A story from The Best Way Out is Always Through
"THIS I KNOW FOR SURE ..."
The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.
- Oprah Winfrey, talk show host, actress, media entrepreneur
Born in 1954 to a poor, unmarried couple in rural Mississippi, Oprah Winfrey did not have much going for her. Her mother, Vernita Lee, was a housemaid and her father, Vernon Winfrey, was a coal miner. The teenage couple broke up after Vernita got pregnant.
After Oprah's birth, Vernita went north to live with her mother, Hattie Mae Lee. They were so poor that Oprah's grandmother clothed the child in dresses made of potato sacks, which made her the object of merciless teasing from the local kids. Grandma Hattie Mae was a powerful influence in young Oprah's life, teaching her to read by the time she was three, and taking her to church every Sunday, encouraging her to memorize and recite Bible verses. Hattie Mae was also a strict disciplinarian, taking a switch to the child if she misbehaved or didn't do her chores.
When Oprah was six, Vernita moved with Oprah to an inner-city neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The strong matriarchal presence of Hattie Mae was sorely missed, and young Oprah no longer had the support and discipline she needed. Her mother worked long hours as a maid, leaving her daughter to fend for herself.
To say that her home life was dysfunctional would be an understatement. At age nine, Oprah was molested by her cousin, her uncle, and a family friend. As a young teen in the ';60s, she rebelled and left home, choosing street life over her family. She became pregnant at 14, but her baby boy died shortly after birth. At this point, Vernita was so frustrated with her daughter that she sent her to live with her father, who was now a barber in Nashville, Tennessee.
Vernon Winfrey was strict, like her grandmother Hattie Mae had been. Oprah needed the structure and discipline her father provided, with an emphasis on education. Oprah blossomed into an honors student, was voted "most popular girl," and joined her high school speech team. She won an oratory contest, which enabled her to land a scholarship to Tennessee State University, a historically black college, where she studied communication. At 17, she won the title of Miss Black Tennessee, which caught the attention of the local black radio station, WVOL. The station manager hired the articulate, charming teen to do the news part-time.
And thus was born a media star - who would go on to work her way up through the radio and television business to become the richest, self-made woman in America.
Oprah credits her grandmother with being an important influence in her life, encouraging the child to speak in church. Hattie Mae "gave me a positive sense of myself," Oprah says.
She became a millionaire at age 32 when her daily talk show went into national syndication. At age 41, she replaced Bill Cosby as the only African American on the Forbes 400 Richest People in America. With a net worth over $2.5 billion, Forbes' international rich list cites Oprah as the first black woman billionaire in world history.
But she doesn't just make money - she gives it away. In 2005, Business Week listed Oprah as one of America's most generous philanthropists, having given away $303 million. In 2007, she spent $40 million and much of her time building and opening a girls' academy in South Africa. She has put 250 African American men through college. And she launched Oprah's Angel Network in 1998, to encourage young people around the world to make a difference to underprivileged others. Oprah covers all the administrative costs of the charity, so that 100% of the money raised - over $51 million to date - goes directly to the programs
When asked about her secret to success, Oprah responds: "The big secret in life is that there is no big secret. Whatever your goal, you can get there if you're willing to work. ... My philosophy is that not only are you responsible for your life, but doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment."