The Rise And Rise Of Wendy Williams
Get to know New Jersey’s homegrown superstar. For real this time.
In May 2005, I was riding high. I was the editor in chief of a national magazine that was getting some long overdue buzz because of our eye-popping financial and editorial turnaround. As part of this transformation, I was booked on CNN’s sister network, HLN, for a live segment with Showbiz Tonight co-host (and my old friend) A.J. Hammer, to discuss the historic cover the magazine was about to unveil that featured nine of the biggest divas in the Latin world, including Gloria Estefan, Sonia Braga and Daisy Fuentes, who was joining us from Hollywood via satellite.
This interview was a big deal for the magazine and a big deal for me because this “event” cover was my idea, and its successful execution would determine the magazine’s creative trajectory going forward. So, yeah, I was a little nervous as I walked into the green room in the CNN building and looked over my talking points one last time. As I chatted up the magazine’s incredible public relations director and one of my closest friends at the office, Lauren Kuschner Grossman, trying to push past the nerves, I looked up and saw this presence, this oak tree-tall woman who even without saying anything, shut everyone up just by entering the room.
“Who is that?” I whispered to Lauren. “You’re kidding, right? That’s Wendy Williams, the radio host,” she said. I pulled closer to Lauren worried about being heard, and said, “I. Am. Scared. Of. Her.” Lauren, bursting out laughing and surely blowing my cover, whispered back, “You should be—she’s incredible.” And boy, was she ever.
Every few seconds, I couldn’t help stealing glances at Williams as the hair and makeup crew fussed over her. She was quite a sight: Shoulders back, head straight, expressionless face—oh, yeah, she was ready. Needless to say, Williams exploded on camera being at once funny and current and as quick with a comeback as I had ever witnessed up close. When she was done, I scurried back to Lauren and said, “Why this woman doesn’t have a TV show is beyond me—I can’t take my eyes off her. And I have to go on national television after that? Damn.”
Happily, my segment went off without a hitch (maybe watching Williams inspired me a little), and as Showbiz Tonight went to commercial break, I told Daisy Fuentes that we had preceded Williams, someone I had never heard of and was very impressed by. Daisy, whom I’ve known for a quarter century, scolded me in front of everybody. “Richard, how don’t you know who Wendy Williams is? C’mon! She’s a freakin’ force of nature. She’s a legend. And the best part is she’s a Jersey girl like me. I love Wendy Williams.” As Daisy sang her praises, I wondered if this telegenic superpower had inadvertently stolen my magazine’s big moment. Maybe not entirely, but Wendy Williams definitely made her presence known. I, for one, was impressed.
A few months ago when my team and I started to brainstorm possible cover subjects for HudsonMOD’s holiday issue, let’s just say Wendy Williams wasn’t top of mind for this luxury magazine. Is Williams fierce, popular and over the top? Absolutely. Is she understated, reserved, elegant? Hmmm. That was the question I wrestled with—until I didn’t. From the moment we decided to go forward with Williams as our cover subject, every single aspect of what can be a difficult process—the publicist, the access, the photo shoot, the interview—was easy as pie. In fact, I had a blast immersing myself in Wendy Williams’ world. How could you not? The lady is F-U-N.
Wendy Joan Williams was born in Asbury Park, NJ, in 1964 as the middle child to lifelong teachers, Thomas and Shirley Williams. Wendy,her older sister, Wanda, and younger brother, Thomas, Jr., all graduated from Ocean Township High School as Williams says “one of four black kids in the entire school.” After earning a bachelor’s degree in communications from Northeastern University in Boston, Williams landed a radio DJ job in St. Croix and after less than a year found her way back to the mainland for a gig in Washington, D.C. Williams was well on her way.With a radio career that spans more than 23 years—including her iconic turn as host of The Wendy Williams Experience, her top-rated, daily radio program that aired on WBLS in New York City and was syndicated nationally to an audience that topped 12 million—Williams is nothing short of that medium’s living legend and was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2009, a rarity for a woman.
