Longest-running daytime talk show host ever? You betcha. Academy Award-nominated actress? Oh yeah. Multi-media mogul extraordinaire? You know it. Humanitarian par excellence? Mm-hmm. We could go on and on and on, but you get the point. She’s not known simply by her first name for nothing.
But life hasn’t always been easy for Oprah. The self-made billionaire’s formative years were the very definition of hard-scrabble, with allegations of abuse and a teenage pregnancy that ended in tragedy haunting her. But it’s perhaps because of that, and not in spite of it, that Oprah’s story is an inspiration for the ages. She’s a legend, hands down.
1. Oprah was born on January 29, 1954 in Kosciusko, Mississippi to unmarried teen mother Vernita Lee.
2. Her first name is actually spelled Orpah on her birth certificate after a biblical figure in the Book of Ruth, but people mispronounced it and Oprah stuck.
3. She grew up believing Vernon Winfrey was her biological father, however, in 2003, Mississippi farmer and World War II vet Noah Robinson Sr. came forward with a claim that he was her actual father. She refused a paternity test.
4. Oprah spent the first six years of her life living with her grandmother Hattie Mae Lee, who was so poor that the future media mogul often wore dresses made of potato sack. The unconventional clothing earned her the nickname “Sack Girl” among the local children.
5. According to Oprah, she used to endure some harrowing physical punishments at the hand of Hattie Mae. “I went to a well to get some water and carry it in a bucket. And I was playing in the water with my fingers, and my grandmother had seen me out the window and she didn’t like it,” she told David Letterman in 2012. “She whipped me so badly that I had welts on my back and the welts would bleed. And then when I put on my Sunday dress, I was bleeding from the welts. And then she was very upset with me because I got blood on the dress. So then I got another whipping for getting blood on the dress.”
6. Hattie Mae also taught Oprah how to read by the age of three and would take her to church, where she earned the nickname “The Preacher” for her ability to recite Bible verses.
7. When she was six, she moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to live with her mother, who had given birth to another daughter, Patricia, in the six years that Oprah was living with her grandma. Patricia would later die of causes related to a cocaine addiction at the age of 43.
8. By 1962, unable to care for her two daughters, Vernita would send Oprah to live with her father Vernon in Nashville, Tennessee. While she was away, Vernita would give birth to another daughter (who she gave up for adoption and was later named, coincidentally, Patricia) and a son, Jeffrey. Oprah wouldn’t even learn of Patricia’s existence until 2010. Jeffrey, however, died of AIDS-related causes in 1989.
9. As she revealed on her talk show in 1986, Oprah was molested by a 19-year-old cousin when she was only nine years old. For years after that, she was also assaulted by an uncle and a family friend. When she opened up about the alleged abuse at the age of 24 to family members, they reportedly did not believe her.
10. She became pregnant at 14 and prematurely gave birth to a baby boy, who died shortly after being born. The world learned of Oprah’s secret pregnancy in 1990 when a family member sold the story to the National Enquirer. While she didn’t name which family member betrayed her when writing about the experience for O, The Oprah Magazine‘s February 2007 issue, the Associated Press reported it was her deceased half-sister Patricia who, as Oprah wrote, “sat in a room, told them the story of my hidden shame and left their offices $19,000 richer.”
11. high school, Oprah returned to Nashville for good to live with Vernon, where education at East Nashville High School became a priority. There, she was voted Most Popular Girl and joined the speech team, which helped her secure a full scholarship to Tennessee State University.
12. Her first job as a teenager was working at a grocery store, where she was, ironically, forbidden from speaking with customers.
13. In 1971, after winning Nashville’s Miss Fire Prevention contest, the pageant’s sponsor, radio station WVOL, offered her a job reading the afternoon headlines on air.
14. In 1972, she won Miss Black Tennessee and went on to compete in Miss Black America.
15. At just 19, she became both the youngest news anchor and first black female anchor for Nashville’s WLAC-TV, leaving TSU, where she was studying communications, to do so.
16. After an eight-year stint co-hosting a local morning show in Baltimore, Maryland, she relocated to Chicago to take over WLS-TV’s low-rated half-hour morning show, AM Chicago, in 1983. Her first episode aired on January 2, 1984 and, within months, the show went from last place to besting Donahue as the highest-rated talk show in Chicago.
17. When Oprah received the offer from King World to take her show into national syndication, it was famed movie critic Roger Ebert who convinced her it was be foolish to say no. While on their first of two dates in the mid-‘80s, he grabbed a napkin at the restaurant where they were enjoying dinner and started “jotting down some numbers,” according to a 2005 post on Oprah.com. By his prediction, she would make 40 times what he was making for At the Movies. “He slid the napkin across the table to show Oprah the final tally and she said, ‘Deal done!'” The Oprah Winfrey Show began broadcasting nationally on September 8, 1986.
18. Before The Oprah Winfrey Show went national, Oprah was already a household name thanks to her work in Steven Spielberg‘s 1985 adaptation of The Color Purple. For her turn as Sofia in the film, Oprah was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 1986 Academy Awards.
19. In 1986, Oprah launched her multimedia production company Harpo Inc. The name is both her name spelled backwards and the name of her The Color Purple character’s husband.
20. For the first national episode of her show, Oprah wanted Don Johnson, star of Miami Vice (then the biggest show on TV) as her first guest, even going so far as to send him a very expensive pair of rhinestone sunglasses to try and persuade him. But he wasn’t feeling it. Rather than find a back-up star, Oprah had the genius idea to make her show not just about celebrities, but about everyday people, also. “So what we came up with was a show called ‘How to Marry the Man of Your Choice,'” she explained years later. Johnson would eventually appear on her show, during the premiere episode of the final season in 2010. And he made sure to return the glasses. “I know it has taken me about 24 years to get these back to you,” he told her.
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