Oprah Winfrey Biography: Life and Career

After growing up in poverty, Oprah Winfrey built an empire and has become one of the most influential and richest women in the world. After debuting her nationally syndicated talk show in 1986, she turned the tabloid talk show format on its head and overtook other talk shows in the ratings. Oprah’s popularity has stemmed from her ability to emote with people, and her lasting power is the proof. Not only a gifted television host, she is also a philanthropist and a talented actress, with an Academy Award nomination under her belt. In this video, WatchMojo.com takes a look at the life and career of Oprah Winfrey.

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Oprah Winfrey Biography: Life and Career

She is often called the most powerful and influential woman in the world. Learn about the life and career of Oprah.

Early Years

Oprah Gail Winfrey was born January 29th, 1954 in rural Mississippi. Much of her turbulent youth was spent in poverty, and she was constantly moved around the country to live with various family members before she had even reached her teens.

Gifted Student and Television Personality

Oprah displayed great intelligence and speaking abilities early on, and these were encouraged by her grandmother and father. She went on to win a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, where she studied communications. Winfrey worked at a local radio station and moved to a local Nashville television station, where she became the youngest news anchor and the first black female news anchor.

AM Chicago and the Oprah Winfrey Show

She finally relocated to Illinois and took over hosting duties of AM Chicago. Just months later, the show had overtaken Phil Donahue’s talk show in the ratings. She quickly signed a syndication deal and on September 8th, 1986, the first country-wide, hour-long Oprah Winfrey Show debuted. It was also around this time that Harpo Productions was founded, with Winfrey as president.

The Oprahfication of Television

As a host, Winfrey was credited with being better attuned to her audience than other talk show personalities of the day, and with changing the tabloid format. She was able to connect with her audience and interviewees by revealing stories about her past: for example in 1986 she disclosed that she had been molested in her youth. She was also vocal about her weight and relationship problems. In fact, this type of public confessional therapy was dubbed the “Oprahfication” of television.

Oprah's Effect on Gay Culture

Oprah also helped raise the profile of gay, bisexual, transsexual, and transgender people, and this helped those groups gain mainstream acceptance. Aside from addressing the issues on her talk show, Winfrey also guest-starred as a therapist who helped Ellen DeGeneres come out of the closet on her sitcom in 1997.

A Broader Format

By the 1990s, her show had broadened its format. She discussed health, spirituality, literature and social issues, in addition to the celebrity interviews for which she had become famous.

Memorable Moments

In 1993, Oprah made television history once again. Her primetime interview with Michael Jackson became the most watched interview ever, and boasted a worldwide audience of over 100 million. Oprah also made memories when she wheeled a wagon full of fat onto her set in 1988, and when Tom Cruise infamously jumped on her couch in 2005.

Oprah's Influence

Winfrey’s talk show also resulted in something called “the Oprah effect.” This was the suggestion that Oprah Winfrey and her show were powerful enough to influence the American public in terms of book sales, religion, spirituality and even political opinions.

OWN Network and the End of the Oprah Winfrey Show

In 2000, Winfrey helped found the Oxygen television network. And, in January 2008, Oprah announced she would be starting her own specialty television channel, called OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, and it launched in 2011. That same year, after twenty five years on the air, The Oprah Winfrey Show aired its last new episode on May 25th, 2011. Despite a fall in ratings, the show had remained the number one talk show since it first aired in 1986.


Oprah spent much of her career in front of the camera, but not all as host of her talk show. In 1985 she starred in the Steven Spielberg film The Color Purple, and this role garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. In 1998, she produced and starred in the film adaptation of the novel Beloved. She went on to produce films and lend her voice to a number of children’s features.

O Magazine and Celebrity Experts

Winfrey has also found success in the magazine industry with her booming O Magazine, which debuted in 2000. She further proved her influence by transforming a number of television personalities into household names, including Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Rachael Ray, Nate Berkus, and her long-time best-friend Gayle King.

Success and Philanthropy

With a net worth that approaches $3 billion, Oprah can count herself as the world’s first black female billionaire, as well as the United States’ richest self-made woman. She is considered the most influential African American of her generation, and the most influential American woman in history. And, she donates more of her money to charity than anyone else in show business and is an extremely active philanthropist.


While Oprah has not been immune to controversy, she has always faced her detractors head-on. After building an empire from nothing, Oprah Winfrey has indelibly influenced, and will long be remembered for her contributions to popular culture.

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