The Oprah effect

Share this article

OPRAH WINFREY is an icon, a touchstone, a figurehead. Some would say she is practically a religion. The woman herself is revered. Her talk show attracts 50 million people every week. Two and a half million buy her magazine, O, every month. She has the power to change people's lives - and she does so on a regular basis.

So what makes her so popular? On the one hand, she is an intensely private person, yet when you meet her she couldn't be more intimate. She tells you to love yourself as you are, but gives you all her best diet tips. She tells you to give, give, give, but also to pamper yourself. She is about fighting for everything and running from nothing. Is this conflicted, or just human?

Maybe it's her vulnerability that makes her powerful; it has certainly won her legions of fans. She talks about love and self-empowerment with the passion of someone who knows what it's like to have nothing. "The big secret in life is that there is no big secret," she says. "Whatever your goal, you can get there if you're willing to work." And she really did have nothing: she survived growing up in extreme poverty in the Deep South, where she was raped at the age of nine and sexually abused by her uncle. She became pregnant as a teenager, but her child died.

Take O magazine. The advice, the recommendations are all about how to live. Interestingly, unlike all the other monthly glossies, which need Kate Moss or Keira Knightley on the cover to guarantee sales, O magazine only ever has Oprah on the cover - Oprah fat, Oprah thin, Oprah's hair gorgeous, Oprah's hair out of control. She knows that Oprah sells O magazine.

Within the pages of the magazine, she talks about her philosophy, covering everything from self-worth ("In every aspect of our lives, we are always asking ourselves, 'How am I of value? What is my worth?' Yet I believe that worthiness is our birthright"), to making money ("Although I am grateful for the blessings of wealth, it hasn't changed who I am. My feet are still on the ground. I'm just wearing better shoes").

Oprah is one of us. She has felt trauma, rejection, loneliness and fat. She is just like you and me, only she got through it all. That's why she's a leader. That's why there is a movement calling for her to be president. She says she's not interested in standing for election, but just think how appealing she would be. Oprah gets things done. Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger blazed the trail for actors entering politics, but when quizzed by reporters about the campaign calling for her presidency, "I feel flattered by it" was as far as Oprah would go.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and President Bush dithered on the sidelines, it was Oprah who marched into the cramped, stinking Superdrome, where the refugees where huddled, to host her weekly show. Bush couldn't deal with the situation; Oprah knew exactly what to do. "Nothing I saw on television prepared me for what I experienced on the ground," she said. "I was sitting at home feeling frustrated and useless, like so many other people, so I came down to personally assess how I could best be of service."

She is also credited with getting a nation to read again. If your novel is accepted into Oprah's Book Club, you've got it made: sales are pretty much guaranteed to go through the roof. Most of the books on the list tell uplifting stories about strong women. They are for people who wouldn't normally buy books, whose lives she wants to enrich. Author Kathleen Rooney wrote a book about the phenomenon, Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America. In it she describes Oprah as "a serious intellectual who pioneered the use of electronic media, specifically television and the internet, to take reading - a decidedly non-technological and highly individual act - and highlight its social elements and uses in such a way to motivate millions of erstwhile non-readers to pick up books."

In the same way, if Oprah's show features a product, it can become an overnight sensation. Carol's Daughter, a range of bath and beauty products that was founded in a Brooklyn kitchen, went from total obscurity to a national must-have brand when she mentioned it on air. The company's website crashed as a result of the sheer volume of orders that flooded in.

When President Clinton passed the National Child Protection Act in 1993, to establish a national database for convicted child-abusers, it was better known as the Oprah Bill, because it was the presenter who had campaigned for the law to change.

To begin with, The Oprah Winfrey Show was all about soul-baring revelations, but she soon moved on. Her favourite type of programme now is inspirational, empowering and about getting things done.

Famously, she once gave every member of her audience what she called "the gift of giving back". Three hundred audience members were each handed a debit card charged with 1,000 to give to a charitable cause. They could either spend it all at once by giving it to one stranger in need or donate one dollar to 1,000 individual people or causes. "Imagine the love and kindness you can spread with 1,000," she told them.

Critics called it "capitalistic philanthropy", "self-aggrandising" and "borderline vulgar". She might call it something else. It's difficult to be so famous and so rich. The most recent Forbes list puts her wealth at 1.5 billion, making her the richest woman in entertainment in America. JK Rowling ranks second, at 1 billion, while Martha Stewart is third, with 638 million. Madonna's 325 million puts her fourth.

