From Rags to Riches: Oprah Winfrey's Tragic Life Story


| LAST UPDATE 07/26/2022

By Lorenzo Savage

Oprah Winfrey is one of the most prominent television figures of our time, but her life wasn't always so easy. Here's a look back at how she overcame hurdles to become the successful billionaire she is today.

Oprah Winfrey

Award-winning talk show host, Oprah Winfrey is arguably well known around the world for iconic words and her former show, The Oprah Winfrey Show. The 68-year-old has created a billion-dollar empire.

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Vera Anderson / Contributor via Getty Images

With all of her fame and fortune, one would assume that Oprah has a perfect life. From being named Forbes number 1 America's richest female entertainer in 2017, to receiving the Golden Globes lifetime achievement award, it seems like she has it all together! But as it turns out the media moguls' life hasn't always been so easy.

Giving Guidance

Oprah's childhood was filled with many hardships, but luckily for her, she always had her special talent of knowing exactly what to say. In 2019, she released a book titled The Path Made Clear: Discovering Your Life's Direction and Purpose. In it, she enlightened anyone also dealing with obstacles in their lives.

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Anthony Harvey / Stringer via Getty Images

"This is the lesson I hope you take away," Winfrey wrote. "Your life is not static. Every decision, every setback, or triumph is an opportunity to identify the seeds of truth that make you the wondrous human being that you are." And her very own life is proof that this statement is true!

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Living With Her Grandma

Oprah was born on January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, rural Mississippi to her parents who were teenagers at the time. Due to their young age, the baby's mom and dad decided that Oprah would be best off living with her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee. She would end up living there for the first six years of her life.

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oprah via Instagram

Life with Hattie had many ups and downs. She would often punish Oprah with physical abuse until there were marks. But she did ensure the young girl was taught how to read. At three years old the future talk show host could already recite many Bible verses, earning her the nickname "The Preacher" at church.

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"Sack Girl"

Hattie couldn't afford many things, especially when raising a child. The rural farm where they lived in Mississippi was often lacking water and electricity since they could pay the bills. Despite the difficulties, Oprah apparently, loved the big open space she had to play on.

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Kevin Mazur / Contributor via Getty Images

While today, she wears designer dresses, back then, there were times that Oprah had to wear hessian overalls made out of potato sacks. Based on reports from The Guardian, this caused the other kids around her to come up with a not-so-nice nickname. Little did they know they were calling future billionairess "sack-girl."

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Growing Up On a Farm

During an interview with David Letterman in 2012, the two talk show hosts discussed Oprah's childhood living on her grandma's pig farm. "I grew up in an environment where children were seen and not heard." Ironically she would, later on, become one of the most heard people in the country.

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FotoSoyuz / Contributor via Getty Images

But the way she was raised taught Oprah how to be creative and look for things even when they may not even be there. According to The Guardian, since her family couldn't afford toys, the young girl would create her very own doll to play with made out of a dried corncob.

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Constant Lifestyle Changes

At age six, Oprah said goodbye to Hattie, because she was being sent off to live with her mother, Vernita Lee. "I suddenly land in a place that's completely foreign to me. I don't know anybody. I don't really even know my mother," Winfrey told HuffPost in 2015. "I walked into that space feeling completely alone and abandoned."

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Afro Newspaper/Gado / Contributor via Getty Images

Oprah was going through many changes in her life at this point, and since she was so young it was hard to keep up. She spent a short amount of time with her mom in Wisconsin before being sent off to live with her dad, Vernon Winfrey in Nashville, Tennessee. But, yet again, she returned to live with Vernita.

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Facing Colorism

Living with her grandmother wasn't easy, but neither was living with her mom. There were numerous traumatic, life-altering events that happened to Oprah during her time in Wisconsin. It was the first time the young girl had ever dealt with colorism, a word used to describe discrimination against those with a dark skin tone.

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oprah via Instagram

"I remember the first night entering into that house and being told that I wouldn't be able to sleep with my mother and I wouldn't be able to sleep inside the house." She recalled, "There was a little foyer/porch before you actually got inside the house. I was put outside to sleep there."

