Oprah Winfrey officially retired as the television host of the "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 2011, but she's still the boss of the so-called Oprah Empire. Today, her net worth is $2.6 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. Here’s how she became rich.
Winfrey started her first television job on WLAC-TV (now WTVF), a CBS station in Nashville, Tennessee, at age 19. In 1976, she transferred to WJZ-TV, the ABC affiliate in Baltimore, Maryland, where she struggled with the objectivity required to be a news co-anchor and reporter. Instead, she joined a new morning talk show called “People are Talking," which aired in 1978. 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, the show beat Phil Donahue's program – a popular and pioneering nationally syndicated talk show – in the local ratings.
WLS-TV, the city's ABC affiliate, offered Winfrey a 30-minute morning talk show on "AM Chicago," the city's ABC affiliate. The show first aired in January of 1984, and within the year, the show rocketed from the last place to the top talk show in Chicago.
Given that Winfrey's show was attracting record numbers, national syndication seemed viable. Rogert Ebert, a Chicago-based film critic, helped convince Oprah to license her show for a national broadcast network in 1986. It was renamed "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and expanded to an hour. As part of the deal, Winfrey took in 25 percent of the show's gross. 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 by roughly $30 million.
Meanwhile, in 1986, Winfrey was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role Steven Spielberg’s film "The Color Purple."
Winfrey also founded Harpo, Inc., a television production company that later expanded into film and other forms of entertainment, in 1986. Owning it made her the first black person, and the third woman, to control her own major studio.
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 airing tabloid topics to discussing social and spiritual issues that affected her viewers. Examples included child molestation, gender and sexual tolerance, and race issues. She hosted several notable guests on the show during the 1990s, including a rare interview with Michael Jackson in 1993. She was also recognized multiple times with Daytime Emmy awards for Outstanding Talk Show Host.
By 1995, her net worth had reached $340 million, making her the richest woman in entertainment. Owning her own show gave Winfrey the freedom to expand her business. She co-founded Oxygen Media, a programming company geared to women, in 1998. She also prepared for the launch of her magazine, "O, The Oprah Magazine," which was first published in 2000. She also co-authored multiple books on diet and exercise. She acted in various TV and film adaptations, some more successful than others. She also launched her influential Book Club in 1996 and her charity, The Angel Network, in 1998.
Oprah's success only grew in the 21st century, and she became a billionaire. She co-produced a musical version of "The Color Purple," continued to run her popular website, Oprah.com, and launched a 24-hour channel called "Oprah & Friends" on XM Satellite Radio.
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.
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 Lifetime Achievement 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.
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. She also inked a deal with Apple.
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, she was worth an estimated $3 billion.
She became one of the richest self-made women 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.”