This month, our cover star is the "Queen of All Media", Oprah Winfrey. Oprah has become a household name all over the globe, and in this issue you can read all about her journey from humble beginnings to global media leader.
When someone mentions the name “Oprah” in a conversation, you don’t need to ask for her surname to know who they mean, or wonder who she might be — she is recognised globally by just her first name.
Oprah Winfrey is an American television personality, entrepreneur, actress, global media leader and philanthropist. Nicknamed “Queen of All Media”, the business mogul has become one of the most well-recognised figures in the world with unparalleled influence.
A leading figure of the entertainment industry, Winfrey is known as the pioneer of television confessions. Hosting her own talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey attracted an impressive average of 12–13 million viewers each weekday during peak years. With an estimated net worth of USD 2.6 billion, the one-woman powerhouse became the first black female billionaire in 2003. She has been on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential People of the 20th Century six times; more than any other individual. Overcoming adversities throughout her life professionally and personally, the media tycoon has consistently broken barriers and used the media to transform herself into a global presence and a household name.
Winfrey famously rejects the idea of being a brand — which is in itself part of her brand. She has stated on multiple occasions that she is a person, not a brand, fearing she would lose the rare connection she had with her audience. Later, she realised that she was the brand.
“I was once afraid of people saying, “Who does she think she is?” Now I have the courage to stand and say, “This is who I am.”
Equally as important, is how she took this admired brand and capitalised on it — giving rise to diverse projects and products across a plethora of channels. Yet, despite her immense success, it hasn’t always been a smooth ride.
Born into rural poverty in Kosciusko, Mississippi, Winfrey had a difficult upbringing. With a single teenage mother who worked as a housemaid, Winfrey lived with her grandmother until she was six years old. They were reportedly so poor that she went to school wearing dresses sown from potato sacks.
Winfrey’s childhood was tainted by more than economic hardship; she faced several traumatic experiences as a young girl. Winfrey herself has revealed that she fell victim to sexual abuse and was raped by several family relatives when she was as young as nine. At 14, she became pregnant as a result of the harrowing events she endured. Even worse, the baby was born prematurely and died during early infancy. In 1986, she addressed this publicly for the first time on her show. Following this experience, she moved to Nashville to live with her father and went on to study at Tennessee State University.
Winfrey’s problematic beginnings would inevitably trigger deep-rooted issues and trauma. It was during the debut of Piers Morgan’s US talk show Piers Morgan Tonight in 2011 that she disclosed feeling suicidal at the time, reach a point of such desperation that she attempted to drink detergent. She also spoke about later viewing losing the baby as having another chance at life.
In 1976, Winfrey started working as a co-anchor at WJZ-TV, a television station in Baltimore. Oprah lost the respected role after a short eight months, as producers deemed her unable to separate emotions from presenting news stories. She was demoted and given the role to report weekend features.
Winfrey was then asked to host chat show People Are Talking, a role which she took despite her perception that she had hit rock-bottom in her career. After launching, Winfrey quickly realised that she was in her element, and that she had been wrong to originally view it as a form of accepting defeat. She was subsequently recruited to host her own show, A.M. Chicago, in 1984. The time slot clashed with competitor Phil Donahue, also known as the ‘King of Daytime Talk’. Despite this, A.M. Chicago gained 100,000 viewers in comparison to Donahue’s show, largely due to Winfrey’s warm persona. Instead of trying to fit the mould of what audiences liked, she provided an original slant to hosting a talk show.
“Failure is another stepping stone to greatness.”
Winfrey’s acting career over the years has largely contributed to strengthening her brand, and she has gained many fans from her film performances in films such as The Colour Purple and The Butler.
A.M. Chicago became The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986. Its premiere marked history; Oprah became the first black woman to host a nationally syndicated daily talk show. Within the year, production company Harpo Productions was founded (Harpo being Oprah spelt backwards), swiftly gaining the show’s full ownership.
Originally seen as a tabloid show, over time, Winfrey used the platform to educate viewers by focusing on topics like social issues, self-development and health. A big success, the show raked in earnings of $125 million within its first year of production.
Many times, Winfrey has voluntarily told stories of her personal life, from experiencing traumatic abuse to her adult journey with weight loss. Her candour in sharing experiences with the audience — even the hardest ones — paid off. These admissions became not just a characteristic of her talk show, but of Winfrey’s brand. Her transparency in showing vulnerabilities upended conventional expectations present in society. The Wall Street Journal coined the term “Oprahfication”, to refer to using public confession as a way of therapy.
“If you want to accomplish the goals of your life, you have to begin with the spirit.”
Winfrey first dipped her toes into the publishing industry by introducing “Oprah’s Book Club” into the show. Featuring books by undiscovered authors, the segment helped them immensely to gain popularity and go straight to bestseller book lists. Her book club continued after the show ended, with it being announced in 2019 that it would join Apple TV+. The Oprah Winfrey Show ran for 25 years, reaching an audience of 10 million people, and ended in 2011.
