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About Oprah: Biography and Timeline of a Successful Icon

Updated on June 28, 2012

All About Oprah

Biography of an Icon

"Icon" is a term tossed around lightly, but few people would deny that Oprah can claim the word in its greatest sense. Television star, movie star, mogul, and internationally-recognized philanthropist, Oprah has come to define the pinnacle of success for millions of women. Perhaps most inspiring of all is Oprah's roots - she came neither from money nor fame, and in fact, pain and tragedy defined much of her early life. Yet, by sheer strength of will and iron determination, Oprah rose to prominence and success in a time when Black women struggled to receive basic human respect, let alone a TV show.

When we talk about Oprah, we cannot get very far without talking about where Oprah started. This article will explore her early life and detail her various struggles and triumphs.

Oprah is known as much for her philanthropy as for her media success.
Oprah is known as much for her philanthropy as for her media success. | Source

Oprah's Biography

Early Life

Oprah led a difficult young life, beginning with her birth. Her mother, Vernita Lee, just a teenager at the time of Oprah's birth, had little to no financial support. For much of her life, Oprah believed a man named Vernon Winfrey to be her father. Lee maintained that Oprah had been the product of a single sexual encounter that ended with a breakup soon after. Not until much later did another man, Noah Robinson Sr., step forward and claim to be Oprah's real biological father.

Unwed and without money, Lee moved the family north to live with her mother. Oprah's grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, lived in a state of poverty, and financial want defined most of Oprah's early childhood. Hattie Mae poured most of her energy into educating and caring for Oprah, who under her grandmother's stern but loving eye, learned to read by the age of three. Oprah also developed a keen interest in scripture memorization at the prodding of her grandmother.

At age six, Oprah and her mother, Lee, moved to a Milwaukee. Shortly thereafter, Lee gave birth to Patricia, Oprah's half-sister who would pass away in 2003 from complications related to a cocaine addition. By 1962, the burden of supporting two children on her own motivated Lee to send Oprah to live for a short time with Oprah's biological father, Vernon Winfrey. During Oprah's absence, Lee gave birth to a third daughter, whom she put up for adoption in the face of insurmountable financial troubles.

Lee's decision to move to Milwaukee would ultimately prove disastrous for Oprah. Less sensitive and devoted than Hattie Mae, either due to her personality or the demands on her time, Lee often failed to provide a nurturing environment. Lee eventually found work as a maid, and as a result of her long hours at work, offered little supervision, and tragically, little protection.

Oprah's Adolescence

At the age of nine, Oprah became a victim of molestation at the hands of friends and family. Eventually, under the emotional and physical strain of the abuse, Oprah attempted to run away from home. She was caught and sent to live in a juvenile detention home. Even that afforded her no relief. Due to a lack of beds, the detention home turned her out.

By 14, Oprah was on her own. Within a year, she became pregnant and, in yet another example of tragedy, her infant son died shortly after his birth. Not long after, Oprah went to Nashville to live with Vernon Winfrey, her biological father. Though strict, as Hattie Mae had been, Vernon offered Oprah a chance at security and consistency. For the first time in a long time, Oprah had what she needed to prosper. She excelled at her studies and won honors for oratory and dramatic recitation.

Oprah Shines

Her big break came at age 17, when she won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant and received a job offer from WVOL, a radio station aimed at the African American community. She continued working for WVOL into college, but by this time, she had already found success in television broadcasting. Ultimately, she left school and began work at a local television station. She was the first African American woman at the station, and the youngest person ever, to anchor the news.

Her career took Oprah to Baltimore in 1976 to the WJZ-TV News team as co-anchor. Here, she worked as a reporter while co-hosting a talk show, People Are Talking. Here, Oprah found her calling: engaging with people meaningfully in a public forum. People Are Talking flew to the top of the local ratings. Impressed with her success, WLS-TV in Chicago soon offered Oprah their failing morning program.

Within a year, by 1985, Oprah had turned AM Chicago into an unmitigated success. Wise to Oprah's potential, WLS-TV extended the AM Chicago time slot to one hour and renamed it The Oprah Winfrey Show. Buoyed by Oprah's charm, The Oprah Winfrey Show went on to win an Emmy in its first year. Time wrote of her -

What she lacks in journalistic toughness, she makes up for in plainspoken curiosity, robust humor and, above all empathy. Guests with sad stories to tell are apt to rouse a tear in Oprah's eye. [...] They, in turn, often find themselves revealing things they would not imagine telling anyone, much less a national TV audience. It is the talk show as group therapy session.

The Oprah Winfrey Show followed a very similar format to those of other shows in its first few years. However, by the early nineties, Oprah had taken it in a new direction. Rather than bring on a string of sensational guests with sensational stories, Oprah began to emphasize spiritual and physical well-being. This change complemented Oprah's own personal struggle with good health.

