10 Incredible Facts About Oprah Winfrey

The media mogul born ‘Orpah’ Winfrey has made quite a name for herself over the years.
The media mogul born ‘Orpah’ Winfrey has made quite a name for herself over the years. / Noam Galai/GettyImages

Since making her national TV debut with The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986, Oprah Winfrey has made an enormous impact on the world at large. As a news reporter, a daytime talk show host, an actress, a producer, a philanthropist, and a multimedia mogul, she’s known all around the world. But as the daughter of a maid from Kosciusko, Mississippi, she comes from very humble beginnings.

With decades in the limelight, Winfrey is going stronger than ever thanks to new book club recommendations, film roles, and her ongoing work with the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit that awards grants to empower and educate women and children around the world. Here are some remarkable facts about the global icon.  

1. Her birth name is “Orpah.”

While the world knows her simply as Oprah, Winfrey’s birth name is actually Orpah Gail Winfrey. She’s named after a woman mentioned in the “Book of Ruth” (Ruth 1:4) in The Bible. Oprah attributes the name change to mispronunciation.

“My name had been chosen from the Bible,” Winfrey said in a 1991 interview. “My Aunt Ida had chosen the name, but nobody really knew how to spell it, so it went down as Orpah on my birth certificate, but people didn’t know how to pronounce it, so they put the P before the R in every place else other than the birth certificate. On the birth certificate it is Orpah, but then it got translated to Oprah, so here we are.”

2. Oprah won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant.

In 1971, at age 17, Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant. She would also go on to compete in the Miss Black America pageant later in the year, but lost the competition to Florida’s Joyce Warner.

3. She got her first media job while she was still in high school.

Nelson Mandela and Oprah Winfrey at the launch of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls School.
Oprah has met a number of influential figures throughout her career, including Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa. / Media24/Gallo Images/GettyImages

Winfrey got her start as a part-time news reporter at radio station WVOL in Nashville, Tennessee, when she was still attending East Nashville High School.

In 1973, at age 19, she became the youngest person to co-anchor the news at Nashville’s WLAC-TV (which is now WTVF-TV); she was still in college at the time and was also the first Black woman in that role.

“What you see in Oprah today is what I saw so many years ago,” Chris Clark, Winfrey’s former TV manager at WLAC-TV, said in a 2009 interview. “[She] had the magic to communicate on television, and that is natural born. You just can’t learn that. You can’t develop that. You got it or you don’t got it.”

4. Oprah earned a full scholarship to Tennessee State University.

In high school, Winfrey joined the speech team and eventually placed first in an oratory contest. The grand prize was a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, where she attended and majored in speech communications and performing arts.

5. She’s been nominated for an Oscar twice.

Oprah Winfrey on the set of "The Color Purple."
For her turn as Sofia Johnson in "The Color Purple," Oprah received an Oscar nomination. / Sunset Boulevard/GettyImages

Although she hasn’t won an Oscar (yet), Winfrey has been nominated for two Academy Awards. Her first nod came in 1986 for Best Supporting Actress at the 58th Academy Awards. It was for her performance as Sofia Johnson—which was also her debut movie role—in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of The Color Purple. However, she lost the award to Anjelica Huston, for her performance in the movie Prizzi’s Honor.

Nearly 30 years later, for the 87th Academy Awards in 2015, Winfrey was nominated again, but this time for Best Picture, as one of the producers of Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Instead, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) won in the category.

However, the Academy did give her an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in 2011 in recognition of her work as a philanthropist.

6. Oprah’s done voice work for several movies.

While Winfrey has appeared in live-action feature films, like the 2018 film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time and 2013’s The Butler (among others), the media icon has done her fair share of voice acting too. She voiced Eudora in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, Gussy the Female Goose in the 2006 adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, and other characters.

Another fun fact? Winfrey also lent her voice in an uncredited role as a radio newsreader in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This is a wink and a nod to Winfrey’s early days at WVOL.

7. Her media empire is massive. 

Oprah Winfrey at the 45th NAACP Image Awards.
Winfrey, pictured here at the 45th NAACP Image Awards, has been a driving force in the media since the 1980s. / Kevin Winter/GettyImages

Winfrey founded Harpo Productions, Inc. (now simply Harpo, Inc.) in 1986. She is the owner, chairwoman, and CEO of the media and entertainment company. The name is actually “Oprah” spelled backwards, as well as the name of her on-screen husband in The Color Purple .

Since its launch, Harpo has transformed from a TV production company to a multimedia empire, helping launch popular daytime talk shows; a cable network in partnership with Warner Bros. Discovery called Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN); a film studio (shut down and then later revived); and a publishing company in partnership with Hearst Communications called Harpo Print, LLC, which produced O, The Oprah Magazine, which ceased regular print publication in December 2020.

8. In 2013, Oprah received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama at the 2013 Presidential Medal Of Freedom ceremony.
In a historic moment, President Barack Obama awarded Winfrey with the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 2013. / Leigh Vogel/GettyImages

In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Oprah Winfrey with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest honor a president of the United States can give to a civilian. “In more than 4500 episodes of her show, her message was always, ‘You can,’” Obama said of Winfrey. “And she was living proof, rising from a childhood of poverty and abuse to the pinnacle of the entertainment universe.”

9. She even has her own grocery line. 

In 2017, Winfrey partnered with the Kraft Heinz Company to launch a new joint venture called Mealtime Stories, LLC. In 2019, they released O, That’s Good!—a line of frozen foods. Kraft Heinz joined forces with Oprah because of her work in weight loss and nutrition. As part of the venture, Rise Against Hunger and Feeding America, two charities focused on ending food insecurity, received 10 percent of the profits.

The grocery line features soups like broccoli cheddar and baked potato; side dishes, like garlic mashed potatoes and creamy parmesan pasta; and entrées; like garlic chicken with potatoes and three cheese tortellini. There are even frozen pizzas, including margherita, pepperoni, BBQ chicken, and more, all of which are made with cauliflower in the crust.

“I love healthy foods and eating from my garden,” Winfrey said in a 2017 press release. “When Kraft Heinz approached me for a food line, what got my attention is making nutritious comfort foods more accessible to everyone. This product line is real, delicious food with a twist. You’ll feel good about serving it for your family.”

10. Her favorite novel of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird.

Winfrey learned to read before the age of 3, and her favorite novel of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. She first read the book as a child living with her mother in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and checked it out at a local library upon a librarian’s recommendation. 

“So I picked up To Kill A Mockingbird,” Oprah wrote in The Guardian in 2015. “I remember starting it and just devouring it, not being able to get enough of it, because I fell in love with Scout. I thought I was Scout. I always took on or wanted to take on the characteristics of whoever I was reading about, and so I wanted to be Scout and I wanted a father like Atticus Finch.”

Oprah really liked Scout’s energy and her spirit. She believed the character had a freshness to her. “I liked the fact she was so curious,” Winfrey continued. “Even at 10, she knew who she was and believed in herself, and was learning about this whole world of racism in such a way that I could feel myself also experiencing it—my eyes opening as hers were.”

Following Harper Lee’s death in 2016, Oprah further expressed her admiration for the author. “Harper Lee [is] my 1st favorite author,” she tweeted. “I always wanted to interview her. She said ‘Honey, I already said everything I had to say.’ #RIPHarperLee.”