Winfrey is also the accomplished author of six books, ranging from her first novel, Journey to Beloved, in 1998 to her most recent release, The Path Made Clear, in 2019. The success of her books was consistently furthered by her fans’ trust in her brand and credibility.
In 2000, O, The Oprah Magazine, also commonly known as simply O, was launched. This next venture into the publishing industry built on the successes which Winfrey’s brand had experienced so far. Featuring herself as the cover star in every edition, the monthly lifestyle magazine is aimed primarily at female readers, diving into topics such as beauty, wellness and culture.
A philanthropist at heart, Winfrey has founded several charities and projects. In 1987, she established the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. A private foundation, financial grants from Oprah's personal account are given to non-profit organisations which support causes that she is passionate about, such as leadership, development and education. Later, in 1999, Winfrey founded the public charity Oprah’s Angel Network. Publicised on her talk show, Winfrey urged viewers to get involved and donate to such charitable initiatives.
Winfrey’s dedication and commitment toward philanthropy became a recognisable trait of her personal brand, reflecting her compassion and authenticity. This was acknowledged when she received the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award in 2002.
A few years later, Winfrey dived into her third charitable project, starting the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Foundation which opened its doors in 2007. An independent boarding school in South Africa, the foundation intended to provide education to underprivileged young girls from surrounding communities. Unfortunately within the same year of opening, rumours of child abuse on a number of girls at the school began to circulate. A victim of child abuse herself, Winfrey stated that when she heard about it, it shook her to her core and that she was deeply devastated. Winfrey spoke out publicly about the allegations and pledged to eliminate the issue.
A polar opposite to the traditional expectations of a successful talk show host at the time, Winfrey captured her audience’s attention differently. Taking an alternative approach — known for remarkably striking and unprompted confessions and storytelling — Winfrey’s style quickly gained admiration from the public for her willingness to be open. Views skyrocketed as viewers tuned in to watch her embrace her distinctive brand, shifting stereotypes and promoting diversity in the entertainment industry.
Winfrey has shown us is that the key to refining your brand is about finding out what you stand for, and how you can create value as an individual. Through defining and maximising her brand, she has created an entire empire of projects of significant value.
For Oprah, a leading quality that distinguishes her from others is that of empathy. Through opening up about personal experiences and expressing vulnerabilities to her audience, her storytelling of other’s stories, and the telling of her own stories, she was able to form an emotional connection with her viewers.
Not long after The Oprah Winfrey Show concluded in 2011, Winfrey set in motion her next enterprise. OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network is a cable television network that began as a joint venture in collaboration with Discovery Communications. Targeted towards African American audiences, the network featured content on lifestyle and entertainment topics. Despite economically unstable beginnings, the network grew steadily and gained momentum when Winfrey interviewed Lance Armstrong in 2013. The interview saw his confession to doping charges which had led to him having his Tour titles stripped from him in 2012.
Throughout her career, Winfrey continued to carry her signature down-to-earth and open attitude when interacting with guests on her show, no matter who they were. To celebrate her notable contributions to her country, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, America’s highest civilian honour, in 2013.
In 2018, during an episode of SuperSoul Conversations, a podcast series featuring the world’s thought leaders, figures and best-selling authors, she revealed another confession which shocked listeners. Interviewing stand-up comic and actress Amy Schumer, the two discussed the topic of being in an abusive relationship. Following Schumer’s story which revealed her personal experience, Winfrey disclosed that she had also faced a similar situation earlier in her life, during her twenties.
By no means has Winfrey had an easy journey, nor has she ever had things handed to her on a silver platter. From financial struggles at the beginning of her life, falling victim to child abuse, abusive relationships, to navigating through challenges throughout her career, Winfrey has remained transparent and true to herself.
Unafraid to hold her own, Oprah Winfrey has paved the way for a global audience. Her ambitious, authentic and multi-faceted style has inspired viewers, fans and entrepreneurs alike over the decades. The media mogul even had to publicly address speculation and calls from fans to run for US President in 2020. During her speech at the Golden Globes awards event, she supported those who have spoken out against sexual misconduct. Winfrey stated that this was “definitely” not a plan in the works. She might not be running for the presidential election, but she’s certainly not slowing down anytime soon.
Last year, Winfrey announced that she would be embarking on a national tour for Oprah’s 2020 Vision: Your Life In Focus. Exploring topics such as wellness and personal development, the motivational speaker will be sharing personal experiences of her journey with wellness and living a balanced lifestyle.
Winfrey’s entrepreneurial ways show us that embracing difference is the key to success. Rather than fitting to the mould of fellow competitors, or competing against them, Oprah’s triumphs are a credit to her brand remaining true and genuine. Winfrey’s authenticity has shone through her diverse ventures, which are firmly rooted in the foundations of her brand. This can be seen through her ability to continually create products that give value to others from this brand. Refusing to accept failures as failures, but rather seeing them as lessons to learn from, Winfrey’s enduring perspective is perhaps something we can all take some inspiration from.