharing themselves.”
Oprah’s spirit of giving was most famously captured on The Oprah Winfrey Show as Oprah’s Favorite Things. The segment aired around Thanksgiving each year to tie into the gift-giving season. Oprah not only handpicked and promoted a long list of products that she liked—she gave her audience those items. This included designer bags, clothing, cameras, and tech devices.
The episodes boosted the careers of new designers and manufacturers, including Sara Blakely. In 2000, Oprah featured Blakely’s product, SPANX®, as one of her favorite things, introducing Blakely on her show. In 2021, SPANX was valued at $1.2 billion and is a brand that Oprah herself has invested in.
Other products Oprah helped launch into stardom include:
- Amazon Kindle
- Carol’s Daughter fragrances
- UGG boots
- Apple iPod
- Apple iPad
- Barefoot Dreams robes, throws, and socks
- Lululemon pants
- Garrett Popcorn Shops tins
Diversifying Her Career
Oprah Winfrey is a gifted performer, so she advanced her nationwide fame and reputation through acting, too. In 1985, she appeared in Steven Spielberg’s film The Color Purple, based off a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alice Walker. “I never wanted anything more in my life than I wanted to be in The Color Purple, and have never allowed myself to want anything as much again,” she tells Variety. In the interview, Oprah revealed she was willing to do anything to be in the movie.
“The first time I read that book, I went and got eight more copies for everybody else I knew to read that book . . . I told everyone in the world, ‘I want to be in that movie. I’ll carry water for Steven Spielberg. I’ll hold a script. I’ll do anything.’”
Her role as Sofia earned Oprah an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress even though it was her first. In 2005, she helped transform Walker’s story into a Broadway production. The show ran for three years and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards. In 2015, she co-produced a revival of the musical, which won a Tony. She is also working with Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg on a new version of The Color Purple, a musical they hope to release in 2023.
Other notable movies Oprah is in:
- In 1998, Winfrey also starred in Beloved, a film based on another Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Toni Morrison.
- Oprah voiced characters in animated films like Charlotte’s Web (2006) and The Princess and the Frog (2009).
- She appeared in Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) and Selma (2014), a film that chronicles the march over Martin Luther King, Jr. led over Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. Winfrey also produced Selma.
- In 2017, Oprah played the daughter of a woman whose cancer cells advanced medical science without the knowledge of her or her family in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
- A year later, she starred opposite Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling in the film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel, A Wrinkle in Time (2018).
- Her latest projects include an original film called The Water Man and the role of Aurora Greenway in a remake of Terms of Endearment.
How Did Oprah Get so Rich?
1. She Had a Grand Vision for Her Life
“Create the highest, grandest vision possible for your life because you become what you believe.”
Oprah Winfrey refused to let anyone dictate who she’d become. She once said, “I don’t think of myself as a poor deprived ghetto girl who made good. I think of myself as somebody who from an early age knew I was responsible for myself, and I had to make good.” Because she was secure in her identity and knew her worth, she set her vision to become a media mogul. This allowed her to make business decisions and pursue the opportunities that led to this destination.
In 1986, she became the first African American woman to own her own production company. She named the multi-level corporation with several subsidiaries Harpo Productions after her character in The Color Purple. “Harpo” also happens to be “Oprah” spelled backward.
Before it shut down in 2013, Harpo Films was one of the largest divisions of what is now known as Harpo, Inc. Through Harpo Films, Oprah produced several of the motion pictures she starred in as well as television dramas like The Women of Brewster Place and Tuesdays with Morrie.
Harpo’s Top Successes
- Harpo, Inc. is also the driving force behind O, The Oprah Magazine—a monthly publication Winfrey launched with Hearst in 2000. The magazine regularly featured Oprah on the cover and has been named the most successful start-up in history. Before it moved solely to a digital format, it was circulated worldwide.
