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Once upon a time, there was a girl whose little voice grew to make a big difference. Her name was Oprah. When Oprah won a beauty pageant, a local radio invited her to the studio to realize her dream of becoming a broadcast journalist. But it wasn’t easy. Oprah did not fit into the image that media titans wanted at the time. Nevertheless, she charmed audiences with her inner strength and generosity. And as Oprah’s fame grew, she used her platform to take care of others. She built libraries, started scholarships, and founded schools. For decades, Oprah’s empathetic, authentic stories have helped others open up about their own.
Gayle King is co-host of CBS THIS MORNING, and an accomplished television journalist, delivering original reporting to all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. She is also editor-at-large of the award-winning O, the Oprah Magazine.
GAYLE KING Once upon a time, there was a girl whose little voice grew to make a big difference. Her name was Oprah.
Oprah lived in a wooden house on a small farm in Mississippi. When she was a child, her grandparents took care of her after her mother went North to look for a better job.
Unlike wealthier families in the 1950s, Oprah’s grandparents didn’t have a radio, television, or even indoor plumbing.
Every Sunday, Oprah and her grandparents walked down a dirt road to a small church. Although Oprah went barefoot most of the week, on Sundays, she wore shiny, patent leather shoes and a dress made by her grandma, Hattie Mae.
Inside the church, beautiful harmonies rose around Oprah. She sang along, her voice rising with the other congregants, her hands clapping in time to the music.
Hattie Mae taught Oprah to read and write when she was very young, and they often read the Bible together. One Easter, when Oprah was just three years old, Hattie Mae sent her to the front of the church. The church fell silent as Oprah recited a Bible verse in a loud, clear voice.
The way people paid attention made Oprah feel like she was worth listening to.
KING I’m Gayle King, and this is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Oprah Winfrey.
KING When Oprah was six, her mom, Vernita, finally sent for Oprah to join her in Wisconsin.
In Mississippi, Oprah had been surrounded by trees and birds and fields, and the only sounds at night were the crickets chirping.
But Milwaukee was a big city. Her mom rented a room in a boarding house, and when Oprah looked out the window, all she saw were buildings and houses, and the sky was filled with clouds of smoke from factories. When Oprah tried to go to bed, the sounds of cars honking kept her up.
KING Oprah had hoped to spend more time with her mom at least, but Vernita was gone a lot for work. And then there was Vernita’s new baby, Patricia, whom Oprah helped take care of.
Being a single mother raising two kids was difficult, so when Oprah was eight, Vernita sent Oprah to Tennessee to live with her dad Vernon and his wife Zelma.
Oprah loved her life in Tennessee. Zelma and Vernon didn’t have any other children, so Oprah had a bedroom all to herself. They applied for a library card, and every week, Oprah piled up a huge stack of books to carry home. Each book she read transported her to a world far beyond her own.
The next summer, Oprah visited her mom in Wisconsin. But when her dad came to pick her up in the fall, Vernita said Oprah wasn’t going back. Vernon cried, but Vernita was Oprah’s legal guardian. He had no choice but to respect her wishes.
KING In middle school, while other kids were rowdy in the cafeteria, Oprah read by herself in a corner. By high school, she was even more distant. Oprah often skipped school, stole from her mom’s purse, and even ran away from home.
No one understood why she was acting this way. What they didn’t know was that Oprah did not feel safe at home. Some of the relatives she was supposed to trust were actually hurting her.
Oprah was afraid other adults wouldn’t believe her, and keeping it a secret made her feel very alone.
(When she got older, Oprah finally talked about what happened—and said that kids should tell a trusted adult if someone is hurting them. “If they don’t believe you,” she said, “you keep telling until somebody does.”)
But when Oprah was young, she didn’t know what to do. So she acted out.
Tired of Oprah’s behavior, Vernita sent her back to her father in Tennessee when she was 14.
Oprah struggled with everything that had happened to her, and her heart hurt. But Vernon knew his daughter was smart and headstrong, and he was determined to help her succeed.
Vernon gave Oprah new rules to live by. She was to be home by a certain time every night. She was to learn 20 new vocabulary words each week. And she was to read five books every two weeks and write reports on them.
When Oprah came home from school with C’s, Vernon told her it was unacceptable.
“But C is average!” Oprah protested.
“If you were a child who could only get C’s, then that’s all I’d expect of you,” Vernon said. “But you’re not. And so, in this house, C’s are not acceptable.”
