Inside Chelsea Studios on West 26th Street in Manhattan, 175 ladies are leaping out of their seats, “wooooo!”-ing and shrieking and shaking their hips to the beat of a bass-heavy Whitney Houston song. “Before we go live, let me ask ya’ll one thing,” shouts the hypeman, a Herculean figure with dreadlocks who goes by the name Marco Glorious. “ARE YOU READY FOR A TWERRRRRK OFF?!” The women grow even louder, creating an earthquake of estrogen that would undoubtedly register on the Richter scale. Six of the rowdiest ones are plucked from their seats and invited to participate in a salacious dance contest that, under normal circumstances, would feel wildly inappropriate for 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. But at The Wendy Williams Show—hosted by the larger-than-life radio-DJ-turned-TV-personality—“normal” is a relative term.
At 10 on the dot, Williams herself appears. Proportionately speaking, she is something of a human Barbie: 5-feet-11-inches tall, with an ample, cosmetically enhanced chest and a pair of airbrushed twigs for legs. She takes a seat and dives head first into Hot Topics, the series’ signature segment, in which Williams offers unsolicited—and unfiltered—opinions on the latest celebrity gossip, from Miley Cyrus’ relationship status to Bill Cosby’s spitfire lawyer. Her fans—she calls them “Wendy Watchers”—live for it. They may not always agree with her (the audience lets out a collective “boo” when Williams criticizes her guest, Alyssa Milano, for Instagramming a photo of herself breast-feeding), but they continue to show up, and tune in, in droves. With an average of 2.4 million daily viewers, Williams now regularly alternates with Ellen for the title of number one daytime talk show.
It’s a long way to come for a woman who, until The Wendy Williams Show’s 2008 premiere, was primarily known as a smack-talking radio DJ with a personality that producers feared might not appeal to those beyond urban markets. But the opposite happened—white women in middle America fell in love with Williams too. Her ratings have climbed steadily each season, and Fox is betting that the upward trend will continue. The network recently renewed her show through 2020, which will bring Williams into her 11th season on daytime television. It’s especially impressive given the number of programs that have failed lately—Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper and Ricki Lake, among them—despite having bigger budgets and more star power.
Just a few minutes have passed since the live show aired, and already an anti-Wendy tirade has commenced on Twitter, bashing the host for her controversial stance on public breast-feeding. “Do I get tired of [the backlash]? No. I’ve got a big mouth and I know I have strong opinions,” she says, sitting cross-legged on the couch in her dressing room. “If I’m throwing stones, it’s not shocking if a stone gets thrown back at me. So, I just accept it. What are you entertaining for if you’re not entertaining all the time? You know what I mean?”
While Williams isn’t the first to prove that stirring the pot keeps people hooked, her delivery is decidedly different from her controversial contemporaries. The show feels like a gratifying gossip session, rather than a produced act for ratings—an argument that certainly couldn’t be made for Bill O’Reilly, or Glenn Beck, or even Howard Stern. But perhaps what most appeals to fans is that Wendy herself seems to have more in common with the women in her audience than with the celebrity guests who sit on her couch. She’s relatable, and she’s fun to have around. If Katie Couric is the girlfriend who serves tea sandwiches at a stuffy party, Williams is the one who’d invite you over for pizza and trashy TV.
“We’ve seen so many talk shows where the hosts just echoed public sentiment. Stepping outside of that and saying what you really felt would get people in a lot of trouble,” says David Perler, a daytime talk-show veteran and Williams’ executive producer. “But sometimes in order to be truthful you have to ruffle some feathers.”
Williams has been doing just that for more than three decades. She spent the better part of her career on the radio, bouncing from a station in St. Croix to another in Philly before launching The Wendy Williams Experience on WBLS in New York City. Her “shock jock” interview style and willingness to discuss personal issues—like her drug addiction and fertility struggle—drew a loyal cadre of fans from across the country. Eventually, TV producers approached Williams about fronting her own talk show. She was given a six-week trial run in the summer of 2008 on a handful of Fox-owned stations.
