By the time Oprah Winfrey became the first black woman to make it onto the Forbes billionaire list, in 2003, she was already the most successful talk-show host in TV history and a producer, media mogul, actor, author and philanthropist of unparalleled cultural clout. But it wasn’t until the following year, when she gave away Pontiacs to her entire studio audience, that she ascended to something like secular-saint status—despite facing some backlash over the hefty gift taxes recipients had to pay. “You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!” became shorthand for any modern miracle.
That Oprah magic has only grown since 2004. A recipient of accolades, from a Peabody to a Kennedy Center Honor, she gave a crucial early endorsement to Barack Obama. In 2011, she wrapped her 26-year-old talk show and launched cable network OWN; last fall saw the revival of her powerhouse book club as part of a multiyear Apple TV+ deal. She may never heed the call of pundits who wish she’d run for President. Yet when political discourse and pop culture so often cater to the lowest common denominator, Oprah’s signature fusion of entertainment, education and social conscience remains a vital appeal to our best selves. —Judy Berman
This article is part of 100 Women of the Year, TIME’s list of the most influential women of the past century. Read more about the project, explore the 100 covers and sign up for our Inside TIME newsletter for more.
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