Where is Wendy Williams? A docuseries offers answers with new troubling questions

<span>Wendy Williams worked a long time to get to this time, a time when gossip leads the news.</span><span>Photograph: Calvin Gayle</span>
Wendy Williams worked a long time to get to this time, a time when gossip leads the news.Photograph: Calvin Gayle

Nobody wants to see Wendy Williams frail and fear-stricken inside her messy New York City apartment, scoring vape pens at the corner store near the TV studio where she once hosted her hit talk show, or standing bewildered on the Hollywood street in front of her Walk of Fame star, hoping that passersby will take enough notice to ask to pose with her.

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

However blunt you may think Williams was while trafficking in celebrity rumors and the industry’s closed-door machinations, at the end of the day, she was a polarizing provocateur – albeit a pioneer in her profession, commanding in a male-dominated industry. If she wasn’t so obviously undernourished and suffering from neurological decline, Where Is Wendy Williams? would be chatter for a Hot Topics segment (“You’ll never believe what the network wants me to do now … ”) or some other famous person’s nightmare – not a four-plus hour extract of the horror show that has become her post-daytime TV life.

The producers of the Lifetime docuseries make clear in title cards that their original intent for the four-part series, shown over two nights, was to capture Williams on the comeback trail. How it was made is less interesting than … why? When shooting began in 2022, she had just been severed from the Wendy Williams Show and had been looking for new opportunities in podcasting. It’s clear from the moment Williams literally stumbles into frame in episode one that she’s in no condition to work – and, alas, that doesn’t stop production from venturing deeper inside her cat-scratched bedroom and pushing the camera in close enough to make out the styes on her makeup-caked eyelids. And even when Williams is slightly more dressed up on her living room couch, it’s not long before she’s getting uncomfortably comfortable again and shedding her furry boots to reveal her swollen feet – the effects of lymphedema, she says. For a talk show host who kept a “shoe cam” on stage to show off her high heels, this was a sad moment.

Ever since the trailer for the docuseries released three weeks ago, the film-makers have been at pains to defend their doc as a rare window into life under a guardianship (New York State speak for a conservatorship) and push back against the idea that they may be further exploiting the 59-year-old Williams, all while touting her as an engaged executive producer. But on the eve of the release last weekend, Williams’s team revealed that she had been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia affecting her speech, communication and cognitive functions – and Sabrina Morrissey, the court-appointed legal financial guardian who is also listed as a producer on the series (one whose name is bleeped when uttered on camera), sued at the 11th hour to stop Lifetime from airing the show.

In the series Williams’s son, Kevin Jr, speculates that his mother’s dementia in particular may have been induced by Williams’s longtime abuse of alcohol – which became her chosen vice after quitting cocaine cold turkey 30 years ago. Friends and family say the drinking, a regular downtime escape, grew progressively worse as her losses mounted: her mother’s death, her show’s cancellation, her son leaving the nest, her husband’s extra-marital affair becoming tabloid fodder and prompting an ugly divorce. When Williams isn’t curtly rebuffing direct questions about her drinking habits, she’s shuffling around her apartment in her ex-husband’s old bathrobe. Or telling anyone who’ll listen about her plans for a new show under her married name, Wendy Hunter. She can’t even process when people greet her with her familiar phrase: “How you doin?” Or remember the Oscars being a big do.

Often, the hardest parts to watch are her interactions with the select few inside her orbit. She flips off her former jeweler turned manager, Will (who seems especially ill-equipped for the latter role), rages out on his deputy, Keesha, and advises her publicist Shawn to consider lipo. Even though we’re meant to see them as hyenas, they do appear to be the kind of people who would be genuinely concerned with Williams’s well-being if she wasn’t also paying them to look out for her. That is, until they’re barging into her bedroom and nudging her to get dressed and get to work as she lay in a stupor.

The better alternative, you’d think, would be Williams surrounding herself with family, but they’re not an uncomplicated independent bunch either. For a start, they’re all in South Florida. Williams’s niece, Alex Finnie – a Miami TV news anchor – is an effective surrogate who means well, but naively thinks she can solve matters with a pep talk. Kevin Jr clearly adores his mom, but was ultimately responsible for the hundreds of thousands in reckless spending that sounded alarm bells at the bank; $100,000 on Uber Eats alone.

Kevin Jr and his cousin, Travis, another compassionate figure, couldn’t even stop themselves from ordering wine while out to dinner with Williams – who was guaranteed to to spend the rest of the night pining for her own glass, too. But the more depressing dinner exchange comes earlier, when Williams calls her brother by her son’s name in front of her father, powerless. It’s in some ways fitting that Williams’s most resonant on-screen connection is with Blac Chyna, the Kardashian-adjacent socialite who’s been through the wringer. At one point snuggled up on the couch with a wig-less Williams, she’s the only person who meets the talk show host where she is – at rock bottom – and doesn’t ask for anything more than an opportunity to provide genuine comfort.

Williams worked a long time to get to this time, a time when gossip leads the news and many of her most outrageous industry takes proved to be dead-on. She should be wallowing in this moment, not wasting away before our eyes. The hope is that it is taken at least as seriously as Framing Britney Spears, the horror show that delivered an unexpectedly happy ending by helping the pop star win her freedom.