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Oprah, Turning 70, Vows to ‘Astonish a Mean World’

The entertainment icon who’s showed us how to speak up, claim joy, hold vision, own power and ignore critics has big plans after her big birthday.

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photo illustration, collage, Oprah Winfrey, Natasha Cunningham
Natasha Cunningham
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Last month, Oprah Winfrey stood proudly next to her portrait as it was unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and smiled. The painting showed her in all of her Oprah-ness, a vision in purple who seemed happy, confident, free. Graciously, she thanked Shawn Michael Warren, the African American portraitist commissioned by the museum, “…for capturing the strength, for capturing the joy, for capturing the sense of contentment that I now feel.”

The gallery’s mission is to “tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development and culture.” Harriet Tubman. Frederick Douglass. John F Kennedy. Barack and Michelle Obama. Lena Horne. Oprah Winfrey.

Deep. But it seems about right, doesn’t it?

So now, as she celebrates her 70th birthday on January 29th, it’s time to give Oprah her flowers. With gumption and gusto and an unwavering trust in God, Oprah shows us what it looks like to rise above life’s circumstances and soar. To have a vision and pursue it. To be open and vulnerable and creative and flawed and brilliant, decade after decade. She turns 70 displaying a zest for living while living in a space of peace, joy and contentment—and that’s the goal, isn’t it? To age gratefully and graciously. And if Oprah can do it, maybe, just maybe, we can too.

There is only one Oprah Gail Winfrey

When you look at the astonishing totality of what she’s accomplished—on television, in publishing, in films, through her philanthropic ventures—you understand why she’s been dubbed the Queen of All Media. Her O’ness refuses to be boxed in; she gets to one summit, then reaches for the next. She lives her life boldly, with her full chest out. We love that about her.

Remember when we first met her? Back in the mid 1980s, Ronald Reagan was president, crack was taking over our cities, and just hearing the word AIDS filled many a heart with fear. Into this troubled scenario stepped a young talk-show host who had taken on the mighty Phil Donahue in Chicago and won.

With gumption and gusto and an unwavering trust in God, Oprah shows us what it looks like to rise above life’s circumstances and soar. To have a vision and pursue it. To be open and vulnerable and creative and flawed and brilliant.

Now she was ready to take the nation by storm. What we didn’t know, at the time, was what she’d gone through to get there.

Oprah grew up poor. Spent her early years with her grandmother in Mississippi. Had a rocky relationship with her mother. Was sexually abused, from the age of 9-13 and gave birth, at the age of 14, to a baby boy who died two weeks later. (On her future show, she would tearfully reveal this childhood trauma. Ultimately, she’d air 217 episodes about sexual abuse—empowering other survivors.)

She moved to Tennessee and lived with her father. Landed her first job as a reporter at a local station at 19. Hosted shows in Baltimore and Chicago. Then, at the age of 32, she became the first Black woman to host a nationally-syndicated talk show when The Oprah Winfrey Show debuted in 1986.

We were there with her and for her. Winfrey had journalistic chops, but she wasn’t above giving the occasional side eye. And that laugh! Oprah was effervescent and inquisitive and occasionally unconventional—like the time she astonished every audience member with a surprise gift: “You get a car, you get a car!”

Eventually, Oprah changed the show’s focus so that it spoke more directly to issues of self-care and personal growth, and phrases like “gratitude journal” and “vision board” became part of the national lexicon. Oprah urged us to look within and live our best lives, even as she was figuring out hers. Television was just the springboard; after receiving a best supporting actress Academy Award nomination for the role of Sofia in The Color Purple, Oprah went on to either act in (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) or produce (Greenleaf, Queen Sugar) films on both the big and small screen.

It is absolutely true that to whom much is given, much is required—but who sets the requirement? And are influential men held to the same standard that Oprah is? 

Her eponymous talk show introduced us to folks who subsequently became household names: Dr. Phil, Iyanla Vanzant, Suze Orman, Rachel Ray, Dr. Oz (this was years before his peddling of controversial wellness advice and stump speeches—you can’t win them all). Some credit the book club Oprah launched in 1996 with helping revive a flailing publishing industry. And from 2000-2020, she published O, The Oprah Magazine, where, astonishingly, Oprah herself graced the cover of practically every issue. Evidently, you can’t get enough of a good thing.

Criticisms and controversies

But through the years, Oprah has had her share of detractors: Some say she didn’t come down hard enough on “Me Too” culprits, like Harvey Weinstein. Others say she was tight-fisted in paying sisters who acted in films she produced. And when she and The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) each came out of their pockets to donate $5 million to help those affected by the wildfires in Maui, Oprah was criticized for not giving more. (I don’t know about you, but to me that last one seems a little bit cray cray.)

It is absolutely true that to whom much is given, much is required—but who sets the requirement? And are influential men held to the same standard that Oprah is? Haters always gonna hate—but when it comes to Oprah, I sometimes wonder if it is truly justified. The astonishing extent to which she is attacked illustrates the unprecedented extent of this Black woman’s power.

Whatever you think about Her O’ ness, this much is true: Oprah’s financial game is fierce, and from the start she made brilliant money moves. In 1986 she licensed her show for syndication, meaning that she owned the show, and also launched her production company, Harpo (Oprah spelled backwards), making her the first Black person to own a major studio.

Forbes magazine says Oprah donated $425 million throughout her career, including $100 million given to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.

Money, power, respect

Oprah also owned a big stake in King World Productions, the company that distributed the show. To recap: Oprah was getting paid to do the show, getting paid because the show was using her television studio to produce the show, and getting paid (through distribution) when stations aired the show. Can you say ka-ching? The show was the cash cow that set Oprah up for future money moves, like co-founding Oxygen Media in 1998; launching her own cable network in 2011; and purchasing a 10% equity stake in Weight Watchers International (WTW) in 2015.

Oprah became a billionaire in 2003 and is was said to be worth $2.8 billion. She has spent some of that money supporting people and causes she believes in. In 2005, Business Week named Winfrey the greatest Black philanthropist in American history; Forbes magazine says Oprah donated $425 million throughout her career, including $100 million given to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.

The astonishing extent to which she is attacked illustrates the unprecedented extent of this Black woman’s power.

“To God be the glory”

She’s the recipient of hundreds of awards, including the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Barack Obama awarded to her in 2013.

All of that is impressive, of course-- but so is this: She’s still besties with Gayle King, her ride or die from the Baltimore days, and, after 38 years, she and Stedman Graham are still boo’d up. And no, they still are not married.

She’s still besties with Gayle King, her ride or die from the Baltimore days, and, after 38 years, she and Stedman Graham are still boo’d up.

You see, Oprah’s clear on who she is, what she wants, and what her plan for the future is. It is this: At the National Portrait Gallery unveiling, she said that she intends to “continue to astonish a mean world with my acts of kindness and continue to live in the space of gratitude, and move and have my being in all of that which is God. To God be the glory.” Amen and amen.

Follow Article Topics: Culture-&-Style