Sunday, 17 April 2011

Wisconsin - What's an Oprah?

When I found out that media Queen, Oprah Winfrey spent part of her childhood in Milwaukee, I thought this would be the perfect excuse to learn more about one of America's most iconic figures.  Like many of you reading this blog, I grew up with the Oprah Winfrey Show and it's, often controversial, social topics.  There's something about Oprah that is universally appealing, whether it's her down-to-earth ability to relate to her audience, or the ability she has to empower those without a voice, she's left an impression on late-20th century life, that would have been a lot less rich and diverse without Oprah on our screens. 

So what is an Oprah?

In preparation for this blog, I read a very concise biography called UPclose: Oprah Winfrey by Ilene Cooper, which is part of a series of biographies by Puffin Books.  It's written in very simple language, occasionally bordering on teenage-magazine speak but, at 179 pages, a perfect overview for me, as I don't have time to read anything weightier.  The title of this blog refers to a slogan that was used to advertise Oprah's move to AM Chicago in 1984, which Cooper uses as the starting point of her book.  You'd think that having an unusual name would mean that people forget it easily, but I know from experience, that the opposite can also be true.  An unusual name (or my case surname) can stick out in people's minds and the show's promoters played on this to Oprah's advantage.

Book cover
 Actually the name of her birth certificate was Orpah, not Oprah, as she was named after the biblical character, Ruth's sister-in-law and Naomi's daughter-in-law, but this proved too difficult for most people to pronounce.  It's an interesting metaphor in itself, as Orpah married into a tribe (or race?) that wasn't her own and, when her husband died, Naomi forced her to return to her own people.  Orpah comes from the Hebrew word for 'nape', as she turned her back on Ruth and did as Naomi bid her.  Oprah herself, became fascinated by the fact that the character of her husband in The Color Purple was called Harpo, which is Oprah spelled backwards - almost, as if Harpo were the male equivalent of Oprah.  She later named her TV studio Harpo Studios in recognition of this fateful coincidence. 

Mississippi, Milwaukee and Nashville

I must admit, unlike most people, I didn't know much about Oprah's childhood until I read this book.  I now know that she famously revealed a lot about herself during her programme and that such things as her being raped, having a baby when she was 14 etc. have been common knowledge for quite a while.  It was all new to me and it's a shocking story, one which will no doubt be made into a film sometime in the future.  Like a lot of people, I could relate to her story on a very personal level.  I also grew up in a poor background (relatively speaking, if you can compare Ireland in late 70's and Mississippi in the late 50's).  I also spent years dreaming of something better and used books as a form of escapism.  The fact that Oprah has managed to transform her life from one of poverty with her grandparents, running around barefoot in potato sacks, to a life of extreme wealth and privilege, is truly remarkable and fits into all of our preconceptions about the American dream. 

Like a lot of young black women and men from the south, Oprah's mother moved to Milwaukee in search of work.  When she'd saved up enough money to rent a small flat, she brought Oprah to come and live with her.  The times Oprah spent in Milwaukee were amongst the lowest points in her life.  With her mother out at work all day, Oprah was left to fend for herself.  There were always men around, relatives and her mother's boyfriends and it was one of her cousins who first raped her when she was only nine years old.  In stark contrast to Milwaukee was the time she spent with her father in Nashville, where she was encouraged to read and go to school.  It was also in Nashville that she graduated from high school and got her first job on local television reading the news.

The Oprah Winfrey Show

I think a meteoric rise to fame was something that life always had on the cards for Oprah.  I guess, there are some people whose voices the world can't afford to ignore and, although things could so easily have gone the other way for her, she worked hard to become a successful TV chat show host, moving from Nashville to Baltimore to Chicago where AM Chicago rivalled that giant of chat shows The Phil Donahue Show and brought her nationwide-fame.  I think timing always helps.  Had she been born ten years earlier it would have been a lot harder for the American mainstream to accept her.  By the 1980's the world was ready for Oprah and she certainly didn't disappoint!  She's often been accused of being a 'token black woman' but I think this underestimates the influence that Oprah has had on white, as well as black, Americans. 

Oprah greatly admired Phil Donahue and his approach to hosting a show.  He was the first mainstream chat show host to broach controversial issues such as gay rights and Oprah has said that without The Phil Donahue Show there wouldn't have been an Oprah Winfrey show.  Both Oprah and Donahue opened the floodgates to chat shows dealing with social issues or 'tabloid talk shows' and others such as Geraldo, Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake became household names in the late 80's/early 90's.  Not just in the United States either, but in Europe and right across the world, a plethora of talk shows erupted, discussing everything from incest to artificial insemination, satanic cults to wife-swapping and cross-dressing.

