Succeeding Donald Trump as US president would be an incredible climax to a true rags to riches life story that fostered her trademark compassion
Oprah Winfrey was four-and-a-half years old, maybe five, when she decided she wasn’t going to have the life expected of her. She was raised on a small Mississippi farm by her grandmother, whose highest hope for her granddaughter was that when she became someone’s domestic worker, she would be treated kindly by her employers. “I just hope you get some good white folks when you grow up, treat you right, treat you nice,” Winfrey said her grandmother told her.
This week, there has been fevered speculation that Winfrey might run for president of the US. And that she might win – one poll found 48% of US voters would choose Winfrey, with 38% voting for Trump.
“Oprah Winfrey can achieve anything she wants to achieve,” says her friend Richard Sher, the man she shared a sofa with on her first talkshow in 1976. He says he spoke to her after the Golden Globes, where she received the Cecil B DeMille achievement award and delivered a speech that had #Oprah2020 trending on Twitter. Did she give any indication she was thinking of running for president? “She gave me the indication that she’s not thinking about [running]. I don’t think this is going to be something she wants to do.”
The suggestion has been made to Winfrey over the years, and she has repeatedly said she’d never do it, though her stance has softened, particularly since the election of another politically inexperienced TV star. “I never considered the question even a possibility,” she said in an interview in December 2016. “I thought, ‘Oh gee, I don’t have the experience, I don’t know enough.’ And now I’m thinking, ‘Oh’.” If Winfrey did become president, it would be the incredible climax to a story that already seems impossible.
“Oprah’s narrative – this triumphant narrative of coming from a hardscrabble, traumatic, abusive [background] – and becoming one of the wealthiest women, the wealthiest black women, and creating her own empire is the quintessential American story as we envision it,” says Leah Wright Rigueur, assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power.
Winfrey was born in 1954 in Mississippi, to a teenage mother, but raised by her grandmother. At six she was sent to live with her mother, who worked long hours as a cleaner. When she was nine, Winfrey was raped by a cousin, and over the next few years she was sexually abused by other men. She went to live with her father in Nashville at 14, hiding the fact she was pregnant and gave birth to a son two months early. He died soon afterwards.
Living with her father and stepmother provided stability and high expectations – her father expected good grades at school. When she was 17, Winfrey won a beauty pageant sponsored by a local radio station. Someone at the station, perhaps noticing her smooth, warm voice, asked her to read a news report on tape and she did it so well, she was offered a part-time job.
She moved to Baltimore to work for WJZ-TV as a news reporter and co-anchor of the six o’clock news. It wasn’t a success. “People resented the fact that Jerry [Turner, veteran anchor] had been given a co-anchor, and it was a young, African-American woman,” remembers Sher. Winfrey was moved to a morning slot, but she and Sher were eventually paired for a talkshow, People Are Talking.
“It became a sensation,” says Sher. Winfrey was, he says, “terrific. The word I would use to describe her is: compassionate. One of the reasons she gave up news and went into talk was whenever she did a story of children killed in a fire, or children murdered and abused, she would cry and cry. She would try to remain objective but she wore her heart on her sleeve, and people really loved that about her. She could relate, and still does, to the person who doesn’t have a penny to their name and a person who has billions.”
Looking for her next move, she sent an audition tape to WLS-TV in Chicago. They gave her the AM Chicago morning talkshow, which became so successful it became The Oprah Winfrey show and was syndicated nationally. Around the same time she had been spotted by Quincy Jones, who recommended her to Steven Spielberg for a role in his adaptation of The Color Purple. By the time she ended her talkshow in 2011, leaving to set up her own cable channel, she had become a billionaire, and one of the most powerful women in the world. She has been credited with everything from liberalising US culture to reinvigorating America’s publishing industry with her book club, to influencing Barack Obama’s victory, following her endorsement.
