Loud, messy and unapologetic: farewell Wendy Williams, ‘queen of all media’

<span>Photograph: Leon Bennett/WireImage</span>
Photograph: Leon Bennett/WireImage

Friday’s farewell edition of the Wendy Williams Show hit all the expected notes.

A shoutout to the viewers for their fierce support drew a standing ovation from the studio audience. Vanessa Williams, the show’s first guest, returned to celebrate the 57-year-old chatshow host as a true media pioneer. And to close the show, comedian Sherri Shepherd threw to a highlight reel of Williams’s greatest hits – not least following through with a promise to eat real crow if Kanye and Kim ever married.

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All that was missing was, well, the actual host.

Of course that’s why the Wendy Williams Show is signing off, after 1,500-plus episodes. Altogether, the program endured for 14 years and probably could have gone on for more had Williams’s health crises and personal and financial tumult seemingly quashed her enthusiasm for boldly trafficking in celebrity gossip without worrying whether what she was saying was true or not, or whether that offended anyone.

Even though she hasn’t hosted the show in person since 2020, her departure from daytime is of a piece with a broader turnaround and not because Williams failed to keep up with the times. If anything, the former radio shock jock was ahead of the curve, changing the tone and pace of rumor-mongering as gossip expanded out from the tabloids and TV newsmagazines into social media.

“This is the best show ever,” she said at one point in the highlight reel. “I swear if I wasn’t here doing it, I’d be at home watching.” One of the last shots in the reel was her empty chair. And in that void lingers a tricky legacy that did as much to burnish gossip journalism as tarnish it.

Amid the cacophony of daytime TV sirens, the 5ft 10in Williams rang out loudest. If her dramatic physical presence didn’t stop casual viewers in their tracks, her big mouth almost certainly would. While Ellen Degeneres played nice with guests and The View waded into difficult discussions, Williams went all the way in – embellishing tabloid gossip, throwing shade at famous guests and otherwise being messy for the pure enjoyment of it. The harder she batted her fake lashes and sipped her tea, the more viewers ate it up. Williams wasn’t just a hit with the typical daytime crowd, her audience skewed young and diverse.

Her most outspoken champions were improbable sorts like John Oliver, who once dedicated a segment of Last Week Tonight to Williams eating a lamb chop in her kitchen while filming at home during Covid. “The more you watch Wendy, the more you realise that chaos isn’t a problem with the show, it’s what makes it work,” intoned Oliver, before channelling that same energy and eating a sandwich on camera as the credits rolled. “If this makes you uncomfortable, you might wanna fuck off and watch something else.” And when this clip found its way back into Williams’s show, Wendy being Wendy, snort-laughed.

Even as her profile rose and her fashion budget increased, Williams never made herself out to be anything other than a homebody Jersey girl who would rather dish about a red carpet than turn up on one herself. Spending an hour with her was like being within earshot of your mom’s loose-lipped hair stylist, never knowing what bombshell would drop next.

Williams’s sharp tongue was stropped on hip-hop radio, where she emerged as one of the first women besides the actor-performer Angie Martinez. A cameo on Fox’s hit ’90s sitcom Martin – her first TV credit, incidentally – was confirmation of the tremendous respect Williams commanded in a male-dominated industry. A morning drive personality in the early 90s, Williams was plugged into a satellite role as a traffic reporter, sprinkling the latest dirt into her rush-hour reports, telling so many tales about Black celebrities that they would call into her station and try to get her sacked. During one show she brought up allegations of sexual misconduct against Bill Cosby only to be hauled into her boss’s office and forced to apologize to America’s dad, on speakerphone. Past fan mail has included bullets and dead fish.

Her brazenness on air endeared her to legions of fans and, before long, earned her top billing and a hard-won reputation as a ratings turnaround artist with a tireless work ethic. But that success didn’t make her any softer on the rich and famous.

In a 2003 on-air exchange with Whitney Houston, Williams did not hesitate to grill the legendary singer about allegations of drug abuse, domestic violence and financial issues, and Houston didn’t back down from the fight. (It’s still the most talked-about interview Williams has ever done.) But Williams didn’t shy from talking about her own struggles with drug addiction or her problems conceiving or her plastic surgeries or her dalliances with well-known music industry types either, even as her radio shows went national.

All the while she was a mentor to Charlamagne tha God, who rose to prominence as a Williams sidekick. A controversial post-trial interview with OJ Simpson in studio was one of the few times Williams somewhat suspended her innate skepticism and alienated her loyal followers. “Damn you, I like you,” she said, after falling for the ex-football great’s looks and polish. “Damn you, OJ Simpson, you’re charming.”

Still, no one saw this sly pot stirrer who greeted callers by purring “How you doin” carving a niche on daytime TV. On 14 July 2008, four days before her 44th birthday, the Wendy Williams Show debuted. Within a year, viewers across the country were tuning in droves to delight in her sparring matches with Omarosa or pulling random accessories out of her wigs and décolletage. But she could just as easily make audiences cringe with her casual recklessness, like when she dismissed the murder of the TikTok idol Swavy and saying Beyoncé “sounds like she has a fifth-grade education”.

But many of Williams’s targets were big fans too. Some took masochistic delight in sitting in the hot seat next to hers, others simply reveled in having an audience with the “queen of all media”; at the very least, both groups were guaranteed to get equal time to flash their fresh leather on Williams’s shoe cam.

The cracks didn’t really begin to show until 2017, when Williams fainted on live TV while dressed as the Statue of Liberty for Halloween. It was shortly thereafter that she disclosed a longtime diagnosis for Graves’ disease (an immune disorder that triggers hyperthyroidism) and her marriage to Kevin Hunter, her manager and a producer on her talkshow, publicly fell apart. Just before the pandemic she revealed that she had been living at a sober house. Earlier this year Williams’s bank, Wells Fargo, froze her accounts and requested a New York supreme court hearing to determine whether she needed a guardianship.

The more Williams’s own personal life became gossip fodder, it seems, the harder it became for her to show up at work. And yet for years her loyal production team has kept the show going with a rotation of guest hosts that have included the actor Michael Rapaport, a legendary provocateur; hip-hop mogul Nick Cannon, who landed his own daytime talkshow in the bargain; and Sherri Shepherd, who is slated to take over Williams’s time slot. Williams is not happy about this, but a few months ago her TV bosses said they were leaving the door open if Williams wanted to return.

What she does next is anyone’s guess. She’s played herself in feature films, made a gonzo TV movie and an even wilder documentary about her life, and guested on Drag Race (to the consternation of a queer community that holds a grudge against her for past offenses and her zeal for outing gay celebs); it seems as if she could pop up on Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise because she’s already extended family. But any abiding viewer knows that would be settling for less. Williams at her best is a master soloist; doesn’t matter if she’s chewing the fat or biting into actual leftovers. A pre-taped goodbye tribute could never sum up a remarkable TV run that never should have ended, and might never be matched.