Orpah Gail Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954, in New York City. No, that wasn’t a typo. “Orpah” was her given name, a nod to the Book of Ruth character. People used to call me “Oprah” when I was a baby, so the nickname stayed. It’s no secret that she was born in the small Mississippi town of Kosciusko. She overcame poverty, abuse, and discrimination to become a world-renowned media mogul.
Vernita Lee, Vernita’s mother, was a teenage housemaid who had never married. Vernon Winfrey, Oprah’s birth father, was serving in the military at her birth. Eventually, he worked as a barber, a coal miner, and a city council member. Noah Robinson has been rumored to be her biological father. However, this has not been confirmed.
In the early years of Oprah’s life, her mother and grandmother took in Oprah and her siblings. Oprah and her siblings were raised in terrible poverty, and she is well-known for having to wear potato sacks to school. As a result, she went from rags to riches in a flash.
Oprah’s mother worked as a maid in Milwaukee when she was six years old, and the two moved there. A second daughter, Patricia, was born at this time to Oprah’s mother. Patricia, a 43-year-old cocaine addict, died in 2003. In 1989, Jeffrey, a half-brother born to father Vernon, died of AIDS.
When Oprah was twelve, her father Vernon sent her to live with him in Nashville. She ran away from home at the age of 13 to avoid the abuse she was subjected to. She became pregnant at the age of 14 and gave birth to a preterm boy, who later died.
She began her high school career in Milwaukee’s Lincoln High School, but after excelling in a specialized program, she was granted a transfer to Nicolet High School in a wealthy suburb. She returned to Nashville after getting into some legal difficulties. She began to develop at East Nashville High School in Nashville throughout her time. Upon winning the Miss Black Beauty Tennessee contest when she was 17, Oprah was offered a part-time position as a news anchor at a local black radio station named WVOL.
To attend Tennessee State University, she was awarded a scholarship. To pursue a career in media full-time, Oprah dropped out of high school at the age of 19
Career in Media
At WLAC-TV in Nashville, Oprah became the station’s first black female news anchor. At the time, she was the station’s youngest-ever anchor. WJZ in Baltimore hired her at the age of 22 to co-anchor the six o’clock news, a highly sought-after position.
Her first talk program, People Are Talking, premiered in August of that year. She had already surpassed Phil Donahue, who was nationally syndicated, in the Baltimore market, by 1980. At the end of her Baltimore tenure, she was making $220,000 a year, which, when adjusted for inflation, is equivalent to roughly $560,000 nowadays.
A firm called King World Productions created Oprah’s 30-minute morning talk program in Chicago in 1984 when ABC recognized her potential. In addition to Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, King World was the studio that created those shows. There was a four-year, $1 million contract attached to the position. Inflation-adjusted, the year’s salary of $250k is equivalent to $600k today.
Broadcasting and the Oprah Winfrey Network
Oprah took AM Chicago’s ratings from the bottom to the top within a few months of the show’s debut on January 2, 1984, displacing Phil Donahue. It was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show on September 8, 1986, televised nationwide and syndicated, and increased in length from 30 minutes to one hour. A focus on women’s issues led to the show expanding to include health, spirituality, politics, and charitable endeavors.
Oprah’s suspicions about the $1 million deal began to grow within a few months after the show’s premiere. Oprah was advised to meet with Ebert’s agent, Jeffrey Jacobs, by fellow Chicago TV star Roger Ebert. Jeffrey also represented Gene Siskel and Bill Cosby in addition to Ebert and Siskel.
Even before Oprah’s show went national, Jacobs quickly pointed out that she wouldn’t get a penny more from it. Oprah, he was even more frank, telling her:
“This is a contract for the servitude of a human being. Fixed wages are paid to enslaved people. They’re willing to put their money where their mouth is. You’ll be paid $1 million for the next four years to be a high-earning enslaved person.”
According to Jacobs, Siskel, Ebert, and Bill Cosby each owned a portion of the syndication rights to their respective shows.
How Oprah Went From Poor To Rich
A new contract with King World/ABC was not reached after Oprah fired her agent, Jeffrey Jacobs. The King of the World refused to budge. A good rejection, in other words. Jeffrey Jacobs and Oprah Winfrey were able to start an empire by accident because King World opened the door for a small portion of the show’s syndication points to be donated.
As discussions dragged on, Jeffrey and Oprah formed their own company, HARPO Productions, to move forward on their terms.
National syndication seemed inevitable because Oprah was drawing record numbers in Chicago. Because of this, King World was in a precarious position. In the end, they should have paid Oprah a portion of the profits. They would have had to spend a few million dollars a year for it.
