There are two constants throughout the incredible, winding tale of the life of Oprah Winfrey: her passion for speaking and her skill at using it to connect with people. Both are abilities she developed at a young age and used over the course of her life to achieve her status as North America’s first black multi-billionaire and the richest African American of the 20th century. In addition to her billions, she’s amassed a media empire that has spawned magazines, books, a cable network, impacting the lives of millions upon millions of people and joining the ranks of only a few people in the world famous enough to be known by only their first name.
Throughout it all, from the stories of the people she's told to the things she shares that give her joy, it is Oprah's knack for making people feel more connected in a cold world that has made her an icon of a fulfilling, happy life.
Yet that is far from the reality of her upbringing. The positive energy that she exudes now makes it hard to imagine the early years marked by abuse and poverty. She was shipped between households, sexually assaulted by family members, lost a child she gave birth to as a teenager and, at points, reached a depression so deep she wanted to end it all.
But Oprah has found a way to bounce back from everything. Not just to overcome the obstacles that were put in front of her, but a way to make them a part of her story. More than her speaking or ability to connect, that fundamental openness might be what earned her the adoring fans she has today.
It is a willingness to be transparent, vulnerable and personal—and shed a tear along with her guests as they told their stories. And it transformed the way television interviews were done. That openness, combined with the smart and hard-working spirit, have allowed her to take her natural skills and write one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in America.
Rural Poverty and a Missing Mother
The name Oprah might be famous around the world today, but it wasn't the name Winfrey had when she was born in Kosciuscko, Mississippi in 1954. She was actually named Orpah, a name taken from the Bible, but enough years of it being mispronounced made it stick as Oprah. Her mother was 18 and unmarried when she gave birth and wasn't able to provide steadily for her daughter. She worked as a house maid and shuttled her daughter between houses in the family as she worked to make ends meet.
As a result, Oprah's earliest years were spent living not with her mother, but with her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, on a farm in rural Mississippi. Growing up there, Oprah experienced what can only be called abject poverty and abuse. Money was so scarce that Lee would send Oprah to school clothed in dresses made from old potato sacks. She would also frequently beat her granddaughter. Oprah remembers one time bringing water from the well in a bucket and, when her grandmother caught her playing in it with her hands, was whipped until she had welts on her back that bled through her dress. Which earned her another beating.
Oprah describes that as a time when children were to be seen and not heard, but she was determined to be anyway. Her grandmother once said that, as soon as her granddaughter learned to talk, she was on stage—and it didn't take long before Oprah was taking that literally.
She started speaking in church at a young age and reciting bible verses for her grandmother’s friends. She was already a bright kid who learned to read by the time she was 3 and even ended up skipping kindergarten because, on the second day of class, she wrote a note to the teacher saying she should be in first grade.
But the career she would later pursue was already showing itself too. When she played with her dolls—nothing more than corn cobs with toothpicks stuck in them—she didn't play house or baby them. She conducted interviews.
The great courageous act that we must all do, is to have the courage to step out of our history and past so that we can live our dreams.-Oprah Winfrey
The Beginning of a Nightmare
As hard as those early years were for Oprah, things were about to get worse. She left the farm where she lived with her grandmother at the age of 6 and moved to Milwaukee to be with her mother, who was too busy working to offer much support. In her absence, Oprah turned to TV for company, and it's there that the idea of being famous first occurred to her. She was uprooted again to live with her father in Tennessee for a while (where she again skipped a grade), but by the time she was in fourth grade, Oprah would settle down in Milwaukee—a choice that would turn out to be for the worst.
There, following the physical abuse from her grandmother, a pattern of sexual abuse began that continued for years. At the age of 9, she was raped by her cousin and then was continually sexually abused by other family members for years. Somehow, in spite of the trauma that was happening, it was during this time that Oprah was also discovering what she wanted to do with her life. She began giving paid speeches, after earning $500 at the age of 12 for giving one at a church, she decided that she wanted to get paid to speak.
