Oprah Winfrey and her students in South Africa. The talk show host and media mogul has invested $40 million in a school to educate South African girls.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos.
By Joshua Chaffin
January 5 2007 20:35
For 152 South African girls mired in desperate poverty, the start of this school year offers more than just the modest promise of learning new skills that might one day improve their lot in life. Instead, it is about wholesale transformation. That is because they form the inaugural class of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy.
This week, they strolled on to a 52-acre campus south of Johannesburg that – in addition to the usual blackboards and labs – features indoor and outdoor theatres, a yoga studio and beauty salon. At night, they will sleep on the finest soft cotton sheets.
The reason that they are there is because Ms Winfrey, America’s most popular television host, believes that she can groom them to become leaders who will one day help lift the country out of poverty. She began work on the $40m (£20.7m) school little more than five years ago after a conversation with her friend, Nelson Mandela. Since then, she has overseen every detail – from architecture to curriculum. She even handpicked each student from a pool of more than 3,500 applicants.
“I know that this academy will change the trajectory of these girls’ lives,” Ms Winfrey said. “They will excel and pass their excellence on to their families, their nation, and our world.”
On one level, the Oprah Academy is another example of western celebrities’ fascination with Africa, which has recently served as the impoverished backdrop for star-studded adoptions by Madonna and Angelina Jolie.
But it also represents a pinnacle in Ms Winfrey’s career of fusing charity and celebrity, with each serving to reinforce the other. Along the way, she has transcended her role as America’s leading television personality to become the nation’s most influential public advocate and one of its most powerful media enterprises.
Books that she recommends instantly shoot up the best-seller list. Charitable causes she champions scoop up millions of dollars. Politicians, such as Barack Obama, and celebrities, such as Tom Cruise, flock to her couch to seek her endorsement. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation needs help tracking down child molesters, they turn to Oprah. After she publicised the identities of such fugitives on her programme two years ago, two were nabbed within a week.
“She’s probably the best broadcaster of her generation,” said Reese Schonfeld, who helped found CNN and once considered hiring Ms Winfrey when she was just starting out. “People who don’t even read books buy books that she recommends because they have so much faith in her.”
That clout and Ms Winfrey’s canny business judgment have translated into a personal fortune estimated by Forbes magazine in 2005 at more than $1.4bn. It includes her ownership of Harpo Productions, a studio that produces films and television programmes including The Oprah Winfrey Show, which reaches 9m US viewers per day and has topped the daytime ratings for the past 20 years.
There is also O, The Oprah Magazine, which was launched in 2000 in a partnership with Hearst, and has featured Ms Winfrey on its cover every month since. It now boasts a circulation of 2.3m and sold 2,000 advertising pages last year – a 13 per cent increase at a time when many of its competitors were sagging.
As if that were not enough, Ms Winfrey also owns a large stake in the Oxygen cable television network and last year signed a three-year, $55m deal with XM Satellite Radio to bring her unique persona to the airwaves. She has also spawned two other television stars – Dr Phil McGraw and Rachael Ray – who have their own shows. “Oprah is the head of a culture industry,” marvelled Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. “She makes Martha Stewart look like a country store by comparison.”
Arguably, Ms Winfrey’s greatest asset is her personal story of struggle and perseverance, which forms the basis of her unusual bond with her audience. Born to a poor family in Kosciusko, Mississippi, in 1954 Ms Winfrey grew up without running water or electricity and also suffered sexual abuse. After graduating from Tennessee State University, she went to work as a television news reporter in Baltimore. In 1984, Dennis Swanson, who was then the local ABC station manager in Chicago, bucked convention and cast an overweight, African-American woman as the anchor of its morning programme. A month later, Oprah was the leading the local ratings and on her way to becoming a national sensation.
As Ms Winfrey’s career took off, she and her business manager, Jeffrey Jacobs, had the confidence to demand ownership of her programme even if it meant accepting less money upfront. That move was unusual for a television host. It has paid off handsomely. It also demonstrates Ms Winfrey’s desire to retain full control over her ventures – be it a diet book or a girls’ school.
“They run a very tight ship,” one media executive said of Harpo, which controversially makes its staff sign lifetime non-disclosure agreements. Many projects, including O, have been guided by Gayle King, Ms Winfrey’s longtime best friend.
Maimonides, the Medieval Jewish philosopher who preached anonymous charity, would probably have frowned at Ms Winfrey’s public handouts. There was the time, for example, when she surprised her studio audience by awarding them 276 new Pontiac sports cars. That stunt unleashed made-for-television pandemonium on the set that was later picked up and replayed by news networks around the country. “It was probably the most successful product placement ever,” one television executive said.
Others have since tried to imitate Oprah’s brand of media-savvy philanthropy in which the giving creates its own spectacle and rewards. One of the top-rated programmes on US television, ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, draws millions of viewers each week to watch as the network and its sponsors – a home builder and an appliance retailer – construct a new house for a down-and-out family.
“Capitalistic philanthropy,” is how Mr Thompson refers to the phenomenon. “Is it self-aggrandising? Absolutely. Is it borderline vulgar? Maybe,” he says. The South African government reportedly pulled out of the school project amid concerns that its costs had risen too high and that it was too opulent for such a poor country.
But Oprah has largely avoided any backlash. “She carries it off. The people really believe that she is what she says she is,” says Mr Schonfeld. And now they can look to a glistening $40m school in South Africa that never would have existed without her.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007