“I was immediately blown away by what I was seeing on screen,” says Perler, who was working on a different program in Los Angeles at the time. “This woman was more real than anything I’d ever experienced with a talk show host.” Behind the scenes, though, the transition from radio to TV wasn’t nearly so effortless. “I wanted to pass out. I was a mess,” says Williams of filming that first show. “I grew up a fat girl in Jersey with low self-esteem. I’m a showgirl, but I wasn’t comfortable with being stared at.” She remembers going home and watching each episode after it aired, agonizing over how she looked.
Now, Williams says, her insecurities are a thing of the past. She lost 50 pounds—but, at 51, she’s also grown up a lot. She still critiques every episode, though instead of focusing on how she looks, Williams studies the lighting and camera angles; why certain jokes worked and why others fell flat. When she finishes watching her own show—the reruns air at 3 p.m.—Williams spends the next six hours in the company of her confreres. “Judge Judy at four. At six o’clock I watch Positively Ernie on Fox 5, and that rolls into TMZ. Nancy Grace at eight. Dr. Drew at nine. I love Fox 5 News at 10, but I’m usually asleep by like 10:15, 10:20,” she says. The bordering-on-obsessive viewing schedule continues when she wakes up. “At nine, I watch the last hour of Good Day New York,” she continues. “After our show is over I watch The View at 11. At noon, ABC News. The Chew at 1 p.m., Dr. Oz at two… I’m a creature of habit. It’s ridiculous.”
Sitting in Williams’ dressing room could be likened to a hallucinogenic trip, though she prefers to call it “a full explosion of mess.” The scent of a Jolly Rancher–flavored candle is wafting through the air, and there are hot-pink fur pillows on a cheetah-printed couch, albeit neatly arranged. Ninety percent of the room’s contents—furnishings, shoes, bathrobes—are covered in some combination of crystals and sequins. (“If it’s not bling, it’s not right,” she says.) Among the other oddities that decorate the space: a three-foot-long bedazzled swordfish mounted above the couch; an oil painting of Williams as Wonder Woman; a small statue of Barack Obama dressed as a showgirl; a pair of size-12 stilettos immortalized in a transparent box. Everything about the space is gaudy and over the top, much like the host herself, who, at present, is slathering a tub of $550 cream on her face. (She makes it known that the company sent her a case of them.)
Despite her predilection for sequined Chanel bathrobes, Williams insists that her life isn’t as fancy as one might imagine. She lives in a New Jersey suburb with her husband and 15-year-old son, shops at Macy’s and dines at Legal Seafood; she would rather go to the grocery store (which she does multiple times a week, often using the bedazzled shopping cart she stores at her studio) than a red carpet event. She is also a technological dinosaur—Williams says she doesn’t “do” e-mail. “Never sent or received one,” she announces, wearing her achievement like a badge of honor. “I tell [my son] Kevin’s teachers, ‘Here’s my telephone number. If he acts up, call me. I don’t care if it’s midnight. Because I don’t do e-mail.’ ”
It should come as no surprise that she doesn’t do social media either. Her Twitter and Facebook pages, which have a collective 4 million-plus vocal followers, are managed by a staffer. But she pays attention to them, since they serve as a forum for debate about the watercooler topics Williams discusses on the show and clue her in to where her audience stands: Should celebrity X dump celebrity Y? Is it time for Donald Trump’s kids to rein him in? Did Kanye West go too far on Twitter? Williams has no interest in hobnobbing with Hollywood types, so she can afford to be honest. “I feel like there’s a lot of pressure that celebrities put on themselves to fraternize with one another,” she says. “It’s like, you wouldn’t have been friends with fat Wendy in 10th grade, so why am I going to be hanging out with you now?”
Certainly she’d rather be watching Judge Judy—or penning another New York Times best seller. (She’s already written seven.) She’s also busy pursuing her next career endeavor—professorship at Northeastern University, her alma mater. (“Looking back, I realized that these people who were trying to teach me about radio had never even been on a microphone,” she explains.) If that idea comes to fruition, Williams might start by letting her students in on the most important lesson she’s learned over the course of her decades-long career in media: “If they’re not talking about you, you might as well be dead.”
Static dress, $465, N/NICHOLAS, bloomingdales.com. Jewelry, Williams’ own.
Styling: Paul Frederick. Hair: Antwon Jackson. Makeup: Jai Williams. Location: Milk Studios.