After a year of personal and professional turmoil, Oprah Winfrey is changing her life and her show

By Dana Kennedy
Updated September 09, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Her hair still mussed from sleep, her body deglamorized in a plain, hide- nothing purple unitard, the person rounding the curves of the track at Chicago’s plush East Bank Club at 8 a.m. doesn’t seem like the most powerful woman in entertainment, the head of an empire that in the last fiscal year grossed an estimated $170 million. As she heads into her second 8 1/2-minute mile, dishing intimately about herself, Oprah Winfrey behaves more like a fantasy best-girlfriend than a multimedia mogul. ”My best time is 7:30, but I can only do that when I’m 148 pounds,” she confides. ”Today I’m 158.”

Now in training for a late-October marathon, Winfrey, 40, runs 15 miles several times a week. Recalling her first, snail-like, 16-minute mile and the ”patronizing” comments of fellow runners smugly urging her on, she shows some of the steeliness that has taken her from the Mississippi pig farm of her childhood to TV’s pinnacle. ”I’ll never forget the day I passed them,” she says. ”Now if Bob (Greene, her trainer) wants to push me, he’ll say, ‘See that woman in the pink suit? You can take her.’ And I’ll kill myself to run past her. I never realized how competitive I am. But I am. And I love to be underestimated.” With her ratings slipping a notch-she still hooks about 15 million American viewers a day (plus millions more in 113 other countries)-and aspirants like Ricki Lake and Rolonda Watts running hard behind her, pack leader Winfrey hopes to stay competitive by changing the rules of her show, her career, her life.

Her intensive workouts are part of a rigorous fitness regimen that has helped her shed nearly 80 pounds. It has also eased her through a year of behind-the-scenes tumult that culminated in the departure of her executive producer and friend of more than a decade, Debra DiMaio, a move reminiscent of Jay Leno’s anguished break with his longtime manager, Helen Kushnick, in 1992. It may have been Winfrey’s competitive spirit that fostered the tough environment in which the talented but tyrannical DiMaio held sway. After other producers fumed about DiMaio’s bullying, Winfrey reluctantly had ”a conversation” with her in June and accepted her resignation with a reported $3 million-plus settlement. (DiMaio did not return phone calls for this story.) Senior producer Dianne Atkinson Hudson was promoted to DiMaio’s position (”Debbie was a taskmaster, but I had a lot of respect for her ideas,” Hudson says). But control now rests firmly with Winfrey, who says she is charting a course away from ”trash” and toward ”uplifting” topics (including Morality on Talk Shows and How to Live Your Dreams). Having done enormously well, she now wants to be judged by how well she can do good.

Outside the show, Winfrey postponed her much-hyped autobiography last summer. She has also put off her wedding to sports-marketing executive Stedman Graham, 43, the live-in companion she’s been engaged to since 1992 (”Neither one of us is ready to get married and when we are, we’ll get married,” she says curtly, responding to the one question she says she’s ”sick of” answering). Inspired by filming the 1993 TV movie There Are No Children Here in Chicago’s Henry Horner projects, Winfrey is joining with Graham to found Families for a Better Life, through which they plan to sponsor 100 families around the country (at $60,000 per family for a two-year period), helping them obtain jobs, counseling, and homes outside the projects. ”It’s a war zone,” Winfrey says. ”We have to get them out. We’re giving them bootstraps.” After the first two years, she plans to solicit corporations to expand the program.

It is at Winfrey’s $20 million, 100,000-square-foot Harpo Studios in downtown Chicago—boasting a TV studio and three movie soundstages, a staff workout room, and a screening room outfitted with a popcorn machine and a hidden candy drawer-where the money and power she wields are most tangible. (Her estimated personal worth is $250 million; in addition to Harpo, she owns a luxe Michigan Avenue condo, a farm in Indiana, and a stake in a Chicago restaurant and six TV stations.) Forbes listed Winfrey as last year’s top earner in entertainment, and her newly signed, highly lucrative contract with syndicator King World should keep her at the top of the heap through the year 2000.

A guest shot in front of her cameras can yield a bonanza, especially for authors; one appearance on Oprah can make a book a best-seller. Beneficiaries include Robert James Waller (The Bridges of Madison County), Marianne Williamson (A Return to Love), and, most notably, Winfrey’s personal chef, Rosie Daley, whose In the Kitchen With Rosie has more than 5 million copies in print since its publication last May, making it the fastest-selling book in history.