Producer, chief executive officer, and chairman, Harpo Productions
Born: January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi.
Education: Attended Tennessee State University.
Family: Daughter of Vernon Winfrey (sailor and barber) and Vernita Lee (maid and dietician).
Career: WVOL Radio (Nashville), 1971–1972, news reader; WTVF-TV (Nashville), 1973–1976, news anchor and reporter; WJZ-TV (Baltimore), 1976–1977, news anchor; 1977–1983, talk show host; WLS-TV (Chicago), 1984, talk show host; King World Productions, 1985–, host of the Oprah Winfrey Show ; Harpo Productions, 1986–, producer, chief executive officer, and chairman; Oxygen Media, 1998–, partner; Hearst Magazines, 2000–, editorial director of O: The Oprah Magazine .
Awards: Woman of Achievement Award, National Organization for Women, 1986; named one of the Ten Most Admired Women, Playgirl , 1986; Emmy Award for best daytime talk show host, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1987, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1995, and 1997; named Broadcaster of the Year, International Radio and Television Society, 1988; Entertainer of the Year Award, NAACP, 1989; Image Award, NAACP, 1989, 1991, 1992, and 1994; Industry Achievement Award, Broadcast Promotion Marketing Executives/Broadcast Design Association, 1991; Horatio Alger Award, Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, 1993; named to the Television Academy Hall of Fame, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1994; Gold Medal, International Television and Radio Society, 1996; Lifetime Achievement Award, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1998; National Book Awards 50th Anniversary Gold Medal, National Book Foundation, 1999; Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, 2002; named to the Hall of Fame, Broadcasting & Cable , 2002.
Publications: Make the Connection: Ten Steps to a Better Body—and a Better Life (with Bob Greene), 1996; The Uncommon Wisdom of Oprah Winfrey: A Portrait in Her Own Words (edited by Bill Adler), 1996; Journey to
Beloved, 1998; Oprah Winfrey Speaks: Insight from the World's Most Influential Voice (edited by Janet Lowe), 1998.
Address: Harpo Productions, 110 North Carpenter Street, Chicago, Illinois 60607-2145; http://www.oprah.com.
■ Coming from life in a home with no electricity or running water and having suffered misery and severe abuse, Oprah Gail Winfrey became one of the most influential people in history as host of The Oprah Winfrey Show , which reached more than 20 million Americans five days a week and tens of millions more in 107 other countries. By age 49 she was a self-made billionaire, ruler of a vast entertainment and communications empire. Indeed, she was a symbol of what an individual person could achieve in America, and around the world were people who, when asked, declared that the person they most wished to be like was "Oprah Winfrey."
Winfrey was born out of wedlock to an impoverished young woman, Vernita Lee, in Mississippi at a time when segregation in that state denied basic civil rights to African Americans. Her mother named several different men as potential fathers to Winfrey, but only one man, Vernon Winfrey, a sailor in the U.S. Navy, took responsibility for the child. Throughout her life, Winfrey would refuse to have the tests done that would determine whether Vernon was her biological father.
Lee left her baby daughter with her own mother, the owner of a remote pig farm. Her grandmother provided Winfrey with a stern disciplinary environment in which church played a big role. In 1956 Winfrey astonished church members by delivering a reading and interpretation of a part of the Bible. Her grandmother had taught her to read, and reading would always be a source of inspiration and solace for Winfrey. In 1960 she was sent from the farm that lacked electricity and running water to her mother's Milwaukee home, which was tiny; Winfrey missed being able to play with animals but kept roaches as pets. Unable to care for her daughter, Lee soon sent her to Nashville to live with her father and his wife, Zelma, who loved the little girl. When Lee asked to have her daughter back for a summer's visit, the Winfreys reluctantly let her go; she would not return until 1968.
At first, Winfrey did well in school; she skipped over kindergarten to first grade and then over second grade to third grade. But in 1963 Winfrey was raped by a 19-year-old cousin; at least two other relatives molested her. To encourage boys to like her, she was sexually promiscuous. She was very rebellious; her mother tried to have her put in juvenile hall, which had no room to spare, so she sent Winfrey back to her father. At 14, Winfrey became pregnant, and, at first, she named several possible fathers. Eventually she insisted the father had to be her own father's brother. The baby was stillborn. Her father was a remarkable man, who accepted Winfrey as his daughter without question and who made it clear to her that he wanted her to be his daughter. He and his wife gave Winfrey a disciplined home environment. She was required to read books and, every two weeks, to write a report about what she had read, instilling a habit of reading that Winfrey continued for the rest of her life. She had to wear conservative, standard schoolgirl clothing at all times, to do her homework, and to behave respectfully toward grownups. Winfrey would often tell others that her father had saved her life.
Even as a small child, Winfrey would say that she wanted to make her living by talking, for she was a gifted, quick-witted speaker. In 1971, partly on the basis of her brilliant public speaking, she won the Miss Nashville Fire Prevention beauty and talent contest, which led to a job reading the news at the WVOL radio station. She chafed under her father and stepmother's curfew rules, because she was earning $15,000 per year—a good salary at the time—and felt that she was demonstrating grownup responsibility. Even after she took a job anchoring the news broadcasts of Nashville's WTVF-TV, the restrictions required by her parents remained. When, in 1976, Baltimore's WJZ-TV offered her a job anchoring the news, she leaped at the chance. She was a senior at Tennessee State University with only a few months to go for her degree, but as a friend pointed out to her, the WJZ-TV job was the chance of a lifetime. Her bosses at WJZ-TV wanted her to have plastic surgery to move her eyes closer together and to narrow her nose (she refused). They sent her to a hairdresser to make her hair more chic; the hairdresser burned the hair off her head, making her bald save for three little hairs over her forehead; her head proved too big for wigs, so she wore scarves while she was on the air, until her hair grew back.