With a career that long and with a personality that bold, the blunt-speaking self-proclaimed “Queen of All Media” has had her share of controversies, most notably her run-in with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, whom she claimed “single-handedly tried to ruin me” after a dispute with a former colleague. But it’s her patented, no-nonsense approach to popular culture—and particularly celebrities’ misdeeds—that make Williams truly memorable. And it’s Williams’ directness with her listeners that Fox executives believed might just translate to millions of television viewers. And they were right.In the summer of 2008, The Wendy Williams Show began a 13-week test run in New York City and several other large media markets, and the viewers loved it. Now in its fourth season, the show airs in more than 50 countries, late nights on BET and has been renewed on Fox through 2014.
After 48 hours of all Wendy, all the time—backstage, in the studio audience, at the cover shoot, at the interview—I am convinced that Wendy Williams is unequivocally, undeniably, unapologetically Wendy Williams. Has there ever been a media personality more themselves than Wendy Williams? I can’t think of one. The irony here borders on cliché: Behind the elaborate wigs, the mile-long eyelashes and that slap-your-mama Jessica Rabbit-like body, there lies a down-to-earth wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend who would rather be in Northern New Jersey curled up at home watching a movie with her two Kevin Hunters—her husband of 14 years and her 12-year-old son—than hitting the club with TMZ-magnet fame-seeking never-will-bes. You see, Wendy Williams’ fabulous drag is nothing but a big put on, a larger than life, spectacular game that suits her personality perfectly. But don’t confuse “Wendy Williams” in those sparkly six-inch Christian Louboutins with her “Wendy Hunter” soccer mom reality. TV Wendy is no match for Jersey Wendy who loves cooking dinner for the family. Not even close.
The idea behind the HudsonMOD holiday cover was to showcase Williams in something a little unexpected, a little more nuanced, quiet, luxe than her sexy diva fabulousness the superstar is usually serving up. We were thinking a little more Audrey Hepburn and a little less RuPaul, and she was game. The results speak for themselves. Wow.
The moment she strolled into the gorgeous Gansevoort Park Hotel suite—the same place Kim, Kourtney and Khloé take over New York from—Williams was every bit a rock star. Gracious, honest and humble, I can count on one hand the number of celebrities I’ve encountered—and I’ve encountered them all—who have been as professional and devoid of drama as Williams. Again, not at all what one would expect.
Let me be crystal clear: Wendy Williams is an articulate, passionate, hilarious, informed, sexy, truthful avalanche of realness that deserves all of the fame and impressive accolades she’s receiving. This—right now—is her moment in the zeitgeist and the fact that this best-selling author, radio icon and television goddess can pull off being “Wendy Williams” on a daily basis—the Hot Topics poppin’, Oprah lovin’, audience huggin’ Wendy Williams—is a credit to her discipline and her ambition.
So for those among you who raised an eyebrow or two when you saw that Williams was the cover choice for our year-end issue, I’d like you to take a few minutes and get to know a little more about this proud Jersey favorite daughter. You’ll soon discover—as I did—that after all this time, Wendy Williams is still that little girl from Ocean Township who felt different than everyone else. But like any great epic story, this one also has a happy ending, for that awkward girl pushed through her fear and ended up on top of the world.
I love fairy tale endings. And I love me some Wendy Williams. How could I not? She’s the fairest of them all.
Right now, is this your moment?
I feel like I have had a lot of great moments. Even with the hiccups they don’t keep me down for very long. I very much believe that tomorrow’s a new day. I’m never down for too long.
Tell me what you think the biggest misconception is about you?
I think it’s that I’m a gossip in real life. “Hot Topics” is a very popular segment of my show, so people assume I’m always gossiping. I do love a good story, but after the show is over I am done with that.
The thing I love about you is that you not only serve up the gossip, but you have a point of view about it. Has a celebrity ever confronted you about something you said?
