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Truth: The True Story Of How Oprah Became Oprah

NOTE: This is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of my new book Likeonomics. I hope you enjoy it!

    The truth is more important than the facts.

            -Frank Lloyd Wright

    Always tell the truth. That way, you don’t have to remember what you said.

            -Mark Twain

Phil Donahue didn’t know it yet, but his days were numbered. His self-titled Phil Donahue Show had been nationally syndicated since 1970, and by 1984 he had risen to become the undisputed king of daytime television, watched by millions every day.

That year, A.M. Chicago was the show stuck at a distant second place in the 9 a.m. timeslot that Donahue dominated. With little to risk, they decided to bring in a new and relatively unknown actor and beauty queen with very little experience to anchor the program. No one expected much from her. In her first few months, she modeled her show’s format to be exactly like Donahue.

She borrowed her interviewing technique directly from watching Barbara Walters on television. Yet despite her inexperience, audiences responded to her. Early critics were even complimentary, noting that she stood out as “more genuine, and far better attuned [than Donahue] to her audience, if not the world.”

Within months, her show took over the number one slot in the regional Chicago local market. In two years her show was nationally syndicated and already competing with Donahue. It was a great start, but looking backward it was only on November 10, 1986, that this up and coming host named Oprah Winfrey would become the legend we now know simply as Oprah.

Oprah’s Secret

On that day, the sensitive topic for the show was sexual abuse victims and their molesters. As the show was nearing its end, Oprah stunned her audience by revealing that she had been raped by a relative when she was nine years old. Her deeply personal admission was unlike anything a daytime TV show host had ever shared. At that time, more than 25 years ago, there was a much more distinct separation between personal and celebrity life. Celebrities (and particularly talk show hosts) just didn’t reveal that much about themselves.

But as Audrey Edwards, the former editor of Essence magazine wrote,”By confronting her own worst demons . . . Oprah showed an entire generation of women how to look small and large terrors in the face and beat them down.” It was her extreme honesty that stood out from the first day she went on air, and it was a quality she continued demonstrating for her entire career, making her one of the most influential women in the world. By the time she went off the air to start her own network in 2011, the media had even given a name to her ability to turn all kinds of products, from books to greeting cards, into bestsellers. They called it the “Oprah Effect.”

She had an estimated viewership in the United States of 48 million, and her show was broadcast in 150 countries around the world. Books that were featured as part of her Book Club had sold over 55 million copies collectively. Her endorsement of Barack Obama was widely credited in 2008 with being one of the major factors in his presidential victory. With an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion, Forbes recently noted that Oprah is the only female African American billionaire, and ranked her the third-most-powerful woman in the world.

When Donahue retired, he was once asked why he thought Oprah had become so popular. “I think she can dish with women better than I can,” he said. “She can talk about weight and clothes and men and the real-life drama of a single woman in a more personal way than I can.”Not only could she talk about those things in a personal way, but she always did it with the truth.

Are You Building on a Sinkhole?

There is a very good reason why the truth is the first principle of Likeonomics, and it is not hard to explain why. If you were building a house, the worst possible place to build it would be on top of a sinkhole. A favorite natural disaster for writers of fictional medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy, but sinkholes are real phenomena that happen when the rock under the surface of the ground is made of a material like limestone, which dissolves. Eventually, the surface doesn’t have enough support and the entire ground caves in.

Building a business or a personal relationship on a lie is the same as building a house on top of a sinkhole. It may not collapse right away, but eventually something will change and the unstable ground will cave in. The point of starting with the truth is to make sure you’re building everything else on safe ground.


This excerpt is from Chapter 4 of Likeonomics, all about Truth – the first of the TRUST principle that I lay out in the book.  For a longer excerpt, please visit the book website at – and if you enjoyed the reading this, please consider buying Likeonomics today!

3 thoughts on “Truth: The True Story Of How Oprah Became Oprah”

  1. Establishing trust is so important in every dimension of our lives. I like to say “the funny thing about telling the truth is that you always end up in the right…”

    Great insight here, Rohit!

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Rohit is the author of 8 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.

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