He may be the Queen’s grandson, but she is American cultural royalty: Oprah Winfrey, whose bombshell interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle dominated headlines, is a billionaire TV phenomenon renowned for coaxing secrets and tears from countless celebrities. From Michael Jackson and Tom Cruise to Lance Armstrong and the Duchess of York, Winfrey is responsible for some of America’s most memorable sit-down interviews over the last three decades.
Harry and Meghan were the latest to open up when a tell-all interview with the talk show queen aired by CBS on Sunday. Winfrey, 67, is also one of the world’s biggest influencers, inspiring millions of Americans to read more, buy her favorite products and even change how they talk, eat and vote. She has appeared in movies, co-authored several books and presides over a vast and varied media empire, with Forbes magazine estimating her personal wealth at $2.7 billion.
The multiple-award-winning interviewer has long promoted mindfulness and self-improvement too, becoming a self-help guru for many. Her colossal influence extends to politics: in 2008, she endorsed Barack Obama’s presidential bid, the first time she had ever publicly backed a candidate for office. Fans have long encouraged Winfrey to run for president herself. In 2018, she was forced to dampen speculation that she would seek the Democratic nomination to take on then-president Donald Trump.
Winfrey, born in 1954, rose from a childhood of poverty and abuse in small-town Mississippi to become the world’s first female African-American billionaire in 2003. She began her broadcasting career while she was still in high school and landed a job as a news anchor in Nashville at age 19. Her emotional ad-libs won her a Chicago morning talk show in 1984, which was syndicated nationally as “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1986. The show, which ran for 25 seasons until 2011, became the most-watched talk show of all time and was estimated to reach 40 million US viewers a week.
Audiences tuned in for the emotional connection she made with guests and viewers, with celebrities from all walks of life choosing her couch as a comfortable place to open up. The part of the interview where they suddenly discover something about themselves became known as the “Oprah moment.” Actor Cruise famously jumped up on the sofa to proclaim his love for Katie Holmes.
Winfrey also took her show to the Neverland Ranch for a 1993 interview with “King of Pop” Jackson which drew an audience of 100 million people. In other interviews, Sarah Ferguson told Winfrey in 2010 that mounting debts had led her to try to sell access to her ex-husband, Britain’s Prince Andrew. During a 2013 chat, disgraced cyclist Armstrong admitted for the first time that he had used banned performance-enhancing drugs.
Winfrey’s use of public confession as therapy is not reserved for guests: she has regularly spoken of her battles with fluctuating weight and of sexual abuse she suffered as a child. “I really understood that there was no difference between me and the audience,” she said in 2014. Through her book club she popularized numerous works. A stamp of approval from Winfrey could turn a novel into an instant bestseller, a phenomenon known as the “Oprah Effect.” Her endorsement of Obama was estimated by University of Maryland researchers to have brought in a million additional votes and helped him win both the Democratic nomination and the presidency. He awarded her the Presidential Media of Freedom in 2013.
“The Oprah Winfrey Show” also served as the foundation for an empire that spans books, radio, magazines and online publishing. Winfrey founded her own production company in 1986, naming it Harpo-her name backwards. She launched “O, The Oprah Magazine” in 2000. It enjoyed a circulation of more than 2.5 million in the mid-noughties before its print run ended last December. She struggled with the Oprah Winfrey Network though. The TV channel launched in 2011 but took years to build an audience and is now majority owned by Discovery.
In 2018, Winfrey signed a multi-year partnership with Apple to create programs for its streaming service. She also owns a seven percent stake in Weight Watchers. Winfrey is a noted philanthropist; last year her charity donated $10 million to Covid-19 relief efforts. In 1993, former president Bill Clinton signed the “Oprah Bill” into law after she helped establish a national database of convicted child abusers. Winfrey was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting actress role in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film “The Color Purple.” She has never married and has kept her more than 30-year relationship with businessman Stedman Graham largely out of public view. – AFP