- Harpo Radio, which ran the XM Satellite Radio channel “Oprah & Friends” until 2017, frequently featured guests in O and on OWN, Oprah’s television network, including Oprah’s long-time friends Gayle King, Nate Berkus, and Dr. Mehmet Oz.
- Harpo Studios, another section of the company, produced not only The Oprah Winfrey Show but also The Dr. Oz Show and The Nate Berkus Show.
- In March 2015, the studio closed its operations in Chicago to focus on the Los Angeles-based Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). In December 2017, Oprah sold the majority of OWN to its partner, Discovery Communications, for $70 million.
- Oprah has remained its chief executive. However, Harpo, Inc. still owns 25.5% of the network.
Thanks to her success as a media mogul, Oprah Winfrey became the richest African-American of the 20th century. In 2003, she was the first African American woman on Forbes’ list of the World’s Richest People. As of 2021, her net worth is estimated at $2.7 billion.
2. She Takes on Projects That Fulfill Her Purpose
“I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that’s as unique as a fingerprint—and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you. ”
Oprah’s secret to success is that she tries many different things while staying true to what fulfills her purpose. In an article on Oprah.com, she writes about growing up in rural Mississippi and watching her grandmother do domestic work. She said in her heart that she knew this wouldn’t be her life. “I wanted to be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be. I never imagined it would be on TV,” she writes.
As mentioned above, Oprah’s had a grand vision for life. Aside from the career covered above, she has published several self-help books that align with her purpose. These include What I Know For Sure (2014), The Path Made Clear: Discovering Your Life’s Direction and Purpose (2019) and What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing (2021), which she wrote with Bruce D. Perry.
Her website, Oprah.com, also promotes her love of reading by hosting O, The Oprah Magazine and Oprah’s Bookclub, which is now the largest in the world with over 500,000 members. In total, her site has 13 million users and 75 million page views per month.
3. She Invests in Mission-Based Businesses
“The reason I’ve been able to be so financially successful is my focus has never, ever for one minute been money.”
Oprah is also an investor and invests in businesses that serve a higher purpose. In 2015, she invested $34 million in Weight Watchers (now called WW International). The company supports sustainable weight loss by teaching healthy habits such as nutritional eating and exercise. Five years later, the publicly-traded corporation was worth as much as $430 million. Since Oprah owned about 8% of its stock, her new contract gave her an option to buy an additional 4.3%.
She is also an investor and board member of True Food Kitchen. Integrative medicine doctor Andrew Weil founded the business in 2008. With 42 locations across the U.S., this restaurant makes healthy eating more accessible and available when dining out. Their mission is, “Food should make you feel better, not worse.”
In 2014, she backed the Maven Clinic. The company is a virtual site that provides users with information about fertility, pregnancy, and parenting. Their mission is to make healthcare for women more equitable. In addition to serving more than 10 million people worldwide, the company is considered a female-led unicorn. It has raised more than $200 million to develop innovative products that will enhance clinical outcomes and expand its reach.
Most Recent Notable Investments
- In 2020, Oprah began backing new food startups, sponsoring companies with other celebrities. With Katy Perry, she contributed to a $250 million fundraising round for Apeel Sciences. The company reduces food waste through an edible plant coating created to extend the shelf life of fruit.
- With Natalie Portman, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and Jay-Z’s entertainment company, Winfrey joined the Blackstone Group. Together, they purchased a 10% stake in the Swedish oat milk company Oatley, upping the company’s value to $2 billion. The business promotes nutrition, sustainability, and minimal environmental damage.
4. She Gives Back
“To move forward you have to give back.”
Millions of Oprah Winfrey’s hard-earned dollars support causes she believes in. When it comes to her philosophy on giving back, she is quoted as saying, “You cannot continue to succeed in the world or have a fulfilling life in the world unless you choose to use your life in the service somehow to others and give back what you have been given. That’s how you keep it. That’s how you get it. That’s how you grow it.”
True to her words, Oprah founded Oprah’s Angel Network in 1998. The organization is made up of celebrities and people around the world who want to help others. It has raised more than $80 million that has gone into home and school construction, college scholarships, disaster relief, and life-changing community programs.
