The chaotic, irreplaceable Wendy Williams

Wendy Williams, wearing an off-the-shoulder grey top, speaks into a microphone while seated in a purple armchair. A vase of pink flowers sits on the table in front of her.
Wendy Williams speaks onstage during her celebration of 10 years of The Wendy Williams Show at the Buckhead Theatre, in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2018. | Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Wendy Williams’s rise, reputation, and absence from her talk show, explained.

Centuries ago, those accused of gossip, primarily women, were locked into metal headpieces that restrained the mouth. Imagine what those medieval haters would think about Wendy Williams.

The host first started rattling off her opinions into millions of American living rooms in 2008. But The Wendy Williams Show kicked off its 13th season in October 2021 without Williams as its host. And after months of delays and guest hosts, in September 2022 her slot was replaced by Sherri, hosted by Sherri Shepherd, the former The View co-host who had been Williams’s most popular fill-in.

Now, after more than two years out of the spotlight and recently disclosing that she has been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia, Lifetime — which previously produced both a dramatization and a documentary about the talk show host’s life — is releasing the documentary Where Is Wendy Williams? The film, which premieres on February 24, appears to follow Williams through that difficult period and features interviews with her, her family, and other associates. The documentary is slated to give an inside look at her mental and physical health issues, as well as the drama surrounding her financial guardianship. On Instagram in 2022, Williams called out Wells Fargo, accusing the bank of “keeping her away” from her money.

“Where is Wendy Williams?” is certainly a question her fans have been asking for a while now, as they find her pretty irreplaceable. At the end of her show’s run, Williams ranked among the top daytime talk show hosts, after Ellen DeGeneres, who ended her show in May 2022, and the women of The View. While Shepherd has received positive feedback, the lack of a goodbye from Williams has been met with concern and mixed feelings.

For over a decade between smirking laughter and sips from her mug, Williams calmly eviscerated celebrity goings-on, razing their mishaps to the ground to lay at the feet of her live studio audience. She kept her original mission through changing times and through her own struggles. Even early on, her penchant for showing no mercy was documented by the New York Times in a 2008 article that described her as capable of being “startlingly mean-spirited.” This is what helped her amass a legion of fans, and also what irritated her critics for so long; toward the end of her talk show gig, the infractions piled up.

The tide has turned on the kind of lurid gossip Williams traffics in; just look at the way the pop culture news cycle of the early aughts is being reevaluated. Still, her mix of bravado and vulnerability kept her on our screens. Who is this woman anyway, and who let her onstage?

Wendy Williams built her career on saying things other people wouldn’t say

Williams, born in New Jersey, got her start in radio in the late 1980s. She worked her way up through DC- and New York-based stations and, by 1993, had earned a Billboard Radio Award, honoring her as the R&B Major Market Radio Air Personality of the Year. She gave her listeners candid advice and shared the details of her own life dramas. Williams was known for her fiery, unapologetic personality. According to a 2005 New York magazine profile, during her run at WBLS, her interns were instructed not to speak to her unless spoken to. She bounced around different stations into the 2000s, discussing pop and rap stars on-air. She’s also struggled publicly: with being fired and ostracized, with a cheating husband who was also her manager, with substance abuse issues and her chronic illnesses.

Williams made a name for herself by getting immensely personal with her listeners, which is perhaps why her fanbase is so enamored with her. Marie Nerestant, a 43-year-old in New York City, has been a Wendy fan since high school. Now, she watches The Wendy Williams Show every single day while her kids are at school.

“She speaks her truth,” Nerestant told me about why she is drawn to Williams’s commentary. “She says what everybody wants to say, but is too afraid to say.” This, she theorizes, is why so many people are put off by Williams.

“She has her flaws, and she’s not afraid to say it. She has Graves’ disease. She has lymphedema. She went through a terrible divorce. She’s said everything. What else does she have to prove to anybody?”

Wendy hasn’t only spoken her own truth, though — and a fair share of celebrities have taken issue with Williams over the course of her career. In the ’90s, she had a habit of “outing” various rappers and pop stars, making claims that Sean Combs, Whitney Houston, and others were gay. These accusations were not taken lightly. Houston’s friend Robyn Crawford admitted that the pair planned to confront Williams over the gossip. Williams has also implied that Combs sent a girl group from his record label to assault her and intimated that he got her fired from Hot 97. Tupac even threw a diss at her in his music, after she made claims about his time in prison.

Despite the drama, Williams’s brashness attracted television execs, and in 2008 she was asked to do a trial run of her own syndicated talk show. It was a sweeping success. Immediately the show resonated, in particular with women between the ages of 18 and 54. Fox and BET jumped on the chance to broadcast the program, and the rest is history.

Her appeal to many Black women and gay men was crucial to her success, even though it is arguable that they should be most offended by her. And that is the strange magic of Wendy Williams.

