How Oprah Winfrey made her fortune

Chat show host Oprah Winfrey holds the title of the only black female billionaire in the world, with Forbes putting her net worth at $2.7bn. Not bad for someone born into poverty. But how did she make her fortune?

Despite 'Oprah' being a household name and the title of everything from an awards-winning talk show to a magazine, it wasn’t the name Winfrey was given at birth. She was christened Orpah but her friends and family found it difficult to pronounce and so effectively renamed her Oprah.

Winfrey didn’t have the best starts in life. Her teenage single mother struggled to make ends meet in rural Mississippi and she lived with her grandmother for the first six years of her life.

The family later moved to a tough inner-city neighbourhood in Milwaukee where her childhood was blighted by sexual abuse and rape. She was sent to a juvenile detention home at 13, and aged 14 gave birth to a premature baby which later died.

Clearly bright, Winfrey started making the most of her intelligence when her mother sent her to live with her father in Nashville. She got her first job in radio while still at school, won a scholarship to Tennessee State University and was crowned Miss Black Tennessee by age 18.

TV Times

By the age of 19 she was co-presenter of the local evening news and the station’s first African-American anchor. A move to Baltimore saw her headhunted to co-host a talk show called People Are Talking.

Next she moved to Chicago to take over a low-rated morning TV show. Her emotional confessional style and the ability to get people to open up saw the show quickly become the station’s number one talk show. It was renamed The Oprah Winfrey show and nationally syndicated.

Winfrey was a shrewd businesswoman right from the start. She formed her own production company Harpo Productions – which is Oprah spelt backwards – and negotiated ownership of The Oprah Winfrey Show. 

International syndication of her chat show meant various networks could buy the rights to broadcast re-runs of the show. At the same time, new episodes of the show could still be made and broadcast. In short, syndication of a successful TV show means the star of the show and the production company will be raking it in. Seeing as Winfrey was both the “talent” and owner of the production company, syndication made her very rich.

The Oprah Winfrey Show was a massive success right from the beginning. It won 34 Emmy awards and featured a line-up of high-profile guests who opened up to her self-styled confessional approach.

Winfrey has even launched her own TV channel. OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network was launched in January 2011. Owned jointly by Harpo, Inc and Discovery Communications, the channel replaced the former Discovery Health Channel.

Oprah's magazine is a big seller

OWN includes a mix of original programs, documentaries and films. The Oprah Winfrey show ended in May 2011 but a new prime-time show called Oprah’s Next Chapter took its place. The show gives Winfrey the chance to – in her own words - "step outside of the studio for some riveting, enlightening in-depth conversations with newsmakers, celebrities, thought leaders and real-life families."

Harpo Productions also includes Harpo Films, Harpo Radio, Harpo Print and Harpo Studios.

Harpo Print publishes O, The Oprah Magazine, which has been running since April 2000 and has a circulation of more than two million and its own iPad app. Focusing on self-empowerment, the magazine aims to "help readers embrace who they really are".

All in a name

It’s trademarking her distinctive name which has led to Winfrey becoming the richest self-made woman in America. Everything with the name “Oprah” earns her money. She has 90% control of Harpo, and is effectively answerable to no one.

Jeff Jacobs, an entertainment lawyer, is the president and 10% shareholder of Harpo, Inc. He also acts as her agent and manager for her movie deals.

As it’s a private company - figures are hard to come by but one estimate puts revenues at about £275million a year.

Harpo has about 260 employees and there are pros and cons to being employed by Winfrey. In 2009 she took 100 of her staff and their families on a 10-day cruise round the Mediterranean, costing the star an estimated £500,000.

But on the downside, although her employees are paid well, they must sign a confidentiality agreement, barring them from talking or writing about Oprah’s personal or business affairs and those of her company for the rest of their lives.

The Oprah Effect

As well as being one of the richest women in the world, Winfrey is also one of the most influential. Dubbed the “Oprah Effect”, a mention or endorsement of a product on her show can see dramatically increased sales for the company concerned. 

For example, a mention of Spanx underwear on Winfrey’s show saw sales of the shaping garment go through the roof.

So what does Winfrey spend her millions on? She lives at the 42-acre £31.3m The Promised Land estate in Montecito, California and also owns other properties in New Jersey, Chicago, Florida and Georgia among other locations.

But Winfrey is also known for her philanthropy.  In 2006 alone she gave away £36.5m to charities. This included her own Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy For Girls, and Oprah’s Angel Network. 

In 2008, she also auctioned off some of her favourite cars, including a 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing and a 1988 Rolls-Royce Corniche II Convertible, to raise £450,000 for her Leadership Academy in South Africa.


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