wendy williams

What Do We Owe Wendy Williams?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: The Wendy Williams Show/Youtube

Wendy Williams has always said that if she’s going to publicly go after others, then the details of her life are fair game. “I would ask you to respect our privacy,” she told TMZ in 2019 when prodded about her ex-husband Kevin Hunter Sr.’s cheating scandal that prompted her relapse and subsequent move into a sober house. “But I don’t respect people’s privacy, that’s why I do the hot topics.” I’ve been entertained by Williams doing just that on television, and before that on the radio, for over half of my life, so naturally, I tuned in to Where Is Wendy Williams?, the Lifetime docuseries produced by Mark Ford and Erica Hanson about the legendary talk-show host and shock jock. Several times over the course of the four-part documentary, which premiered February 24, Williams repeats that ever since she was a 6-year-old growing up in Asbury Park, New Jersey, all she ever wanted was to be on TV. But after spending nearly five hours watching her disturbingly rapid deterioration, it’s hard to imagine this is what she meant.

This docuseries is made possible by Williams’s openness to be publicly discussed. It also uses that permission as an excuse to dismiss her dignity entirely. The day after the doc aired, Williams released a statement requesting “personal space.” With her family’s blessing, Lifetime had set out to expose the potential wrongdoings of the guardianship system in this country, but between the making of the series, the viewing of it, and the clips being circulated as memes, what we got was pure spectacle. What good is it to bear witness to Williams in bed with half-polished-off bottles of vodka surrounded by members of her management team, to her struggling to recognize a photo of herself, to her berating her staff over buying the wrong vape pens? None of that has saved her from the lack of sufficient care she has received in the last two years. But it did make a mockery of Williams, underscoring the long-standing suspicion that we’re willing to feed on anyone’s tragedy as long as it’s entertaining enough.

It would be ungenerous to say that this saga is just karmic retribution for the fact that on The Wendy Williams Show, and in her radio days, empathy was never really part of the conversation as the host picked apart public figures’ lives for entertainment and shock value. Williams made a name for herself in the ’90s and ’00s asking unfiltered, no-nonsense questions to even the most guarded of celebrities, going after A-list divas like Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, and Mariah Carey (“’Cause they be all up in my business like a Wendy interview,” the chanteuse once crooned). Her no-holds-barred approach to the celebrity interview, problematic as it could be, could sometimes be a breath of fresh air on a bloated lineup of daytime TV. To this day, there has not been a decent enough “replacement” for the boldness Williams brought to the table (although Sherri Shepherd has been attempting to fill her shoes since September 2022).

As bold as she could be, Williams could also be quite nasty — she dabbled in some unchecked homophobia here, internalized misogyny there — but her meanness shown in the Lifetime series is frightening to behold. She tears into the documentary producers, her staff, her friends with abandon. When her appointed personal trainer attempts to get her to do some mobility work in the gym, she refuses to take off her boots (“It’s cold,” she snaps) and repeats “No thank you” over and over, not unlike a toddler who has just learned the words, as he tries to demonstrate a mobility exercise involving stepping up and down on a raised pad. Her family and management team can be seen assuring the producers of the documentary that this was just the authentic Wendy they have known for years, and that she’s always been a little bit curt and difficult. “Wendy being pissed off is normal; she doesn’t really mean it,” said her manager Will Selby.

Days before the docuseries aired on Lifetime, it was announced that Williams had been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia and primary progressive aphasia. Someone who made a career, a life really, of talking so much, and talking so much shit, had lost that very vehicle for spilling messy tea. The producers of the docuseries now claim they didn’t know about her diagnosis at the time, otherwise they wouldn’t have filmed her in that state, but they also say they were concerned that if they cut the cameras, she would be endangered, left without food or care. I keep thinking back to a moment in the beginning of the series, which was filmed before her guardianship, when Williams breaks down into tears. Now, Wendy Watchers know she has always been a crier — there are even crying compilation videos of her on YouTube — but this seemed off from the jump. In the same scene, she randomly asks if she can pull her shirt down and reveal her breasts for the camera. For the rest of the documentary, her ability to keep a coherent conversation continues to decline.

This is not the first time Lifetime has documented Williams’s life for TV. In 2019, the network began filming Wendy Williams: What a Mess, a docuseries about Williams that was released in 2021, along with a Lifetime original movie based on Williams’s ascent to fame. The documentary followed the fallout of her separation and her various health issues, including Graves’ disease, which causes the bulging appearance of her eyes; lymphedema, which causes extreme swelling and loss of feeling in her feet; and her admission that she had been living in a sober house in early 2019. The same executive producers returned later that year to begin filming another docuseries, which is what became Where Is Wendy Williams?