Aside from her talk show, Williams has done standup, acted in movies, written books (fiction and nonfiction), and appeared in a Broadway production of Chicago. Just this past January, she simultaneously released a biopic and a documentary through Lifetime. In the fall of 2020, she was revealed as a performer on The Masked Singer, costumed as a big mouth, which is, well, pretty on the nose.

Williams’s daytime gig, however, was more than enough job for most. Her typically tireless schedule meant that everyone with cable has likely come across her at some point or another. Stay-at-home mothers, children home sick, patients in doctors’ waiting rooms, and the like have all crossed paths with Wendy. Her celebrity gossip segment, aptly titled “Hot Topics,” dissected the latest entertainment news and might have been the purest expression of the Wendy Williams persona. She talked, and the audience listened.

Williams’s fans love her, but they don’t always agree with her

The intimacy of The Wendy Williams Show was its main strength; Williams lounged in her purple armchair not just before her audience, but as if they were sitting at the same table together. When she gossiped, notoriously unscripted, it felt like chatting with a friend. She called her fans her “co-hosts.”

While a host like Ellen DeGeneres speaks to celebrities the way a friend would, Williams spoke to and about them as if she were not also a celebrity. She had no issue prying or having guests on the show that she had previously gossiped about. She separated herself from the celebrity tribe and put herself at the level of the viewer, ignoring the tension that might exist between her role and her own fame.

The format of The Wendy Williams Show never changed much over time. Neither did its host, who remained often brutal toward celebrities. According to her fans, this is part of the appeal — but also, not always their favorite thing.

“I prefer when she keeps it light,” says Tracy Turner, a 54-year-old fan who watched Wendy a few times a week. For eight years, Turner had been tuning in to see what Williams has to say, whether it’s for her recurring celebrity lookalike segment or giving advice to audience members. What Turner is less interested in is when the commentary turns a little nasty, as in Williams’s unsolicited “advice” on the rocky relationship of Love & Hip-Hop stars Safaree Samuels and Erica Mena.

It seemed like a randomly fired shot, but in Turner’s opinion, there are some people who Williams just does not like, and it affected her coverage of them. “She used to come for the Kardashians, but then she met them, and then she changed the narrative,” Turner said. While Williams’s opinions could flip-flop — much to the annoyance of some of her fans — they also reflected a very human impulse. Her feelings are allowed to change, regardless of how forcibly she expressed them, even for, as Turner points out, sometimes indiscernible reasons. These shifts made her that much more unpredictable, which is compelling to those who have watched the nature of her fame change over time. When your audience doesn’t take you 100 percent seriously, it makes you much harder to cancel.

What follows is a brief synopsis of Wendy Williams’s most-cancellable hits: There was her explosive conversation with Whitney Houston in her radio days, where she asked Houston how her drug use affected her family (Williams has detailed her own issues with cocaine). Houston hung up on her. On the radio in 2006, Williams leaked that Method Man’s wife had cancer before some of the couple’s own family members even knew. She’s had to apologize for claiming that gay men “should leave skirts and heels to women.” When Terry Crews spoke out about being sexually assaulted, she said he was “not brave.”

In 2018, she complained about the Me Too movement and defended R. Kelly, who had long been accused of and was convicted of sexual abuse in 2021. She later changed her mind, calling him “sick” and condemning his actions. She misgendered a trans athlete and made ill-informed, transphobic jokes.

In July 2021, Williams implied that the marriage of actress and vegan influencer Tabitha Brown, who recently was able to help her husband financially so he could retire from the LAPD, was doomed to fail, and reminded Williams of her own situation with her ex-husband Kevin Hunter.

“That was out of anger. I don’t think she meant what she said,” Nerestant said. Perhaps Williams’s comments came from a place of projection due to her own romantic pains, Nerestant suggested, but said Williams was out of pocket nonetheless. “I didn’t agree with what she said. She was reaching a little bit, but she’s hurt and she’s still hurting. It’s just a process that she has to deal with.”

Over the years, Williams repeatedly mocked Britney Spears, but in a twist that was so out of left field it was comedic, she declared “death to them all!” in reference to Spears’s conservators. The clip has since been scrubbed from her YouTube channel but lives on in TikTok audios.

Williams’s most recent and arguably worst offense was a takedown of 19-year-old TikTok user Matima Miller, known to fans as Swavy. Williams delivered the news of Miller’s murder by comparing her follower count to his and proclaiming that she had “no idea who this person is, and neither does one person in this building.” It was a stomach-turning, senseless blow to his family, who are not famous by any means. The list of controversies goes on and on.

Despite Williams’s often crude commentary, advertisers never seemed dissuaded (Chevrolet once dropped her for complaining about historically Black colleges and universities, but that’s about it), and viewers tuned in throughout her run. She was simply a natural at being on television. She glided from segment to segment as if she was just catching up with her viewers — did you hear so-and-so did this? What do you all think about this, that, and the other that what’s-his-name was caught doing last week?

