Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey is a US cultural phenomenon and kingmaker who inspired her millions of loyal fans to read more, buy her favourite things and seek her trademark “aha moments”.
She is credited with changing the way people talk to each other, having popularised a confessional interview style that has coaxed secrets, revelations and often tears from guests of all kinds.
Winfrey (57) who has publicly struggled with her own weight issues, has also become a spiritual icon and self-help guru urging viewers to find their true selves, follow their intuition and find inner peace and happiness.
“She blazed a trail,” Ellen Degeneres, a comedian who hosts her own daytime talk show, once said. “She will always be the queen of daytime.”
Born into a life of poverty and abuse in Mississippi in 1954, Winfrey began her broadcasting career while she was still in high school and landed a job as a news anchor in Nashville at age 19.
Her emotional ad-libs won her a Chicago morning talk show in 1984, which beat rival Phil Donahue for the top spot locally within a month and was syndicated nationally in 1986. She also acted in the 1985 hit film The Colour Purple.
The Oprah Winfrey Show remained the top-rated talk show of all time and was estimated to reach 40-million United States viewers a week.
The show served as the foundation for an empire that spans books, radio, magazines and the internet and has launched the careers of a host of regular guests including counsellor Dr Phil and chef Rachael Ray.
Winfrey began her own production company in 1988 and named it Harpo — her name backwards — and Forbes magazine declared her the first female African-American billionaire in 2003.
Winfrey is now estimated to be worth $2.7-billion and is regularly ranked among the world’s most powerful women, celebrities and media personalities.
“I am truly amazed that I, who started out in rural Mississippi in 1954 when the vision for a black girl was limited to being either a maid or a teacher in a segregated school, could end up here,” she said on Wednesday as she drew the curtain on her final show.
But fans won’t have to look far for their Oprah fix: the Oprah Winfrey Network was launched on January 1 this year and features a mix of reality shows, chat shows and films.
Known as an almost uniquely influential tastemaker, Winfrey’s recommendation of a book or product has an instantaneous and enormous effect.
Through her now-defunct televised book club she popularised works including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Her stamp of approval was considered so important that she managed to convince the famously-reclusive author to appear on her show for his first ever television interview.
‘The great love of my life’
In 2008, she broke with a precedent of staying out of politics and endorsed fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama’s presidential bid.
Her support was estimated by University of Maryland researchers to have brought in a million additional votes and helped Obama win both the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
Her strength remained the emotional connection she makes with her guests and her viewers, and many celebrities chose Winfrey’s comfortable couch as a confessional.
Tom Cruise famously jumped up on that sofa to proclaim his love for Katie Holmes. Winfrey also took her show to Neverland Ranch for a 1993 interview with Michael Jackson which drew an audience of 100-million people.
Winfrey’s use of public confession as therapy was not reserved for guests: she regularly spoke of her battles with her fluctuating weight and of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.
She fought to help prevent child abuse by establishing a national database of convicted child abusers, which became known as the Oprah Bill when former president Bill Clinton signed it into law in 1993.
Winfrey is also a noted philanthropist, launching a public charity in 1998 to encourage her viewers to make a difference in the lives of others and a private foundation devoted to expanding access to education worldwide.
Winfrey has never married and has kept her more than 20-year relationship with businessman Stedman Graham largely out of public view.
But for her final show on Wednesday he was in the audience, as she bade a tearful farewell to her legions of fans.
“From you whose names I will never know, I learned what love is. You and this show have been the great love of my life,” she said. — AFP