When 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' went national in 1986, it spawned scores of imitators and a media empire

She had already chatted up a nymphomaniac or two and was itching to land a celibacy-vow-breaking priest when Oprah Winfrey burst onto the national scene 12 years ago, ready and able to change the face of talk TV. On Sept. 8, 1986, when The Oprah Winfrey Show, which had been running in Chicago since 1985, debuted in syndication, Winfrey aimed to prove that despite her ease with tawdry talk, she was more than just a Donahue clone. A 32-year-old black woman in a white-male-dominated field, she made relating to daytime’s mostly female audience her priority. She dished about men (”I think Mr. Right is coming, only he must be in India and is walking to get here”) and empathized with viewers’ insecurities. A hefty 180 pounds at the show’s outset, Winfrey gave fans the skinny on her weight-loss triumphs (after losing 67 pounds on a liquid diet in 1988, she wheeled a cart of symbolic animal fat on stage) and setbacks (she regained most of the poundage). She dispensed hugs to her dysfunction-plagued guests and talked openly about her own life, revealing that she’d been raped when she was 9 and used cocaine in her 20s.

Winfrey ultimately became the country’s No. 1 yakker, amassing 7 Emmys as host and spawning scores of imitators, from Ricki to Rosie. Along the way, the child from humble Mississippi beginnings evolved into one of the world’s richest entertainers (worth at least $550 million) and a one-woman media industry. As CEO of Harpo Entertainment Group, Winfrey produces her own show as well as prime-time specials and films (from 1989’s TV flick The Women of Brewster Place to this fall’s Oscar hopeful Beloved, both of which she also stars in). She is television’s most demonstrative selling force: Her book-club selection kisses can lead viewers to serious fiction faster than a publisher can say ”best-seller.”

As Winfrey’s influence has grown, Oprah has matured. The host renounced ”confrontational TV” in 1994 and has since peppered her program with celebs and urged viewers to spruce up their lives (hence the book club). And despite her fortune, Winfrey remains accessible, appearing for book-club parties in pj’s and acting the starstruck fan while on tour with Tina Turner. Last year, Winfrey announced plans to continue Oprah through the 1999-2000 season. This time around, you can bet she won’t be booking any affair-prone priests.

The Oprah Winfrey Show
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