He finally came back, but she wasn’t asking for a cut of the backend by this time. Her decision to create the show herself startled King World management. Through HARPO Productions at HARPO Studios and HARPO Studios, they would pay for all show production costs. Then they would pay King World a predetermined amount to syndicate their performance across the country. As a result, King World became a salaried employee.
As a further step, Oprah and Jeffrey worked out an even more comprehensive contract with ABC, one that covered film productions and a magazine and books, as well as the right to start more TV shows under her production banner. Her 3.5-acre HARPO campus would be used for all of the show’s production.
There’s More to It
Oprah and Jeffrey agreed to own a portion of King World Productions as part of the deal. Under this agreement, Oprah would profit from all of King World’s shows, including Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.
CBS purchased King World in 1999 for $2.5 billion in stock. Oprah owned one percent of CBS once the deal was completed. As a result of a transaction she struck with ABC in the mid-1990s, she controlled a considerable portion of Disney stock.
Sally Jesse Raphael, Phil Donahue, and Jerry Springer, who appeared on Oprah’s talk program in the 1980s, made tens of millions of dollars through standard contracts.
In 1999/2000, Oprah became the first black female billionaire in the United States. Her show and Dr. Phil’s and Rachael Ray’s shows made her $300 million a year.
Since this article was written, Oprah Winfrey has been the world’s fourth-richest celebrity. Kanye West (6.6 billion), Steven Spielberg (7.5 billion), and George Lucas (10 billion) are the only three billionaires who can match her wealth.
America’s wealthiest self-made woman is Oprah Winfrey, according to Forbes.
Other Projects and Endorsements
Since 2015, Oprah has served on the board of Weight Watchers. She was given $43.5 million in shares when she joined the corporation. As of this writing, the value of that investment is more than $400 million. She got a multi-year contract with Apple in 2019 to develop shows for the company.
Among Oprah’s acting credits are The Color Purple (1985), Beloved (1998), The Butler (2013), and Selma (2014).
There are numerous television shows and documentaries that she has created.
Oprah has been nominated for two Academy Awards, one as a producer for Best Picture for Selma and one as a supporting actress for The Color Purple. She was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her humanitarian work in 2011.
There are 18 Daytime Emmy Awards for Oprah Winfrey (out of 26 nominations), a Golden Globe, two Primetime Emmy Awards, and a Tony Award for her work.
The Oprah Property Portfolio
Oprah has at least 200 million dollars worth of real estate in the United States, and she may own more than 1,000 acres.
As of 2015, Oprah had sold her 9,625 square foot Chicago property for $4.625 million, making it her primary residence from 1985 to 2015. In 2008, she sold a penthouse in Atlanta for $1.8 million, which she had previously owned.
She purchased a 23,000-square-foot mansion in Montecito, California (near Santa Barbara) for $50 million in 2001, making it one of her most significant real estate investments. This house is now at least $90 million in value. In 2016, she paid $29 million for a 23-acre farm estate in Montecito. In 2019, she paid $6.85 million for the house next door, increasing her Montecito property by four acres. There are 67 acres in Montecito that Oprah owns in total.
An estate owned by Oprah on Orcas Island in Washington State lasted from 2018 until 2021. She bought the home in 2018 for $8.275 million and sold it in July 2021 for $14 million.
She bought a house in Telluride, Colorado, for $14 million in 2014.
In Maui in 2002, Oprah made her first real estate purchase. She shelled out $32 million in a single transaction to acquire the next-door property. She’s spent upwards of $60 million to put together 160+ acres on Maui.
— Smithsonian Channel (@SmithsonianChan) May 2, 2022
Since its inception, the Oprah Winfrey Foundation has received more than $400 million from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. Morehouse College in Atlanta has received more than 400 scholarships from her.
To help organizations worldwide, Oprah started the Oprah’s Angel Network foundation in 1998. Oprah’s Angel Network has helped generate more than $80 million for a wide range of charities throughout its existence. The Oprah Winfrey Network’s administrative costs are paid entirely by Oprah herself, so all of the money earned goes directly to the NGOs.
The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls was created in South Africa in 2007. She has so far contributed $40 million to the school’s budget. As of this writing, there are 322 students enrolled at the school, and we are hoping to increase that number to 450.
An additional $10 million was donated by Oprah to the Oprah’s Angel Network for Hurricane Katrina recovery.
For the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, she gave $12 million in 2013. That year, President Obama awarded Oprah the Presidential Medal of Freedom.