Oprah Winfrey turns 70 with a $2.8 billion empire and is clearer about things than ever before

The TV host, businesswoman and actress is at a pivotal moment in her career as producer of the remake of ‘The Color Purple.’ She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as an actress in 1985; now, it is a key project that spans the last four decades of her life

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey at the 81st Golden Globe Awards, held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on January 7, 2024.Axelle/Bauer-Griffin (FilmMagic)
María Porcel

At the next Academy Awards, on March 10, Oprah Winfrey will wear purple. That’s not a prediction, it’s just what the entrepreneur, host, actress, producer and America’s sweetheart has been doing for months. Because when Winfrey commits to something, she goes all in, and this season’s commitment is one of the biggest she has ever made: she is the producer of the movie The Color Purple, the adaptation of the musical that is, in turn, an adaptation of the 1985 film in which she herself starred; she has called it “the most important event” of her entire life. With a TV show that lasted 25 years, a magazine, a TV network, a production company, a dozen properties, a hefty philanthropic investment portfolio and a fortune of $2.8 billion under her belt, that’s certainly a strong statement.

But Oprah (who turns 70 on January 28) is like that: solid, eloquent, determined. Controlling, some say. For half a century, the power of the woman who needs no last name has extended to almost all areas of entertainment in the United States. She began to work with a radio station in high school and, at the age of 19, in the mid-1970s, she became a reporter and anchor on local television stations. That led to her own television show The Oprah Winfrey Show (1986 to 2011), where she chatted with Tom Cruise, George W. Bush, Sarah Ferguson, Whitney Houston and Bill Clinton. But that wasn’t all. Her book club has recommended over 100 books over the past 28 years, setting the editorial tone and giving a sales boost to her recommendations. She is no stranger to politics, either: she is close with the Obamas, and five years ago she picked up the phone to convince Mitt Romney to run as an independent candidate in 2020 (he went so far as to say she demanded to be his vice president; she denied it). She even floated the idea that she would run for president. Donald Trump said that “it would be fun.” She herself had to deny it: “I don’t have the DNA for it.”

It’s not that she’s not capable, it’s that Winfrey doesn’t need it to be what she is. And she is one of the most powerful women in the world (31st, according to Forbes, ahead of Beyoncé, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, the president of Honduras and the head of the New York Stock Exchange) and one of the country’s most respected voices. She also loves what she does. She is proving it now, with unbridled energy at the age of 70. She has not missed a single one of the events, premieres and awards ceremonies for The Color Purple; she has participated in discussions, talks, late night shows, interviews, promotional videos. Whenever she has a chance, she speaks about how the film changed everything: “Doing the [original] film was the most important thing that had ever happened to me and continues to be a central theme in my life,” she told People. When Steven Spielberg called her to play the role of the warrior Sophie in the 1985 film, she had never set foot on a movie set, and she is convinced that the $35,000 she earned (about $100,000 today adjusted for inflation, not very much) is “the best paid $35,000 in the world.” “It changed everything… It was a spiritual opening for me to see my life in a different way,” she recounted. At the time, Oprah didn’t even know that she didn’t need to look at the camera when she was acting.

Willard Pugh and Oprah Winfrey in a still shot from 'The Color Purple' (1985).
Willard Pugh and Oprah Winfrey in a still shot from 'The Color Purple' (1985).Courtesy Everett Collection

That film received 11 Oscar nominations and she won an award. Her second Oscar, which came 30 years later, is a good example of her evolution: that was for Selma, the film she produced about the 1965 civil rights march, a complex project that took her over seven years to get off the ground. This year, with the new musical version of The Color Purple, Winfrey slipped into the awards race by the skin of her teeth. She received only one Oscar nomination, for Danielle Brooks as the new Sophie, the role Oprah played 38 years ago. For this film, Winfrey chose not to even make a cameo.

A lot has changed for the Mississippi-born Winfrey in the past four decades. The little girl whose grandmother dressed her in potato sacks, who was semi-abandoned by her mother (as an adult, they didn’t even have each other’s phone number), who was encouraged by her father in her education and interests, grew up to become an authoritative voice on almost everything in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Her businesses have helped her achieve heights of power she never imagined for herself, such as her OWN channel, which she created in 2011 and sold to Warner a decade later in a million-dollar transaction. That fortune has allowed her to donate over $425 million in her lifetime. She calls the girls who study at the school she founded in South Africa her “daughters.”

Oprah Winfrey speaks on stage after her portrait was unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., on December 13, 2023.
Oprah Winfrey speaks on stage after her portrait was unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., on December 13, 2023.Paul Morigi (Getty Images)

Her philanthropy is always aligned with her interests. For example, in August she—along with Dwayne Johnson, the Rock—donated $10 million to help with Lahaina’s recovery after the terrible fires that devastated Maui, Hawaii. Oprah has several properties there. Two decades ago, she bought no less than 40 hectares in the center of the island, and she has been criticized for buying such a large amount of land.

Those are not the only criticisms of her life and career, which is always observed with great interest. In 2010, the writer Kitty Kelley dedicated a complete biography to her; in over 500 pages, Kelley unraveled certain of Oprah’s secrets, such as her struggle with her weight, without revealing too much. Oprah herself talked about it a few weeks ago. “It was public sport to make fun of me for 25 years,” Winfrey said. “I have been blamed and shamed, and I blamed and shamed myself,” she said in December. She added that her fluctuating weight has " occupied five decades of space in my brain.”

Two years after undergoing knee surgery, she says she walks between 3 to 5 miles a day, eats dinner at 4 p.m. at the latest, drinks a gallon of water a day and follows the Weight Watcher’s diet (she even bought 10% of the diet company in 2015). But that’s not all. “I had an awareness of [weight-loss] medications, but felt I had to prove I had the willpower to do it. I now no longer feel that way.” New weight-loss drugs, such as Ozempic, are the order of the day in Hollywood. And Winfrey no longer hides her use of them.

She is removed from any criticism, and she has become the perfect ambassador of herself. She is adored by the whole country. Her power in the film world was recognized In December. The Hollywood Academy of Motion Pictures recognized her power in the film world when they gave her the Pillar Award “in acknowledgment of her exemplary leadership and support” in the industry. A couple of weeks later, she received another tribute when the National Portrait Gallery in Washington unveiled her painting in the gallery of America’s most illustrious portraits. Of course, she was wearing purple in the portrait. As always.

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