Oprah bows out of self-made stardom

With 25 years of tears, laughter and soul-baring on her TV talk show, Oprah Winfrey has inspired millions. Survivor, media and business phenomenon, and America's best friend: what's her story?

Her website is called 'Live Your Best Life.' But when Oprah Winfrey was born, the little girl's future looked bleak. Her early years were spent in poverty with her mother in rural Mississippi, before she moved to live with her father, a strict man, in Nashville.

From the age of nine, she was sexually abused by male family members. Then at fourteen she became pregnant but lost the baby. In her late teens she got involved in local radio after winning a beauty pageant. In Baltimore, then Chicago she began to host the daytime television chat shows that would make her famous.

In 1985 she was nominated for an Oscar for a supporting role in The Color Purple. Then, a year later, she hit the bigtime when her show was renamed 'Oprah' and went nationwide.

After developing a remarkably intimate relationship with audience and fans because of on-air frankness about her own problems, she became America's richest self-made woman.

Forbes magazine estimated her earnings last year to be $290m.

And Oprah's influence is enormous: titles picked for her book club shoot instantly into the bestseller lists and, when she backed Barack Obama as Democratic candidate for the presidency, it was seen as a decisive moment.

With her rags-to-riches tale, Oprah is the American Dream made flesh – and that flesh has been part of the story too. Oprah's open discussion of her dieting and battle against weight gain is part of what made her a popular 'best friend' to America.

Author Bonnie Greer, who is from Chicago, explains: 'She has made mainstream that warm but tell-it-like-it-is persona of the African American woman. It has always been there in American culture, but Oprah brought it onto TV in the afternoon. She pioneered "victim" culture in the good and the bad sense.'

Love and money

Oprah was born in 1957, a few years after the US Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in American schools. And her story has become iconic for her black countrymen and women, because she shows you can overcome your background, however deprived.

For others, there was an undercurrent of excessive materialism to the show – yearly giveaways of products like cars sat uneasily alongside a homespun philosophy of self-acceptance and spiritual values.

But during her national finale there's little criticism. As Tom Hanks gushed to his tearful hostess: 'Oprah, today you are surrounded by nothing but love!'

You Decide

  1. Many in America regard Oprah as a friend and supporter. Does this help people? Or is it unhealthy to feel a strong personal bond with a celebrity?
  2. F Scott Fitzgerald said 'The rich are different'. His friend Ernest Hemingway replied: 'Yes, they have more money'. Which famous American writer do you agree with?

Activities

  1. Improvise, or script and perform, your own talk show. You might want to watch some of the clips of Oprah at work for inspiration.
  2. According to Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon.com, 'Your brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room'. Using the links, write a brand identity for yourself. What are you trying to sell? Is it useful to see yourself as a brand?

Some People Say...

“Oprah's audience aren't her friends, they're her customers.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Surely Oprah is just another TV personality?
She's unique. Partly because as a black woman with a traumatic past, she represents what others can achieve. Partly because of her iron grip on the business side of things, and on her carefully controlled personal 'brand'.
Her what?
Well, most products or companies have a brand identity, which is crucial to how customers and consumers feel about them. Oprah, at the centre of a business empire that includes everything from broadcasting, to education charities, to magazines and even yoga clothing, is selling other things through who she is, or how she is perceived.
Clever!
Yes. This level of acumen is rare for women in show business. No one is exploiting Oprah, because she exploits herself. Some business coaches now advise all of us to develop a 'personal brand' so employers or clients can understand who we are and what we are selling.

Word Watch

American Dream
In the Declaration of Independence, all US citizens are promised the right to 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.' This has come to mean opportunity for anyone to succeed, whatever their background or origins.
Self-made
Someone who has succeeded without the traditional advantages of family wealth and connections, or a privileged education.
Segregation
The separation of a population into racial groups for daily life, for example in restaurants, transport and schools. It was common in the USA and backed by local and state laws until the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement.
Materialism
Pursuing wealth, possessions and money as a priority. A word usually used to express or imply criticism.
Victim culture
A critical phrase used to describe the moral outlook of society when people with problems blame others for their own situation. Some people argue this has been encouraged by on-air confessions and intimate revelations. Of course, some people really are victims of other people and of circumstances!

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