In 1977 she was switched to cohosting a morning talk show; her gift of gab and her knack for asking the questions most listeners wanted to have answered turned the show into a hit. In 1984 her producer at WJZ-TV, Debra DiMaio, took a job in Chicago at WLS-TV. She brought with her a tape of Winfrey at work and showed it to Dennis Swanson, who immediately wanted to hire Winfrey to host the morning talk show A.M. Chicago . Winfrey was afraid that a heavyset black woman would be unwelcome on television in Chicago, which had a reputation for racial conflict, but Swanson insisted. Winfrey accepted the job, and WJZ-TV let her out of her contract. She then visited a Chicago lawyer, Jeff Jacobs, to gain his help with her contract negotiations; he became her lifelong adviser and business manager. Smart, honest, and devoted to Winfrey's well-being, he had a hand in all of her business dealings from 1984 onward. Within four weeks, opposite the dominating Donahue talk show (with host Phil Donahue), Winfrey's show went from last in the ratings in Chicago to first for its time slot. She had shown that her appeal transcended ethnicity.
The year 1985 was momentous for Winfrey. Her talk show was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show , and Jacobs negotiated a national syndication deal with the owners of syndication company King World, Mike and Roger King, two persuasive salesmen who quickly sold the show to 138 stations in the United States. Jacobs got Winfrey 25 percent of the gross King World made from the show, and from a salary of $230,000 per year at WLS-TV, Winfrey's income leaped to over $30 million for her first year in syndication. Also in 1986 The Color Purple , a motion picture based on one of her favorite books, came out. In it, she played Sofia, and her dazzling performance received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for best supporting actress, although she did not win.
She played the mother of the protagonist in the motion picture Native Son ; though she was praised for her performance by critics, she was unhappy with the motion picture, which quickly died at the box office. Wanting to control the content of her productions, in 1986 Winfrey founded Harpo Productions, giving a 5 percent share to Jacobs. ("Harpo" was "Oprah" spelled backward.) This studio was set up in a former ice-skating rink and became a large production company that made motion pictures and miniseries for the ABC network and eventually produced The Oprah Winfrey Show . It was in May 1986 that she met Stedman Graham Jr., a tall, movie-star-handsome, successful businessman, and the two fell in love. Although they announced their engagement in 1992, they did not marry.
In 1989 Winfrey made Jacobs president of Harpo. Like Winfrey, he had a great deal of common sense, and he gave the young business stability. That year Winfrey produced and acted in the television miniseries The Women of Brewster Place , based on one of her favorite novels. It did well, and a dramatic series Brewster Place starring Winfrey was spun off in 1990, but it failed after only a few episodes were aired.
In 1992 Winfrey began a series of prime-time specials called Oprah: Behind the Scenes , about Winfrey's interviews of famous people. In a separately produced show, syndicated to more than 50 countries by King World, Winfrey interviewed the singer Michael Jackson for prime time; the interview aired February 10, 1993, and 39 percent of American homes tuned in to the show. Winfrey typically hired friends for jobs at Harpo Productions, people whose characters she knew and whom she trusted. This may be why by 2000 her top 10 executives each had logged over 10 years' employment at Harpo Productions. One such friend was Tim Bennett, who had been program director for Chicago's WLS-TV when Oprah first worked there. Bennett became chief operations officer for Harpo Productions, and he organized the company into departments and clarified the company's capital structure.
Ever since coming to Chicago, Winfrey had given 10 percent of her income to charities, mostly having to do with youths, education, and books. In 1996 she began Oprah's Book Club to promote reading, for which she recommended a recently published book each month. One show each month would focus discussion on the book. Such was her influence that within minutes of her recommendations, booksellers would be swamped with orders for the books; sales for the books typically increased by 500,000 to one million copies, and previously obscure authors would become major literary figures. In 2000 Winfrey began O: The Oprah Magazine , which topped two million in circulation. In 2001 the magazine grossed over $140 million. On April 4, 2002, Winfrey announced that she was exhausted by reading so many books to single out ones to recommend, and she ended her book club, but in March 2003 she announced that she was going to start a classics book club, featuring three authors per year. She called it "Traveling with the Classics." In 2002 Harpo Productions began producing Dr. Phil , featuring a forensic psychiatrist who had frequently appeared on Winfrey's show as a family counselor, becoming a fixture. In 2003 her personal fortune topped $1 billion.
See also entries on Harpo Entertainment Group, The Hearst Corporation, and King World Productions, Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories .
Mair, George, Oprah Winfrey: The Real Story , New York: Birch Lane Press, 1994.
Sellers, Patricia, "The Business of Being Oprah: She Talked Her Way to the Top of Her Own Media Empire and Amassed a $1 Billion Fortune: Now She's Asking, 'What's Next?'" Fortune , April 1, 2002, pp. 50–64.
—Kirk H. Beetz