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Turning To Her Faith

"My mother was boarding with this very light-skinned black woman who could have passed for white … I could tell instantly when I walked in the room that she didn't like me. It was because of the color of my skin," Oprah explained. Rather than fighting back, the little girl obliged and went to the foyer.

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POOL / Pool via Getty Images

"I remember praying on my knees the very first night I had been removed from my grandmother," she revealed that she turned to God in time of need. "I don't remember ever shedding a tear about it because I knew that God was my father, Jesus was my brother, and they were with me."

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Abused By Her Family

Oprah is probably best known for her ability to get her former guests on The Oprah Winfrey Show to open up about their life. She was usually the one listing to the unbelievable stories. But it was during her interview with David Letterman that she took the hot seat.

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oprah via Instagram

The revealing interview took place during Letterman's Distinguished Professional Lecture and Workshop Series. It was the very first time that the world heard about the tragedies that Oprah faced as a small child. She confessed that at age nine she was unfortunately forced into intercourse by a close relative.

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The Full Story

Oprah would later fully open up about the story of being abused in an issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. "I was living in Milwaukee that summer, staying at an uncle's home, when a 19-year-old cousin r**ed me. As I trembled and cried, he took me for ice cream and convinced me not to tell — and for 12 years, I didn't."

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Paul Natkin / Contributor via Getty Images

Sadly, that was the first of many times that Oprah was taken advantage of growing up. It went on from the ages of 10 till she was 14, by various family members she told Letterman. Unfortunately, these experiences deeply affected Oprah and the way she viewed herself.

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Blaming Herself

Being abused for many years was traumatic for the pre-teen. Slowly, Oprah's self-confidence diminished as the unfortunate events continued to happen. She later on in life wrote an intense piece for O, The Oprah Magazine, where she wrote, "It was a very long time before I understood how completely my life had been changed."

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oprah via Instagram

"How in one instant, I was no longer a child," she added. "When you are sexually violated, it's not the physical act that destroys you. It's the weight of the secret you feel you have to keep, the person you have to become so no one will discover what you're hiding." Oprah believed she "had done something to cause the abuse."

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"I Kept That Secret"

It took a long time for Oprah to finally regain her self-worth back since the traumatic events left her mixing up "mistreatment with love." She explained, "I spent most of my teenage years trying to convince myself of my worth by becoming the smart girl, the nice girl, the one who spoke well before an audience."

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Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images

It took years for her to come forward. "I didn't even know what was happening to me. And I kept that secret," she said. But at the age of 24, she was finally ready to reveal to some of her family members what she endured as a young child, but unfortunately, no one believed her.

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Pregnant at 14

As a young teenager, Oprah found out that was expecting a baby. This remained private until she finally told her story on CNN's Piers Morgan in January 2011. Of course, the news initially shocked the 14-year-old, she couldn't believe the turn of events her life at taken. "Getting pregnant was a result of bad choices," she said.

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via Shutterstock

"Not having boundaries, sexual abuse from the time I was 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13," Oprah said, before adding that she would do "crazy stuff that you do when you're trying to get attention, when you're really just trying to cry for help." Based on New York Daily News she even drank laundry detergent to terminate the pregnancy.

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Unsupportive Family

At first Oprah hid the pregnancy, but during this time she was sent to go live with her dad, who eventually found out. According to the New York Daily News, Vernon told her, "I would rather see a daughter of mine floating down the Cumberland River than to bring shame on this family and the indecency of an illegitimate child."

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MediaPunch via Shutterstock

His reaction caused Oprah to have thoughts about taking her own life. Luckily, she didn't do it and instead told her family the baby's father was her uncle, but they dismissed her claims. "Because I had been involved in sexual promiscuity," Winfrey told People, "they thought if anything happened, it had to be my fault."

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Blessing in Disguise

In 2017, Oprah told The Hollywood Reporter that the pregnancy experience was when she"hit rock-bottom." At just 14 years old she had given birth to a baby boy. But sadly because he was born prematurely he passed away at the hospital. But she admitted to New York Daily News that she had "no connection" to the baby.

