THR’s Sherry Lansing Leadership Award winner opens up about counseling Queen Latifah and Steve Harvey, “the only thing” she questioned about leaving her daily talker and why “there won’t be a ‘next Oprah.’ ”
“The only thing I ever questioned about leaving [The Oprah Winfrey Show] was the timing. Should I have waited and then started OWN separately? Should I have tried to start it earlier?” says Winfrey. “But the actual ending of the show, I never wanted to be in the position of ever having people say, ‘You shoulda come out of the rain.’ ”
“There won’t be a ‘next Oprah’ … just like there won’t be another Barbara Walters, Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston,” says Winfrey. “People who make their mark in the way that they made it, that’s it.”
Photo by: Joe Pugliese
Winfrey's Words of Wisdom
She may not have her daily show anymore, but she’s happy to impart lessons to those who are trying to follow in her footsteps, including Queen Latifah and Steve Harvey. She spent an hour on the phone with Latifah before her show launched this fall, telling her what she tells everybody who enters the daytime fray: “Don’t do it until you have 100 percent creative control to be yourself.” When she sensed that Harvey was straying, she called him up and told him, “I saw you in a chocolate factory trying to do that routine that Lucy and Ethel did. That’s not you. Don’t let people talk you into what they think is you.”
Photo by: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Presidential Medal of Freedom
On Nov. 20, President Barack Obama draped a Medal of Freedom around her neck, telling a roomful of dignitaries and activists: “In more than 4,500 episodes of her show, her message was always ‘You can.’ You can do, you can be, you can grow and you can be better.’ ”
'Oprah's Next Chapter' With Sean Penn
Winfrey traveled to Haiti for a 2012 installment of Oprah’s Next Chapter with Sean Penn, one of many A-listers to appear on the then-little-watched OWN.
Photo by: The Weinstein Company
Director Lee Daniels was most surprised by how “normal” Winfrey was on the set of The Butler. “She actually stood in line and ate that crap that we had for crew food,” he says. “It was so weird to see her with the extras and the crew standing in line waiting for those green beans.”
Photo by: Sony Pictures Classics/courtesy Everett Collection
Lance Armstrong Interview
Among Winfrey's biggest "gets" was an early 2013 sit-down with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, his first public interview since his doping controversy.
Winfrey worked in Baltimore for six years before heading to Chicago in 1984, where she was co-host of A.M. Chicago.
'The Oprah Winfrey Show'
The Oprah Winfrey Show went into syndication in 1986 and quickly became a ratings winner.
Leadership Academy for Girls
A passion for self-betterment drives her Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, the school she opened in South Africa in 2007 and to which she has contributed more than $100 million. Its devastating scandal -- accusations of sexual and physical abuse -- is now a distant memory. Today, the academy touts a 100 percent graduation rate, and every member of the school's first three graduating classes has continued on to college.
Winfrey is one of the richest women on the planet (worth a reported $2.9 billion, she is the first African-American female billionaire and one of few self-made women at that level). She also is one of the busiest, with her own from-the-ashes TV network (OWN), production company (Harpo), magazine (O, The Oprah Magazine) and a hit film (Lee Daniels' The Butler) that is generating serious awards-season buzz.
She readily admits to disappointments -- not least how quickly people wrote her off when she left her daily show. She describes longtime partner Stedman Graham as her foundation of support and, at times, her reality check. "He would say, 'You think you're going to rest on your laurels? You think anybody cares about 25 years?' And I'd go, 'Yeah, I kinda felt people did. Twenty-five years means nothing?' "
OWN Turns a Corner
In July, Discovery CEO David Zaslav announced in an earnings call that OWN, a 50-50 partnership between Winfrey and Discovery, was in the black. Headlines such as "Oprah Winfrey isn't quite holding her OWN" gave way to "Oprah Winfrey's OWN becomes profitable faster than execs predicted."
"When you're the most successful person in your family, in your neighborhood and in your town, everybody thinks you're the First National Bank," Winfrey says, "and you have to figure out for yourself where those boundaries are." What Winfrey learned is that people's needs were in direct proportion to what they thought she had. "I got to the point where nobody ever asked me for anything less than $5,000. I felt pressured for a long time to say yes, because I thought, 'I can't lie and say I don't have it. My salary is printed in the paper,' " she laughs, looking back at all her charity: "I've bought more houses and cars than I can even tell you."
A Relentless Director
Though she claims she's "never loved" any experience more than she did Color Purple, she felt the timing was all wrong when Lee Daniels came knocking, just as she was wrestling with all the challenges plaguing OWN. But the idea of being part of a film that could educate audiences about the role women played in the civil rights movement, coupled with Daniels' relentlessness, convinced her to accept, "I went from screaming to crying to pleading and then I caught her at a very calm moment [at her home in] Hawaii," the director says, "and I went straight for the kill."
'The Color Purple'
Winfrey was nominated for an Oscar for her debut role in 1985's The Color Purple.