Talk show host, actress, publisher, reading advocate, activist and philanthropist, Oprah Winfrey has created a personal connection with people in America and around the world through the power of TV, earning her a place on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
Oprah Winfrey has always had something to say, from reciting verses and poems at church as a 3-year-old, to hosting a daily talk show now seen by a global audience of more than 48 million.
Winfrey began her broadcasting career at a radio station in Nashville, Tennessee, while she was still in high school. She worked in TV news in several cities before coming to Chicago, where she hosted a morning talk show. When it went into national syndication in 1986, The Oprah Winfrey Show became the highest-rated talk show in television history.
Winfrey is proud of the close connection the show has given her with her audience, especially women. "There are all different ages, all different colors, all different social, economic backgrounds and the common bond is validation, particularly mothers," she says. "I think women play themselves very small. Mothers in this country would say 'I'm just a stay-at-home Mom.' What I try to do is to say that's the most powerful job on earth. If you're going to do that really, really well, you would have been one of the great success of our time."
Winfrey, whose parents never married, was raised by her grandmother who taught her how to read and write at age three. "Reading changed my life," she says. "It changed who I believed I could be."
Winfrey's love of reading inspired two of her most successful and popular projects: her on-air book club, and O, her monthly magazine that has become one of the nation's leading women's life style publications. "The hook for me was the written word, to put what you say everyday in a format where people can continue to be inspired without getting bored," she says. "That's why I did it."
Oprah Winfrey is more than a media personality. She is an actress and producer, and an entrepreneur, the first African American woman to become a billionaire. She is one of the partners in Oxygen Media, a cable network for women. She also launched her own website, oprah.com, offering advice on everything from home and beauty to careers and relationships.
She is also an activist. In the early 1990s, motivated in part by her own memories of child abuse, Winfrey led a campaign to establish a database of convicted child abusers. It became a reality when President Clinton signed the Oprah Bill into law in 1993. Through her private charity, Winfrey has awarded hundreds of grants that support the education of women in the United States and around the world.
Perhaps her most ambitious project to date has been an effort in South Africa to provide educational and leadership opportunities for academically gifted girls from poor families. The idea began six years ago, on a trip to Africa.
"Africa was a change-your-life moment for me," she says. "I went there to do one thing and it became something else. I went there to create a nice big Christmas for all these kids. What happened was I was changed in a moment. When I looked at their faces there was my face. I realized, 'Oh, this is why I was born.' I don't have kids of my own, but these will be my kids."
Winfrey has donated $40 million and much personal time to set up the Leadership Academy for Girls near Johannesburg. It opened its doors in January with 152 young students. With the school, Oprah Winfrey says she is just doing what she has always encouraged her viewers to do, use their lives to make a difference in the lives of others.
Previous American Profiles