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The name “Oprah Winfrey” seems synonymous with the word “inspirational”, whether you’ve been an avid fan since her humble beginnings in the 1980s, or only caught a few episodes of her show while folding laundry.
There’s no doubt about it, this woman knows how to talk.
But there’s much more Winfrey than television and movie fame, as well as sporadically giving cars away to studio audiences.
Since the debut of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986, Oprah Winfrey has become known as one of the nation’s most influential and powerful voices in mainstream media, a passionate philanthropist and a source of continuous inspiration to fans and comrades in the entertainment industry.
Early into her celebrity, Winfrey made a point to speak out about issues that had been pervading the United States, like verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Winfrey used her fame to inspire victims of abusers to speak out, and also pursued legislation to aid in preventing abuse and protecting victims, including The National Child Protection Act in 1993, signed by President Bill Clinton.
Winfrey continued to garner fame for her celebrated talk show, and also wowed critics with her acting talent in films like The Color Purple and The Butler. A place on Winfrey’s couch quickly became the most sought after interview spot for A-List celebrities and even the President of the United States.
Among her other accomplishments, Winfrey became the first African American to grace the cover of Vogue as well as the first African American billionaire in the world!
Through it all, the media queen has remained poised and gracious, and continues to inspire and invite meaningful, open dialogue on her channel OWN, particularly with her show, Oprah’s Next Chapter, where she achieved the seemingly insurmountable feat of making the Kardashians relatable.
This list counts down the top 10 inspirational facts about Oprah Winfrey. Although a list of facts that make the media queen inspirational could be enough to fill an eight foot scroll (at least), we’ll settle for 10 key highlights that helped cement the public figure as one of the most famed, powerful and iconic women in the past century.
Oprah Winfrey is a Survivor of Verbal, Physical and Sexual Abuse
Oprah Winfrey’s childhood was marked by poverty and various forms of abuse.
In this clip from 1986, Oprah Winfrey speaks out for the first time about being abused by her relative, who was 19 at the time. “I am telling you about myself so that maybe the closet where so many sexual abuse victims and their molesters hide may swing open just a crack today and let some light in.”
In November 2012, Winfrey sat down with veteran late night host, David Letterman, during a lecture series to talk in depth about her experiences as a victim of childhood sexual abuse and how she turned tragedy into inspiration by prevailing and spending much of her career helping others with similar experiences. The icon spoke candidly about being violently raped at the age of 9, and then experiencing various episodes of sexual molestation from the ages of 10 to 14, along with a litany of verbal and physical abuse.
She spoke about how the abuse dismantled her sense of worth and self-esteem.
“Everyone is looking for that validation. I know what it feels like to not be wanted… you can use it as a stepping stone to build great empathy for people,” she said. “Anybody who has been verbally abused or physically abused will spend a great deal of their life rebuilding their esteem.”
Letterman gave many accolades to Winfrey for her courage, telling the television vet, “You’re an extraordinary person who lived through hell. You were not consumed, you prevailed.”
Winfrey referenced a greater power and her belief system, which she felt carried her through a trying childhood.
“I don’t believe you can go through adversity without believing in a power greater than yourself,” she said. “Some may call this God.”
Oprah Winfrey has Never Been Married
Why is this inspirational?
Well, a few reasons.
In an interview, Winfrey spoke of why she and her boyfriend Stedman (whom she has dated since 1986), have never wed. Her explanation of why spoke of the self-awareness she had in regard to her dedication to her career and success.
“It’s not because I never had time — if I wanted to get married, I could’ve made the time,” she said. ”I’m not a traditional woman and I haven’t had a traditional life, and I think that had Stedman and I gotten married, we certainly wouldn’t have stayed married.”
Clearly the plan has worked, as Winfrey and Stedman have never veered from seeming absolutely blissful together.
Moreover, Winfrey has been infamously private about her almost 30 year relationship, choosing instead to focus her efforts on inspiring her audience and innovating the way women are seen on television and in the media.
Oprah Winfrey Launched the Careers of Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Others
In 1995, Oprah Winfrey incurred a lawsuit from Texas cattle producers after airing a show about the safety of beef, which the cattle producers and their attorneys felt was meant to catalyze a “lynch mob mentality” in order to hike up ratings rather than serve as an educational dialogue.
It was during this time that Winfrey met Dr. Phil McGraw, who had then founded Pathways, a self-motivation seminar, as well as the company Courtroom Sciences. Dr. Phil helped council Winfrey through the stress of her legal issues and she later credited him as being part of what helped her win the lawsuit.
Following this, Winfrey featured Dr. Phil on her show regularly, which eventually led to the doctor acquiring his own series, the wildly successful Dr. Phil.
Just as Dr. Phil’s straightforward, no-nonsense approach help him garner legions of his own fans and subsequent book deals, so has the insights of Dr. Mehmet Oz.
