JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) -- Oprah Winfrey opened a school Tuesday for disadvantaged girls, fulfilling a promise she made to former President Nelson Mandela six years ago and giving more than 150 students a chance for a better future. "I wanted to give this opportunity to girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty could dim that light," Winfrey said at a news conference.
Mandela was among the guests at the opening of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in the small town of Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg. "This is a lady that has, despite her own disadvantaged background, become one of the benefactors of the disadvantaged throughout the world," Mandela said in a statement. (Watch the school's first students )
Singers Tina Turner, Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey, actors Sidney Poitier and Chris Tucker and director Spike Lee also were in attendance. Each guest was asked to bring a personally inscribed book for the library.
Winfrey has said that she decided to build her own school because she wanted to feel closer to the people she was trying to help.
The $40 million academy aims to give 152 girls from deprived backgrounds a quality education in a country where schools are struggling to overcome the legacy of apartheid.
Eventually the school will accommodate 450 girls. Girls like 12-year-old Maphefo Leputu from Soweto, who used to share a bed with her cousins, said she was overwhelmed at the prospect of her own room and bathroom -- and the chance to fulfill her ambition of becoming a lawyer.
Lesego Tlhabanyane, 13, proudly wore her new green-and-white uniform at the ceremony.
"I would have had a completely different life if this hadn't happened to me," she said. "Now I get a life where I get to be treated like a movie star."
By educating girls, Winfrey said she hoped she could help "change the face of a nation."
"Girls who are educated are less likely to get HIV/AIDS, and in this country which has such a pandemic we have to begin to change the pandemic," said Winfrey, known to her pupils as "Mam Oprah."
Many of the girls come from families affected by the disease which has infected 5.4 million of the 48 million population and hit women disproportionately hard. Winfrey referred repeatedly to her own impoverished childhood and said she was grateful that she at least had a good education, declaring this to be "the most vital aspect of my life."
"I was a poor girl who grew up with my grandmother, like so many of these girls, with no water and electricity," said the talk show host, dressed in a shocking pink ball gown and jacket.
She vowed to make the academy the "best school in the world" and promised that she would continue to support the girls so they could attend any university in the world.
A promise fulfilled
The idea for the school was born in 2000 at a meeting between Winfrey and anti-apartheid icon Mandela. She said she decided to build the academy in South Africa rather than the United States out of love and respect for Mandela and because of her own African roots.
She said she planned a second school for boys and girls in the eastern province of KwazuluNatal.
Many state-funded schools, especially in the sprawling townships that sprang up under white racist rule, are hopelessly overcrowded and lack even basic necessities such as books. They also are plagued by gang violence, drugs and a high rate of pregnancy among school girls.
Top-class study and sporting facilities are available but are largely confined to private schools that are still dominated by the white minority as they are too expensive for many black and mixed race South Africans.
'I love these girls'
Winfrey's academy received 3,500 applications from across the country. A total of 152 girls ages 11 and 12 were accepted. To qualify, they had to show both academic and leadership potential and have a household income of no more than $787 a month. Eventually the academy will accommodate 450 girls. The 28-building campus boasts computer and science laboratories, a library and theater along with a wellness center.
Winfrey rejected suggestions that her school was elitist and unnecessarily luxurious.
"If you are surrounded by beautiful things and wonderful teachers who inspire you, that beauty brings out the beauty in you," she said. She said she chose "every brick tile, sheet and spoon" and even lay in the beds to check on the right distance for the light switch.
Winfrey, who does not have children, said she was building a home for herself on the campus to spend time with the girls and be involved in their education.
"I love these girls with every part of my being. I didn't know you could feel this way about other people's children."