Her talkshow pioneered the public therapeutic confessional – guests and their empathetic host talked about everything from divorce to body image to childhood abuse to addiction – and later morphed into a vehicle for self-development and triumph over adversity. “In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film,” said Winfrey in her speech, “is to say … how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere, and how we overcome.”
America’s relationship with Winfrey is complex, says Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, and author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream. “She is the first black billionaire, so in the black community she holds a special place because she has shown the promise of going from abject poverty to unimaginable success.” As a woman “she’s shown that it is possible to become a millionaire, and then a billionaire, without having a husband who does it for you.” Winfrey has been with her partner Stedman Graham since 1986, but they never married.
“Then she moves into a self-help realm, which is a little more complicated, because America has a long history of single black women serving as the moral compass and emotional backbone for white women. That has been a critique of Oprah for many years, that [her brand of] self-help and empowerment is at risk of falling into old tropes that a lot of black women find dangerous and antiquated, this emotional pillar for white women.”
This “therapeutic” way of understanding women’s experience in the 80s and 90s, says Janice Peck, professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, and author of The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, was “moving away from a political feminist approach, and putting it in terms of ‘you just need to work on yourself’”. Winfrey appealed “on a basis of this personal relationship and therapeutic orientation, and making sure she was never threatening to a white audience. The phrase used about her is that she ‘transcends race’ because in the US, to ‘transcend race’ means that you’re accepted and embraced by whites”.
She has not been political, says Greer. “As much as we know Oprah, we don’t know her. She’s been with us for at least 35 years in our living rooms but do I really know how she feels about the welfare state? No. I know she owns multiple houses but I don’t know her stand on housing policy. I know she’s a lot more inclusive than our current president, and for many people that’s enough. I just think that one great speech should not catapult someone to a presumptive nominee when we already have a lot of qualified women.”
Winfrey’s message, says Wright Rigueur, has always been that positive thinking and hard work “will get you rewards and if you don’t get those rewards, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough or you weren’t deserving. Look at Oprah’s endorsement of The Secret [the pseudo-science “law of attraction” book] – if you believe it, it will come true. It doesn’t work for a poor working-class mom from Appalachia or the Bronx, they can wish all they want but if the systems around them don’t allow for mobility or opportunity or access, they’re not going to do anything”.
In her Golden Globes speech, she talked about abuse suffered by generations of women and touched on what kept them down, particularly poor women and women of colour. “What was big about that moment was she said this is about structure,” says Wright Rigueur. “I think Oprah does understand the idea of inequalities that are built into the system.” You can see that, she says, through her work in providing girls with access to education in South Africa, and “through her sponsorship, particularly women of colour – her mentorship of [Selma director] Ava DuVernay comes to mind”.
Winfrey has always symbolised possibility and we’ve become excitable at the prospect of President Oprah because it seems like the inevitable, desirable conclusion to her story. But though her delivery was presidential, her words said something else. “She is essentially saying we need to offer people on the ground platforms in order to fix inequality and broken systems,” says Wright Rigueur, rather than look to this one woman. “I think we have to be very wary of putting our projections of what we need and what we want at this moment onto Oprah.”
Born: January 1954, Kosciusko, Mississippi
Career: Winfrey was a TV news reporter in Baltimore, before moving to Chicago where she started hosting the talkshow that would become The Oprah Winfrey Show. It ran from 1986-2011. Her film career includes parts in The Color Purple, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, and in Beloved, which she produced, The Butler, and Selma. Winfrey created her own cable channel OWN in 2011 and is a special correspondent for the current affairs show 60 Minutes.
High point: becoming the US’s number one talkshow. Being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
Low point: Despite promising reviews, her adaption of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved flopped at the box office.
They say: “There is a quality Oprah has. She is centred, she knows who she is. She is honest, open and what’s underneath is so beautiful and she just lets it out. She deals on a universal level and can go anywhere she wants to go,” said Quincy Jones.
She says: “Seeking the fullest expression of self. That’s the story of my life in six words.”
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