From rags to riches: The story of Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey | Courtesy of Pinterest

Oprah Winfrey is an actress, talk show host, philanthropist, producer, and more. One of the major things that she is known for is The Oprah Winfrey Show. This show broke records and made Winfrey into the star that she is known as today. Her charisma and her fun personality make people want to know more about her and her personal life. Not only does Winfrey run a successful business, but she also gives back to the community. She opens her heart and gives back to communities that need someone to lift them up. Oprah Winfrey is a strong, wise, and inspirational woman who was determined to make a name for herself despite her rough childhood. Life for young Oprah was not always easy, but she believed that could do it, so she did.

Oprah Gail Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954, on a farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Oprah was named after the biblical character who was the sister-in-law of Ruth. Oprah’s aunt thought of the character named Orpah but somehow the name was misspelled on the birth certificate and was changed to the famous name that it is now. Oprah’s mother, Vernita Lee, wanted to leave the small town behind and move on to a better life in the north. She moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, leaving Oprah in the care of Vernita’s mother Hattie Mae. Hattie Mae wanted the best education for Oprah, so she started to tutor the little girl to read, write, and calculate math by the age of three. Oprah was very invested in the church at an early age, and would recite and perform frequently in front of her church congregation. Her first performance was at the age of three, and she spoke about Jesus who rose from the dead—on Easter day. The neighborhood soon gave her the nicknames “the Little Speaker,” “the Preacher,” and “Miss Jesus.” Oprah’s classmates became jealous of her being praised, and they began to pick on her. Oprah recalled that most children her age did not like her, but her teacher loved her. She would play with the pigs on her farm and read Bible stories to the farm animals whenever she had free time. Her grandmother kept her on a strict schedule that made her do lots of the daily farm chores.1 Life on the farm was a bit lonely, but at the same time, it was nice for Oprah to have the chance to bond with her grandmother.

Oprah Winfrey as a young child | Courtesy of Pinterest

It was in 1960 that Vernita Lee came back for Oprah, because she felt that she was in a more stable place at the time. She began working as a maid in multiple homes, and was managing with the help of her boyfriend at the time. Oprah’s mother also had another child with that boyfriend named Patricia. Oprah and Patricia lived in a small one-bedroom apartment with Vernita, hoping that her boyfriend would marry her so they could move into his house. Soon after Oprah had arrived, the boyfriend dumped Vernita, leaving the three of them in the cramped apartment. Vernita thought that it was best that Oprah move back with her grandmother, due to the lack of space. Hattie Mae was getting old, so Vernon Winfrey and Zelma, Oprah’s father and stepmother, decided to take Oprah in. Vernon Winfrey was a veteran from the army and lived comfortably with his new wife in Nashville, Tennessee. Zelma had been experiencing trouble with her pregnancies, which had led to a number of miscarriages. It was exciting for Zelma to finally get a daughter, Oprah. Vernon and Zelma put Oprah on a strict schedule, where she had to read a book every week and write a report on it. This helped to develop Oprah’s writing skills tremendously. She won an award of $500 for a speech that she wrote at the age of seven.2

Soon after Oprah had begun to settle down in her father’s home, Oprah’s mother demanded Oprah back. Vernita had another boyfriend who promised to marry her, and Vernita gave birth to a boy named Jeffrey. Vernita’s boyfriend soon dumped the mother leaving Oprah, Jeffrey, Patricia, her mother, and other family members and friends to live in a two-bedroom apartment.3 With so many people in the house, and her mother working long hours, Oprah was often left alone with her babysitter. Oprah was nine years old when she was first raped by her then nineteen-year-old cousin who was babysitting her. Sadly, this was not the only time that Oprah experienced this. She was also sexually abused by her uncle, her mother’s boyfriend, and a family friend.4 Oprah blamed herself for the abuse that she was encountering. She recalled that she felt confused, was in pain, and was forced not to tell anybody. The next day, her cousin took Oprah to get ice cream and convinced her not to tell anyone about what happened. Oprah was left to harbor this dark secret at such a young age.

Oprah focused her energy on her books to escape the pain that she was experiencing at home. Gene Abram, one of Oprah’s teachers, saw how passionate Oprah was about reading and helped her to apply to a prestigious all-white high school. Oprah was awarded a full scholarship to Nicolet High School in the wealthy part of Milwaukee. In 1968, Oprah started to attend the high school, becoming the only African American child in the whole school. Oprah felt out of place again, but this time it was for the way she dressed and for her skin color. At fourteen years old, she started to run away from home, sleep with twenty-year-old men, and talk back to her mother. She would steel her mother’s money to buy cloths to try to fit in at school. And Oprah was also dealing with all the dark secrets that she was harboring inside herself, and nowhere seemed safe anymore. She began to spiral out of control, which became too much for her mother. Vernita figured out that she was living a double life, and decided that it was best for her to go live with her father. A few weeks after she had returned to Nashville, Zelma discovered that the fourteen-year-old Oprah was pregnant. She gave birth to a boy, but he died shortly two weeks after his birth. Oprah finally opened up about her double life to her parents, and everyone was left shocked. Vernon and Zelma became very strict with Oprah again.5

The death of her son and living under her father’s regulations was also a turning point for Oprah. She changed how she dressed and acted, and she started to concentrate on school again. She got very involved in school, in drama, in the debate club, and in the student council. When Oprah graduated from high school she received a scholarship to Tennessee State University. While majoring in speech and communication, she began to work at the local radio station WVOL. CBS saw her talent from one of her sessions on the station, and they offered her a job. She turned them down a few times, but decided to take the job after her speech teacher convinced her. But taking the job meant that Oprah would not finish college, which was a major concern for Oprah and for her father. Thankfully her teacher explained how important it was for Oprah to take the job. It was a great opportunity, and it convinced Oprah that she was meant to do something like that job for the rest of her life. This made Oprah the first African-American female newscaster in Nashville, and she was only nineteen years old at the time. She was then offered a job in Baltimore, Maryland, and became part of a morning show named the People Are Talking.6 The show at first struggled, but once Oprah was left do her own thing, the show started to become successful.

