“The adversity of her childhood somehow gave her a sense of confidence, a sense of empowerment and a desire to help, and that’s part of her basic persona,” says Barbara Walters, who has interviewed Winfrey, 57, on multiple occasions. “I think Oprah is a superb performer. . . . She has this amazing capacity to relate to an audience, which made her a star almost from the day she started to broadcast. It’s in her magazine and it’s in everything she does. She talks about herself, she touches the audience and they become almost one with her.”
That oneness has fueled Winfrey’s show for 25 seasons, through 30,000 guests, a million studio audience members, legions of viewers in 150 countries, 48 Emmys and the Kennedy Center Honors. Her personal net worth is $2.7 billion, according to Forbes, making her the only female African American billionaire at present. She’s used her daytime platform to establish a production company (with projects in film, TV and XM satellite radio), a glossy national magazine (with 2 million subscribers) and a now-shuttered charity wing (which raised more than $80 million and constructed schools in South Africa).
Winfrey’s journey to the center of American consciousness started on Sept. 8, 1986. The first national episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was titled “How to Marry the Man/Woman of Your Choice.”
Wednesday’s taped finale will be her 4,561st show, the last in a long line of episodes featuring aspiration as entertainment. With Oprah as its guide, the country learned how to find its dream partner, how to dance like Tina Turner, how to negotiate racism and religion-based fear. “Live your best life,” implores the cover of every “O” magazine, whose readers are 88 percent female.
“Speaking for those of us who were deeply involved in civil rights, she did more for African Americans than all of us put togther,” says Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who witnessed Winfrey’s efforts to raise funds for the National Council of Negro Women in the District. “A black woman becoming an icon of educated, working-class white women is beyond anything any of us could’ve hoped to do. You can’t love Oprah and hate black people. And when you consider how much drudgery is on television, to see this woman who stands for reading books, for making women think better of themselves, for making people feel guilty if they hated other people — she’s a phenomenon the likes of which this society has never seen.”