Harpo Studios in Chicago
 Whilst Donahue and Oprah broke new ground and raised the profile of issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, LGBT rights and HIV, a lot of the later shows brought out the worst in society, exploiting vulnerable people, who should probably have been seeking counselling, rather than talking about their problems on television.  Having said that, I'm sure most people will agree that it's compulsive viewing (or at least, it used to be, things have tamed down a lot in recent years).  I also think, from a cultural point of view, the way these shows were interpreted in different countries, says a lot about the way people in that country see the world around them.  Certainly, the British versions of these shows (Kilroy, Jeremy Kyle and Trisha) were a lot tamer.  Although equally exploitative, they usually offered counselling and reassured the audience that the guests would receive help after the show (definitely a very British way of doing things!)  I don't think we've ever had anything like this in Ireland, but that's because our population is so small and everyone kind of knows each other. 

Re-inventing the talk show

Although Oprah admits to occasionally stooping to controversial lows on her show, she decided to re-invent The Oprah Winfrey Show in the 1990's and it became more holistic and focused on health and well-being, as well as introducing her famous book club.  I think it was a smart move to change the focus of her shows and Oprah used her love of books to inspire others, who perhaps wouldn't normally read that much, to start reading again.  She started with the books that she loved most and went on to include others like Steinbeck's East of Eden, which saw this classic novel soar in the US book charts.  For many writers, exposure on Oprah signalled the beginning of a successful writing career - others, like Johnathan Franzen whose novel The Corrections was chosen by Oprah for her book club, cringed at being part of a list of books he described as 'schmaltzy'. 

The Color Purple, Beloved and Precious

Oprah also, famously, played the part of Sofia in the film adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Color Purple.  According to Cooper, Oprah was desperate to be selected for the role, because of her love for the book.  Playing Sofia and being nominated for an Oscar must surely rank amongst her highest achievements.  I watched the movie again, although I'd seen it many years ago and it reminded me of how beautiful the story is, not to mention Whoopie Goldberg's performance, as well as Oprah's. 

Oprah set up Harpo Studios in 1986 and used the studio to create TV series and movies that dealt with the lives of black American women.  She also starred in the film adaptation of another Pulitzer prize winning novel, Beloved, by Toni Morrison.  It's a book I studied at college, but I didn't realise that a film version had been made, so I also watched this, as part of my research for this blog.  I think it's difficult to turn a book like this into a movie, but it was beautifully shot and I enjoyed the performances of Oprah,  (who played the main character Sethe), Danny Glover (who also played Mr in The Color Purple), London-born Thandie Newton (another coincidence, Thandie means Beloved in Zulu and other languages) and Minnesota-born Kimberley Elise, who played Sethe's daughter, Denver.  I don't know if it's indicative of modern audiences, but Oprah was (understandably) devastated when Beloved was beaten at the Box Office by Bride of Chucky!

A more recent production involving Oprah Winfrey was the 2009 film Precious which received six Oscar nominations and starred Gabourney Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz!

Oprah and other (ad)ventures

O magazine
 Apart from her TV and film work, Oprah also publishes a magazine, called O.  I must admit, I'd never heard of it, but it deals with a lot of the same issues as her show and has been phenomenally successful, like many of the other ventures Oprah has been involved with. 

Most recently, she set up her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa which, despite the controversies around the extravagant nature of the school and the abuse of some of the girls by a former member of staff, it seems to have provided a model environment for young South African women to get a decent education and compete on the global playing field, as well as inspire their peers. 

Everything that Oprah does comes under such scrutiny that I imagine it's quite hard to balance her extreme wealth with her philanthropic ventures.  It's easy to be cynical about a rich Westerner like Oprah getting involved in ventures like this one, I'm sure the everyday reality for girls in a country like South Africa is far-removed from the ideals of the Leadership Academy, but at least she's trying to do something and I kind of think, well why shouldn't she use her wealth to try and improve the lives of (some of) South Africa's young women?  Surely it's better than doing nothing at all?  Mind you, I've read somewhere that Madonna is planning to do something similar in Malawi and the words 'jumping on the bandwagon' come to mind, so it definitely is easy to be cynical about all of this.   

The Oprah effect

Love her or hate her, no-one can deny the impact of the Oprah effect on a whole generation of Americans (and the rest of us!).  I'm definitely a fan, which is not usual for me, as I tend to disregard most of what happens in the world of celebs.  There's something different about Oprah and that's why I like her!  I'm going to leave you with the trailer for Beloved which is available on YouTube. 

Image credits:

The image of the bookcover was taken by me.  It shows the 2007 edition of UpClose: Oprah Winfrey written by Ilene Cooper and published as part of a series by Puffin Books. 

The image of Harpo Studios is by flickruser celikins aka Araceli Arroyo.  You can see more of her photos at

The image of O! magazine is by flickruser forureyezonly who is from Dubai - you can see more of her photos at
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