She Doesn’t Hold Onto Grudges.
Remember the point about Winfrey opening up to Letterman during a lecture series? And the praise Letterman gave the media queen?
It wasn’t always so cordial.
While The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, was a guest on Letterman’s late night show, Letterman said that his “feud” with Winfrey predated what many thought was fueled by an off-color, sophomoric joke he made while hosting the 1995 Oscars . In short, Letterman introduced Winfrey and Uma Thurman by making a joke of the pronunciation of their names (i.e., the fact that both their names had two syllables), by saying, “Uma, Oprah, Oprah, Uma…”
Yeah, it was bad.
“[Our feud] predates the Academy Awards. She hated me long before that,” he told Stewart. ”She was with Stedman, I was with my then-girlfriend Regina. We were both at a restaurant having lunch on vacation. I said to Regina, ‘Oh, this is hilarious, I’m gonna make Oprah buy us lunch.’”
Upon receiving his check, Letterman told the waiter, “Oh, this woman right over there has been kind enough to take care of our check.”
The late night host concluded his prank with a smile and wave to Winfrey whilst exiting, and he claimed that was where the beef began.
However, Winfrey—being the gracious beacon of awesomeness she is—addressed the feud (or lack thereof) during a 2005 appearance on Letterman’s show.
“For years I’ve heard you talk about…this big feud we have,” Winfrey stated on the show. “I have never had a moment’s feud with you, as far as I knew.”
Winfrey also gave Letterman a present which she stated was a way to show Letterman, “Whatever you thought was happening, it’s over. There is no feud, there’s only peace.”
What was the gift in question?
A framed and autographed photograph of Winfrey and Thurman.
Cue the guffaws.
She was the First African American Woman to Appear on the Cover of Vogue
In 2009, Oprah Winfrey made history by becoming the first African American woman to appear on the cover of Vogue.
It should be noted, however, that some would argue there were caveats to this monumental accomplishment.
Vogue has historically been known as a brand that features thin, caucasian and—since the advent of photoshop and other software geared toward alterations of physique—heavily airbrushed models and celebrities.
According to a May 2009 report from the PEOPLE, Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, asked that Winfrey shed 20 pounds in preparation for the magazine shoot.
“It was a very gentle suggestion,” Wintor stated, lightheartedly. “I went to Chicago to visit Oprah, and I suggested that it might be an idea that she lose a little bit of weight. I said simply that you might feel more comfortable. She was a trooper! She totally welcomed the idea. She went on a very stringent diet. It was one of our most successful covers ever.”
Indeed, the subsequent headline for the cover read: “Oprah Winfrey! A Major Movie, An Amazing Makeover!”
Winfrey has spoken openly about her weight battles throughout her career, while also becoming a proponent of self-love and body acceptance.
The Cut called out Vogue in a report detailing how Winfrey, pop singer Katy Perry , and others were required to practice restrictive dieting regimens before being allowed to grace the cover.
Criticisms aside, it should be noted that Winfrey’s appearance on the cover is still a landmark motion and calls for inspiration.
Should it be so uncommon for African American women or, moreover, those of non-caucasian descent to be featured on Vogue covers along with the brand’s counterparts?
Perhaps that’s another list for another time.
She Doesn’t Succumb to Certain Societal Pressures
It doesn’t matter how many decades go by, or how many women rise to the forefront of business success and power, the question of why women of a certain age are not having children continues to percolate through our society and many of our lives.
During a 2013 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Winfrey spoke about her decision to forego motherhood.
“If I had kids, my kids would hate me,” she told THR. ”They would have ended up on the equivalent of the ‘Oprah’ show talking about me; because something [in my life] would have had to suffer and it would’ve probably been them.”
Winfrey went on to reference the contrasts between herself and best friend Gayle King, stating “[She] was the kind of kid who, in seventh grade Home Ec class, was writing down her name and the names of her children…While she was having those kind of daydreams, I was having daydreams about how I could be Martin Luther King.”
She Became America’s First African American Billionaire
After growing up in poverty and surviving childhood trauma, Oprah Winfrey overcame her scars and utilized her pain as motivation to become one of the most powerful women in the world.
Among her other historic contributions and achievements, Oprah Winfrey was cited by Forbes as the nation’s only black billionaire from 2004 to 2006.
During an interview with Forbes in 1995, Winfrey spoke of some of her strategies toward achieving success and ways you overcame adversity in the media industry.
In 1984, The Oprah Winfrey Show had already gained notoriety, and Winfrey was enjoying the various fruits of her labor. However, she took note when several of her superiors and coworkers made a point to congratulate her on the selection of her agent, rather than her own success.
“Three separate [ABC] people stopped me to tell me what a great guy my agent was,” Winfrey told Forbes. “and that didn’t make sense to me.” Why were people going out of their way to praise the fellow?”