Talking of Madonna, when her recent adoption of young David Banda from Malawi was greeted with howls of outrage, she knew that her only chance of turning the bad press around was with the help of Oprah - and the mass coverage she would get across America for telling her side of the story on the show.

Oprah has never been afraid to do what she thinks is right, even when she knows there will be hell to pay. She invested 40 million of her own money in a school for girls in South Africa, which she chose partly because "it's a country of new beginnings" and partly because of her "deep love of Nelson Mandela". She calls it the Leadership Academy for Girls. The 152 (soon to rise to 450) pupils all come from deprived backgrounds, and she hand-picked them from 4,000 short-listed applicants. She was looking for "a spark of charisma that allows you to be the leader of the world, even if you live in a hut in a village in the middle of nowhere". This is a wonderful example of the gift of giving back. In many ways, it was also a journey through herself to try to put right for other girls what went so wrong when she was a teenager. Before the academy opened, she told me, "When I open my school it will be the proudest day of my life."

OPRAH grew up repressing a lot of her sadness. Born into abject poverty in Mississippi in 1954, she suffered every possible disadvantage. Her teenage mother was on welfare and couldn't bring up the child on her own, so she was sent to live with her grandmother. By the time she was six, though, her grandmother was dying, and Oprah was sent back to her mother. Life was hard.

When she started school, things were no better. "I started acting out," she says. "I was ostracised because my classmates didn't see me as their equal. They could buy pizza, they could participate in activities, and I could not. I asked my mother for money to do what the other kids did, and she said no. So I started stealing from her purse - 2 a week or whatever. Of course I would lie about it.

"Then I started running the streets. I was being sexually abused at the same time, and I had no idea what impact holding on to a secret like that has on you. I felt that I couldn't tell anybody because nobody would believe me, and that I would be blamed."

Her mother decided to send her to a detention centre. She remembers watching her mum filling out the forms that would secure her a place in the home. "It was a defining moment for me, looking at the other girls who were waiting like me, thinking, 'I have now been defined as a bad girl. I'm at a home with bad girls,' and all the while thinking to myself that I was not a bad girl at all."

By a stroke of luck, the centre ran out of beds, so her mother called Oprah's father and told him to come and get her. Oprah doesn't flinch when she tells me an interesting detail of her parents' tryst. "My parents had sex with each other just once. It was on the way home from school. She was wearing a poodle skirt and he said he wanted to know what was under there. So they had sex in a grove of oak trees. I guess that's why I love oak trees so much. She must have forgotten to brush the leaves off the back of her skirt, because my grandmother apparently said, 'What are you doing with those leaves?' That's how it happened. One time." They weren't even going out with each other.

Vernon Winfrey ran a barber's shop. A sensible but not particularly emotional man, he recognised that he had to be there for his daughter. So he took her in. He ran a tight ship, imposing curfews and demanding a book report every week. "It was a turning point, the difference between success and failure. I often wonder what would have happened to me. My half-sister and brother, both raised by my mother, are dead now."

She tried to help her sister, Patricia, paying for her to go into rehab. But she died of an accidental drug overdose not long after she came out. Her brother succumbed to Aids 15 years ago.

Gratitude that her father intervened when she was in so much trouble is possibly what has driven her to intervene in the lives of the girls in South Africa. Her Angel network founded the Seven Fortunes primary school in the 1990s. The project focused on education and literacy, but Oprah felt that it wasn't enough.

With this new school, she wants to celebrate the transformative power of education. She wants to make a place of learning that will not just enhance lives but completely change them for the better. She has personally gone over the curriculum. The school's science labs and libraries are state-of-the-art. Each girl has a two-room suite to stay in. There is a gym and a wellness centre. It has, however, been described as being more like a luxury hotel than a school, and was criticised by the global development group Action Aid for being elitist.

There is no doubt that the 40 million could have been spent differently, providing fewer facilities for more children. But this way works for Oprah because she knows exactly what her money is doing. She loves it when 11-year-old girls tell her, "This will help me to become a doctor." She has been criticised for asking the pupils' parents not to bring junk food on visits because she wants the girls to eat a nutritious diet. Is this kind or controlling? Both. She says, "I know that this academy will change the trajectory of these girls' lives. They will excel and pass their excellence on to their families, their nation and our world."

