She’s been a cultural force for more than 30 years, so it might seem like Oprah Winfrey was always destined for greatness, from the first time she recited Bible verses at her Kosciusko, Mississippi church as a young girl. But her incredible journey from poor schoolgirl to billionaire mogul was more a winding road than a straight shot.
Eight years after her beloved talk show ended, the star, 65, continues to share the lessons she’s learned, whether it’s by helping impoverished girls in South Africa through the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, or finding new ways to connect with her audience like creating programming for Apple and embarking on her 2020 Vision Tour.
In the new issue, PEOPLE salutes extraordinary Women Changing the World—including Winfrey, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, actress Brie Larson and Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg. Their work has inspired millions, and their voices rose to the top not because they were always the loudest, but because their messages resonated.
For more of Oprah’s life-changing moments, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
As Winfrey reflects on the pivotal moments on her path, she says, “I say this to people all the time: ‘Nothing is waste.’ There is not a moment that you can have that can’t turn out to be useful later in life, and if you know that, life is like this huge, giant classroom.”
Moment No. 1: Moving from Milwaukee to Nashville as a young teen.
As a grade-schooler, Winfrey lived with her mother, Vernita Lee, in a run-down neighborhood of Milwaukee. By the time she was a young teenager, she had been sent to live with her father, Vernon Winfrey, in Nashville.
“When I was in Milwaukee, I was trapped in a world where I could see how dire it was,” she says. “Had I not gotten out of Milwaukee, nothing would have been the same. I do believe I would have been dead at 56. I believe I would have been 437 lbs. I believe I would have had diabetes. I would have had high blood pressure. I would have suffocated knowing that things could have been different.”
For much more on PEOPLE’s Women Changing the World 2019, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Moment No. 2: Swearing off sensationalist TV in 1989 after two pivotal episodes.
Winfrey took an enormous risk in 1989 when she declared she was out of the shock-TV business. Morton Downey Jr. and Geraldo Rivera were getting ratings with their sensationalist shows — and Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones would soon leap into the fray as well.
“It was the KKK skinhead show and then the show with a man, his wife . . . and his mistress,” Winfrey recalls. “At the time, the producers thought this was one of the greatest bookings we could ever get. We thought, ‘He’s agreed to come on with his girlfriend? This is unbelievable.’ Then there was a moment when the man says to his wife, ‘You know what? There’s nothing you can do about , because is pregnant.’ We were live and I didn’t know he was going to tell her, nor did the producers know.”
“It’s one of my greatest shames, but a shameful act that allowed me to make the shift, because I go, ‘Never again will I do that to somebody,'” she says. “If I hadn’t, I would have been out of television much sooner.”
For the rest of the five moments that changed Winfrey’s life — including what she says about her relationship with Stedman Graham — pick up the new issue of PEOPLE!