But the abuse in Oprah's life started to become too much for her to handle. After enduring years of it, at 14, she gave birth as a result of yet another assault, and her son died within two weeks of being born. She had been doing well in school and even was transferred to a wealthy school in the suburbs as a result of her academic success. But for all of her public speaking opportunities, Oprah had no way to talk about the horrible things happening in her personal life and began acting out as a result. She started stealing money from her mother and getting into trouble and, before long, her mother sent her away to live with her father in Nashville again.
This time, a move would finally change her life for the better. More than just getting her out of the abusive situation she was in, Oprah's father became a firm, but positive presence in her life, giving her structure and raising the bar for what was expected for her. Pushing her to succeed. And under his guidance, she started to flourish. By the end of her high school career in Tennessee, Oprah's skills for communication and connection were starting to get her somewhere. She joined the speech team and placed second in a national competition. She was voted most popular in her high school. And as part of a Elks Club speaking contest, she won a scholarship to Tennessee State University where she would begin turning those childhood interviews with dolls into something much larger.
Trading College for a Career
In college, Oprah quickly began to outshine her circumstances. As a freshman, she was named Miss Black Nashville and Miss Black Tennessee at the age of 17. Then, as a sophomore, she caught the eye of a Nashville CBS affiliate who offered her a job. Oprah turned it down twice until a speech teacher pointed out to her that a job at CBS is exactly thing most people were going to college to try and get. So Oprah changed her mind and accepted, becoming the first first black anchor of the evening news there. It changed her life forever.
After setting her career in motion in Nashville, in 1976, Oprah took a career leap that laid the foundation for all of her professional success to come. She took a job and moved to Baltimore to become co-anchor on the 6 p.m. news at WJZ-TV.
The move turned out to be a disaster. She was sexually harassed constantly and fired within a year, being told that she was “unfit for television news.” Rather than give up on her dream, Oprah took a step down and worked in lower positions at the station for a while, until her big break came along—she was recruited as a co-anchor of a show called People are Talking. That was just the opportunity she needed.
Oprah had felt constrained by the limits of hard news reporting but, in the new setting of a morning show, she was free. All those years of public speaking and her passion for connection were finally allowed to shine—and, over the next several years, her uniquely personal style built an audience that outpaced that of her main rival, Phil Donahue. And there, working in Baltimore, she would meet someone who would put her at the top of not just the local market, but the national one—her producer Debra Dimaio.
The Oprah Winfrey Show is Born
While Oprah was working in Baltimore, Dimaio sent a tape of her to an ABC affiliate in Chicago. When the general manager saw it, he invited Oprah and Dimaio to come and work at A.M. Chicago—what was then the last-place rated show in the market. They took the opportunity anyway. Their first episode aired on Jan. 2, 1984, and in their hands it became a success almost overnight. It shot from last place in the ratings to first in three months, beating Donahue again.
In 1985, the show caught the eye of Quincey Jones, who was then producing The Color Purple with Stephen Spielberg, and he cast Oprah as the co-star of the film. It earned Oprah an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress, and it was around that time that she caught the attention of movie critic Roger Ebert, who got her to sign a deal to distribute her show nationally. He saw incredible potential, and he was right.
When she signed the deal, her program was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show and extended to a full hour and, when it launched nationally on Sept. 8, 1986, it aired in 138 markets—the largest debut for national syndication that had ever happened.
Building an Empire
The rest, as they say, is history. With a platform finally matched to the size of her passion, Oprah's transparency and openness only became more and more impressive as she grew more and more famous. The show aired for 25 seasons, and saw her fame grow every year until her vision grew so large that she left to create her own network. People even whisper rumors about her running for president. Not bad for a woman who spent her early years dressed in little more than rags.
Looking back at those early years, the rise to fame that Oprah has lived was anything but probable. She found a way to take the hardship that she experienced along the way and use it to her advantage the way all self-made greats have. Rather than hide her sexual assaults, she talked about them openly on the show and never tried to hide the story of her poverty. Thanks to her openness, the world was invited to share in her ever-expanding story of success, even as they made it happen. And while Oprah built herself a life of joy and happiness, they were shown how they could do it too.