A Girl Who Became the Talk of TV

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Oprah Winfrey is the multihyphenate to end all multihyphenates: talk show host-actress-television producer- movie producer-magazine founder-columnist-philanthropist-cable television network owner-billionaire-fashion plate-bookworm-boss.
For a woman born 50 years ago in the poor, black farming community of Kosciusko, Miss., where people raised their own food, drew water from a well and emptied slop jars from an outhouse as part of their chores, hers is an American success story and then some.
Her parents, Vernita Lee and Vernon Winfrey, were never married, and in fact knew each other only for the duration of Mr. Winfrey’s two-week Army leave. Ms. Winfrey was alternately raised by her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, in Kosciusko, her mother in Milwaukee and her father and his wife in Nashville.
In Kosciusko her early years were marked by deep faith and a love of the Bible, and those chores, none of which, she knew even then, would fit into her agenda later in life. At age 3, she was reciting Bible “pieces” at the Presbyterian church, an activity she enjoyed and at which she excelled. Her grandmother taught her to read, and reading became a lifelong passion. But at age 9, life took a dark turn while Oprah was living in a boarding house in Milwaukee with her mother and half-sister. She was raped by a cousin and for several years after was sexually abused by friends of the family.
Ms. Winfrey launched herself into reading and school, and in the ninth grade won a scholarship to attend Nicolet High School in one of Milwaukee’s white neighborhoods. But she got into so much trouble with misdeeds, such as stealing money from her mother to keep up with the rich kids, that Ms. Lee planned to put her in a home for juvenile delinquents.

Unwilling to wait for a space to open up, she instead sent her daughter to live with her father in Nashville, where again, young Ms. Winfrey was victimized. At age 13 or 14, she was sexually abused and impregnated by an uncle. She was so ashamed she kept the pregnancy a secret until she could no longer keep it from her father. She has said this was the hardest thing she ever had to do.
When she was seven months pregnant, she prematurely delivered a baby who died shortly thereafter. Ms. Winfrey said she looked at the experience as a major opportunity to go on and do something positive with her life. And she has said that perhaps it explains why she never became a mother later.
Gayle King, editor-at-large of O magazine and Ms. Winfrey’s closest friend since the two worked together at Baltimore’s WJZ-TV, said Ms. Winfrey credits her father, a disciplinarian, with guiding her and turning her life around.
In high school she excelled and won state championships in drama and speech and performed in plays. At 16 it was clear she possessed the elusive X factor when she became the first African American to win the Miss Fire Prevention title. Collecting her prize at the local black radio station, Ms. Winfrey was given a tour of the studio and a voice test, and the manager hired her on the spot to read the news after school.
At Tennessee State University, Ms. Winfrey majored in speech and drama with her sights set on becoming the next Barbara Walters. “She’s always had big dreams,” Ms. King said. “She always says, `God can dream a bigger dream than you can dream for yourself.”’
At age 19 she was hired as an anchorwoman at Nashville’s WLAC-TV, now WTVF-TV. She later joined the evening news program in Baltimore, where she found that her tendency to get emotionally involved in stories made her unsuited for the job. Instead, she reluctantly became co-host on the live morning talk show “People are Talking.”
The rest is talk show history.
Taking On `Donahue’
Her now-legendary move to Chicago to host “AM Chicago,” a struggling local talk show airing in the same time slot as the top-rated “The Phil Donahue Show,” highlighted two important themes of her life: faith in God and belief in herself.
In the March 2004 issue of O, Ms. Winfrey revisited the day when her boss in Baltimore told her she was “committing career suicide” taking on “Donahue” and warned her, “You’re going to fail.”
“I didn’t know if he was right,” she wrote. “I didn’t have the confidence at 29 to believe I could succeed against such an auspicious competitor. I did have the faith to know I could succeed in life. And if it wasn’t in television, then I would be led to something else.”
“The qualities you see on the air are the same qualities you see in her in real life,” said Dennis Swanson, the Chicago station manager who hired her. “She’s a hard worker. She has faith. She’s generous. She’s very loyal to those around her. When my son was struck by a car in Santa Barbara-how she found out about it I have no idea-the first huge bouquet of flowers was from her. That’s the kind of person she is.”
Asked to explain Ms. Winfrey’s miraculous success in so many fields, Ms. King, who may know her better than anyone, said, “She never said, `What can I do to top this?’ There hasn’t been a strategy or game plan, but something always presents itself.”
Defeats have been rare. The 1998 box office disappointment “Beloved,” a movie Ms. Winfrey produced and starred in based on Toni Morrison’s best-selling novel, “was the only defeat I can recall,” Ms. King said. Ms. Winfrey hasn’t ventured into feature films since.
How did she get through that experience? “Macaroni. I’m telling you, macaroni and cheese. We sat around and ate all weekend long,” Ms. King said. “It took something out of her, no question. She really loved that movie. But she doesn’t get too many lemons in life, and when she does, it doesn’t bring her to her knees.”
When she needs wisdom and guidance Ms. Winfrey picks up the phone and calls Maya Angelou who, like herself, has accomplished so much in so many areas-as a poet, educator, actress, director, activist and presidential appointee-that she has become a national treasure. “Maya always seems to have the answer for whatever it is. I’ve seen it in action,” Ms. King said.
Ms. Winfrey has other close friends she counts on as well, but when the time comes to make important decisions, she’s comfortable with her choices. “Oprah will seek the advice of others, but in the end she holds her own counsel,” Ms. King said.