Wendy Williams was unlike anyone else on TV. On daytime, you’re supposed to be authentic, but you’re also taught to be polished, read the teleprompter and stay on script.
Williams did none of those things. In fact, the talk show host did the exact opposite of what you’d expect a television executive to advise a host to do in 2008, the year her show was being tested for a national run. And that’s why she she stayed relevant for 13 seasons.
What Williams brought to the table could never be drafted in casting. Her messy, burping, farting, teeth-picking, say-it-how-it-is, unfiltered delivery is what brought viewers in and made them unable to turn away. In TV, everyone wants to be liked. Networks want good ratings and to satisfy advertisers. Williams? She never even considered that. She was unapologetically herself: she said what everyone watching at home was thinking, but is too scared to say. That’s the reason why her viewers loved her.
Her brand was harsh, brash and real. And sometimes, she absolutely crossed the line. But she had built such trust with her audience, they always forgave her, even when she offended them.
How do I know? Well, I was lucky enough to be a friend to “The Wendy Williams Show” throughout the years. As one of Williams’ frequent guests, I would come onto the show for her “Inside Scoop” segment to break down entertainment stories. I even stepped in as a guest host a few times when Williams was on leave.
Part of my role as Variety‘s chief correspondent is appearing on-air to represent our brand when discussing industry news of the day. As an expert who appears on the top morning shows and most-watched cable newscasts, no reaction is greater than from “The Wendy Williams Show.” I’ve been stopped in airports and in Times Square with viewers shouting, “Omg, you’re on Wendy!” They’re not talking to me. They’re talking to one of “Wendy’s friends.” They’re excited to meet someone from her orbit because they love her that much. And I, like anyone else who has ever tuned into “The Wendy Williams Show,” was one of them – every time I was welcomed onto her show, I couldn’t believe I had the opportunity to sit next to the Wendy Williams and share space with such a groundbreaking force on TV.
Every time I walked into the “Wendy Williams” studio at 6 a.m. in January in my giant puffy coat, her Wendy Watchers were lined up around the block in freezing New York City temperatures. And when you get inside? It’s a dance party in that audience, complete with a disco ball hanging amid the studio lighting, with music so loud that you can hear and feel the vibrations on a completely separate floor in the hair and makeup room.
It’s really no wonder why Cynthia Nixon, when running for governor of New York in 2018, picked Williams as her first national TV interview to kick off her campaign. She knew the reach of Williams and the demo she attracted. Plus, Williams has the ability to get out of her guests what most other hosts do not: tidbits and secrets that aren’t often shared during televised sit-downs, but humanize celebrities.
Even with all of her success in both radio and television, Williams never fully could believe she had her own studio with her own name on it.
As a journalist and a guest on her show, I was in a unique and complex position where sometimes I would interview her as a subject in Variety, and other days, would be gossiping about “The Real Housewives” in front of a few million viewers. One time, I was interviewing Williams for a profile celebrating her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The interview was conducted in her empty studio, and as we sat together in the audience chairs, she looked at her set and starting crying. “I can’t believe that this girl from Jersey has her face on the building,” she told me. Williams was also emotional at the prospect of being featured in Variety. “They finally want me,” she said. “They’ve had everyone else, but they want me.”
She’s right. Williams has never — and still has not — gotten the respect she deserves. Maybe it’s because she talks about celebrity gossip, instead of global disasters. Maybe it’s because she has strong opinions and could be nasty to the people she spoke about. Perhaps it’s because she’s a woman of color who was ahead of her time, not following the rules and sharing stories about her tough life on television. But Williams is part of TV history, and deserves her place up with other daytime legends, even if she was never in the same league as an Oprah or a Rosie O’Donnell.
Most TV hosts want to keep their celebrity guests happy so they return to the show, but Williams was not in this business to make friends. In fact, one time, she told me that she doesn’t need any celebrity guests on her show — if they get pissed off, so what? She knows that her viewers like to watch her more than them, anyway. That’s why her signature “Hot Topics” segment would go on for more than 20 minutes without any interruptions and Williams became the only daytime talk show host to deliver such a long opening block by herself, on live, national television every single day.
One day, I appeared on the show the day after Yom Kippur. Williams knew because her team had asked for me to come on the day before, but I wasn’t available since I was observing the Jewish holiday. The next day, when I went on the show, Williams’ opening line was, “Wags, I know you were ‘up in there’ all day yesterday atoning!” Another time, during the pandemic, I was part of a virtual segment that ended up going viral. If you’re a fan of the show, or on TikTok, you’ve probably seen it. I came on to discuss my reporting on Britney Spears’ conservatorship case. Williams was not always pro #FreeBritney on her show, but when I relayed a few moments from inside the courtroom and spoke about about the pop star’s testimony, Williams shouted, in reference to Spears’ family, “Death to them all!” As a journalist, I had to keep my cool, as her audience went wild — something that is not so easy in the midst of all the “Wendy-isms.”
Part of Williams’ departure that feels so unsettling is the nature of her exit. Over the past few years, Williams was candid with her audience about her personal battles. She was living in a sober house, she went through unimaginable heartache with a public divorce — and yet, she still showed up on live TV every day. Until she didn’t. Battling health issues for the past few years, Williams would take breaks from her show, but she would always come back. Even after she fainted during a segment, dressed as the Statue of Liberty during a Halloween episode, she carried on and finished the episode.. This past season ultimately ended up being the final, after Williams was replaced by rotating guests hosts and panels (disclaimer: myself included), who subbed in for a full year. Eventually, Debmar-Mercury had to make the decision to end the show, but in a recent interview, their co-presidents Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein told me they’d love to get back in business with her when the time is right.
Anytime a daytime talk show ends, it feels like the loss of a family member who you’ve welcomed into your living room every day — and Williams certainly was the wackiest of family members. I, for one, am rooting for Williams, her good health and whatever she does next.