Wendy Williams delights in controversy. It’s perhaps the hallmark of her career, from her early days as a radio “shock jockette” to her current daytime talk show.
Williams has never denied her messy tendencies and, in fact, openly embraces them. That’s her brand, and many of her fans love her because of it, not in spite of it. For many years, audiences have found Williams to be both enthralling and relatable. “That’s the kind of girl I am,” she often quips with a toothy grin, along with her mantra to “say it like you mean it.” She’s the local busy-body someone takes out for wine to engage in petty gossip about people they know. She’s the unpredictable but super fun girlfriend you call when you want to dig up dirt on a frenemy.
Williams has never denied her messy tendencies and, in fact, openly embraces them. That’s her brand, and many of her fans love her because of it, not in spite of it.
Yet as of late, Williams’ style of topical commentary has become less harmlessly shady and more alarming for the general public, thanks to a steady drumbeat of comments and insults that have caused ire even among her most loyal fans. More and more comedians are being called out for humor that punches down, exemplified by Ricky Gervais’ longstanding hypocrisy on the matter, as well as Dave Chapelle’s reckless routines about sexual assault and transgender people during recent Netflix specials. Perhaps the intensifying backlash against Williams is a sign that the role of the broadcast shock jock is also due for an update — if not a full-scale reckoning.
When this piece was assigned, Williams was in hot water for derogatory comments about gay people. But during the writing and editing process, she dipped her toe into the controversy pool again.
Most recently (for now), Williams is taking heat for her Feb. 17 “Hot Topics” segment, in which Williams appeared to mock the tragic murder of Amie Harwick, a celebrity sex therapist and ex-fiancee of “The Price Is Right” host Drew Carey. After noting that Harwick was found beneath a third-floor balcony, Williams shouted the game show catchphrase “Come on down!” while mimicking a fall with her head. Three days after the incident, Harwick’s brother Chris demanded a public apology that Williams had yet to offer.
Indeed, the outspoken talk queen has issued multiple appeals for forgiveness in the preceding weeks, for offensive remarks denigrating the queer community and people with disabilities.
Gabbing in January about awards season darling Joaquin Phoenix, Williams joked about his cleft palate scar, which otherwise appears as gap in his mustache, all while pulling up her lip to talk as though she had the condition.
On Galentine’s Day, an informal observance before Valentine’s Day, she went on an unnecessary tangent about why men shouldn’t participate in the fake holiday before taking aim at gay men specifically. “And stop wearing our skirts and our heels,” she added. “Just sayin’ girls, what do we have for ourselves?” It was a remark that also swipes at gender variant members of the queer community and echoed a 2017 incident when Williams ejected an audience member for coming in drag.
And on the day after the Super Bowl, Williams angered many in the Black community when she slammed Beyonce and Jay-Z for remaining seated during the national anthem. While wearing Beyonce’s new Ivy Park x Adidas fashion line, Williams said, “You understand that all eyes were on you, you should’ve stood up” before implying that the couple should leave the country if they don’t like it.
“She stays putting her foot in her mouth, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time about the wrong people,” Monique Judge wrote at The Root. “Yet, she continues to get a pass. Why?”
Why indeed? But to understand Williams’ at-times baffling popularity, not to mention her showbiz longevity, you have to take a stroll down memory lane.
To understand Williams’ at-times baffling popularity, not to mention her showbiz longevity, you have to take a stroll down memory lane.
Before her eponymous talk show premiered nationally in 2009, Williams was a celebrated, if not infamous hip-hop radio DJ who blended her ear for music with the bonafides of a shock jock: incendiary opinions, flagrant disregard for political correctness, tabloid chatter and lively on-air calls from listeners. And she managed to defy the odds as a successful woman working in radio formats typically dominated by men.
Along the way to becoming a household name, she made countless celebrity enemies and frenemies. In 2006, she publicized the otherwise private cancer diagnosis of Method Man’s wife, whose family didn’t know about the illness until Williams put it on blast. “That ain’t nobody’s f—— business,” the rapper said in an interview at the time, adding that it was “mad tacky and disrespectful.” The incident, he said, brought him to tears, and Williams added insult to injury by alleging he was also cheating on his spouse with one of their doctors.
She also routinely picked apart Whitney Houston’s struggles with drug addiction, an issue Williams has long been open about dealing with herself. In January 2003, Houston called the radio show for an impromptu, extended interview in which she chided Williams for overly invasive questions and crass remarks about her sex life with Bobby Brown.
The tense encounter didn’t prompt much of a change in Williams’ style. But the exchange with Houston did give the host even more of a following, as did the many other celebrity spats Williams has provoked. Mariah Carey’s 2008 hit “Touch My Body” even took a jab at the notorious host, with Carey warning her would-be lover to keep their romance private: “Cause they be all up in my business like a Wendy interview.” The song dominated the airwaves months before Williams’ TV test run aired that summer.
At first, The Wendy Williams Show felt like a new leaf for Williams. She gave up her much more abrasive radio persona to become more daytime friendly.
At first, The Wendy Williams Show felt like a new leaf for Williams. She gave up her much more abrasive radio persona to become more daytime TV friendly. Williams dialed down the controversial remarks, kept the “Hot Topics” gossip to a newsstand tone, mixed in fashion tips and trends, opened space for her studio audience to “Ask Wendy” for advice, and took a far less adversarial approach towards interviewing celebrity guests — the ones she hadn’t already alienated.
Williams even spoke glowingly (and often) about Houston in the lead-up to the singer’s 2009 comeback album “I Look To You,” giving her audience fans emblazoned with the singer’s face as part of her campaign to get the singer to appear on the show. Houston never darkened the doorway. Others did eventually come around to bury the hatchet, such as Whoopi Goldberg whose first appearance drove Williams to tears. “I’ve waited for this,” Williams said during a long embrace with The View host. Goldberg responded with a knowing, “You’ve grown up.”
While reporting the news of Houston’s 2012 passing, Williams held a Whitney fan and sobbed on air in apparent remorse.
But was Williams truly a reformed woman? As her show became more of a fixture, Williams has steadily turned the heat back up, and her commentary is increasingly resembling her “shock jockette” radio pesona past. Among many remarks that have drawn major headlines recently, she sounded the false alarm of “reverse racism” by questioning how people would feel if there was an NAACP for white folks, and repeatedly used transphobic tropes to criticize Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition.
If anything, despite the call and response of controversy, backlash and apology, Williams is getting worse. And yet, when she’s right, she’s spot on. These flashes keep many of her fans holding on — happy or at least willing to ignore the miscues. Very few women have talk shows, and even fewer women of color have this kind of mainstream platform. Indeed, when her show premiered in 2009, Oprah and Tyra Banks’ runs were winding down, eventually leaving Williams as the biggest female star with an eponymous daytime TV talk show spot.
Unfortunately, when Wendy Williams is wrong, she’s very wrong and very loud. Even with her very long track record of wild behavior, the public rallied behind Williams during multiple hiatuses in 2019, prompted by a combination of a very public scandal involving her longtime manager and now-ex husband, a resulting drug addiction relapse and her ongoing chronic health issues.
Williams is an entertainment survivor and a pioneer, in her own way. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and items from her show in the Smithsonian. But that’s no excuse for behavior that would likely have gotten any other broadcaster — and many shock jocks — fired by now. For all the public grace she’s received, she doesn’t seem to reciprocate much. It may be time for one of America’s most problematic faves to either turn off the microphone, or at the very least put her humor where her heart is.
CORRECTION (Feb. 23, 12:50 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled Drew Carey’s ex-fiancee’s first name. Her name was Amie Harwick, not Annie.