Leaving her grandmother's home in Mississippi, Winfrey splits her time between her mother, Vernita, in Milwaukee, Wis., and her father, Vernon, in Nashville, Tenn. She is raped and abused by family friends in Milwaukee. Winfrey moves to Nashville permanently in 1968, secretly pregnant at 14. Her father, a strict disciplinarian, helps her rebuild her life when her week-old baby dies.
Winfrey wins Nashville's Miss Fire Prevention contest. The pageant sponsor, a radio station, offers Winfrey a job reading the afternoon headlines on air. After being crowned Miss Black Tennessee in 1972, she competes in the Miss Black America competition, but her burgeoning news career and college studies end her pageant days. At 19, she becomes anchor of Nashville's WTVF-TV station and leaves Tennessee State University to be the first female African-American news anchor in Nashville.
After an eight-year stint cohosting a local morning show in Baltimore, Md., a 29-year-old Winfrey cohosts the talk show AM Chicago, which she eventually takes over. Within months she beats the top-rated Phil Donahue Show in viewership and AM Chicago is renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Quincy Jones casts Winfrey in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple after seeing her TV show while on a business trip to Chicago. The role earns her an Oscar nomination.
Winfrey starts dating Stedman Graham, then the executive director of Athletes Against Drugs, an organization that teaches children about the dangers of drugs. She tells PEOPLE, "He's kind, and he's supportive, and he's 6'6"!" In 1992, they get engaged.
A month after Winfrey opens her own studio, Harpo Productions (her name spelled backwards), The Oprah Winfrey Show goes into national syndication and quickly becomes the highest-rated talk show in TV history. It goes on to attract 49 million viewers each week in the U.S. alone and is distributed to 122 other countries. In 2000, after winning more than 40 Emmys, Winfrey takes her show out of Emmy consideration.
Winfrey wheels 67 lbs. of animal fat onstage, illustrating the weight she lost in five months on a commercial liquid diet. "My greatest failure was in believing that the weight issue was just about the weight," she tells PEOPLE in 1991. "It's about not handling stress properly." In October 1994, a fit Winfrey achieves one of her dreams: completing the 26.2-mile Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.
Winfrey testifies to the Senate in favor of the National Child Protection Act, which aims to create a national database of convicted child abusers. Two years later President Bill Clinton signs the "Oprah Bill," and in 2005, Winfrey launches "Oprah's Child Predator Watch List," which shows photos of fugitive child predators and offers $100,000 rewards for their capture.
Winfrey kicks off her TV book club with Jacquelyn Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean. Every book selection since has become a bestseller. In 2001, Jonathan Franzen becomes the only author to turn down Winfrey's invitation to be on her show. In 2003, she revamps her book club to feature mainly classic works.
Winfrey heads to Amarillo, Texas, where a group of cattlemen sued her, alleging she defamed beef during a 1996 show on mad cow disease. While there, she tapes five shows a week at the Amarillo Little Theatre. The following month, the court rules in Winfrey's favor. She is sued again in April and wins her case again four years later.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Tennessean; Harrison Jones; Everett; Ron Galella/WireImage; Dave Allocca/DMIPhoto; Paul Natkin/Harpo Productions; Stephen Green/Harpo Productions