Talking to Oprah in Chicago, at the offices of her production company Harpo, it's easy to see how well she has succeeded. Somewhere along the line, all her terrible feelings of being ostracised and rejected magically turned into massive self-esteem. She had the confidence to demand the ownership of her own company right at the beginning. She likes to retain full control over all her ventures, whether it's a diet book or a girls' school.

She graduated from Tennessee State University and went to work as a television news reporter in Baltimore. Before long, a station manager in Chicago took a risk and, rather than choosing another handsome white man, cast an overweight African-American woman as the anchor of its morning programme. In only a month Oprah was leading the local ratings and on her way.

Yet it sometimes seems as if she has no sense of her own power. The last time I met her she had just engaged a nanny for her dogs, and said she worried what the dogs would think. She had bought three spaniel puppies because she couldn't walk away with just one. There was the one she wanted, the one that had an underbite that no one else would want, and the third was going to be a pal for the first one... Did she get the dogs as a baby replacement? "No, I don't think it was that," she says. "I don't think they compare. But when my puppies were young, for a solid month my whole life was based around the dogs. All three wanted something different, and I realised that this is how women lose themselves. For years I had heard women in my audience say, 'I used to be a person who loved art and books, now my life is my kids.' I used to tell them to make time for themselves, but then I saw that once it starts you can't stop."

She has been with her partner, Stedman Graham, for 20 years, during which she could have had children if she had wanted to. Did she decide not to because she feared losing herself? "It wasn't a fear, it was a deep understanding," she replies. "I know you can't do it all."

Oprah is 52 now, so children is a debate not worth having, especially as she gets guilty if she has gone through a whole day without petting her dogs. She could have had a dog nanny for them from the start. And this is when she forgets just how powerful she is. She can change laws, change the lives of South African children, walk with Bill Clinton and have any celebrity she wants on her sofa - and yet she worries about what the dogs think.

Her office is arty and cosy. There's a doll's-house version of the church that was her touchstone as she grew up. She likes to keep the model church as a reminder of where she came from, so that she doesn't take anything for granted. Yet her staff, who work with her every day, seem excited and in awe of her.

Her skin is flawless and her eyes are sparkling, but she still says she feels fat. She says it was only recently that she realised her problem. "I don't get angry, I eat. Now I think my life is bigger than food. It came from not expressing emotions, and eating them instead of dealing with them." We are interrupted because her estate planner has arrived. Does she have death on her mind? "I have a responsibility," she says. "I am meeting with her so that I can plan for the children I have in Africa."

The children she is talking about are orphans. You get a sense that she has replaced the desire to be a biological mother, because that would mean not having it all, with being a mother figure to many. "I have not legally adopted them, but I am sponsoring their education, clothing and food," she says. "The last time I was there, they said to me, 'What happens to us if you die?' Life and death are more pressing matters for them, so I want to make sure they are taken care of."

So who takes care of the woman who takes care of the world? Stedman, now a fundraiser himself, is always saying how much he has learned from her. "My relationship with Oprah is the best thing that ever happened to me," he smiles.

"What Stedman offers me is how to be myself," says Oprah. "He has his own business, he is his own person. I couldn't be with a man who wasn't, otherwise you get completely swallowed."

He proposed to her about ten years ago, but the wedding didn't go ahead. She says that they had chosen a date, which was close to the publication date of her autobiography. "We were in the car, on our way to a party to celebrate my signing the book deal, when Stedman turned to me and said he did not approve of the book because I was going to embarrass my family. I said, 'But it's the truth, and I've already said it.' And he was like, 'Your mother doesn't need to hear that she wasn't there for you.' He went on, 'I don't want to have a wedding in the midst of all this craziness about the book. I think we should postpone our marriage until you get over the book thing.'"

The result was no book and no wedding. After consulting a few friends, she realised that Stedman was right: she didn't need or want to write her autobiography. She could write other, wiser books that would change people's lives and help them more.

When pushed to reveal who protects her emotionally, she says, "That would be my friendship with Gayle [King, editor-at-large of O]. We always laugh so long and so loud, Gayle and I. Every night on the phone we talk about something. I hang up the phone and think, 'That's why I never needed therapy.' We can see the same thing and have the same reaction - and that's the reason she is so great for my magazine."

