There are some icons of pop culture and entertainment that just need no introduction, and Oprah Winfrey is one of those. So, instead of just regurgitating her seemingly infinite list of achievements, let’s take a brief look at some of the less-familiar impacts she’s had on the world today — because she’s helped to shape America in some surprising ways.
NBC News credits Winfrey with overhauling journalism, and stepping away from the shock-jock sort of stunts that were popular in the 1980s and 90s. She opened people up to having tough conversations, and she progressed leaps and bounds in getting viewers to realize that no matter what struggles we have, we’re all human underneath. Her influence, says the National Women’s Hall of Fame, continued with her support in creating and passing the National Child Protection Act. Made a law in 1994, it established a national database listing those convicted of child abuse — and it was a deeply personal thing for Winfrey. Not only was she instrumental in seeing the act passed, but she has spoken out about what it was like to be the victim of abuse.
While Winfrey might be one of the wealthiest women in the country and an influential powerhouse, it wasn’t always that way: She had more than her share of trauma and tragedy, and is a testament to what the human spirit can overcome.
Potato sack dresses were a very real thing
Way back in the olden days of 2005, The Guardian reported that "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was broadcast in a whopping 121 countries. She was the face of action when it came to alleviating the pain and suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina, and she had come a long, long way from a childhood of absolute poverty.
Her teenage parents — Vernita Lee (pictured) and Vernon Winfrey — were unmarried when she was born on Jan. 29, 1954, and so many people got her name wrong that "Oprah" finally just stuck. (It was originally supposed to be Orpah, after a character in the Bible. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Orpah would have been a bit of an odd choice: She was the sister of Ruth and the mother of Goliath — of the "David and Goliath" fame — and was said to have once spent a promiscuous night with 100 men and a dog.)
Winfrey spent the first years of her life in the care of her grandmother, and when stories tell of families being so poor that clothing was made from potato sacks, it’s very real — her potato sack clothing earned her the childhood nickname of "Sack Girl. Among her earliest toys was a doll she made herself from a corn cob, and as for pets? The young Winfrey’s earliest pets were a group of cockroaches.
She saw the cycle of violence first-hand
In 2021, Oprah Winfrey co-wrote a book called "What Happened to You?" (with neuroscientist Dr. Bruce Perry). She told People that the seeds of the book were planted with her own introspection: "I started thinking about what happened to me in my life to make me who I am," she said. Along with that was an investigation into how those who experienced traumatic childhoods matured differently than those who were raised in loving homes, and Winfrey has spoken about witnessing the cycle of violence that surrounded her at a time and in a place where hitting children was normal.
Winfrey was talking to Dr. Mehmet Oz when she shared a story about being told to fetch a bucket of drinking water from a well. Her grandmother caught her playing in it, and whipped her so badly that when she put on her dress for church the following day, the wounds began to bleed.
She also recounted how that violence wasn’t random, and in a clip first released by ET, she told a harrowing story about a night that her grandfather tried to strangle her grandmother. From that night onward, "My grandmother put a chair underneath the doorknob and some tin cans around the chair. And that is how we slept every night. I’m sleeping, … listening for the cans. Listening for what happens if that doorknob moves."
If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.
If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.
The hard lessons continued in her mother’s care
In a perfect world, children would be free to be children, without a care in the world. That’s not always the case, though, and Oprah Winfrey has been candid about the difficulties she faced even as a young child.
According to the Huffington Post, the only constant in young Winfrey’s life was her faith. Family? Not so much. After being left in the care of her grandmother for several years, she was ultimately shuffled off to her father in Tennessee. Then, she was then handed off again — this time, to her mother in Wisconsin. By that time, the then-6-year-old Winfrey was old enough to know how lonely and scary it was. "I suddenly land in a place that’s completely foreign to me," she later said of the experience. "I don’t know anybody. I don’t really even know my mother. I walked into that space feeling completely alone and abandoned."
Winfrey’s life wasn’t all smooth sailing once she was in her mother’s care, either. Far from finding a warm embrace, she quickly learned that she wasn’t even going to be allowed to sleep in the house. She explained why she was told to sleep on the porch: "My mother was boarding with this very light-skinned black woman … I could tell instantly … that she didn’t like me. It was because of the color of my skin."
