She’s changed TV history, revolutionised the book world and made a president. Just how did Oprah Winfrey effortlessly conquer the globe?
Meet the woman with the golden touch. A woman whose stamp of approval takes Spanx from little-known underwear brand to £220 million sales, whose mere mention of the Kindle sells out their entire stock, and whose compliment to a bakery takes owner Lori Karmel from bankruptcy to a £630,000 turnover. Her book club recommendation sent Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (written in 1873) shooting to the top of the bestseller list. One rally at her home in 2007 and presidential nominee Obama was £1.9 million and an estimated one million votes richer.
This is a woman who runs two magazines with more than 15 million readers, and whose covers feature her face every single month. Her talk show, the most watched in America, is licensed in 145 countries and averages 40 million viewers a week. Her public charity, Oprah’s Angel Network, has raised more than £50 million since its creation in 1998. She owns a production company, website and radio station and just last month launched her own television network called OWN.
Feeling exhausted just reading? We haven’t even finished yet. She also owns seven homes, is named alongside Jesus and Elvis as one of the 100 people who changed the world by Life Magazine, and according to Forbes’ rich list has a fortune of $2.7 billion, making her the richest self-made woman in America. Businesswoman, philanthropist, megabrand. This is Oprah Winfrey.
But as her ground-breaking show enters its 25th and final season this year, what’s next for one of the world’s biggest brands?
If it wasn’t for a spelling mistake it would be Orpah we’d be admiring, the bible character chosen as the namesake for a girl born to unmarried teenage parents with very little fanfare in 1954 in the small city of Kosciusko, Mississippi. But a misspelling on the birth certificate saw Oprah Gail Winfrey come into the world. Oprah’s childhood was far from idyllic, although there’s no doubt it sowed the seeds for the person she was to become. Having previously lived with her grandmother, she was sent to live with her mother Vernita Lee at the age of six. Oprah has since stated that she suffered sexual abuse as a child. By 14 she had run away, was living with her father Vernon Winfrey in Nashville, and was pregnant. Dealing with a father who told her he “would rather see a daughter of mine floating down the Cumberland River than to bring shame on this family and the indecency of an illegitimate child”, she drank detergent and, in 1968 in total secrecy, gave birth to a son who died shortly after he was born.
It was a childhood that would have destroyed many, but as Oprah told Piers Morgan (watched by 2 million viewers) three weeks ago on CNN’s Tonight show, losing the baby was her “second chance” at life. Her father’s strict regime of discipline saw her become an honour student, but her childhood gave her something else: a compassionate and open persona that would become her winning trademark.
It took a while for others to see the charms of her emotional side though. After being spotted at a beauty pageant and appointed radio news anchor in Nashville aged 19, she became the city’s first black TV correspondent in 1973 but was fired when producers became frustrated at her habit of laughing at inadvertently funny items, or from being visibly affected by upsetting ones.
In 1976, she moved to Baltimore; the city would provide both an outlet for her empathetic confessional approach. It was also where she met her lifelong best friend. The then 21-year-old Gayle King was a production assistant and Oprah a news anchor. “We wound up talking all night long,” says King. “It was like we were 13. We found we have very similar philosophies about life and people.”
They clearly had similarly successful futures to look forward to. By 1978, Oprah was co-host on Baltimore’s People Are Talking. By 1984, she had transformed the ailing morning show AM Chicago into a big success. Fast forward 12 months and it was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show and became the biggest talk show in the country. Twenty-five years later, it still is.
So what was it about Oprah that made a country fall in love? Oprah’s then unique brand of honest, confessional and open presenting charmed viewers. She spoke candidly about the attempts of her early bosses to change her appearance, creating a vulnerability that stood out among her talk show rivals.
“She was transparent and authentic before those things were cool,” says Arianna Huffington, the editor of political website The Huffington Post. “We went through her battles with her. Now with social media, those things are the coin of the realm, but she got there before the rest of us did.”
In effect she helped create ‘group therapy TV’ – and Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake and the UK’s Jeremy Kyle and Trisha Goddard simply followed her lead. One of her biggest draws was her weight battle, an issue that she still deals with today. In a country where 58 million are overweight, she found a gush of empathy when she admitted she’d tried “just about every diet known to womankind” – here was a woman sharing a recognisable battle with millions. In 1988 she appeared on stage in a pair of size 10 Calvin Klein jeans, wheeling a wagon with 67lbs of fat onto the stage, representing the weight she’d lost. It drew her biggest ratings to date.
When she gained it back again she revealed to her viewers the pain the weight loss took. “I had starved myself for four months – not a morsel of food – to get into that pair of jeans,” Oprah remembers. “Two hours after that show, I started eating to celebrate – of course, within two days those jeans no longer fit!”