Oprah lasted on the show for about seven years. She came to a point where she needed a change in her life. The show opened her eyes and helped her to see that she truly enjoyed engaging with audiences and doing interviews. With the discipline that she learned as a child, and her ambitious nature, she knew that she could spread her wings now. She created tapes of herself and sent them to a talk show in Chicago named A.M. Chicago.7 They offered her the job and they changed the name of the show to The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah wanted to focus on interesting topics, and soon those topics became controversial. They accelerated the ratings of the show, with the help of famous celebrities appearing on it. The first episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired in 1985.8 The show broke records and became the highest-rated daytime show. The Oprah Winfrey Show is just one of the achievements that Oprah has done so far. She has been involved in a number of different projects, like passing a bill, creating a school, and winning prestigious awards.

Oprah Winfrey on her show | Courtesy of Pinterest

By the end of the first year of the show, it had generated $125 million, with Oprah receiving $30 million of it. Also in 1985, Oprah made her first movie appearance in The Color Purple, which also became a hit. From 1987 to 1998, she won the Daytime Emmy Award for the best talk show host for The Oprah Winfrey Show. She then created her own network named Harpo Inc. With her own network, she produced shows that she felt should be aired and what she wanted to watch.9 At first, it struggled financially but it soon succeeded with popular shows like Greenleaf. Oprah started to spend her time working on projects that she was truly passionate about. With her troubled childhood, Oprah used her platform to fight for children rights.

In 1991, Oprah testified about the terrible events she endured as a child in support of the National Child Protection Act. She apparently became very emotional during the testimony but tried to compose herself. The bill required a nationwide database of convicted child abuser. At first, it was rejected, but it finally passed the second time and was signed by President Bill Clinton. It is nicknamed the “Oprah Bill.”10 This was a very important achievement that Oprah did because it helped children and parents around the nation to some protection.

Oprah truly enjoys giving back to communities and believes that education is needed in every child’s life. When she visited Nelson Mandela in South Africa in 2002, they talked about how important education is to ending poverty in South Africa. She pledged to him that she would open a school to help the country. She opened the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls five years later. The academy hosts students from under-privileged backgrounds from the grades 8 to 12 to have the chance to become educated.11 Vernon and Hattie gave Oprah that passion to learn and learn well.

There are numerous amounts of awards that Oprah has won throughout her life. One of the most prestigious awards that Oprah has been given was the Presidential Medal of Freedom that was given to her by President Barack Obama. The award is the country’s highest honor for people who have provided the nation with national security and has shown public interest in United States. 12 While getting all these awards, Oprah has still managed to be a successful business women. According to the Forbes 2017 magazine, Oprah’s net worth is about $3 billion.13 Oprah still has much more that she wants to achieve, but has accomplished a lot so far.

President Barack Obama awards Oprah Winfrey with the Presidential Medal of Freedom | Courtesy of Pinterest

Oprah’s story shows how important education, faith, and hard work is. She is a true believer that working towards your goals will take all your effort, but it will be worth it. Even though at first, she was not completely sure what she wanted or where to go in her life, she secretly knew she would make it big in this world. People who met her saw the greatness that she processed even though she did not yet. Oprah was able to rise from her troubled childhood stronger and ready to conquer the world. One famous quote from her is “You become what you believe, not what you want or wish, but what you truly believe.”14.

  1. Thomas Gale, “Winfrey, Oprah” Encyclopedia.com (2005): 1.
  2.  George Mair, Oprah Winfrey The Real Story (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1994), 11-13.
  3. George Mair, Oprah Winfrey The Real Story (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1994), 14.
  4. Elizabeth Fry, “A childhood Biography of Oprah Winfrey,” ThoughtCo. (August 2017): 1.
  5.  George Mair, Oprah Winfrey The Real Story (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1994), 17-20.
  6. George Mair, Oprah Winfrey The Real Story (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1994), 35.
  7. George Mair, Oprah Winfrey The Real Story (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1994), 15-35.
  8. “Oprah Winfrey,” Biography (November 2017), 1.
  9. “Oprah Winfrey Fast Facts,” CNN, (May 2017): 1.
  10. Alyssa Fetini, “Putting Democracy to Work,” Time (May 2011).
  11. “Oprah Winfrey Fast Facts,” CNN, (May 2017): 1.
  12. “Oprah gets another award: The Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Washington Post, (November 2013): 1.
  13. Natalie Bobehmed, “America’s Richest Female Celebrities 2017: Oprah, Judge Judy, and Beyonce Rule,” Forbes, (May 2017): 1.
  14. Kanika Gautam “Oprah Winfrey’s Inspiring Speech at Harvard: Failure & Life,” Your Motivation Guru (October 2016): 1
From rags to riches: The story of Oprah Winfrey
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1 Comment

  • Everyone loves Oprah, I know I do because of her extremely admirable success, but I really had never looked into her backstory that much. It’s amazing how incredible Oprah was for enduring such a rough childhood, but being able to realize that her double life was something she was not. I admire how she was able to turn her life around after her low points, and was able to work hard, never give up and eventually achieve her biggest dreams.

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