She suffered brutal sexual assaults when she was just a child
USA Today says that the first time Oprah Winfrey publicly spoke about the sexual assaults she endured as a child was on her talk show. It was Nov. 10, 1986, and since then, she has done hundreds of episodes dedicated to the stories of other survivors.
Winfrey has continued to speak about it, saying that she knew just how traumatic an experience it was, and how heavy a secret it was to carry. By sharing her own story, she has said that she hopes it will encourage others to do the same — "and let some light in."
She said that she was nine years old the first time it happened, and that her assailant was her cousin. "He took me to an ice cream shop — blood still running down my leg — and bought me ice cream," she recalled (via news.com.au). It continued for years, and she was so young she says, "I didn’t even know what was happening to me, and I kept that secret." Until she couldn’t keep it any longer, and when she was 14, she ended up pregnant. She was living with her mother at the time, and Winfrey was ultimately sent to a detention home. She didn’t stay though: She escaped and fled to her father, where she gave birth to a baby boy who died two weeks after his birth.
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN’s National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
She had suicidal thoughts as a child
Childhood abuse and sexual assault have a myriad of consequences, and in 2017, Oprah Winfrey opened up to The Hollywood Reporter (on the Awards Chatter podcast) about how her teenage pregnancy — the result of years of sexual assault and being victimized by multiple relatives — had impacted her.
"I hit rock-bottom," she recalled. "I became pregnant and hid the pregnancy. I’d intended to kill myself, actually. I thought there’s no other way than killing myself. I was just planning on how to do it." It was during another interview that the New York Post says that she revealed that at the time doctors told her she was pregnant, she wasn’t even sure what that meant, or that it was a possible outcome of all the times she had been raped by various relatives.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Winfrey revealed (via People) what she had named her baby: "I named him Canaan, because Canaan means new land, new life." When the baby died just a few weeks later, Winfrey credits her father for telling her what she needed to hear to get back on her feet: "What you have done is the past, and you alone get to determine what your future will be."
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Her sister shared painful secrets with the tabloids
If there’s one thing that everyone has in common, it’s that no one knows what life is going to throw at them next — even Oprah Winfrey. Take her 2011 revelation. That, says The Florida Times-Union, is when she discovered that she had a half-sister that her mother had put up for adoption almost five decades prior. The woman — named Patricia — had been searching for information about her birth family for years, but had been told that her mother refused to meet her. But, after seeing a story about Winfrey’s mother, she connected the dots.
Winfrey announced on her show that she had met her long-lost half-sister the previous Thanksgiving, and called her extending family "the miracle of all miracles." She noted that her newly discovered sister had been trying to get in touch with her since 2007, and lauded her for not trying to sell the story, or go to the press.
Winfrey hadn’t always been that fortunate, and in 1990, it was her other sister — also named Patricia — who had sold the story of her teen pregnancy to the National Enquirer for $19,000. She wrote about the betrayal years later, saying (via the New York Post): "I took to my bed and cried for three days. I felt devastated. Wounded. Betrayed. How could this person do this to me?" Winfrey has since lamented the death of that sister, in spite of her attempts to get her into rehab for her struggles with addiction.
She’s talked about a period of drug use
Part of the reason for Oprah Winfrey’s success is her ability to relate to her guests and her audiences, but still, it’s probably safe to say that no one saw her bombshell 1995 confession coming.
According to the Los Angeles Times, it started when she was interviewing four women who had first-hand experience with drugs. Those women included a reporter for The Washington Post named Patricia Gaines, who commented on how — in her experience — it was the influence of a male significant other who was most commonly that was the deciding factor when it came time for women to start using. Winfrey responded: "This is so familiar it makes my head hurt," before telling another guest, "This is probably one of the hardest things I have ever said. I relate to your story so much. I have done this drug — I know exactly what you are talking about."
She went on to say that at the time, she had been working as the anchor of a news show, which the AP says dated the events of her confession to between 1973 and 1976. Gaines said that afterwards, Winfrey had added a few thoughts: Not only did the drug use weigh heavy on her, but also, the idea that she had done it because someone else had pressured her to. Talking about the problems of others without addressing her own had made her feel hypocritical, and confirmed that it was an unplanned, unrehearsed moment: she’d broken down afterwards, and stopped recording to gather her composure.
If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Her association with Dr. Oz has raised some eyebrows
There are some big names who got their start on Oprah Winfrey’s show, like self-help guru Dr. Phil, financial advisor Suze Orman, and then-up-and-coming foodie Rachael Ray (via CNN). Also on the list? The wildly controversial Dr. Oz.