I’m a 20-foot-tall woman with a very strong presence so no one approaches me! [Laughs] But that’s why I say, “How you doin’?” because it breaks up the room. My confidence intimidates a lot of people. That’s why I lead with my smile. I do know how to bark and bite, but I use my powers for good, not evil.
So you grew up in Ocean Township. What was that like?
I grew up with a pretty charmed lifestyle. Both of my parents were very educated. They’ve been married for 54 years and are still a very cute couple. I’m one of three children; I have an older sister and a younger brother. I’ve always been a spitfire though. Growing up in Ocean Township I was one of only four black kids in my school. I felt different because I was different. Maybe I was acting a little bit to fit in more.
Did you go on many dates?
I have always been very attractive, but just not in the town I lived in. [Laughs] Back then dating someone of a different race wasn’t an option.
Did you rebel as a child?
Are you kidding? I didn’t rebel because my parents would have beaten my butt. I’ve always had the utmost respect for my parents.
Let’s talk a little bit about your husband, Kevin.
We’ve been married for 14 years and together a total of 18.
Do you remember the first thing he ever said to you?
[Laughs] I sure do! He said, “Give me a call—we can get our Pathfinders dirty sometime.”
How did you meet?
I never had a problem getting men after high school. Kevin actually had his friend come over to me. We were both at an event that I was hosting. His friend came over to me and I peeked through the crowd and thought he was cute. A few days later I found his number in my bag and told him that after my show “if you’re downstairs you’re there, if you’re not, OK.” He was there. He smelled so good and looked like the real Brooklyn boy that he is. We went to Houlihan’s and drank Heineken out of the bottle. I’m a simple girl in a complicated world. He totally got that about me and we’ve been together ever since.
Now it’s time to tell me something about the other Kevin in your life.
My son Kevin is 12 and he’s the perfect child. I’ve been quite public about having three miscarriages later in my pregnancies—that changes everything forever. That’s why Kevin is my miracle child and I’m so proud of him. He goes to public school in our town. Kevin is already 5-foot-8 and all the girls love him. He’s finally in love with and understanding school. I thank him for taking responsibility for his schoolwork. I can’t help him with all of this new stuff—all I can do is take him to school every day.
Is Kevin aware of who his mom is?
[Laughs] Oh, he’s totally aware of who his mom is! And the girls in school know who his mom is, too! He’s just so busy with school and sports now, that he only bothers me when he wants tickets or something. And, besides, this is the year of bar mitzvahs so he’s having a “black mitzvah!” He came up with it. It will actually be a fancier 13th birthday. He wants the fancy invitations that he’s been receiving in the mail and, of course, the party bus. And we’ll give it to him. He deserves it.
Does your son want to be in the entertainment industry?
He isn’t interested at all in the entertainment industry. He’s way too close to it. He does like the quick money of it, though. [Laughs]
Luxury to me is being comfortable with myself. My safe place is my home and always has been. It’s my sanctuary. We don’t have a lot of company over at the house. It’s a real luxury to have my alone time. I love it. Another luxury is being able to buy whatever I want at the Macy’s One-day sale. I’m able to go into certain stores and buy anything I want without looking at the price tag. I’ve worked so hard for so long that for a Jersey girl like me that just doesn’t happen.
What’s next for you, Wendy?
Maybe a line of home accessories. You know, I’m really a nester. I consider myself an interior designer and I’m very tasteful though—I don’t have claw foot couches, I’m tasteful. [Laughs] I also want a wig line, but that’s an obvious path for me.
So, working with your husband…
We’re friends, business partners and lovers. He’s not just my manager, but also an executive producer on the show. After I walk off the set of the show I quarterback to him. I take off my show drag and become Mrs. Wendy Hunter. Believe me, Richard, I am a good little woman at home.
Tell me who you would love to have on your talk show?
Eddie Murphy. There’s just something about Eddie Murphy I’m drawn to. Also, Heather Locklear. She’s my close friend in my head. She was pregnant at the same time as one of my miscarriages, so when I see Ava I can’t help but think what could’ve been.