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via Shutterstock

"When the baby died, I knew that it was my second chance," she said. Despite the pain, she knew it was for the better. She later told Good Housekeeping UK, "I didn't want babies. I wouldn't have been a good [mom] for babies. I don't have the patience." She then teased. "I have the patience for puppies, but that's a quick stage!"

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Experimenting With Substances

Ever since being in the public eye, Oprah hasn't held anything back. She's constantly sharing the things that she has overcome throughout her life, from suffering family abuse to living in poverty. But there was one certain experience that she had planned on keeping to herself.

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via Shutterstock

The truth came out when the billionairess was a part of a program that was people who had dealt with addiction. During filming Oprah admitted that she too had similar experiences. A spokesperson for the show, Deborah Johns said "Oprah made a spontaneous admission to mothers battling a [substance] addiction that she had also used [substances]."

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A Different Type of Addiction

Oprah didn't give too many details about her time using substances during the show that came out in 1995. Fans were left to come up with their own stories until finally, she talked about it once again in full detail during the Today show in 2005.

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Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer via Getty Images

"This is probably one of the hardest things I've ever said," she said. "But I was involved with a man in my 20s who introduced me to the same [substance] that you've been talking about…I always felt that the [substance] itself is not the problem but that I was addicted to the man I can't think of anything I wouldn't have done for that man."

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High School

Through the hardships, Oprah still managed to achieve many accomplishments. Not only was she voted most popular, but she also excelled in public speaking at the East Nashville High School speech team which eventually led to her receiving a scholarship to attend Tennessee State University, a historically black institution (HBCU).

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via Shutterstock

While still in school she got offered a job working in broadcasting. Oprah accepted and before she knew it she was an on-air newsreader for WVOL, a Nashville radio station. Little did she know how her career in this field would turn into a billion-dollar empire.

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College & Career

After winning the Miss Black Tenense in 1972, Oprah went on to accept her scholarship at Tennessee State University in Nashville. She chose to study Speech Communication and Performing Arts, but before finishing her degree she dropped out in 1975. Thankfully since she was one credit short she returned in 1986 to finish.

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via Shutterstock

During college, she became both the youngest and the first female black anchor to work at Nashville's WLAC-TV (which later became WTVF) at just 19 years old! Eventually, this job was the reason she left school, but it was well worth it, because, in 1976, she was relocated to Baltimore, Maryland to be a reporter and anchor.

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From Low to High Rating

Oprah spent eight years working in Baltimore before moving to Chicago in 1983 so that she could host the WLS-TV's low-rated half-hour morning show, AM Chicago. After her first episode went live on January 2, 1984, the rating significantly increased. All of a sudden the show was the highest-rated talk show in the city. 

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After a year of working on the morning show, the production company decided that it needed a name change. And since it was Oprah who helped Am Chicago rise to the top, they settled on calling it The Oprah Winfrey Show. But that wasn't all, in 1986,  King World offered to take her show into national syndication.

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Harpo Production Inc.

When her talk show was broadcasted to the whole country, Oprah's career completely took off. That same year that The Oprah Winfrey Show became a national hit, Oprah also launched Harpo Productions, Inc. The name for it is basically just her name spelled backward.

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Douglas C Pizac/AP via Shutterstock

It only took 2 years before her talk show was running under Harpo Productions, Inc. full time. This made her the first woman to ever own and produce her own talk show! It was an incredible accomplishment for Oprah. Things in her life were finally going the way she had intended.

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Awards, Awards, Awards

It didn't take long before the numerous awards started to roll in. From winning the Daytime Emmy for Oustanding Host of a daytime television program to receiving the Emmy awards for Outstanding Talk/Service Program and Outstanding Direction, she was a hit!

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Ron Galella / Contributor via Getty Images

By 1988, it seemed like the whole country was obsessed with watching her interview different people. It was at this time that the media mogul was also named the youngest person to ever be granted the “Broadcaster of the Year” award from the International Radio and Television Society (IRTS).

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More Than Just Celebrities

The Oprah Winfrey Show was arguably so successful during its run between 1996 to 2011 because it wasn't just celebrities who were invited on but also regular everyday people. The idea for this came when Oprah wanted  Don Johnson, star of Miami Vice (the biggest show on TV at the time) to be her first guest.

