How Did Oprah Winfrey Get Rich?

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When Oprah Winfrey, former television host of the “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and boss of the so-called Oprah Empire, officially retired in 2011. Today, her net worth is $3 billion, according to Forbes. Oprah beat poverty, abuse, relationship problems, and race and gender issues to become the most famous TV host of all time, but it was her creation of a syndication that netted her fortune. Here’s how she became rich.

The 1970s

Winfrey started her first television job on WLAC-TV (now WTVF), a CBS station in Nashville, Tennessee, while she was still in college. Two years later, she transferred to WJZ-TV, the ABC affiliate in Baltimore, Maryland, where she failed as a news co-anchor and reporter because she became too emotional. In 1978, an understanding manager transferred her to a new show called “People are Talking.” That’s where Winfrey’s fortunes took off. Her casual, improvisational style endeared her to listeners. She listened to them, empathized with them, and chatted with them about everything from cooking to intimate personal details. By the end of the decade, her show beat Phil Donahue’s program in the ratings.

The 1980s

It was 1983 when Winfrey accepted a new job in Chicago, Illinois, the third-largest television market in the country. WLS-TV, the city’s ABC affiliate, offered her a 30-minute morning talk show on “AM Chicago,” the city’s ABC affiliate. Within the year, the show rocketed from the last place to the top talk show in Chicago. It was renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and expanded to an hour. In 1986, Winfrey won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as Sofia, a strong-willed woman in Steven Spielberg’s film “The Color Purple.”

Meanwhile, Winfrey’s show was attracting record numbers. Roger Ebert, a Chicago-based film critic, advised her to syndicate it nationally, and that’s when the money started adding up. In 1988, Winfrey bought Harpo Studios. Owning it made her the first black person, and the third woman, to control her own major studio. At the age of 32, Winfrey became not only the first African American television host to be nationally syndicated but also a millionaire. From 1987 to 1988, her income jumped to $30 million.

The 1990s

Winfrey attracted viewers with her “get-’em-in-the-gut” show topics. Her natural empathy, robust humor and curiosity encouraged guests on her show to talk. Her ratings rose as a result. Over time, she moved away from the contemporary fashion of airing controversial topics to discussing social and spiritual issues that affected her viewers. Examples included child molestation, gender and sexual tolerance, and race issues.

Owning her own show gave Winfrey the freedom to expand her empire to include film, television, radio, the Internet, musicals and print media. She acted in various TV and film adaptations, some more successful than others. She co-produced a musical version of “The Color Purple,” launched an official website,, and ran a new 24-hour channel called “Oprah & Friends” on XM Satellite Radio. In 2000, she published her wildly successful magazine, “O, The Oprah Magazine.” She also co-authored several best-sellers that pivoted around subjects such as health and cooking. Around this time, she ran her controversial but influential Book Club and publicized her charities. By 1995, her net worth had reached $340 million, making her the richest woman in entertainment.

The 2000s

Oprah’s success only grew in the 21st century, and she became a billionaire. She continued to host her talk show till 2011, after which she created OWN – Oprah Winfrey Network. She is the CEO for the network. In 2015, Oprah partnered up with Weight Watchers International (WTW), a popular weight loss subscription program, buying up 10% of the company and agreeing to serve as one of the faces of the brand in ads. As of November 2017, it was reported Oprah had made $300 million from that investment. 

Oprah has been a longtime political advocate, campaigning for Barack Obama, who later awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. She is famed for her charitable contributions through Oprah’s Angel Network, a charity drive through her show which raised $80 million over 12 years. 

In January of 2018, Winfrey was awarded the Cecil B. DeMille award at the 75th annual Golden Globes. Winfrey’s speech, which touched on subjects like gender, racial and sexual harassment issues in Hollywood, was incredibly well received and prompted some to wonder if Oprah was considering a presidential run. 

Later in July 2018, Winfrey announced that she would invest in healthy restaurant chain True Food Kitchen, in the latest efforts to expand her business beyond media and into food. In addition to investing, of which the amount has not been disclosed, Winfrey will also serve on the board of directors in order to collaborate with the chain’s leadership team. 

The Bottom Line

Winfrey owes her riches to her enthusiasm, dedication, discipline, and resilience. She steered her talents over the years to entertain viewers and give them what they wanted. Successful projects, shrewd investments and owning her own empire expanded Winfrey’s wealth to billionaire level. When she retired on May 25, 2011, after 25 seasons in Chicago, she was worth an estimated $3 billion.

In 2014, Forbes listed her as one of “The World’s Highest Paid Celebrities,” and she made the “Forbes 400 List” a year later. She became the richest self-made woman in America, the nation’s highest-paid television entertainer, and the first black woman billionaire in history. Winfrey’s rags-to-riches story has become the subject of much discussion and analysis over the years. In 2001, it even became the subject of a University of Illinois college course that was entitled “History 298: Oprah Winfrey, the Tycoon.”

Source: Investopedia

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