After such a long career with many peaks and valleys, are you an optimist or the other shoe is going to fall person?
I’m very optimistic and I always tell myself I’ll be fine. However, I’m forever hoarding and thinking “what if?”
Are you a radio host doing TV or are you a TV host doing TV?
I always knew I wanted to be in radio and I do prefer to communicate via radio. If I die tomorrow the first line of my obituary will say I’m a radio host. I did it for 23 years and—trust me—I won’t do TV for 23 years. [Laughs] I consider myself a media personality, though. I’ve done radio and TV and I know I’m good at it. I’m a writer and I am good at that, too. Right now, I’m working on my sixth book.
What is the book about?
It’s an advice book called Ask Wendy.
Did you always have “It?” Did you know people were drawn to you?
When I was young I had a way of attracting people. I have always had different ages and races listen to my radio show. That’s a really good thing. So, yes, I guess I have always known I had that.
What did it feel like to be inducted to the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2009? Out of body experience?
It was an incredible honor. My mom and dad attended, my son was old enough to know what was happening. You know, I’m only the second black woman to be inducted—ever. I kept thinking during the ceremony that I got there on my own and not by piggybacking off a man. I am, actually, very proud of that.
You live in New Jersey and work in the city. Tell me what that’s like. Is a move to NYC in your future?
I love the overlap of New York City and New Jersey. We will move to Manhattan when my son graduates high school in precisely seven years. When I was younger New Jersey was safe for me and it remains so. Here’s the thing a lot of people don’t realize about the tri-state area: Just because our politics are liberal, it doesn’t mean racism is over; racism is still very much alive and well. Don’t believe me? Try being me and hail a taxi at night in Manhattan. Not going to happen. But we live in Jersey because with my career in high mode we need a backyard to go home to. I also wanted my son to go to public school. It’s funny, actually. In the grocery store I’m Wendy Hunter, hometown girl. In the grocery store in the town where I live when people see me once it’s a “Hi” and a conversation about the eggs we’re both buying, but by the second time they see me in there, a finger wave will do.
Are there any plans for more acting gigs down the road?
I would like to have a recurring role in a sitcom. Right now though my focus has to be my show. I have an entire staff counting on me—I love that.
What kind of boss are you? For people who don’t know you, I would think they imagine you being a complete “Devil Wears Prada” demanding mega diva.
I’m actually a levelheaded, relaxed boss. One of the hardest things for me to do, however, is letting go of the reins and letting other people handle important responsibilities. But I’m getting better at that, too.
Who were some of your very first early celebrity style icons?
Oh, definitely Bianca Jagger. I was too young to get in to [legendary Manhattan club] Studio 54, but I would flip through the magazines and see Bianca and I loved her style. Joan Collins from Dynasty was also a fantasy style icon. I knew I would never have the opportunity to dress like her in my career though. Look at me now! [Laughs]
Speaking of Studio 54, is that wild child Wendy Williams still in you?
I wear many hats and I am thankful that I can be my own best friend. Girls’ night out is definitely by the wayside for me now. I lived a fruitful life and am happy I survived it. Truly.
What are your thoughts on fellow Jersey girl, Kelly Ripa?
She’s kind of my hero. Can we stop for a second on this one? She’s the quintessential girl. If my life is most like anyone else’s it is most like Kelly Ripa’s from what we see on television and in magazines. When I see her in those commercials in her kitchen, I really believe that’s her life. That amazing career, those cute kids and sexy husband—you know they’re still hot for each other— and such a great personality. She is always sunny. Yes, I’m a Kelly Ripa fan. Oh, you know whom else? In ten years, I want to be just like [New York City iconic talk radio personality] Joan Hamburg. When I get back to doing radio, it will be “lady talk radio” just like my fairy godmother, Joan Hamburg.
Would you ever consider doing Dancing With The Stars again?
Absolutely. It was a lot of work, but totally worth it.
Finish this sentence for me: Wendy Williams is…
Fabulous. Just fabulous. [Laughs]