Oprah thought her father was too strict. But as she followed these new rules, her life began to transform.
KING With her new focus on schoolwork, Oprah became an honors student, joined a public speaking club, and participated in student council. She entered speaking competitions and beauty pageants, too.
At one pageant, when Oprah was 17, a judge asked the contestants what they wanted to do with their lives.
When Oprah’s turn came, she said, “I want to be a broadcast journalist because I believe in the truth. I’m interested in proclaiming the truth to the world.”
Oprah ultimately won that pageant—and when she went to a local radio station to pick up her prize, one of the employees let Oprah record herself reading a news story.
A few days later, the radio station (WVOL) offered her a job. And after that, each day after school, she hurried to the station to read the afternoon news for Nashville’s listeners.
KING In 1972,Oprah was still working at the radio station when she started college at Tennessee State University.
One day, a local television station called to see if Oprah wanted to audition to become a TV news anchor.
Oprah had never been on TV. She watched the news a lot, though, so when she sat down at the audition, she channeled one of her favorite broadcast journalists, Barbara Walters.
Oprah looked straight into the camera and read her lines seriously and clearly.
They offered her the job, and at age 19, Oprah became the first black woman to be a news anchor in Nashville.
Oprah loved working on camera, so she studied other shows and practiced her timing and delivery. Within a few years, she set her sights on new opportunities in bigger cities.
KING In 1976, she got the call she’d been hoping for—she was offered a position as a news reporter and anchor at a station in Baltimore, Maryland.
Oprah wanted to say “yes” immediately, but to take the job, she’d have to move away—and that meant leaving school without graduating.
Oprah knew an opportunity like this was rare. It was a risk she had to take! So she packed up, hugged Vernon and Zelma goodbye, and set off.
KING Oprah was excited to be on her own in a new city. She rented her first apartment, bought some new clothes, and showed up for her first live broadcast sporting an afro.
Oprah’s bosses sent her to a fancy salon in New York City to straighten her natural hair. She needed a makeover, they insisted. But the stylist left the harsh chemicals in for too long, and Oprah’s hair turned brittle and fell out. She had to cover her head with scarves for weeks.
The network didn’t like Oprah’s approach to reading the news either. She read using the style she’d developed in Nashville—with warmth radiating from her voice.
If she was reporting on a house fire and the homeowner was distraught, she didn’t think it was right to interview them. Or when someone told her about something terrible that had happened, sometimes Oprah was so moved that she’d cry on-air.
Each day, when she went home, she carried the pain of those stories with her.
Her bosses criticized her for being too sensitive—arguing it was inappropriate behavior for a newscaster.
Eventually, one of her bosses called her into a meeting.
“We think you’re so talented, we want you to have your own spot in the morning,” he said.
He’d tried to make it sound positive, but Oprah knew she’d been demoted.
Oprah was devastated. Up until this point in her career, success had come easily to her.
Something good did come, though, but it wasn’t what Oprah had expected.
KING One of the production assistants, Gayle King, was worried about getting home safely during a big snowstorm.
“Why don’t you stay at my place tonight?” Oprah offered.
Gayle did, and the two women stayed up all night talking. They found out they had similar philosophies, the same taste in music—and even wore the same clothing size! Within weeks, they were best friends.
KING A few months after her demotion, a new station manager arrived. To help boost the station’s ratings, he decided to make a new morning talk show called People Are Talking.
He’d seen Oprah’s work, and he thought she would be the perfect co-host.
“If you’re successful, you can …make more of an impact on the community than you would have in TV news,” he said.
Oprah reluctantly agreed. In her new position, Oprah and her co-host interviewed people—famous people, regular people—and on this show, it didn’t matter if she cried or laughed with them. That was what she was supposed to do.
It came so naturally to her, it felt like breathing.
The show’s ratings soared.
KING Oprah always wanted to challenge herself, and several years later, in 1984, another new opportunity arose.
An old coworker told Oprah that a struggling morning show in Chicago had lost its host and was looking for someone new.
Oprah stayed up all night making her audition tape. She wanted to show them her best. And when the station manager met Oprah in person, he was so impressed, he offered her the job right away.
Oprah was surprised. There weren’t any solo talk show hosts on the air who looked like her.
“You know I’m black,” she said.
“Oh, I know,” he answered.
“And I’m overweight.”
He laughed. “Well, so am I, and so are many Americans.”
He told Oprah he didn’t want her to change anything about herself.