In 2006, Oprah added $36 million to the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, a tax-deductible charity with assets of more than $172 million. In 2020, the foundation was responsible for $10 million of COVID-19 relief. This money provided food for those suffering most from the pandemic, including the elderly, low-income families, the unemployed, and children who rely on school lunch programs.
Providing Educational Opportunities
Oprah has donated more than $1 million to the United Negro College Fund and an additional $25 million to schools like Tennessee State University, the Chicago Academy of Arts, and Chicago Public Schools. On the 30th anniversary of Morehouse College, she gave $13 million to the HBCU’s scholarship fund, raising what she’d already given to $25 million.
Her global work includes teaching a remote class at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, a school that she invested $40 million to create in 2007. The academy serves girls from difficult backgrounds and includes computer and science laboratories, classrooms with the latest technology, a library, a theater, and a beauty salon.
On opening day, Oprah told Reuters, “The future is so bright for them it burns my eyes. They want to be presidents and doctors. We don’t tell the girls to become anything but their own best self.”
How Has Oprah Impacted the World in Other Ways?
Oprah Winfrey’s commitment to improving the world does not end with her charities. During her long career, she has used her visibility and voice to support politicians and legislation that she felt could make a difference.
In 1994, she lobbied for the passage of the National Child Protection Act, loosely known as the “Oprah Bill,” since she initiated it and urged her talk show viewers to support it. Signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the NCPA requires states to put child abusers, sex offenders, and people charged with felony drug use, arson, or violent crimes into a national database. Organizations that serve youth, the elderly, and people with disabilities must also use it to request a criminal background check on prospective employees and volunteers. This gives people that work with vulnerable populations the ability to identify and avoid potential dangers.
Oprah Winfrey also campaigned for Barack Obama when he ran for president in 2007. She hosted fundraisers and joined him for rallies in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, attracting large crowds to support him. It’s widely believed she was crucial to Obama’s win of the Democratic nomination.
In November 2018, Winfrey continued her political advocacy by supporting Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, the first African American woman in a major party to run as any state’s governor. Oprah participated in town-hall meetings and knocked on doors with Abrams, a Democrat who narrowly lost the election to Republican Brian Kemp.
Where is Oprah Now?
Winfrey continues to resonate with a global audience. This is evident in her online presence and the huge ratings she gathered for her recent projects. In 2021, the CBS interview she did with Prince Harry and his wife Meghan (the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) received massive acclaim. Over two hours, almost 50 million people watched Oprah navigate the tough conversation with emotional intelligence. Yet, she still held the ability to ask tough questions and get the answers the public wanted. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen echoed many people’s sentiments, tweeting, “That was the best interview I have ever watched.”
Her adept handling of delicate topics has sparked a partnership with Prince Harry. Later that year, he co-produced The Me You Can’t See with Oprah. The Apple TV series gives both everyday people and celebrities the opportunity to share the personal challenges they have faced and overcome.
Oprah’s Popularity and Legacy Continues
By the time The Oprah Winfrey Show ended in 2011, it was the highest-rated television program of its kind, reaching 15 and 20 million people per day. Winfrey had won numerous awards, including an honorary Oscar (the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award). The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences also gave her the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award and the Chairman’s Crystal Pillar Award.
Despite the odds stacked against her, Oprah Winfrey has become one of the few Black billionaires in North America through her talk show, acting career, and production company. She has received an honorary degree from Harvard and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Even this list of accolades doesn’t include her reputation as the greatest African American philanthropist in history or the Cecil B. DeMille Award she won in 2018 for her “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.”
Oprah Winfrey’s dedication to helping others comes from her commitment to self-definition. It has given her the ability to support the causes and people she truly values while simultaneously building an empire that motivates others to do the same. There is no doubt that she will continue to serve as proof that people’s circumstances and life experiences don’t have to define or limit them.