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TV Host Oprah Winfrey, Chicago's Biggest Kick, Boots Up for a Star-Making Role in The Color Purple

updated 12/16/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Chicago, the city of ferocious winds, can still be taken by storm—witness one big, benevolent hurricane named Oprah Winfrey. The city's dailies dote on her every move: Oprah's local morning TV show has upped its lead over Donahue's...she had lunch at Gino's pizzeria...she's making her acting debut in The Color Purple...she's gained three pounds.

That she's mentioned at all is astonishing. In January 1984, when WLS-TV put the little-known Winfrey against Phil Donahue in the 9 a.m. slot, the odds against her were formidable. And if her reputation was puny, her girth seemed too large for the small screen. Standing 5'6" without her size-10 Billy Martin black lizard boots, Oprah rarely weighs in at less than 180 pounds.

Winfrey, now 31, felt the heat. "I kept thinking, 'If things go bad, it's my buns out there.' " But within six weeks her sassy yet down-home style had out-Nielsened Donahue. Starting in September 1986 The Oprah Winfrey Show will be syndicated in a projected 100 cities (70 have signed up so far). "I wish her luck," says Donahue, "but not in my time slot."

Her competitor, says Chicago Sun-Times critic Lloyd Sachs, "is so sincere, he becomes insincere. Oprah's a freer spirit." True, she isn't as tough as Donahue. While he might probe a porn queen's morality, Oprah just asks, "Don't you get sore?" And Phil would never kick off his shoes in the middle of a show and announce, "My feet are killing me."

Then there's Winfrey's weight, a target for snipers such as Joan Rivers. When Winfrey visited The Tonight Show in January, Ms. Tact dared her to lose 15 pounds in six weeks. Oprah insists she actually dropped 17 pounds in four weeks, partly at a fat farm in Gilman, Ill., but a call from Steven Spielberg's office sent her racing back to Gino's for a pizza orgy. She'd been cast in The Color Purple, Spielberg's film version of the Alice Walker novel. Recommended by Quincy Jones, who caught her show on a visit to Chicago, Spielberg had tested her for the role of the robust and proud Sophia. "They called me and said, 'You can't lose weight. Whatever you've lost, you'd better go out and find it.' " Making her acting debut was worth the weight, says Winfrey, who filmed for eight weeks in North Carolina and two weeks in Hollywood. "Everyone on the set, from the grip and the gaffer to Spielberg and the star [Whoopi Goldberg], gave me positive energy."

Acting seems instinctive to Oprah, who tends toward dramatic embellishment of her earlier life. She says she was "headed for a career as a juvenile delinquent." But her dad, Vernon Winfrey, 52, a barber and Nashville city councilman, insists she was simply an unruly kid. When her unmarried parents parted soon after her birth, Oprah lived first in Mississippi with her grandmother, then in Milwaukee for five years with her mother, Vernita Lee, a housecleaner who made $50 a week. "She just wouldn't listen to her mother," says Dad, who took Oprah in when she was 14. "She needed some discipline to make sure she got a good start."

In the strict but loving hands of Vernon and his wife, Zelma, Oprah straightened out. By 17 she was a part-time radio newscaster on Nashville's WVOL. While attending Tennessee State University she anchored on WTVF-TV. She knew the push to hire minorities helped get her the job and adds, "I was one happy token." From there she moved to Baltimore's WJZ-TV as co-host of a morning show, People Are Talking, from 1977 to 1983.

Ah yes, her weight again. If the fat jokes hurt, Oprah's not showing the wounds. Perhaps her salary (around $250,000) and the five fur coats in the closet of her new $800,000 condo ease the pain. A romance wouldn't hurt either. "There's nobody right now, but he's coming—I know it," she says. "My idea of heaven is a great big baked potato and someone to share it with."

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