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Shaka Rasheed was about to enter his second year at Morehouse College, a prestigious university in Atlanta, when the tragedy of his childhood collided with the thrill of his potential. The survivor of a "classic, tough, inner-city upbringing" in a Miami, Florida, housing project – a cousin was shot and killed, friends were getting locked up – Rasheed had watched helplessly as his father, an intravenous drug user, died of AIDS. Having turned his own life around, Rasheed was unable to pay his tuition and on the verge of withdrawing when he received a life-changing piece of news: Oprah Winfrey would foot the bill. "I remember just sitting there in my cubicle at work," says Rasheed, now 39 "staring at the phone with tears streaming down my face."
Nearly two decades later – after graduating from Harvard Business School and forging a successful career on Wall Street – Rasheed, one of 10 Oprah Winfrey Scholars that year, vividly remembers that call and the powerful emotions that followed. "You feel a sense of responsibility when a cheque has a name on it," says Rasheed, who went on to mentor and tutor students. "I've made sure that I've followed her example."
Rasheed wasn't the first person to experience Oprah's generosity, and he certainly won't be the last. On September 9, 2010, during the taping of the 25th-season premiere of her phenomenally successful talk show, America's most influential woman unveiled her biggest giveaway yet -an all-expenses-paid, eight-day, seven-night tour to the other side of the world. Her fans burst into paroxysms of joy. As they wept, a screen behind Oprah parted, revealing the nose of a Qantas jet holding the airline's unofficial ambassador, actor (and pilot) John Travolta.
"Oprah's Ultimate Australian Adventure" – the estimated $3 million cost funded by Tourism Australia, the NSW government and various other partners – had been in the works for almost a year before it was announced. It has already been a win for the talk-show queen, generating buzz for her final season with virtually no financial risk on her part. Whether or not it will be a win for Australia's tourism industry remains to be seen. Former federal tourism minister John Brown is confident it's money well spent. "The publicity that Oprah will bring to Australia around the world," he told reporters, "is something you couldn't buy."
With an empire that includes her award-winning talk show, a magazine (O, The Oprah Magazine), a film production house (Harpo Films), a website (oprah.com), a radio station (Oprah Radio), and her next venture, The Oprah Winfrey Network, her ability to move products and sell ideas is so renowned, it's become known as the "Oprah Effect". It has touched authors suddenly jettisoned onto the bestseller list through her book club, and the skin creams and gourmet cookies she used to plug in her unabashedly consumerist My Favorite Things segment.
More significantly, perhaps, a 2008 study by two US economists found that Oprah's endorsement of Barack Obama during the US presidential campaign delivered more than one million votes to the Democrat, and represented the difference in the popular vote between Obama and his rival, Hillary Clinton.
Oprah with Barack Obama during his election campaign.
"If Barack Obama is elected president," opined The New York Times at the time, "a good chunk of credit should go to Oprah Winfrey." While that was her first foray into the political arena, Oprah has been working her magic on the publishing industry since the launch of her book club in 1996. Each of the first 48 books she chose for the club went on to become bestsellers.
When Oprah doesn't like something, the response is just as strong. And those pushed to the verge of insanity by a new love would be well advised to learn from Tom Cruise's 2005 experience: woe betide the man who puts his feet on Oprah's couch. In Cruise's defence, it's easy to feel like it's just you and Oprah hanging out in her living room. Despite enormous wealth and power, her ability to appear relatable is the key to her charm. Self-deprecating and candid about many of her personal travails – most notably her weight – Oprah confessed in one of her earliest TV interviews that, "I think of my life in terms of my thighs". Over the years, she's put stories of weight loss and gain on the cover of her magazine, confessions that are crucial to her "just one of the girls" persona.
To millions of women, Oprah is their super-rich, well-informed and empathetic friend. But, as she has discovered, an enormous public profile brings corresponding public scrutiny. In recent years, she has been slammed for giving a platform to some questionable characters. Actress Jenny McCarthy has appeared on the show to talk up a link between childhood vaccines and autism – claims that many find dubious. Oprah also touted Rhonda Byrne's controversial self-help book The Secret. And, in October 2009, three people died in a so-called purification ritual in Arizona organised by James Arthur Ray, a New Age guru who'd been a guest on Oprah's show (as reported in marie claire last February). "Before Oprah is anything else, she's an endorser," says journalist Peter Birkenhead, who wrote a scathing critique of Oprah for online magazine Salon in 2007. "She can seem like the antidote to the craziness, but that makes her behaviour even more insidious. She lends this sort of rational-seeming imprimatur to dangerous ideas."
Born in 1954 in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to an unwed teenage mother, even by the standards of black Americans in the segregated south, Oprah was not well off. As a child, she wore overalls made from potato sacks and kept two cockroaches, named Sandy and Melinda, as pets. Despite her impoverished beginnings, Oprah displayed extraordinary talents at a young age. By age two, she was reading; by three, she was giving speeches at church.
