Oprah Winfrey, born January 29, 1954 is an American television host, actress, producer, and philanthropist, best known for her self-titled, multi-award winning talk show, which has become the highest-rated program of its kind in history and was nationally syndicated from 1986 to 2011. She has been ranked the richest African American of the 20th century, the greatest black philanthropist in American history, and was once the world's only black billionaire. She is also, according to some assessments, the most influential woman in the world.
Winfrey was born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mother and later raised in an inner-city Milwaukee neighborhood. She experienced considerable hardship during her childhood, claiming to be raped at age nine and becoming pregnant at 14; her son died in infancy. Sent to live with the man she calls her father, a barber in Tennessee, Winfrey landed a job in radio while still in high school and began co-anchoring the local evening news at the age of 19. Her emotional ad-lib delivery eventually got her transferred to the daytime talk show arena, and after boosting a third-rated local Chicago talk show to first place she launched her own production company and became internationally syndicated.
Credited with creating a more intimate confessional form of media communication, she is thought to have popularized and revolutionized the tabloid talk show genre pioneered by Phil Donahue, which a Yale study claims broke 20th century taboos and allowed LGBT people to enter the mainstream. By the mid 1990s, she had reinvented her show with a focus on literature, self-improvement, and spirituality. Though criticized for unleashing confession culture and promoting controversial self-help aids, she is often praised for overcoming adversity to become a benefactor to others. From 2006 to 2008, her support of Barack Obama, by one estimate, delivered over a million votes in the close 2008 Democratic primary race.
Born in rural poverty, then raised by a mother on welfare in a poor urban neighborhood, Winfrey became a millionaire at age 32 when her talk show went national. Winfrey was in a position to negotiate ownership of the show and start her own production company because of the success and the amount of revenue the show generated. At age 41, Winfrey had a net worth of $340 million and replaced Bill Cosby as the only African American on the Forbes 400. Although black people are just under 13% of the U.S. population, Winfrey has remained the only African American to rank among America's 400 richest people nearly every year since 1995. With a 2000 net worth of $800 million, Winfrey is believed to be the richest African American of the 20th century. Due to her status as a historical figure, Professor Juliet E.K. Walker of the University of Illinois created the course "History 298: Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon. Winfrey was the highest paid TV entertainer in the United States in 2006, earning an estimated $260 million during the year, five times the sum earned by second-place music executive Simon Cowell. By 2008, her yearly income had increased to $275 million.
Forbes' international rich list has listed Winfrey as the world's only black billionaire from 2004 to 2006 and as the first black woman billionaire in world history. According to Forbes, in September 2010 Winfrey was worth over $2.7 billion and has overtaken former eBay CEO Meg Whitman as the richest self-made woman in America.
Winfrey was originally named "Orpah" after the Biblical character in the Book of Ruth, but her family and friends "didn't know how to pronounce it", and called her "Oprah" instead.
Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi to an unmarried teenage mother. She later said that her conception was due to a single sexual encounter and the couple broke up not long after. Her mother, Vernita Lee (born c. 1935) was a housemaid. Winfrey had believed that her biological father was Vernon Winfrey (born 1933), a coal miner turned barber turned city councilman who had been in the Armed Forces when she was born. Decades later, Mississippi farmer and World War II veteran Noah Robinson Sr. (born c. 1925) claimed to be her biological father.
A genetic test in 2006 determined that her maternal line originated among the Kpelle ethnic group, in the area that today is Liberia. Her genetic make up was determined to be 89 percent Sub-Saharan African, 8% Native American, and 3% East Asian; however, the East Asian markers may, due to the imprecisions of genetic testing, actually be Native American ones.
After her birth, Winfrey's mother traveled north and Winfrey spent her first six years living in rural poverty with her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee (April 15, 1900 - February 27, 1963), who was so poor that Winfrey often wore dresses made of potato sacks, for which the local children made fun of her.Her grandmother taught her to read before the age of three and took her to the local church, where she was nicknamed "The Preacher" for her ability to recite Bible verses. When Winfrey was a child, her grandmother would hit her with a switch when she didn't do chores or if she misbehaved in any way.