The documentary presents a dizzying timeline of events, mostly focusing on a few key highlights that start with the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, when Williams’s behavior became increasingly erratic, until she was found unresponsive by her colleague DJ Boof in May of that year. Alcohol, it appeared, was the culprit. She went on to receive multiple blood transfusions in the hospital. A few guest hosts filled in until she returned to The Wendy Williams Show shortly after being discharged, and she worked through the tragic experience of losing her mother in December of that year. The last time Williams hosted her talk show was July 16, 2021, when, according to her nephew, Travis Finnie, a joint decision was made between her family and the show’s producers to encourage Williams to stay with her son, Kevin Hunter Jr., in Miami, where the family says he helped his mother stay sober and cooked her healthy meals. When the show was scheduled to return that fall, her son tried to convince her to stay in Miami to prioritize herself. While it’s unclear exactly what happened next, we do know that when $100,000 was withdrawn from Williams’s Wells Fargo account, the bank claimed that she may have been a victim of financial abuse at the hands of her son (who, at the time, had power of attorney and was her health proxy).

According to the documentary, the withdrawal was not out of the ordinary for Williams, who had previously withdrawn over $100,000 to pay for her son’s apartment, $80,000 to fund his food-delivery bills, and money for many other lavish expenses for herself. The bank froze her accounts (and has since not been found of any legal wrongdoing); she was sent to a wellness center in Malibu and was officially released from her son’s care in May 2022. Later that summer, she was given a court-appointed guardian and returned to New York. It was then that her family says they lost contact with Williams.

By the end of this documentary, we’re left with more questions than answers. If Williams consented to the filming of a Lifetime documentary before her court-appointed guardianship began in 2022, and then, as her family alleges, began to decline in physical and mental health, could she really have consented to being followed again by the cameras later on? Was she even of sound mind to consent in the first place, if her reported substance abuse had allegedly begun long before the guardianship? Is she just being used, and if so, by whom? Viewers are divided over whether or not the documentary adequately serves its purpose; some of them are confused about what the purpose even is in the first place. Williams’s publicist, Shawn Zanotti, whom she hired for crisis management in 2022, claims that the documentary that aired is not what she or Williams signed up for when Lifetime approached them. Technically, that’s not wrong — a title card in the documentary reveals the initial project evolved into something new after Williams was sent away to Malibu (“This documentary depicts Wendy’s journey over the course of a year … and what producers discovered along the way”).

If her family is to be believed, their goal in releasing this documentary was to expose the flaws in the U.S. guardianship system, suggesting that it could happen to anyone in a vulnerable state, not just a celebrity. But the final cut comes across as cheap, and at the end of the day, this project was filmed for a brand known for its trashy “ripped from the headlines” movies and “investigations” into controversial figures. Ratings for the network tripled when it aired. I can think of several parts of that journey where the crew probably should have cut the cameras, one of which has perhaps been the most viral scene from the series: a conversation with Blac Chyna, a former foe turned friend. It was filmed and has been billed on social media as a “touching” moment. It is emotional, of course it is, to watch someone who once commanded so much attention to be so obviously absent from the present, to watch a light flicker and extinguish behind their eyes. That doesn’t mean we should be watching.

Regardless of the intentions of the producers or her management, or the ways she has treated others, Williams is still a vulnerable person who deserves to be treated with basic human decency. Yes, she used to be a bully in the streets, but at home, she tried to be a loving mom. It is agonizing to watch her struggle with the fact that her son has not been in her life since she left his care in 2022. She clearly adores him; whenever Kevin Jr. is mentioned, she lights up, never tolerating a hint of bad-mouthing from anyone else about her son. At one point, she announces that she wants all of her possessions to go to Kevin Jr. when she dies.

Near the end of the documentary, Williams’s publicist brings her to Los Angeles in March 2023. There are several red flags about this trip — the fact that her publicist would not consult her guardian before traveling cross-country, that Williams’s memory had declined so much to the point that she doesn’t even know what the Oscars are, that she fully believed NBC Universal would just give her another talk show — but what struck me the most was seeing how revered she is by the public no matter her state of mind. When she steps out of the car to stand on her star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she beams when fans approach her to ask for photos. “I love being noticed … I love being famous,” she says again. Anyone who loves her this much wouldn’t want to see her like this.

The question posed by the documentary’s title is never answered. Viewers don’t know her exact location, and neither does her family nor the documentary crew by the end of the four parts. The only person who knows her whereabouts is her guardian, whose identity is redacted throughout the film and was only revealed after it was reported that they filed a lawsuit against Lifetime to prevent the network from airing the documentary two days before it was shown. A week after the documentary has aired, we only have a vague idea where she’s been since April 2023 (a facility, where she’s being treated for “cognitive issues”) because of a People magazine report from late February. Nonetheless, the question we’re left with after powering through four and a half hours of this documentary is not “Where is Wendy?” but “Where is Wendy going to go from here?” It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see her go back to television, back to wisecracking and “How you doin’,” back to the starry-eyed Jersey girl who made her dreams come true and relished every second of it for better or worse, anytime soon. And that’s the most heartbreaking part of it all.

What Do We Owe Wendy Williams?