The early '90s also brought politics and social justice to the forefront of Oprah's career. Following Oprah's 1986 revelation to her audience of the sexual molestation she endured as a child, she began agitating for the National Child Protection Act, which would create a registry of all convicted child abusers. Due no small part to Oprah's hard work and the testimony she supplied the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, the "Oprah Bill" was signed into law in 1993.

A Media Mogul Comes into Her Own

By 1993, the biggest movers and shakers in entertainment had come to recognize Oprah as a real force in media. Her 1993 interview with Michael Jackson remains the most watched interview in television history with 100 million viewers. Her receipt of the 1998 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences confirmed her position as a cultural icon.

Oprah branched out into different media, incorporating a book club into The Oprah Winfrey Show, which made and broke bestsellers and brought classics to the bookshelves of a generation that had almost forgotten them. She furthered her foray into print media when in 2000, she launched O, The Oprah Magazine, which went international in 2002.

Then, in 2008, came the announcement that Oprah would be ending The Oprah Winfrey Show to retool the Discovery Health Channel as OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. After 24 seasons in 140 countries, countless awards and timeless guests, The Oprah Winfrey Show came to a close on May 25, 2011.


Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls

Oprah contributed more than $40 million toward the development of a high-tech and independent school for girls in South Africa. Intended to teach and empower young girls to grow into strong and knowledgeable women, the school provides opportunities to disadvantaged young girls.

The Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program

Oprah Winfrey has dedicated millions of dollars to helping determined young people with an aim toward bettering their communities achieve an education. While the fund emphasizes assistance for minorities, it welcomes all applicants.

The Oprah Winfrey Foundation

With several hundred grants and contributions to community-serving organizations, the Oprah Winfrey Foundation has supported the education of women, children, and families around the world.

Oprah's Angel Network

The Network has raised over $80 million for charitable causes across the globe. 100 percent of each donated dollar goes to charity. As a result of this outstanding philanthropic effort, 60 schools in 13 countries teach children in disadvantaged parts of the world. This network has built homes, youth centers, and shelters, and made possible the dreams of countless young men and women.

Oprah Timeline



  • January 29, 1954 - Oprah is born to Vernita Lee in Kosciusko, Mississippi.


  • Oprah and her mother move to Milwaukee.


  • Lee sends Oprah to live with her biological father, Vernon, in Nashville.


  • Oprah runs away from home; later, she claimed that sexual abuse had motivated this decision.


  • At the age of 14, Oprah becomes pregnant, but loses the infant boy shortly after giving birth.


  • Oprah starts high school. Her academic success earns her a transfer from Lincoln High School to Nicolet High School, located in a wealthy suburban area.


  • Oprah wins the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant, and soon after, receives a job offer from WVOL, a local radio station in Nashville with a focus on the African American community.


  • Oprah starts work at WVOL.


  • Oprah becomes the first African-American woman, as well as the youngest person ever, to anchor the news at WTVF-TV in Nashville.


  • Oprah moves to Baltimore to join the WJZ-TV News team as co-anchor, where she also co-hosted People are Talking, her first talk show.


  • Oprah moves to Chicago to host AM Chicago, which fast becomes the number one local talk show. One month after she started, WLS-TV renamed the show The Oprah Winfrey Show and extended her time slot to one hour.


  • Oprah plays "Sofia" in Spielberg's The Color Purple, based on the classic 1940 novel by Richard Wright. Oprah's debut acting performance landed her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.


  • Oprah reveals to her viewers that she had endured sexual abuse at the hands of trusted family and friends during her childhood.


  • The Oprah Winfrey Show receives its first Daytime Emmy.


  • Oprah opens her own studio, Harpo Studios. This act makes her only the third woman in the history of American entertainment to own her own studio.


  • A family member betrays Oprah's confidence and sells the story of her teen pregnancy to the National Enquirer.


  • Oprah advocates for the creation of the National Child Protection Act, which aimed to establish a national database of convicted child abusers.


  • President Bill Clinton signs into law the National Child Protection Act, nicknamed the "Oprah Bill."


  • Oprah debuts her on-air book club.


  • Oprah creates the public charity, Oprah's Angel Network.


  • Oprah creates O, The Oprah Magazine.


  • O Magazine goes international by releasing its first issue in South Africa.


  • Patricia, Oprah's sister, passes away from complications related to cocaine addiction.


  • Oprah debuts as a Broadway producer for the musical "The Color Purple," which would go on to become a Tony Award winner.


  • Oprah announces her plans to create OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.
  • Oprah publicly endorses Barack Obama for the presidency of the United States.
  • On Larry King, Oprah announces her plans to end The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011.


  • OWN debuts on January 1, 2011.


Works Consulted

"Oprah Winfrey: Lady with a Calling,"Time. 8 August 1988.

Garson, Helen S. Oprah Winfrey: A Biography. Greenwood: 2004.

"Oprah Winfrey's Official Biography," 18 August 2011. <>.

"Oprah Winfrey Biography," Academy of Achievement. 18 August 2011. <>.


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