Fergie helps Oprah kick off her 24th season.
But, with family as dysfunctional as they were destitute, the odds were stacked firmly against the young prodigy. Throughout her childhood, Oprah was shuttled between family in three different states, with tragic results. At nine, she was raped by a cousin, and two other male relatives would molest her. "It was just an ongoing, continuous thing," Oprah has said. "So much so that I started to think, you know, this is the way life is." Like many survivors of sexual abuse, Oprah was a rebellious and promiscuous teenager. In February 1969 – aged barely 15 – she gave birth to a boy, but he died within weeks.
The death of her son was a turning point for Oprah. Shortly after, she moved to Nashville to live with her father, a strict disciplinarian. She thrived in school both socially and academically, joining the debating team and student government. She won a scholarship to Tennessee State University and, at 17, landed a job as a correspondent for a local radio station. Oprah had found her calling: communication. After stints reading TV news, and six years co-hosting a morning show in Baltimore, she was hired to host the talk show AM Chicago in 1984. Renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, it went national in September 1986, and within three months it was the number-one talk show in the country. The same year, Oprah was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple – a role that came to her after music producer Quincy Jones turned on the TV in his hotel room while on business in Chicago.
Oprah owes her swift ascent to many factors, including luck, timing and innate talent. But more than anything, she was the right woman for the times. The late '80s were the heyday of the confessional daytime talk show, aimed at female baby boomers who were well versed in the language of therapy. Oprah was not a pioneer – Phil Donahue really invented the genre in the late '60s – but she can be credited with perfecting it. Nor can Oprah be called an excellent journalist; she was neither a probing interviewer nor an exhaustive researcher. As Time magazine observed in 1988, "what she lacks in journalistic toughness, however, she makes up in plainspoken curiosity, robust humour and, above all, empathy".
As Oprah's career skyrocketed, so did her real estate portfolio. In 2001, she paid a reported $50 million for The Promised Land, a Montecito, California estate she shares with her partner of 24 years, Stedman Graham. In addition to a 2000-square-metre house, the 17-hectare estate includes two ponds, a lake and an orchard. But it's by no means Oprah's only extravagance. Tales of her spending are legion. She shuttles between California and Chicago on a $40 million jet, and has been known to buy $365,000 Bentley convertibles on a whim and drop $400,000 on Chanel shopping sprees.
Oprah's diva tendencies are, perhaps, tempered by the fact she's as generous with others as she is with herself. She claims to give away at least 10 per cent of her income annually, and has spent tens of millions on pet causes, such as The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. She rewards loyal friends, family and staff with expensive gifts, such as the iPads and $10,000 cheques she doled out to O employees last June.
Oprah's generosity may or may not be her way of buying loyalty, but there's no doubt she's in control of her public image. All Harpo employees are required to sign a lifelong confidentiality agreement, an extreme measure even by celebrity standards. She also dropped out of a lucrative $3 million deal for an autobiography, only months before it was to be published, citing privacy concerns.
George Clooney gets up close and personal with Oprah.
Perhaps as a result of her secrecy, gossip about Oprah's private life has swirled for years. Her unorthodox romance with fiancé Stedman Graham has done little to quell the Sapphic rumours. From day one, their relationship has been subject to scrutiny. When he and Oprah first began dating, many suspected that Graham, a handsome, light-skinned black man, was only with the overweight, dark-skinned Oprah for her money. The couple announced their engagement in 1992, and have never officially called it off, but a walk down the aisle looks unlikely.
"I do believe that had we gotten married, we would not be together today," Oprah has said. "The traditional role of marriage would not work in this relationship." It's a kooky concept, but for some fans, if Oprah said it, it must be OK.
In 25 years, The Oprah Winfrey Show has provided hundreds of memorable moments – some that brought us to tears, and some that made us cringe:
Feb '87: Oprah travels to all-white Forsyth County, Georgia, to confront its residents. One local explains the difference between "black people" and "niggers".
Feb '88: In what Oprah calls her "worst interview ever", Elizabeth Taylor stonewalls questions about her personal life.
Feb '93: Oprah interviews Michael Jackson at his Neverland Ranch, and an estimated 90 million people tune in.
Sept '96: The Deep End Of The Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard is the first pick for the hugely influential Oprah Book Club.
Sept '04: Each of Oprah's 276 audience members gets a free Pontiac sedan worth $30,000 (and had to pay up to $7000 in taxes).
May '05: Tom Cruise professes his love for girlfriend Katie Holmes a bit too emphatically. Oprah looks scared, and "couch jumping" instantly becomes part of the lexicon.
Jan '06: After it was revealed that portions of his memoir – and book club pick – A Million Little Pieces were fabricated, Oprah castigates author James Frey: "Why would you lie?"