A few months ago, Oprah demonstrated once again that she has no idea of her own power. She doesn't need to apologise or explain anything, yet she took the extraordinary step of talking about her close friendship with King. "I understand why people think we're gay," she says. "There isn't a word in our culture for this kind of bond between women. So I get why people have to label it - 'How can you be this close without it being sexual?'"

The two women have been friends for 30 years, and normally phone each other four times a day. They say they would have no problem telling us all if it were a sexual relationship. "The truth is, if we were gay we would tell you, because there's nothing wrong with being gay," says King.

Certainly, Oprah herself wouldn't have a problem with revelations - she has made a career of it. But she can't explain her friendship with King. "Something about this relationship feels otherworldly, like it was designed by a power and a hand greater than my own."

What's interesting is her need to explain this. I remember her saying that she is just like a member of her audience, someone who might have been abused or in the wrong relationship. "The reason I relate well to my audience is because I am my audience. I spent my whole 20s as an obsessive. Then I said to myself, 'This will never happen to me again - I will never put myself in a position where I love someone else more than myself, where I give my power to someone else, where I get in my car to follow you to see if you are going where you told me you were going. I'll never be in a position where I'm looking in your coat pocket and checking who you are on the phone to. I will never be in a position where if you lie to me more than once I don't remove myself from that relationship.'"

She told me in an emotional monologue about her last obsessive relationship, where the bad boy of her nightmares created a new dream by telling her, when she was on the floor crying, that, "The problem with you, baby doll, is you think you're special." She tells me how she sobbed, "Please, I don't think I'm special, come back."

Then she says that she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and she saw her mother crying when her boyfriend had left her. She got up and washed her face and thought that maybe she should allow herself to think she's special. Everyone should.

This is the mantra that saved her, and it's the mantra she uses to save other people. Saving, empowering. It is almost religious. And, yes, it makes her the most powerful woman in the world. r

Show and tell

White men can't jump

As career moves go, it wasn't one of Tom Cruise's best. In May 2005, when he was asked about his new leading lady, Katie Holmes, on The Oprah Winfrey Show, he proceeded to leap up and down on the sofa, declaring his love for her. The star was universally mocked for his antics, which are said to have lost him the lucrative Mission: Impossible franchise. 'Jumping the couch' is now a popular term to describe going off the rails in public in a manner spectacular enough to damage your reputation.

Ellen is out

In 1997 Oprah played the part of a therapist in an episode of Ellen, in which Ellen Degeneres's character came out as gay. The move was initially considered career suicide for the comedian, but she came back to be voted favourite daytime TV host for her talk show in the People's Choice Awards in 2006.

Ah, there's the snub

Books endorsed on The Oprah Winfrey Show are almost guaranteed increased sales - known as 'the Oprah effect' - but not everyone is keen to jump on the bandwagon. When Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections was chosen to appear on the list in 2001, the author was indiscreet enough to make negative comments about other books on the list in an interview. Complaining about the Oprah insignia on his books was the final straw, and it was withdrawn. Despite the controversy, the book become a bestseller.

The court of Oprah

Plagued by bad publicity after controversially adopting David Banda from Malawi last year, Madonna chose Oprah's show on which to plead her case. Speaking via video link from London, sometimes close to tears, she accused the media of making up negative stories to increase sales.

Bag lady

In June 2005, the plush Herms boutique in Paris refused Oprah entry, provoking accusations of racism. Initial reports claimed security staff had failed to recognise the black icon, adding that they had been having "a problem with North Africans lately". The situation was later clarified - Oprah had arrived after the shop had closed. She noticed there were shoppers still inside and asked to make a quick purchase. Her request was refused, but a 'friend' was quoted as saying that if Celine Dion or Barbra Streisand had made a similar request there wouldn't have been a problem. The label and the talkshow host later made up on air - the complimentary crocodile-skin Birkin bag might have helped...

The great book con

In 2006, Oprah's Book Club praised James Frey's gritty memoir A Million Little Pieces, saying it had kept the entire production team up at nights, sobbing into their duvets. The book shot on to the bestseller list, selling 3.5 million copies, and made a star of Frey. But it later emerged that large sections of the book were fiction rather than autobiography. Oprah confronted him on her show, where he admitted lying. The controversy gripped the US for weeks, but despite her disappointment and embarrassment Oprah said she stood by the book and its message of redemption.

