Oprah Winfrey, since the 1986 debut of her nationally syndicated daytime talk show, has been one of the most influential women in America. Since then, her influence has only grown — exponentially — and so has her success. In fact, Time Magazine listed her as one of the world’s most powerful women of the 20th century, on the same list as Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, and Indira Gandhi.
January 29 was a milestone day for Oprah Winfrey. This pioneering figure for both women and African-Americans celebrated her 60th birthday. Now, we hear that Oprah stayed at home in Montecito, California, for her own quiet gathering, or so The Chicago Tribune reported. She had earlier said she wanted “the biggest blowout party I can dream of.” But when it got too big, she just said forget it.
But hey, it’s still an important day in Oprah Winfrey-land. To do our own part in celebrating Oprah’s big six-oh, we’ve put together a selection of 10 fascinating facts that you probably didn’t know about this remarkable woman.
10. Oprah is a beauty queen. Though she has been very public over the years about her battles with weight issues and self-esteem over her appearance, when she was a young woman of 17, she was confident enough in her looks to enter beauty pageants — and win them. Oprah Winfrey holds not one but two beauty pageant crowns, both from 1971. She won the Miss Black Tennessee title that year, as well as the state’s Miss Fire Prevention pageant. In response to the question, “What would you do with a million dollars?” the youthful Oprah Winfrey answered, “I’d be a spending fool!”
9. Oprah has been ahead of her time in supporting gay and lesbian issues. In 1988 she frequently promoted the first annual National Coming Out Day on The Oprah Winfrey Show. On the day itself, October 11, members of her studio audience stood up and announced that they were gay. Numerous celebrities have chosen her show as a forum for coming out as gay. When Ellen Degeneres came out on an episode of her own sitcom, she did so to her onscreen therapist — who was played by Oprah Winfrey.
8. In 2008, Oprah’s mother was involved in a lawsuit with a fashion boutique that claimed Vernita Lee had purchased over $155,000 worth of clothes on credit — then welched on the bill. Lee counter-sued the store, saying it never should have extended her the credit in the first place. But then Oprah swept in and paid off her mom’s debt. Or at least, enough of it to make the store happy. Terms of the settlement remain confidential.
7. Oprah stopped winning Daytime Emmy Awards in 2000, not because her show did not deserve awards, but because she requested that her name be taken out of consideration. After all, it was about time to give someone else a chance. Her daytime talk show has won 47 Emmy Awards.
6. Oprah was once involved in a romantic relationship with John Tesh. The former Entertainment Tonight host, who continues his career as a musician today, confirmed in 2010 that he and Winfrey dated when the two were “cub reporters” in Nashville, 40 years earlier. In a tell-all biography of Oprah, author Kitty Kelly claimed that Oprah Winfrey and John Tesh actually lived together but he ended the romance, unable to cope with the social pressures of an interracial relationship.
5. Oprah Winfrey smoked crack. In a 1995 show, during an interview with four mothers who experienced drug problems, Oprah broke down in tears and told the story of how she used crack cocaine while in her 20s. She said that she smoked crack because the man she was in love with wanted her to. A spokesperson for Oprah said at the time that her confession was completely on-the-spot, not planned.
4. On February 10, 1993 Michael Jackson, who had not given an interview in 14 years, sat down at his Neverland Ranch to talk to, who else, Oprah Winfrey. The allegations that he sexually abused young boys had not yet surfaced, but Jackson did address some deeply personal issues with Oprah, helping the broadcast to become the fourth-most-watched non-sports TV broadcast in history.
3. Oprah Winfrey also dated film critic Roger Ebert. Well, actually, Oprah and the late, groundbreaking reviewer went out on only two dates. But the second one was the most important date of Oprah’s life. It was on that evening, during a post-movie Hamburger Hamlet dinner, that Ebert talked Oprah into signing a national syndication contract for her then-local, Chicago talk show. On September 8, 1986, The Oprah Winfrey Show went national — and the rest is television, and cultural, history.
2. Oprah Winfrey is the most generous celebrity philanthropist in the United States. As of 2011, she had ranked Number One on The Giving Back Fund’s annual list of celebrity givers four five straight years. Estimates say that she has donated more than $350 million to dozens, perhaps hundreds of causes and charities around the world.
1. Oprah Winfrey is the richest black woman in the world. In fact, in 1995 she joined Bill Cosby as the only two African-Americans on the Forbes 400 list of America’s wealthiest individuals. At the time, her net worth was estimated at $340 million. In today’s dollars, that would be “only” $519 million. But Oprah’s fortune has far outpaced inflation. She’s now worth an estimated $2.9 billion, making Oprah Winfrey the first and only black female billionaire on Planet Earth.