Wendy Williams is a showbiz scholar who studied tabloids as though they were canon. To the talk show host, “entertaining” and “salacious” are practically synonymous, and this sensibility makes her the most multivalent of celebrity journalists. At her best, she has made it impossible to stop listening or watching even when her audience feels like they would rather not, and she’s kept interview subjects engaged even when they’d clearly rather be anywhere but in her interrogation chair. She’s credited Howard Stern as an influence, and that’s apparent in her unflinching style, but she also has Joan Rivers’s gift of saying odious shit and getting away with it unscathed.
Her kamikaze charm goes practically undefined in two upcoming Lifetime productions about her life, the fictionalized biopic Wendy Williams: The Movie and a documentary called Wendy Williams: What a Mess. In both, Williams just is, and she just is fascinating. Given her badgering of stars for the 35 years she’s been in the business, anything less than putting herself through the ringer would be practically hypocritical. Luckily, What a Mess does just that and then some. It frequently resembles a therapy session, as Williams sits feet up on her couch in her Manhattan apartment in one recurring interview setup and purges her feelings about her recent split from her husband of 22 years, Kevin Hunter. Williams cries in practically every segment, she shouts, she repeats, “Oh my gosh” some half dozen times during a particularly painful recollection. During a recent Zoom press conference, Williams predicted her fans would react to her movie(s) in this way: “They’ll probably say I can’t believe she had the guts to be so raw and honest.” At that moment, she was like a painter taking a few steps back from the canvas to admire her own work.
That kind of self-praise is rare for Williams, who tends to chase the story and not the glory it serves to lavish. “There’s nothing special about me except the fact that I’m my own best friend,” she says early in Mess, and the modesty does not scan as false. The one and only time I met her was backstage at the Flavor of Love 2 reunion in 2006, when I worked at VH1. The first thing that I said to her was something like, “Wendy, that Whitney Houston interview you did is one of my favorite things that ever happened in pop culture.” She responded in her rumbling basso with a single word: “Legendary.” It was as though she could see it for the cultural artifact that it was, that her facilitation of it was incidental to the greater value of the piece. We gossiped for like an hour while she got her hair and makeup done.
Excerpts of that radio interview, in which a belligerent Houston (shortly after her infamous “crack is wack” interview with Diane Sawyer in 2002) called Williams cold and Williams had the wherewithal to keep her on the phone for 28 minutes, play during What a Mess, as do excerpts of Williams asking Mariah Carey about her sex life and plastic surgery (Carey, naturally, declined to answer). Repeatedly, we see footage of Williams getting told to her face what people think of her, and as someone who helped pioneer the hip-hop gossip industry during the music genre’s commercial ascendancy, it’s often negative. Williams lets it roll off her back and keeps going. It’s a stunning management of ego on display: Williams refuses to let on if she takes any of it personally, because she knows she’s too good at her job to let it get in the way. She can be such a dogged reporter that the very skill required becomes invisible.
Instead, what people often see is the mess. And Williams has plenty of it to go around. The awkwardness of a professional gossip being the subject of gossip, what with the strange behavior displayed on and absences from her daytime talk show (not to mention her divorce!), is not lost on either movie, and Williams is ambidextrous enough to become her own hot topic with ease and panache. What a Mess does a better job of conveying the enormity of Williams’s impact, as journalist and subject, than Wendy Williams: The Movie. The latter, which Williams executive produced and has a clear hand in, is never not entertaining, but it lacks a certain flair. Ciera Payton plays Williams with a little too much New Yawk in her voice and not enough drag queen. The Movie is dry when it should be delicious, and juicy moments like when Williams spray paints the house Hunter bought for his mistress of several years, are too rare.
Meanwhile, within two minutes of Mess, Williams uses her lymphedema machine while refusing to go back over what lymphedema is (“I’ve explained to you what lymphodema is. Look it up. I don’t have a lot of time.”), eats caviar off a Dorito, proclaims, “Kevin fucked up,” and weeps. Part of Williams’s magic is the spontaneity that manifests as camp like when she mispronounces Dua Lipa’s name and creates a meme, or says “cornova” when she means covid/the coronavirus. “I am a mustang. A mustang can’t be tamed,” she says in Mess, but Wendy Williams: The Movie attempts to do just that and suffers for its tonal mismatch.
Williams piles on the painful memories in the two-hour Mess: Early on in her radio career, a “one-hit wonder” who went to No. 1 on the R&B chart raped her. (She won’t name names, though given that this happened in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, I have my suspicions.) She had two miscarriages after carrying for months, and was extremely public about both. When she got pregnant again and requested to do her show on bed rest, her (male) bosses reluctantly assented. She calls them “assholes.” That pregnancy resulted in her only child, Kevin, named after her ex. She had bulimia, though she says reading about one star’s rotting teeth as a result of the disorder was all it took for her to stop. She did a lot of cocaine—five times a week when she was doing a graveyard show. “No big deal became a big deal,” she recalls.
She is unsparing but fair about Hunter, whom she accuses of emotional abuse but not physical. “He’s just a weird man with a whole bunch of issues that I’m glad I’m rid of,” she says. Her modesty doesn’t cloud her sense of accomplishment. Facts are facts. “I was a made woman before I met him and I would have made this without him,” she says of the man who managed her career, and if you have any sense of Williams’s landmark radio career, you know she’s right.
Naturally, there are holes. Her odd on-air behavior is rarely explained (her infamous fainting episode is mentioned but briefly), and her frequent hiatuses are glossed over. Her relationship with former sidekick Charlamagne Tha God barely gets a nod in either movie, though he does show up as a talking head in Mess. It’s a gracious and supportive turn from Charlamagne, who says that Hunter was “a real joy killer” and that “Kevin has a way of making you think your life will not exist without him.” If Charlamagne holds a grudge after falling out with Williams, you can’t tell.
One of the most entertaining aspects of both movies is the portrayal of Williams’s feud with ’90s R&B girl group Total (who were signed to Sean “Diddy” Combs’s Bad Boy Records). On the radio, Williams talked so much shit about their finances and sexualities that they one day showed up outside of the studio to fight her. In Mess, Total member Kima Raynor recalls Williams exiting the building and Hunter immediately blocking access to her and shuttling her in the car. As they peeled off, Williams opened her sunroof and held up her middle finger at the stunned group. That effectively ended the beef, Raynor explains. They couldn’t help but laugh. That’s Wendy for you.