Real Leaders

The Oprah Effect

Born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage, single mother, Oprah Winfrey went on to become the first black woman billionaire in history. Arguably the world’s most powerful woman, she has overcome her adversities to become a benefactor to others. Now she’s producing movies.

In August this year The Hundred-Foot Journey produced by Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake will hit our screens. Based on a novel by  Richard C. Morais, it explores the rivalry between an Indian and French restaurant, located one hundred feet apart. The plot might be one that Oprah typically explores on her shows: a clash of values and cultures, misunderstandings and strife, that resolves itself into a warm and passionate feel-good, where everyone wins.

The appeal of the storyline might be one reason Winfrey is helping produce this movie, but her association with Spielberg goes back to 1985 when she starred in The Color Purple as distraught housewife Sofia. The film went on to become a Broadway musical, with Winfrey credited as a producer too. In October 1998, she also produced and starred in the film Beloved, where to prepare for her role as Sethe, the protagonist and former slave, Winfrey experienced a 24-hour simulation of the experience of slavery,  including being tied up and blindfolded and left alone in the woods.

During filming, co-actor Thandie Newton described Winfrey as, “A very strong technical actress; because she’s so smart. She’s acute. She’s got a mind like a razor blade.” Winfrey has become an icon of compassion and empathy around the world, discovering early in her career that it had marketing potential. She was born into poverty in rural Mississippi, to a teenage, single mother, and later raised in an inner-city Milwaukee neighborhood. She experienced considerable hardship during her childhood, saying she was raped at age nine and became pregnant at 14; her son died in infancy.

Sent to live in Tennessee, Winfrey landed a job in radio while still in high school and began co-anchoring the local evening news at the age of 19. Her emotional ad-lib delivery eventually got her transferred to the daytime-talk-show arena, and after boosting a third-rated local Chicago talk show to first place, she launched her own production company, becoming internationally syndicated. Credited with creating a more intimate, confessional form of media communication, she is thought to have popularized and revolutionized the tabloid talk show genre, which a Yale study says broke 20th-century taboos, and allowed previously disenfranchised people to enter the mainstream.

By the mid-1990s, she had reinvented her show with a focus on literature, self-improvement and spirituality, and in 1986 The Oprah Winfrey Show began broadcasting across the United States. Time magazine wrote at the time: “Few people would have bet on Oprah Winfrey’s swift rise, to host the most popular talk show on TV.

In a field dominated by white males, she is a black female, and of ample bulk. What she lacks in journalistic toughness, she makes up for in plainspoken curiosity, robust humor and, above all, empathy.” In the mid-1990s, Winfrey adopted a less tabloid-oriented format, hosting shows on broader topics such as heart disease, geopolitics, spirituality and meditation, interviewing celebrities on social issues they were directly involved with, such as cancer, charity work, or substance abuse. Winfrey became the first black person to rank among the 50 most generous Americans and by 2012 she had given away about US$400 million to educational causes, including more than 400 scholarships to a college in Atlanta.

The following year, U.S. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1998, Winfrey created Oprah’s Angel Network, a charity that supported charitable projects and provided grants to nonprofit organizations around the world. The network raised more than US$80 million, with Winfrey personally covering all administrative costs so that 100 percent of all funds raised went to the charity programs.

Winfrey created the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa in 2007, investing US$40 million in establishing the academy. A 21-day trip to the country, visiting schools and orphanages in poverty-stricken areas, struck a chord with Winfrey, who later described having maternal feelings toward the girls; perhaps wanting them to avoid the pitfalls of her own early years. She keeps in touch with them by teaching a class via satellite.

Nelson Mandela praised Winfrey for overcoming her own disadvantaged youth to become a benefactor for others, while others considered the school elitist and unnecessarily luxurious. Winfrey rejected these claims, saying: “If you are surrounded by beautiful things and wonderful teachers who inspire you, that beauty brings out the beauty in you.”

Now worth close to US$3 billion, according to Forbes, and the first black woman billionaire in world history, Winfrey is the richest self-made woman in North America. Yet, despite her fabulous wealth she continues to permeate world culture and help shape our lives in meaningful ways.

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