Yet part of Winfrey’s mass appeal is that she walks the walk, her dramatic rags-to-self-made-billions the stuff of distinctly American fairytales. Born into rural poverty in Mississippi to a teenage single mother, she lived with her grandmother until the age of six, was raped by multiple family members and got pregnant at 14 as a result of sexual abuse, only for her baby to die soon after birth.
At school, however, she flourished, and won a scholarship to Tennessee State University. At 19, she dropped out of her degree when she was offered a job as the youngest and the first black female news anchor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV. Her emotional style, however, did not go down well on a straight news programme, and in 1978 she was transferred to an ailing daytime chat show, People Are Talking.
When, in 1984, she relocated to Chicago, to take over a morning chat show, its name was quickly changed from Chicago AM to The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah had found her “alignment”.
As any good interviewer knows, the best way to elicit a confession is to offer one of your own. British photographer and writer Carinthia West, who first met Winfrey on the set of The Color Purple, the year after her move to Chicago, believes the Oprah Effect stems from exactly this: her own willingness to show the uncomfortable, ugly side on everything from her sexual abuse to her struggles with her weight.
“I think of her wheeling that 67lbs of fat onstage [in 1988, to visually represent the weight she had recently lost] and I can’t think of anyone else who would be prepared to be that open,” says West. When she returned to the US to interview Winfrey in the early 1990s, by which time the chat show host was world famous, she was “welcomed with open arms”.
“Though she has huge wealth and power now, she’s still very much that down-home girl,” says West. “She was seriously hurt in her own life, so she’s attracted to other people who, rightly or wrongly, feel they have been hurt in their own.”
It’s not hyperbole to say that she has changed culture; the term ‘Oprahfication’ is defined as “the perceived increase in people’s desire to discuss their emotions or personal problems, attributed to the influence of confessional television programmes”. And, as her own star rose, the confessions came not just from the general public, eager to open up and often sob on screen, but from an increasingly starry cohort. too.
In addition to her eponymous show, which ran for 25 years and became the highest-rated television show of all time in the US, she has her own glossy magazine, O, (for which she is the cover star each month), an entire television network, OWN, and is one of the most well-connected women on the planet, with influence far outside the realm of entertainment. She is credited with bringing more than a million votes to her friend, Barack Obama, with her endorsement of him in the 2008 election, and there were loud and repeated calls for Winfrey herself to run against Donald Trump in the 2020 election (“It’s not a clean business. It would kill me,” she said).
That the royal couple would want to hitch their wagon to Winfrey should come as no great surprise, although it’s not clear exactly who wooed who. When Winfrey attended the Sussexes’ wedding in May 2018, she’d reportedly only met the couple once, two months previously, when she was invited to Kensington Palace while on a visit to London. Now, however, they are neighbours; Winfrey’s $88 million mansion in Montecito, California (she also owns a mountain cabin in Telluride, Colorado, a house on Fisher Island, near Miami, and another in Hawaii, plus a farm in Indiana) is close to Meghan and Harry’s $14 million new home, and they love-bomb one another via social media. In December, Winfrey posted a shot of a basket of vegan coffee products from ‘My friend M’, which later transpired to be from a firm in which Meghan had invested.
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