How Oprah Winfrey became the richest self-made woman in America

By on February 9, 2020
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - NOVEMBER 29:  Media personality and activist Oprah Winfrey attends the Dignity of Women Conversation at The University of Johannesburg on November 29, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa.  (Photo by J. Countess/Getty Images)

Although Oprah Winfrey ended the iconic Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011, her empire marches on, leading to her reported $2.8 billion net worth. Her achievements are especially impressive given the obstacles she’s overcome, including poverty, abuse, and discrimination.

The 1970s
At age 19, Winfrey landed her first television job at WLAC-TV (now WTVF), a CBS station in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1976, she transferred to WJZ-TV, the ABC affiliate in Baltimore, Maryland. But after struggling to maintain the objectivity required to report news, she defected to a new morning talk show called People Are Talking, which aired in 1977. Winfrey’s casual, improvisational style helped her develop a natural rapport with guests, who felt comfortable telling their personal stories. By the end of the decade, the show beat Phil Donahue’s program in the local ratings.

The 1980s
In January of 1984, Chicago’s ABC affiliate WLS-TV offered Winfrey a 30-minute morning talk show called AM Chicago. Within one year, the show rocketed from the last place to the top of the ratings heap. In 1986, legendary film critic Roger Ebert encouraged Winfrey to license her show for a national audience through syndication. Her program was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show and expanded to an hour in length. At the age of 32, Winfrey became the first African American nationally syndicated television host.

That same year, Winfrey was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film The Color Purple. She also launched television production company Harpo Inc., making her the first black person, and the third woman to control her own major studio.

The 1990s
Winfrey’s ratings and viewership continued to climb. Over time, she veered away from sensationalistic topics to focus on serious issues like child molestation, gender and sexual intolerance, and racism. Throughout the decade, she received multiple Daytime Emmy awards for Outstanding Talk Show Host.

By 1995, her net worth had bloomed to $340 million, making her the richest woman in entertainment. Maintaining ownership of her show freed Winfrey to expand her business endeavors. In 1998, she co-founded Oxygen Media, a programming company geared to women. She also laid the foundation for the 2000 publication of O, The Oprah Magazine, she co-authored multiple books on diet and exercise, and she launched her influential Book Club in 1996.

The 2000s
With her continued success in the 21st century, Winfrey became a billionaire. She co-produced a Broadway musical version of The Color Purple, created the Oprah.com website, and launched a 24-hour channel called Oprah Radio on XM Satellite Radio. She continued hosting her talk show until 2011, after which she created OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, of which she is the CEO. In 2015, Oprah bought a 10% equity stake in Weight Watchers International (WTW) and became a spokeswoman for the popular subscription weight loss program.

A longtime political advocate, Winfrey campaigned for President Barack Obama, who subsequently awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

In 2018, Winfrey was awarded the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the 75th annual Golden Globes. During her acceptance speech, Winfrey expounded on sexual harassment issues in Hollywood, prompting speculation that she may consider a presidential run.

The Bottom Line
Winfrey’s hard work, resilience, and business acumen have led to her unparalleled success across multiple industries, making her the richest self-made woman in America. In 2001, her triumph even became the subject of a University of Illinois college course entitled Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon.

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