Orpah Gail Winfrey; born: January 29, 1954. Oprah 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. Oprah is a media proprietor, talk show host, actress, producer and philanthropist. Winfrey is 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 for a time 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, promoting controversial self-help ideas, and an emotion-centered approach 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.
In 1998, Winfrey created the Oprah’s Angel Network, a charity that supported charitable projects and provided grants to nonprofit organizations around the world. Oprah’s Angel Network raised more than $80,000,000 ($1 million of which was donated by Jon Bon Jovi). Winfrey personally covered all administrative costs associated with the charity, so 100% of all funds raised went to charity programs. The charity stopped accepting donations in May 2010 and was later dissolved. Winfrey’s show raises money through promotion of her public charity and she personally donates more of her own money to charity than any other performer in America. In 2005 she became the first black person listed by Business Week as one of America’s 50 most generous philanthropists, having given an estimated $303 million as of 2007. Winfrey was the 32nd most philanthropic. She has also been repeatedly ranked as the most philanthropic celebrity.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Oprah created the Oprah Angel Network Katrina registry which raised more than $11 million for relief efforts. Winfrey personally gave $10 million to the cause. Homes were built in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama before the one year anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Winfrey has also helped 250 African-American men continue or complete their education at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Winfrey was the recipient of the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award at the 2002 Emmy Awards for services to television and film. To celebrate two decades on national TV, and to thank her employees for their hard work, Winfrey took her staff and their families (1065 people in total) on vacation to Hawaii in the summer of 2006.
In 2002, Christianity Today published an article called “The Church of O” in which they concluded that Winfrey had emerged as an influential spiritual leader. “Since 1994, when she abandoned traditional talk-show fare for more edifying content, and 1998, when she began ‘Change Your Life TV’, Oprah’s most significant role has become that of spiritual leader. To her audience of more than 22 million mostly female viewers, she has become a post-modern priestess—an icon of church-free spirituality.” The sentiment was echoed by Marcia Z. Nelson in her book The Gospel According to Oprah. Since the mid 1990s, Winfrey’s show has emphasized uplifting and inspirational topics and themes and some viewers claim the show has motivated them to perform acts of altruism such as helping Congolese women and building an orphanage. A scientific study by psychological scientists at the University of Cambridge, University of Plymouth, and University of California used an uplifting clip from the Oprah Winfrey Show in an experiment that discovered that watching the ‘uplifting’ clip caused subjects to become twice as helpful as subjects assigned to watch a British comedy or nature documentary.
On the season premier of Winfrey’s 13th season Roseanne Barr told Winfrey “you’re the African Mother Goddess of us all” inspiring much enthusiasm from the studio audience. The animated series Futurama alluded to her spiritual influence by suggesting that “Oprahism” is a mainstream religion in 3000 AD. Twelve days after the September 11 attacks, New York mayor Rudy Guliani asked Winfrey to serve as host of a Prayer for America service at New York city’s Yankee stadium which was attended by former president Bill Clinton and New York senator Hillary Clinton. Leading up to the U.S.-led 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, less than a month after the September 11 attacks Winfrey aired a controversial show called “Islam 101″ in which she portrayed Islam as a religion of peace, calling it “the most misunderstood of the three major religions”. In 2002, George W. Bush invited Winfrey to join a US delegation that included adviser Karen Hughes and Condoleezza Rice, planning to go to Afghanistan to celebrate the return of Afghan girls to school. The ‘Oprah strategy’ was designed to portray the war on terror in a positive light, however when Winfrey refused to participate, the trip was postponed.
Leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Winfrey’s show received criticism for allegedly having an anti-war bias. Ben Shapiro of Townhall.com wrote: “Oprah Winfrey is the most powerful woman in America. She decides what makes the New York Times best-seller lists. Her touchy-feely style sucks in audiences at the rate of 14 million viewers per day. But Oprah is far more than a cultural force, she’s a dangerous political force as well, a woman with unpredictable and mercurial attitudes toward the major issues of the day.” In 2006, Winfrey recalled such controversies: “I once did a show titled Is War the Only Answer? In the history of my career, I’ve never received more hate mail – like ‘Go back to Africa’ hate mail. I was accused of being un-American for even raising the question.” Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore came to Winfrey’s defence, praising her for showing antiwar footage no other media would show and begging her to run for president. A February 2003 series, in which Winfrey showed clips from people all over the world asking America not to go to war was interrupted in several east coast markets by network broadcasts of a press conference in which President George W. Bush and Colin Powell summarized the case for war.
In 2007, Winfrey began to endorse the self-help program The Secret. The Secret claims that people can change their lives through positive thoughts or ‘vibrations’, which will then cause them to attract more positive vibrations that result in good things happening to them. Peter Birkenhead of Salon magazine argued that this idea is pseudoscience and psychologically damaging, as it trivializes important decisions and promotes a quick-fix material culture, and suggest Winfrey’s promotion of it is irresponsible given her influence. In 2007, skeptic and magician James Randi accused Winfrey of being deliberately deceptive and uncritical in how she handles paranormal claims on her show. In 2008 Winfrey endorsed author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle and his book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, which sold several million copies after being selected for her book club. During a Webinar class, in which she promoted the book, Winfrey stated “God is a feeling experience and not a believing experience. If your religion is a believing experience [...] then that’s not truly God.” Frank Pastore, a Christian radio talk show host on KKLA, was among the many Christian leaders who criticized Winfrey’s views, saying “if she’s a Christian, she’s an ignorant one, because Christianity is incompatible with New Age thought.”
Winfrey was named as the 2008 Person of the Year by animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for using her fame and listening audience to help the less fortunate, including animals. PETA praised Winfrey for using her talk show to uncover horrific cases of cruelty to animals in puppy mills and on factory farms, and Winfrey even used the show to highlight the cruelty-free vegan diet that she tried. Winfrey also refuses to wear fur or feature it in her magazine.
In 2009 Winfrey filmed a series of interviews in Denmark highlighting its citizens as the happiest people in the world. In 2010 Bill O’Reilly of Fox News criticized these shows for promoting a left-wing society.