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Jessica McGowan / Stringer via Getty Images

Sadly the actor denied her offer, and that was when she realized her talk show didn't just have to feature celebrities. "So what we came up with was a show called 'How to Marry the Man of Your Choice,'" she explained later on. From then on, Oprah focused her show on everything from education, books, celeb interviews, and more.

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The Color Purple

Another reason why Oprah's show gained so much traction was that she was already famous before it. In 1985 the billionairess has featured in Steven Spielberg's adaptation of The Color Purple. Her performance as 'Sofia' eventually earned the actress/talk show host Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.

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Sunset Boulevard / Contributor via Getty Images

 "I’ve never wanted anything in my life more than I wanted to be in that movie," she admitted in an Instagram post celebrating the film's 35th anniversary. "Quincy Jones saw me on AM Chicago, said I should audition, and the rest is movie history! So here’s to the powerful messages I still carry from that movie," she explained.

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True Story

"When I read the book the first time, I bought copies to hand them out to people. I told everyone I wanted to be in the movie. It was that deep," she wrote. Clearly, The Color Purple is special in Oprah's heart. The story follows a young woman as she deals with the ups and downs of being a Black American in the early 1990s.

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Afro Newspaper/Gado / Contributor via Getty Images

It covers everything from racism, sexism, domestic violence, self-confidence, and more. Sound familiar..? Since the plot is so eerily similar to Oprah's childhood, many fans have made claims that the movie could possibly be based on the iconic talk show host's life. But these theories have never been confirmed.

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Family Betrayal

As Oprah became more and more famous over the years, the betrayal from her family hit even harder. It was actually her younger half-sister Patricia, from her mom's side that revealed to the world the truth about Oprah's teenage pregnancy. And clearly, she was shelling out the secrets for some cash.

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John Swart/AP via Shutterstock

Because she received a $19,000 payout for the information, according to the New York Post. But unfortunately, this probably wasn't the worst family betrayal that the television figure ever had to deal with in her life. Her very own father was also ready to turn his back on his daughter for some money.

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All of a sudden rumors began to spread that Vernon was in the works of writing a tell-all-book about his famous daughter, Oprah. Not only were fans stunned by the claims but the media mogul herself was "shocked" and "disappointed" to hear about his idea.

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Alex Wong / Staff via Getty Images

Oprah revealed to New York Daily News in 2007 that it was even more unbelievable because it was a few months prior that she and Vernon had spent time together and he failed to even mention that he was planning on writing an autobiography. "The last person in the world to be doing a book about me is Vernon Winfrey," she said.

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Final Goodbye

On Thanksgiving day of 2018, the CEO of Harpo Productions' mother passed away. Vernita Lee was 83 years old when she left us, and although she and Oprah had an unstable relationship, towards the end of her life they seemed to have made up. She revealed to People that during Vernita's final days, she was right by her side.

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MediaPunch via Shutterstock

"I sat with my mother. 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,'" Oprah explained. "I had a conversation with her about what that felt like, what it felt like to be near the end." She said, "I stood in the doorway and I said, 'goodbye."

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Goodbye Father

Her mother wasn't the only person she made amends with before they passed away. On July 4th, 2022, Oprah's father, Vernon passed away. She honored her dad on Instagram, revealing the news to fans. “Less than a week ago we honored my father in his own backyard. My friend and gospel singer Wintley Phipps saluted him with song,”

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Adriane Jaeckle / Stringer via Getty Images

She added,. “He FELT the love and reveled in it until he could no longer speak." Oprah finished with her kind words, “Yesterday with family surrounding his bedside I had the sacred honor of witnessing the man responsible for my life, take his last breath. We could feel Peace enter the room at his passing."

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Oprah Today

Its been 10 years since the final episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired on May 25, 2011. Yet still, this past decade the legendary talk show host has stayed relevant and active in the media. She even continues to have interviews with A-list stars, most noteworthy with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

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C Flanigan / Contributor via Getty Images

Over the years Oprah has built an entire empire, she is a mogul, a mental health advocate, a billionaire, an actress, and more. Her rise to the top wasn't always an easy climb, but despite the challenges, she persisted until she made it to where she is today. She is truly an inspiration to thousands of people worldwide.

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