Even if fans didn’t always approve of her approach, they wholly believed in her right to have a platform, regardless of who it bothered. They may be frustrated by her, but they also feel a kinship, even a kind of ownership, over her.

“She just wouldn’t be who she was today without stepping on some people’s toes and hurting some people’s feelings,” Nerestant said.

The internet loves Wendy Williams … kind of

Wendy Williams, the person, isn’t very online. On Instagram, she merely posts recaps of her show, blurry photos of her meals (her commenters don’t hesitate to tell her when the food looks gross), and the occasional selfie. The account itself isn’t strictly business or personal, but it mostly operates as a promotional account for the show itself.

Even if Wendy Williams isn’t really on the internet, in some ways she embodies its attitudes. Conversations about celebrities are always rude and outlandish online, with or without Wendy on the air. It is so easy to dogpile on Williams — a person who has said some awful things and has the nerve not to cower afterward, even though she is in the spotlight herself. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine back in 2019, Williams was asked why people are interested in celebrity gossip. Her response was simple: “Celebrity lives are something that people can live vicariously through,” she said. “It takes people’s minds off their own troubles. Everybody has troubles.”

Williams got paid to be judgmental, which is what a lot of people spend all day doing for free. Online, we’re all talk show hosts who can fire off a hot take tweet, go on a live rant, or create a slideshow of opinions theorizing on a celebrity romance. In fact, many online comment sections, threads, and forums use Williams as a tool — between user clapbacks and questions, her image dances, stares, and grimaces in GIF form through it all. Her relevance continues because Williams’s image has arguably become bigger and more significant than her actual show — maybe even bigger than Williams herself.

As one TikTok user put it, she comes off as “a caricature of a woman.” Her baritone “How you doin’?” catchphrase is instantly recognizable. There’s the unfortunate clip of her fainting on-air while dressed as the Statue of Liberty for a Halloween episode. There’s an endless arsenal of pouty, shocked-looking photos of her, and internet users gravitate toward them as reaction GIFs and pics. There are countless edits of her body, warped to make her appear bug-eyed like an alien or contorted to make her torso as thin as a rail. Her being is primed for virality because there are so few famous people who are as theatrical or as unnerving.

Her television audience was a loyal bunch, but her internet audience is much less kind. They see her as sort of a joke of a figure. Her memeification both proves and reinforces her popularity, but her meme status is complicated — there is real adoration and endearment there, but it’s also mixed in with casual, unfamiliar “fanship” which sees her as less of a three-dimensional person and more of, for lack of a better term, a human emoji.

On a sociological level, it’s fascinating and revealing, but it’s also somewhat dangerous when one considers the social implications of making a Black woman so separate from personhood. As Beatrice Forman wrote for Vox, the online adoption of memes and slang from Black people is “committed so casually and frequently that it feels like the default mode of shitposting.”

It’s no fault of her own, but Williams’s image has often been used as an instrument in that appropriation as the internet forges a world built in the likeness of Blackness. Her prevalence on Black and gay Twitter has parlayed her into wider consciousness, as such things go. In the public imagination, she is not a person but an idea. She is camp. She is, as she once said of Lil’ Kim, “an icon, a legend, and she is the moment.”

That all came to a somewhat inauspicious end. Williams had only taken a few brief hiatuses before — due to Covid-19 production stops, to deal with health issues from her Graves’ disease and lymphedema, and to mourn the death of her mother.

That’s why it was so unusual when the new season of Wendy was postponed.

“I hope it helps to put things in perspective,” Turner said of Williams’s health issues, prior to the show’s official cancellation. “But there is a place for what she does. She is loved by pop culture.”

Still, it seemed as though nothing could stop The Wendy Williams Show until she decided to end it. Now that it’s over, it’s hard to completely hate the player. We can moralize and debate about whether her work served our society, but as with so much of television, it just served to entertain — and Wendy did the job with more flair than most would dare to muster.

In the months leading up to the announcement of the show’s ending, there was much concern about what exactly was going on with Williams. Despite her illness, she was seen by the paparazzi vaping in a car in New York City in September 2021, and tabloid rumors circulated that she may have fallen out of sobriety. In 2019, after discovering that her ex-husband was having a child with his girlfriend, she checked into a sober living home to prevent herself from relapsing. Later, she was admitted to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. Her brother stated that the anniversary of their mother’s death may have made the time of year particularly difficult for her. When Where Is Wendy Williams? premieres on Lifetime in February 2024, fans may gain new insight into the struggles she faced toward the end of her TV tenure. Until then, though, we can only speculate from our purple armchairs at home.

Update, February 22, 2024: This story was originally published on October 18, 2021, and has been updated with news of Lifetime’s upcoming documentary, Where Is Wendy Williams?, and Williams’s recent diagnosis.

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