Biography

The sign in front of Oprah Winfrey's Chicago based Harpo Studios.

Youth and early career

Winfrey was born in rural Mississippi to an extremely poor Baptist family — her unmarried teenage parents were a housemaid, Vernita Lee, and a soldier, Vernon Winfrey; . Her birth certificate has Orpah after the Moabite woman in the Book of Ruth in the Bible, but family and neighbors transposed the R and the P when pronouncing and writing her name. Eventually, Oprah became the accepted name. Oprah had few toys growing up, one of the only ones being a doll made from a corncob. A talkative young girl, Oprah would interview and talk to the doll and crows sitting on the fence of her family's property; this is believed to be the start of her media career.

As a child living in extreme poverty Oprah was often taunted by other children, a cruel nickname given to her was “Sack Girl” because of the Hessian overalls she wore for a large part of her childhood, Oprah’s mother had crafted them from an old turned out potato sack to save money.

Winfrey began her career in media at age 17, by which time she had been living in a better quality of life in Tennessee with Vernon for a number of years. She was both the youngest news anchor and the first black female news anchor at Nashville's WTVF-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. For a time she resided in Columbia, Maryland. Unfortunately, during her time spent in Maryland she suffered some racial persecution, being labelled a 'ghetto sex whore' and similar derogatory slurs. However, she managed to overcome these petty attacks, and was even known to have initiated a local newsletter called 'Blackpower!'.

Winfrey attended Tennessee State University, a historically Black institution.

Success in television and movies

In 1983, Winfrey relocated to Chicago, Illinois to take over as host of WLS-TV's low-rated half-hour morning talk show, AM Chicago, which premiered on January 2, 1984. The show was so successful with Winfrey as host that it was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, expanded to an hour, and debuted nationally on September 8, 1986. Originally, the show followed traditional talk show formats. By the mid 1990s, however, the format became more serious, addressing issues that Winfrey thought were of direct importance and of crucial consequence to women. Winfrey began to do a lot of charity work, and her show featured people suffering from poverty or the victims of unfortunate accidents.

In 1985, Winfrey co-starred in Steven Spielberg's epic adaptation of Alice Walker's award-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. Many think this was due in part to the AMPAS's "Anti-Spielberg" bias, thinking the film would've been better if directed by an African-American.

Influence

Winfrey has often discussed openly various aspects of her life, including those more unpleasant ones, with the media, including a sexually abusive childhood and a problem with drugs as an adult. In 1990, while filming the series Brewster Place (a spin-off of her TV movie The Women of Brewster Place, based upon Gloria Naylor's novel The Women of Brewster Place ), her half-sister Patricia Lee-Lloyd revealed that Winfrey had become pregnant at age 14 and delivered a stillborn boy. After delivering the stillborn boy, Oprah was sent to Nashville to live with her father. Winfrey's weight fluctuations have caused her to be considered a weight-guru. In the late 1990s, Winfrey introduced her book club on television. Whenever Winfrey introduced a new book as her book-club selection, the book instantly became a best-seller, a powerful demonstration of Winfrey's influence. For example, when she selected the classic John Steinbeck novel East of Eden, it soared to the top of the book charts.

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 $12 million. After a trial spanning over two months in a court in the thick of Texas cattle country, the jury found on February 26 that Winfrey was not guilty, did not act with malice, and was not liable for damages.

After the trial, she received a postcard from Rosie O'Donnell reading, "Congratulations, you beat the meat!" It was during this trial that Winfrey 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 be on her show. He accepted the invitation and the rest is history. Winfrey's production company, Harpo Productions, produces Dr. Phil's show. In 2004, despite her celebrity status, the billionaire Winfrey was chosen to serve on a murder trial jury in Chicago, Illinois. The trial ended with the jury voting to convict a man of murder in a case involving an argument over a counterfeit $50 bill.[3] [4]

Winfrey has started The Angel Network, an organization that collects millions of dollars a year for charities. She publishes her own magazines, O, The Oprah Magazine and O at Home, and cofounded the women's cable television network Oxygen. She is the president of Harpo Productions (Oprah spelled backwards). Winfrey is also a published author, and was the recipient of the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award at the 2002 Emmy Awards. Winfrey is based in Chicago, Illinois; she is reported to have recently been buying property on Maui, Hawaii.

Winfrey recently made a deal to extend her show until the 2010 – 2011 season, by which time it will have been on the air twenty-five years. She also plans to host 140 episodes per season, until her final season, when it will return to its current number, 130. [5]

In October 1998, Oprah produced and starred in the film Beloved based upon Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved. To prepare for her role as Sethe, the protagonist and former slave, Oprah experienced a 24-hour simulation of the experience of slavery, which included being tied up and blindfolded and left alone in the woods. Critics said this would not even come close to the experience. Despite major advertising, including two episodes of her talk show being dedicated solely to the film, it opened to sour critical reviews and poor box-office results, losing approximately $30,000,000.

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.

To begin the 19th season of The Oprah Winfrey Show in the fall of 2004, Pontiac as a publicity stunt donated 276 G6 Sedans, one for every audience member of that episode. The audience was said to have been selected after a nationwide search for people who expressed a need for a new automobile.

Recently, Oprah has been doing several interviews with Anderson Cooper, and she has done many projects with him. A rumor is going around that Oprah and Cooper are going to be making a movie together.

Winfrey's latest project will be developing and producing a new talk show for popular Food Network celebrity chef, Rachael Ray, which will begin airing sometime in 2006.

See Also: Oprah after the show

Personal life

Oprah Winfrey is believed to be worth over $1.4 billion according to the 2005 Forbes Magazine Issue. She currently lives on "The Promised Land", her 42 acre (170,000 m²) ocean view estate in Montecito, California, outside of Santa Barbara. Winfrey was at a party the previous owners were throwing and fell in love with the estate such that she was reported to have purchased it by Lavalette, New Jersey.

Winfrey has never married, but has lived with her partner Stedman Graham for nearly 20 years. She recently told audiences that she was going to reveal a deep dark secret — that she and Stedman have a daughter. She even used this as the tease for an upcoming episode. It turns out that this "daughter" is her cocker spaniel.

In June 2005, Winfrey was allegedly denied access to the Hermès company's flagship store in Paris, France, based on the store's "having problems with North Africans lately." Although Winfrey arrived 15 minutes after the store's closing time, other shoppers had not yet left the store and were being attended to. Oprah, without any make up or entourage, was mistaken for a poor black woman, thus denied entrance. In September 2005, Hermès USA CEO Robert Chavez was a guest on Winfrey's talk show and apologized on behalf of the store.

Criticism

Oprah Winfrey has been scrutinized by conservative critics for allegedly championing liberal causes. One conservative critic, Myrna Blyth, editor-in-chief of Ladies' Home Journal magazine from 1981 to 2002, charges in her book Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness— and Liberalism—to the Women of America, that the "elite women of the media" allegedly sell unhappiness to women and tout false advice. [6]

Additionally, some believe there to be a gender bias in many of her shows, and a double standard about certain behavior. Shows about infidelity, for example, often focus either on the cheating men, or on the cheated-on wives. Critics believe Winfrey pays inadequate attention to cheating women, or only makes note of them in a throwaway, dismissive manner. Winfrey's Book Club has also come under fire, first for promoting books that were deemed of little literary value, and then even by one of its selectees, author Jonathan Franzen, who objected to his book The Corrections being chosen, believing that its selection would limit its potential male readership.

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