Oprah Winfrey made history this week when she reached a new milestone in her career, landing on Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index — a ranking of the world’s 500 richest people. The media mogul’s $4 billion empire landed her at No. 494 on the list, right after fellow billionaire Mark Cuban.
Long before she made history as the first black female entrepreneur on Bloomberg’s list, Oprah was one of the most influential public figures in the U.S. In early 2018, the Hollywood Foreign Press awarded her the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, and her rousing acceptance speech sparked rumors of a 2020 presidential run — which she eventually denied. From her humble beginnings in Nashville, Tenn., to her current status as one of the world’s best-known billionaires, Oprah has proven that she’s an unstoppable force and an inspiration to generations to come.
As Oprah stated in her Golden Globes speech, “I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women.” Indeed, now that she’s one of history’s richest women, Oprah has managed to maintain boundless optimism and a generous heart.
Learn more about Oprah by checking out her net worth, legacy and career.
Oprah’s Early Life and Career: She Earned Just $227 a Week
Oprah was born in Mississippi and spent her adolescence between her mother’s home in Milwaukee and her father’s in Nashville, where she moved permanently at age 14. As a teen working at a Nashville radio station, she found her calling. Though she worked hard to get a scholarship to attend Tennessee State University, she left just shy of graduation to take a job at a TV news station in Nashville.
In her early 20s, Oprah moved to Baltimore to anchor WJZ’s nightly news hour. Her salary was $22,000, according to Baltimore Magazine — that’s worth about $93,000 today based on inflation. She and her veteran co-anchor were a mismatch, however, and Oprah was demoted. But, another opportunity soon followed.
She became co-host of a new TV show called “People Are Talking,” where she appeared alongside established newsman Richard Sher. That show began airing in August 1978.
“From that first day, I knew instantly this is what I was supposed to do,” Oprah told Baltimore Magazine. “I felt like I had come home to myself.” Oprah and Sher had great chemistry together, and within months turned the program into a hit.
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Oprah’s Audition Tape for ‘A.M. Chicago’
In 1983, Oprah learned that the morning show “A.M. Chicago” was looking for a host. After sending in an audition tape, Oprah landed the job and made the move to the Windy City as the host of her own morning show in January 1984. Soon, Oprah had pushed “A.M Chicago” from last to first place in ratings.
Oprah’s popularity grew as she won Chicago over as a talk show host, and this opened up new opportunities for her, including landing a dream role starring in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film “The Color Purple,” for which she received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. Chicago is also where Oprah met longtime beau Stedman Graham — with whom she’s still in a relationship today.
Oprah’s Net Worth Peaks: From Multimillionaire to the First Black Female Billionaire
The success of “A.M. Chicago” and Oprah’s nominations for “The Color Purple” had gained the talk show host massive exposure. Riding this success, Oprah pushed to expand her show to an hour, rebrand it as “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and nationally syndicate it to 120 channels in 1986. In its first season, the show’s audience grew to 10 million, grossing an astounding $125 million, $30 million of which contributed to Oprah’s net worth, according to Biography.com. As a new show, it also nabbed the 1987 Daytime Emmy Award for outstanding talk show and outstanding talk show host.
This success continued throughout the late ’80s and ’90s, during which “The Oprah Winfrey Show” owned daytime TV. During these peak years, the talk show often averaged over 12 million viewers a day. In 1998, Oprah was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 25th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards. By the time she removed herself from consideration for Daytime Emmys in 1999, she and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” had rounded up 17 Emmy wins. Meanwhile, Oprah’s net worth steadily grew, reaching about $800 million at the turn of the millennium.
The highly successful O, The Oprah Magazine launched in 2000. By 2003, it brought a new milestone for her: Forbes announced that, at age 49, Oprah was the first black woman to become a billionaire. She had reached a net worth of $1.1 billion. Oprah said that her focus on opportunities, hard work and an appreciation for what she had led to her substantial monetary success.