Between 2004 and 2009, Dr. Mehmet Oz appeared on Winfrey’s show somewhere between 60 and 90 times — depending on who’s estimating — and credited the exposure with giving him the recognition he needed to launch his own show. Then, in 2022, he made the jump into politics with a run for a Pennsylvania Senate seat. According to The Washington Post, that was problematic for reasons that included things like his years of promoting so-called weight loss drugs that the FDA hotly disputed, and making other claims with little scientific evidence to back them up.
And Winfrey? She was caught in the middle, with many — like Jimmy Kimmel — pointing their fingers at her for launching the career of someone who’s set their sights on being not just a controversial health advisor, but a lawmaker. Winfrey has been consistently mum, finally giving a non-committal statement to New York Magazine (via The Hill): "One of the great things about our democracy is that every citizen can decide to run for public office. Mehmet Oz has made that decision. And now it’s up to the residents of Pennsylvania to decide who will represent them."
She’s been open about her struggles with healthy eating and food
Being in the public eye means being judged all the time, but sometimes, the most cynical voice comes not from the outside, but the inside. Oprah Winfrey has been on countless magazine covers lauding her for her weight loss, but just as quick to condemn a few extra pounds are the tabloids. She’s been candid about the impact that’s had on her, and CNN looked back on an incident that happened in 1998. Despondent over a poor reception to a segment on her show and to her movie, she went to her chef and requested mac-and-cheese — and a lot of it. "I ate about 30 pounds worth. I’m not kidding. I really, literally, went into a tailspin with it."
It was the year after that happened that she interviewed author Gary Zukav about emotion-fueled binge eating, and had a breakthrough of her own: "I thought I just wanted some macaroni. I didn’t connect the powerlessness until just this moment."
Winfrey has since shared her other realizations, too, saying that not only did she turn to food when she felt helpless, but in 2017, she spoke with Good Housekeeping to say that "[My weight] has been the go-to comfort for me. You use it as your coat and your shield, and it keeps you from doing things. You don’t have to go to that party because you don’t have a dress to wear and nothing is going to fit you."
If you need help with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA’s Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).
She was in the center of an extortion case
In 2007, a bizarre saga started to unfold around Oprah Winfrey. According to Reuters, things went public with the arrest of Keifer Bonvillain, who had been accused of attempting to blackmail Winfrey for $1.5 million.
How? Bonvillain claimed that he had recorded interviews with a former employee of hers, and that the content of the confessions would not only ruin her reputation, but that he was ready and waiting to publish a book with all of the salacious details if she didn’t pay up. The FBI got involved in a sting operation and arrested Bonvillain when he showed up to an arranged location thinking that he was going to be picking up the cash, and it wasn’t until the following year that RadarOnline reported that the charges had been dismissed with a promise that Bonvillain would pay for costs of the FBI sting, perform 50 hours of community service, and not have any other run-ins with the law.
And it wasn’t the last time that Winfrey has found herself targeted by the rumor mill: In 2020, CNN reported that she had to respond to a rumor that she had been arrested for sex trafficking. No, she said on social media: She wasn’t staying home because she was serving time under house arrest, she was staying home because it was in the middle of a pandemic.
She’s lost both her parents
Oprah Winfrey has had a complicated relationship with both of her parents, and she has been open about how difficult it was to say goodbye to both of them.
Her mother passed away on Thanksgiving Day of 2018, and she told People that she was able to be at her side to say goodbye thanks to a call from her half-sister Patricia, who knew that the sun was setting on their mother’s days. She talked about getting to sit with her, and talk about the end: "I said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to make it. Do you think you’re going to make it?’ She said, ‘I don’t think I am.’" She said that she struggled with what to say, how to say goodbye, and eventually settled on: "’Thank you. Thank you, because I know it’s been hard for you.’" While Winfrey passed on her thanks, her half-sister passed along something else: Forgiveness, and permission for her mother to forgive herself.
Winfrey said goodbye to her father in 2022, saying (via Today) that he had been sick for a while. Before he passed, she was able to organize a touching tribute in the form of a backyard BBQ on what she called a "Vernon Winfrey Appreciation Celebration," and she offered this bit of advice to her audience: "Remember to celebrate each other."