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The chaotic, irreplaceable Wendy Williams

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 57-year-old host has been rattling off her opinions into millions of American living rooms since 2008. The Wendy Williams Show kicks off its 13th season this month. After several delays due to medical complications from Williams’s ongoing thyroid condition and a Covid-19 infection, guest hosts and panelists will occupy Williams’s seat for the foreseeable future.

Season 13 was scheduled to begin on September 20, then was suddenly pushed back to October 4. In an Instagram statement, it was announced that Williams had tested positive for a “breakthrough case” of Covid-19. This came as a surprise to many of her fans, since she had previously been outspoken about not wanting to get vaccinated. (Even the controversial Dr. Oz tried to convince her to get the shot.) Then, the premiere got pushed back again to October 18, but by October 12, her team released another statement announcing that Williams would not be returning, as she remains under daily medical supervision. The Wendy Williams Show did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

However necessary, the guest hosts are an attempt to replace the irreplaceable — Williams’s ranking as a top daytime host has long been solid, competing only with the soon-to-depart Ellen DeGeneres and the women of The View. The guests who will take over her airtime are merely a stopgap, and are being met with mixed feelings in Williams’s Instagram comments, where her loyal fans have been vocal throughout her latest bout of health issues.

For over a decade between smirking laughter and sips from her mug, Williams has calmly eviscerated celebrity goings-on, razing their mishaps to the ground to lay at the feet of her live studio audience. She has 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 has irritated her critics for so long; of late, the infractions have 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 keeps 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.

Who is this woman anyway, and who let her onstage?

“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 is 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. Last fall, 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, is more than enough job for most. Her typically tireless schedule means 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 all cross paths with Wendy. Her celebrity gossip segment, aptly titled “Hot Topics,” dissects the latest entertainment news and might be the purest expression of the Wendy Williams persona. She talks, and the audience listens.

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

The intimacy of The Wendy Williams Show is its main strength; Williams lounges in her purple armchair not just before her audience, but as if they’re sitting at the same table together. When she gossips, notoriously unscripted, it feels like chatting with a friend. She calls her fans her “co-hosts.”

While a host like Ellen DeGeneres speaks to celebrities the way a friend would, Williams speaks to and about them as if she is not also a celebrity. She has no issue prying or having guests on the show that she has previously gossiped about. She separates herself from the celebrity tribe and puts 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 has not changed much over time. Neither has its host, who remains 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 watches Wendy a few times a week. For the past eight years, Turner has 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 affects 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 can flip-flop — much to the annoyance of some of her fans — they also reflect a very human impulse. Her feelings are allowed to change, regardless of how forcibly she expresses them, even for, as Turner points out, sometimes indiscernible reasons. These shifts make 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-cancelable 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 just last month convicted of sexual abuse. She later changed her mind, calling him “sick” and condemning his actions. She has misgendered a trans athlete and made ill-informed, transphobic jokes.

In July, 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.

She separates herself from the celebrity tribe and puts herself at the level of the viewer, ignoring the tension that might exist between her role and her own fame

“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 has repeatedly mocked Britney Spears, but in a twist that was so out of left field it was comedic, she recently 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 don’t seem dissuaded (Chevrolet once dropped her for complaining about historically Black colleges and universities, but that’s about it), and viewers still tune in. She is simply a natural at being on television. She glides from segment to segment as if she is 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 don’t always approve of her approach, they wholly believe in her right to have a platform, regardless of who it bothers. 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 gets 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.

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

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 is 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 Bea Forman wrote for The Goods, 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.”

 David Livingston/Getty Images Wendy Williams with her recently awarded star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The fact of the matter is that being disrespectful about a dead teen isn’t enough to take Wendy off the air. For 13 years, Williams has clocked into her show daily, guns ablazing. The public might be growing more vocal in its criticisms, but even amid health concerns, she has kept her seat onstage.

Still, her onscreen future now feels in flux. Williams has 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 current health issues. “But there is a place for what she does. She is loved by pop culture.”

Despite her illness, she was seen by the paparazzi vaping in a car in New York City in September, and tabloid rumors are circulating 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. Additionally, she was recently admitted to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. Her brother has stated that this time may be particularly difficult for her, due to the anniversary of their mother’s death approaching as well.

It’s difficult to parse, and perhaps unfair to speculate, whether Williams is on her way off the air after a rough beginning to her latest season. It almost seems like nothing will stop The Wendy Williams Show until she decides to end it. Until then, it’s hard to completely hate the player. As long as there’s a market for casual chaos, Williams will have a niche to fill. We can moralize and debate about whether her work serves our society, but as with so much of television, it just serves to entertain — and Wendy does the job with more flair than most would dare to muster.

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