Rags to Riches

A black American girl born in 1954, living with her maternal grandmother in an isolated farm in Kosciusko Mississippi, under extreme poverty, was born to a teenage single mother who migrated to north for work. She wore potato sacks for clothes and had no friends but farm animals. She would play with them, giving them dramatic parts and include them in games. There was something extraordinary about this girl. Her grandmother taught her to read and write before she was even three. She would recite poems during church, and verses from the Bible. Soon, the church and the entire neighbourhood knew she had a gift and was nicknamed “The Little Speaker”. She grew up to be one of the most successful women of her era and a household name – Oprah Winfrey.

At six years old, Winfrey was sent to join her mother and two half-brothers in a Milwaukee ghetto, an extremely poor and dangerous neighbourhood. This had its negative effect on her as a young teenager. Her mother worked odd jobs and did not have much time to take care of her. At twelve years old she was sent to live with her father in Nashville, Tennessee. This was a turning point in her life. She became an excellent student, participating as well in the drama club, debate club, and student council. Feeling secure and happy for a brief period she began making speeches at social gatherings and churches, and one time earned five hundred dollars for a speech. She knew then that she wanted to be “paid to talk.”

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At sixteen years of age, in an Elks Club speaking contest, she won a full scholarship to Tennessee State University. The following year she was invited to a White House Conference on Youth. Winfrey was crowned Miss Fire Prevention by WVOL, a local Nashville radio station, and was hired by the station to read afternoon newscasts. At nineteen years of age, she became the youngest person and the first African-American woman to anchor a news channel at WTVF-TV. She gradually rose up the ladder as a budding journalist and in 1977, co-anchored the Six O-Clock News in Baltimore.

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Oprah moved to Chicago in 1983 to host a morning talk show called ‘A.M. Chicago’. Within months, the show went from last place in the ratings to overtaking Donahue as the highest-rated talk show in Chicago. During this time she was struggling with her weight issues. She gained 42 pounds in nearly eight years in Baltimore because she lived near a mall with a “big fast-food court.” She had to use her move to Chicago as a “fresh start.” During her national TV debut in 1985, “The Tonight Show” guest host Joan Rivers questioned her about her weight gain. She later referred to the incident stating that she “wanted nothing more than to crawl under my chair.”

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A year later in 1986, Oprah launched ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’, an American syndicated talk show in Chicago, Illinois. Produced and hosted by Oprah Winfrey, it went on to become highest-rated daytime talk show in American television history. Winfrey used the show as an educational platform, featuring book clubs, interviews, self-improvement segments, and philanthropic forays into world events. The show did not attempt to profit off the products it endorsed, nor did the show make any money from endorsing books for its book club. Oprah remained one of the longest-running daytime television tabloid talk shows in history. The show received 47 Daytime Emmy Awards before Winfrey chose to stop submitting it for consideration in 2000.

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Oprah continued to blaze her own path by starting her own production company, Harpo Productions, making her the first African-American to own a large studio. She then launched O, The Oprah Magazine in 2000 which generated huge revenues in coming years. She continued expanding on her success in the media world, writing numerous best-selling books and acting in and producing critically acclaimed films. In 2003, she became the first female African-American billionaire. She also started OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, a woman-centric cable network. Oprah managed to amass a sizable fortune, becoming one of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry. According to Forbes, Winfrey today is worth $2.8 billion.

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She is the queen of media, an accomplished actress, and a master of motivational speaking. However, she is ultimately recognized for her heart of gold. She has made it her mission to help as many people as she can all over the world, not only by donating to various charities, but also by establishing her own foundations like The Angel Network, The Oprah Winfrey Foundation, and The Oprah Winfrey Operating Foundation, that take on projects for upliftment of the underprivileged. Some examples of the projects are The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa and Rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Oprah’s life and work are an embodiment of hope and inspiration that have affected the lives of millions of viewers all over the world.