Oprah Gail Winfrey: Her Rocky Start and Harsh Childhood.

Published: 03rd November 2009
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Oprah Gail Winfrey was born to Vernita Lee and Vernon Winfrey on a remote farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi, on January 29, 1954. Her name was supposed to be Orpah, from the Bible, but because of the complexity of spelling and pronunciation, she was known as Oprah almost from birth. Winfrey's unmarried parents separated quickly after she was born and left her in the care of her caring grandmother on the farm.

Winfrey made friends with the farm animals and, under the strict guidance of her grandmother, she learned to read at two and a half years old. She addressed her church congregation about "when Jesus rose on Easter Day" when she was two years old. Then Winfrey skipped kindergarten after writing a note to her teacher on the first day of school saying she belonged in the first grade. She was promoted to third grade after that year.

It was her last year on the farm; at six years old she was sent north to join her mother and two half-brothers in the Milwaukee ghetto. Because she missed the farm animals and could not afford a dog, she made pets out of cockroaches and kept them in a jar. Her career as a young speaker continued with poetry readings at African American social clubs and church teas. At 12 years old she was staying with her father in Nashville and earned $500 for a speech at a church. She knew then that she wanted to be "paid to talk."

The poor, urban lifestyle had its negative effect on Winfrey as a young teenager, and her troubles were compounded by repeated sexual abuse, starting at age nine, by men that others in her family trusted. Her mother worked tirelessly at odd jobs and did not have much time for supervision.

Winfrey became a delinquent teenager, probably due to her early sexual abuse, often acting out and crying for attention. Once she faked a robbery in her house, smashed her glasses, faked amnesia, and stole from her mother's purse, all because she wanted newer, more stylish glasses. Another time she spotted Aretha Franklin getting out of a car and convinced her she was a poor orphan from Ohio looking for a way back home. Franklin gave her $100, with which Winfrey rented herself a hotel room for three days until a minister brought her home. Her mother tried to send her to a detention center only to discover there was no room; so she sent her troubled daughter to live with her father in Nashville.

Winfrey said her father saved her life. He was very strict and provided her with guidance, structure, rules, and books. He required his daughter to complete weekly book reports, and she went without dinner until she learned five new vocabulary words each day.

She became an outstanding student, joining the drama club, debate club, and student council. In an Elks Club oratorical contest, she won a full scholarship to Tennessee State University. The following year she was invited to a White House Conference on Youth. Winfrey was crowned Miss Fire Prevention by WVOL, a local Nashville radio station, and was hired by that station to read afternoon newscasts.
During her freshman year at Tennessee State, Winfrey became Miss Black Nashville and Miss Tennessee. The Nashville CBS affiliate offered her a job; Winfrey turned it down twice, but finally took the advice of a speech teacher, who reminded her that job offers from CBS were "the reason people go to college." Now seen each evening on WTVFTV, Winfrey was Nashville's first African American female co-anchor of the evening news. She was 19 years old and still a sophomore in college.

When she graduated in 1976, she went to Baltimore to become a reporter and co-anchor at ABC affiliate WJZ-TV. The station sent her to New York for a beauty overhaul, which Winfrey attributes to her assistant news director's attempt to "make her Puerto Rican" and from an event when she was told her "hair's too thick, nose is too wide, and chin's too big." The New York salon only made things worse by giving her a bad permanent, leaving her temporarily bald and depressed. Winfrey comforted herself with food; so began the weight problem that became so much a part of her personality.

Winfrey moved to Chicago in January 1984 and took over as anchor on A.M. Chicago, a morning talk show which was always last in the ratings. She changed the emphasis of the show from traditional women's issues to current and controversial topics, and after one month the show was even with Donahue's program. Three months later it had inched ahead. In September 1985 the program, renamed the Oprah Winfrey Show, was expanded to one hour. Consequently, Donahue moved to New York.

One of the reasons her show became so successful was she decided against using stifling prepared scripts. She refused to investigate her topics, and, in her own words, she "wings it" in order to carry on normal conversations with her guests. It succeeds because of her sharp personality and quick wit.
In 1985 Quincy Jones saw Winfrey on television and believed she would make a good actress in a movie he was co-producing with director Stephen Spielberg. The film was based on the Alice Walker novel The Color Purple. Her only acting experience until then had been in a one-woman show, The History of Black Women Through Drama and Song, which she performed during an African American theater festival in 1978.

Winfrey was cast as Sofia, a proud, assertive woman whose spirit is broken by neither an abusive husband nor white authorities. Critics praised her performance, and she was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress.

In 1986 she appeared in Jerrold Freedman's film of Richard Wright's Native Son, playing the crucial role of Bigger Thomas' mother. The film was not as well received as The Color Purple, and critics considered Winfrey's performance overly sentimental.

The popularity of Winfrey's show skyrocketed after the success of The Color Purple, and in September 1985 the distributor King World bought the syndication rights to air the program in 138 cities, a record for first-time syndication. That year, although Donahue was being aired on 200 stations, Winfrey won her time slot by 31 percent, drew twice the Chicago audience as Donahue, and carried the top ten markets in the United States.

The Oprah Winfrey Show featured such topics and guests as a group of nudists without clothing in the studio (with only their faces shown), a live birth, white supremacists, transsexuals, pet death, gorgeous men, well-dressed women, and Winfrey's own struggle with her weight and coming to terms with the abuse she endured as a child. She holds interviewees' hands during difficult discussions and often breaks into tears right along with them. One show's topic was incest, during which she revealed to her audience she had been raped by a cousin when she was nine years old. It takes a lot of courage to come out and admit such things. She is absolutely amazing in everything she does.

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George's Pond

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