Oprah’s Last Episode of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’
“The Oprah Winfrey Show” continued to rule daytime ratings throughout the early 2000s, finally ending its run in 2012 after 25 seasons. But that hardly meant Oprah was retiring, as the move to step away from her talk show coincided with the 2011 launch of her own TV network, The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).
Oprah Winfrey Net Worth: $4B and Counting
Oprah continues to run O, The Oprah Magazine and OWN, which turned profitable in 2013 and is still growing despite initially disappointing ratings. “Oprah’s Master Class” show became the first major part of OWN, airing in January 2011, and has been going strong ever since. The premise of the show is to showcase celebrities and famous people telling personal and moving stories you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. According to The New York Times, OWN began bringing in $300 million per quarter in 2013.
Oprah also became an executive producer of “Selma,” a historical film centering on a black civil rights march, which was nominated for the 2015 Academy Awards in the categories of best picture and original song. “Belief” is another series she produced that first aired on OWN in October 2015. The seven-episode documentary highlights many different spiritual practices and faiths from around the world.
Although her annual earnings took a dip after she ended “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Oprah still managed to earn a whopping $82 million from June 2013 to June 2014, reported Forbes, which estimates her net worth at $3.1 billion. Bloomberg’s estimate puts her at $4 billion, however, thanks to a $427 million spike in performance at Weight Watchers International Inc.
Oprah is currently the richest black American in the world, according to Forbes, but there’s no doubt her legacy extends beyond her massive wealth. Throughout her career, Oprah has used her celebrity status to promote issues she is passionate about, most notably fighting racism and sexual abuse. She also broke barriers and forged a bigger space for black women in media, TV and business.
Oprah: Weight Loss and Weight Watchers Stock Add to Her Net Worth
In October 2015, Oprah announced that she had paid $42 million for a 10 percent stake (6.3 million shares) in Weight Watchers. She also said she was taking a seat on the company’s board. After Oprah’s first day of investing in the company, she had already gained $70 million due to stock prices skyrocketing.
Just a few months later, in January 2016, Weight Watchers stock rose again as Oprah tweeted a video announcing she had lost 26 pounds. By 2019, Weight Watchers International Inc. saw its share price double, closing at a record $100.37 on June 18, according to Bloomberg.
Oprah’s House and Properties: From The Promised Land to Colorado
Over the years, Oprah has used her fortune to purchase many properties — like her island farmhouse in Maui. Her most prized piece of real estate, however, is probably her Montecito, Calif., mansion that she paid about $50 million for in 2001. And what do you call a mansion that sprawls across 42 acres if you’re Oprah? The Promised Land, of course — because she’s made it. The Promised Land is said to be worth about $88 million today.
Oprah needed a change from Hawaii and California, though. “There’s water in Colorado, and there’s more trees in Colorado and also I like having seasons,” Oprah told famed talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
So, in December 2015, Oprah purchased a house in Colorado for $14 million, in the ski town of Mountain Village near Telluride, Colo. The high-tech home was built by entrepreneur Bob Wall who decked out the 8,700-square-foot mansion. From the heated driveways to keep snow from piling up to the $106,990 limestone bathtub that maintains the water at the perfect temperature, Oprah’s new Colorado home is truly awe-inspiring.
Oprah’s Continuing Charity and Philanthropy
A discussion of Oprah’s legacy and finances wouldn’t be complete without mention of her generous philanthropic efforts and charitable giving. Oprah regularly gives generous portions of her wealth to educational causes.
“I am fueled by my own personal passion to do good in the world,” Oprah said in an interview with The Huffington Post. Much of her charitable efforts have been focused on her own Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, which she has spent approximately $100 million to fund since its founding in 2007, reported Forbes.
This school is a central part of Oprah’s legacy, but she defines that in her own way: “The truth is your legacy is every life you have ever touched,” she told The Huffington Post. “The imprint, the heart print that you leave on every person’s life that you’re exposed to — that is your real legacy.”
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Jamie Young contributed to the reporting for this article.