The Kennedy Center

Oprah Winfrey


(Producer, television host, actress, author; born January 29, 1954 in Kosciusko, Mississippi)

She has impacted nearly every aspect of the entertainment world while engaging, inspiring and enriching the lives of millions.

Her achievements would be enough to fill more than a few great lives, but in fact this beloved producer, television host, actress, major player on Broadway and in Hollywood, author and self-made billionaire philanthropist is the stuff of greatness.  From her soul-stirring performances on screen to her numerous producing endeavors and award-winning television show, she has spent her life creating innovative projects that have proven time and again her unique ability to enhance the world's exposure to the arts and perception of humanity.

Oprah Gail Winfrey was born poor in rural Mississippi, to a soldier and an unwed teenage mother. Her childhood was tough by any standards, but the grandmother who raised her in a farm in Kosciusko taught the little girl to read at the age of three. Oprah recited poems and Bible verses in church, became known as the Little Speaker before she was sent away to Milwaukee. Her mother Vernita found work as a maid there, and while mother was away in their inner city apartment little Oprah was repeatedly abused, for years. She tried running away from that nightmare, was sent to a detention home only to be turned back when all the beds were full. Alone and homeless at fourteen, she found her father Vernon in Nashville and found a home again.  He gave Oprah the structure and home life she needed. "As strict as he was," she says, "he had concerns about me making the best of my life and would not accept anything he thought was less than my best."

She was smart and she was beautiful. At 17, she won a beauty contest in Nashville, an on-air job with an African American radio station, and a scholarship from Tennessee State University, where she majored in Speech Communications and Performing Arts. At 19, she became the first female African American news anchor in Nashville. She joined WJZ-TV News in Baltimore as co-anchor, where she also co-hosted her first talk show, People Are Talking. Oprah knew how to listen. But, for all her success, few could have expected that when she moved to Chicago in 1984 to host Channel 7's A.M. Chicago that she would redefine the talk show format and change television forever. The show was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the rest is history.

Still, that history was far from finished. Even as America fell in love with this straightforward, unassuming lady, Steven Spielberg watched some tapes of her show sent by Quincy Jones, liked what he saw, and offered Oprah Winfrey the role of Sofia in his film adaptation of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple. Her performance earned her nominations for both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Her love of acting was the real thing, and even as the rest of her whirlwind of a life continued, Oprah Winfrey later would again earn critical acclaim for her performance in the film adaptation of Richard Wright's classic Native Son. Her relationship with The Color Purple would prove long-lasting: Most recently, Oprah Winfrey produced a huge Broadway and national hit with the musical The Color Purple.

She formed her own Harpo Productions in 1986--"Harpo" is "Oprah" spelled backwards--as The Oprah Winfrey Show went national and her production company would become a major force not only in television but also in films, publishing and the then-burgeoning Internet field. Her interview of Michael Jackson in 1993 drew more than 100 million viewers, making it the most watched interview in television history.  The first woman to produce and star in her own talk show, she also produced and starred in the miniseries The Women of Brewster Place, followed by There Are No Children here and Before Women Had Wings. In 1998, she produced and starred in Beloved, a film adaptation of the novel by the Nobel Prize-winning American author Toni Morrison. As an actress, she has been heard in a number of successful animated films, including Charlotte's Web, Bee Movie and The Princess and the Frog.

Using her talk show to promote good literature, she then revitalized America's reading habits with the Oprah Book Club, which turned classics into bestsellers and sparked a national book club reading craze. Following repeated Emmy victories, she launched Oprah Online at AOL. Far from done, she launched O, The Oprah Magazine.

She testified before the U.S. Congress in 1991 and was instrumental in promoting the National Child Protection Act, a law that aimed to create a national database of child abusers which became known as the Oprah Bill by the time President Bill Clinton signed it into law. With her Oprah's Angel Network, she organized fellow philanthropists to encourage everyone who could to make charitable contributions and volunteer work. She was the first African American listed by Business Week as one of the top 50 most generous philanthropists. Putting her money where her heart is, she invested more than $40 million in children: The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls opened near Johannesburg, South Africa in 2007. An admiring Nelson Mandela congratulated this indomitable American woman for overcoming her own disadvantaged origins to become an inspiration to future generation.

The woman herself is fond of quoting Martin Luther King in getting to the heart of that greatness that is within our reach.

"Dr. King said," Oprah Winfrey told the graduating class at Stanford University in 2008, that "not everybody can be famous. But everybody can be great because greatness is determined by service." In her own words, she added that to be great "you only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love."

"When you do good," Oprah told the students, "I hope you strive for more than just the good feeling that service provides, because I know this for sure, that doing good actually makes you better. So whatever field you choose, if you operate from the paradigm of service, I know your life will have more value and you will be happy."

In 2005, Oprah Winfrey received the National Civil Rights Museum's prestigious Freedom Award, following previous recipients Coretta Scott King, Nelson Mandela, and Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. She's in good company. Then again, Oprah Winfrey is always in good company--she has given her public a huge hug, and the world returns her love.
Oprah Winfrey