Life and times

January 29, 1954 Oprah Gail Winfrey is born to unmarried teenage parents in Kosciusko, Mississippi. For her first six years she is raised by her grandmother.

1960 She goes to live with her mother, Vernita Lee, in Milwaukee, where she is raped by a cousin at the age of nine, then later molested by a male friend of her mother's and by an uncle. After repeatedly running away and getting into trouble, she is sent to live with her father, Vernon Winfrey, in Nashville.

1968 At the age of 14, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a stillborn baby boy. The death devastates her and she vows to turn her life around.

1971 She enters Tennessee State University to study radio and television broadcasting, and is hired by a Nashville radio station to read the news.

1973 Oprah Winfrey becomes Nashville's first African-American TV correspondent.

1976 She moves to Baltimore to co-anchor the six o'clock news.

1984 She's on the move again, this time to Chicago, where she hosts the morning show AM Chicago.

1985 AM Chicago is renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. Also this year she makes her film debut as Sofia in The Color Purple, for which she is nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award.

1986 She establishes Harpo Incorporated, the start of her television, film production, publishing and online media empire.

1988 She goes on a liquid diet, and loses five stone in just four months. As a celebration, she pulls a trolley full of lard on to her show to represent the body fat she has shed.

1991 Her campaigning initiates the National Child Protection Act and she testifies at a US Senate judiciary committee to establish a national database of convicted child abusers.

1992 Oprah becomes engaged to Stedman Graham, a public-relations executive.

1994 The talkshow host celebrates her 40th birthday by completing the Marine Corps marathon in Washington, DC.

1996 She launches Oprah's Book Club.

1997 She is named as Newsweek's Most Important Person in Books and Media.

1998 She establishes Angel Network, a charity that supports women, children and families through educational and empowerment initiatives. She also wins a six-week libel trial after making comments on air about BSE. Named as one of Time magazine's Most Influential People of the 20th Century.

2000 O magazine is launched. The same year, after winning more than 40 Emmy awards, The Oprah Winfrey Show removes itself from nomination.

2001 She appears on the cover of Newsweek along with the words 'Women of the New Century: The Age of Oprah'.

2002 Work begins on the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.

2004 Winfrey is 50. To mark the launch of the Wildest Dreams season on her show, she gives away a car to every member of her studio audience.

2005 She is ranked number one in the Forbes list of 100 most powerful celebrities.

2007 She opens the Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.

Sharing the love: philanthropic celebrities

Andre Agassi

The tennis star has established the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation (, which offers recreational and educational opportunities for youngsters at risk.

Lance Armstrong

Having battled cancer to win the Tour de France a record seven times, the cyclist set up a foundation ( to enhance the quality of life for those living with and recovering from the disease.

Phil Mickelson

For every birdie and eagle the PGA golfer scores, he donates money to adapt or build accessible homes for soldiers returning to the US with serious injuries or disabilities.

Tiger Woods

The golf champion's foundation promotes parental responsibility and involvement in the lives of their children.


The singer's Ray of Light Foundation gives to Kabbalah centres and medical research and health associations, particularly those for musicians facing health problems.

Elton John

The Elton John Aids Foundation ( has given more than 30 million towards preventing the disease and helping to eliminate prejudice and discrimination against those affected by it.

U2 and Bono

Greenpeace, War Child, Make Poverty History and Amnesty International are just some of the causes supported by this right-on band. Most recently, Bono worked with Jubilee Plus, campaigning to erase Third World debt.

Michael J Fox

The Spin City actor's Foundation for Parkinson's Research ( is dedicated to developing a cure for the disease he has been fighting for 16 years.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt

The couple recently gave 100,000 to help build the Duk Lost Boys Clinic in Sudan. The donation for this medical centre was made through the Jolie-Pitt Foundation.

Richard Gere

A devout Buddhist, the actor's foundation gives primarily to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in exile. He also helped to launch the first American Meals on Wheels ad campaign.

Kevin Bacon

Inspired by the pub game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the actor set up a website ( via which fellow celebs can promote their favourite charities and visitors donate. In its first six weeks it raised 185,000.

Paul Newman

All the after-tax profits from Newman's Own products go to educational and charitable purposes.

George Clooney

The actor gave 1 million to Hurricane Katrina Relief. He also plans to give 25% of the profits from his planned casino to the poor in Africa.