Bring a shrewd and savvy businesswoman, Winfrey promptly replaced her agent with Chicago lawyer, Jeffrey Jacobs. “I’d heard Jeff is a piranha,” she said when asked about how Jacobs had made the cut. “I like that. Piranha is good.”
It worked out, as the collaboration between Winfrey and Jacobs catapulted her to the legendary status she is known for today.
4. She Makes People Jump for Joy
Although Winfrey may (or may not, she actually seemed pretty excited about it when it was happening) experience some chagrin at the thought of anyone referring to this as a “poignant” or thought-provoking moment in her illustrious career, it certainly was a memorable one for her audience.
On May 23, 2005, movie star Tom Cruise jumped on a couch while declaring his love for then-girlfriend (and now ex-wife) Katie Holmes. E! News took a look back on this moment on May 22, 2014, referencing its notoriety as the audience (and the internet) LOST THEIR MINDS during the impromptu moment when Cruise was supposed to be promoting his movie, War of the Worlds.
It should be noted that although subsequent reports and internet fodder claimed Cruise “jumped up and down” on Oprah’s couch during his appearance, he actually only jumped onto the couch and stood there for a second.
So…yeah…is that less bonkers?
Celebrity declarations of love weren’t the only thing that caused Winfrey’s studio audience to jump for joy. Throughout the years, Winfrey developed a “Favorite Things” segment where she would give away many sought after items—including cars!—to her studio audience.
The phrase, “You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car!” quickly became a part of the nation’s vernacular, various memes, and a slew of Saturday Night Live sketches.
Well done, Winfrey. Well done.
3. She’s A Renowned Philanthropist
Winfrey is the quintessence of one who uses her power for good. She’s earned billions, and uses much of her fortune to give back to those less fortunate. A few of Winfrey’s causes and those that she’s contributed to are:
- The Oprah Winfrey Foundation
- The Angel Network
- The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls South Africa
- The Mississippi Animal Rescue League
- Clinton Foundation
- Project Cuddle
- Free the Children
In 2011, Winfrey received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars for her charitable work. During her speech, a teary Winfrey said, “I didn’t prepare a speech because I just wanted to feel whatever this is…I never imagined myself receiving an Oscar, certainly not for doing what I believe is a part of my calling, is a part of my being. It’s a part of why I am here.”
She went on to thank people like Quincy Jones and others who helped expedite her career. Winfrey noted that she enjoyed the art of acting and doing films, but—in perhaps the most poignant moment of her speech—noted,“The Board of Governors, you get it. You get that what I’ve been trying to do and what I’ve been trying to say all these years is that every single person, Ayanna, and all of you and every person I’ve spoken to in over fifty thousand interviews of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ every single person who incarnates here to the planet matters. Your life matters. You matter. What you do matters. The fact that you are here, that you are born, that your presence here on earth means something. That’s what I’ve been trying to say through all of my work, be it film, be it ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ be it the magazine, it is that we all matter.”
How’s that for inspirational?
2. She Takes Care of Her Employees
We know that Visa gift card and bottle of cab your boss gave you during last year’s holiday party was too legit to quit, but Oprah may trump every boss in the history of time by being the best boss anyone could ask for.
In 2009, Winfrey showed appreciation for her hard-working staff by treating every single one of them to an exotic Mediterranean cruise.
This wasn’t the first time Winfrey’s staff got the first-class treatment from their boss. In 2005, Winfrey treated her employees to a trip to Hawaii, all expenses paid. How’s that for an A-list benefits package?
1. She’s Been Nominated for Numerous Awards for Acting
Winfrey is best known as an icon of talk, but she has proven that her talent expands far past daytime and news.
Winfrey has displayed some amazing acting chops in various movies, including The Color Purple, The Butler and Beloved.
For The Color Purple, Winfrey was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture, and a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Winfrey has also been nominated for various awards for her work as Gloria Gaines in The Butler, and for work as both Executive Producer and Supporting Actress in Selma, among other.
In 2014, fans were outraged over Winfrey being “snubbed” by The Academy for her role in The Butler. As per usual, Winfrey took the rebuff in stride and showcased her classic grace while being asked about the subject at the 2014 Critics’ Choice Movie Awards.
“Look at that category, and look who’s nominated in that category. My friend Julia, and June, who I don’t know, but Sally Hawkins, and Jennifer and Lupita. I think that’s fantastic. I haven’t picked up the acting chops in 15 years, so to be able to be a part of a film that could get that kind of attention, that could earn that kind of audience respect that it has…I’ve been saying all along, ‘I already won,’ ” she said. “If anybody sees or reads anything that says I was the slightest bit upset…I had no expectation for a nomination. I really didn’t. I think I was the only person who didn’t in my group. And I just feel like, wow. What an amazing thing I got to do that. I really do.”