Encouraged by her new boss, Oprah brought her warmth, empathy, and outspokenness to her new show in Chicago—and decided to never be anything but her authentic self.
KING People who watched Oprah’s show, A.M. Chicago, connected with her openness. She often revealed personal stories, like her struggles with her weight and her difficult childhood. She wasn’t afraid to show her emotions.
Within months, Oprah had more viewers in Chicago than the most popular talk show in the U.S.
When Oprah walked to work in the mornings, people would say hi to her on the street. Some asked for autographs, and others wanted hugs. Once, a city bus pulled over, and the driver jumped out and shook Oprah’s hand. Oprah thought the passengers would be mad because of the delay, but she was surprised when they applauded instead.
By the show’s second year, the station gave it a new name: The Oprah Winfrey Show. And in 1986, Oprah signed a contract that would send her show to television stations across the country.
“I’m Oprah Winfrey, and welcome to the very first national Oprah Winfrey show!”
And just like that, Oprah appeared on the television screens in ten million households across America.
KING “Oprah” soon was a household name. In 1986, she became the first black woman to own a production company. In 1987, she finished her college degree. And in the same year, she won a Daytime Emmy for outstanding talk show host—the highest award in her field.
Despite her success, Oprah wondered about the direction her show was taking. She wanted her work to bring light to the world, so she started implementing a rule. Her show would only highlight people who made the world a better place.
Oprah brought on experts who gave advice about money, relationships, and personal health. She spoke to heroes and interviewed spiritual teachers.
At first, the show’s ratings slipped.
But in the long run, her followers—and her influence—only grew.
KING When Oprah started a book club, people flocked to the local bookstore to buy what she recommended. When she started asking questions about the meaning of life, people explored their own values. And when she wanted to talk about difficult topics, the world joined in.
By 1998, Oprah had won seven Emmy Awards for best talk show host, and that year, she received an Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Better yet, the award was handed to her by her journalist role model: Barbara Walters.
KING As Oprah’s star power grew, Gayle King, Oprah’s best friend from Baltimore, continued to stand by her side. Gayle and Oprah lived far apart, but they talked on the phone several times a day and visited each other often. And when Oprah launched O Magazine in 2000, she hired Gayle as Editor-at-Large.
“Our friendship has been better than a marriage,” Oprah said. “Something about this relationship feels otherworldly to me.”
And being supportive of that important friendship was one reason that Oprah was drawn to her partner, Stedman Graham. Oprah and Stedman met in the late 80s, and though they’ve loved one another for decades, they never married.
Over the years, Oprah, Gayle, and Stedman have all been there for each other. When Gayle divorced and returned home to spend her first New Year’s Eve alone, Oprah and Stedman surprised her by showing up on her doorstep to cook dinner and celebrate the new year together.
KING In 2003, Oprah became the first black female billionaire in the world. And as Oprah grew in fame and fortune, she used her influence and privilege to take care of others. She built libraries, started scholarships, and founded schools. She encouraged her viewers to send in spare change, and she used those donations to build houses and support underprivileged students.
Though her popularity showed no signs of stopping, Oprah finally decided it was time to move on to other challenges. After 25 years of hosting The Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah had filmed more than 4,500 episodes and interviewed around 35,000 people. And in 2011, Oprah filmed the show’s last, tearful episode.
But that didn’t mean she slowed down. Instead, she turned her focus to running O Magazine and helming her own television channel called the Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN. She also continues to lead her studio, Harpo Productions.
KING Through these and other projects, Oprah uses her own life experiences and vision to highlight important issues and amplify the voices of people whose stories have often gone unheard. For example, when Oprah realized how many friends and family members she had who struggled with mental illness, she devoted a whole issue of O Magazine to mental health.
“So many people live in shame, hiding their struggles,” Oprah wrote. “The only real shame is on us for not being willing to speak openly. . . We need to start talking, and we need to start now.”
Oprah’s film and TV projects also often focus on stories by and about women and people of color.
“It is through the stories of other African-American women that I felt my own sense of identity and came into my own power,” Oprah said.
So Oprah’s movies and shows often center black voices—and tell stories that Oprah hopes will empower others, too.
KING In 2018, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., opened an exhibit about Oprah’s life and career. When Oprah visited the exhibit, the thing that moved her most was a note scribbled in the guest book: “watching Oprah every day is the reason I love myself so fiercely,” it said.
Through Oprah’s courage to be herself, she inspired millions of viewers to be themselves, too, and to proclaim their own truths.
“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”