In this week’s New Yorker is a sparkling, not-at-all stuffy profile of talk show host/influential neologist Wendy Williams. Michael Schulman’s piece hits a lot of the beats of the recent Lifetime movies about Williams’s life that it references (the infamous Whitney Houston interview, Williams’s on-air fainting, her beef with ’90s girl-group Total, the vengeance she unleashed via spray paint when she discovered her then-husband Kevin Hunter was sharing a house with a woman he’d been cheating with for years). But the article is also teeming with color that stands out from the more familiar aspects of Williams’s “well-put-together mess” narrative.
For example, did you know that Williams refuses to wear an earpiece during the taping of her show and “barely” uses a teleprompter? To keep the loose-lipped Williams out of legal trouble, production has devised a rather Rube Goldbergian methodology:
And she’s been hit with occasional defamation lawsuits, most recently from a man who was taking pictures near Hilary Duff’s son in a public park, which Williams called “creepy.” To ward off legal challenges, [showrunner David] Perler watches from the control room, consulting (over Zoom) with the show’s lawyer. Whenever Williams wades into dicey territory, the lawyer alerts him, and he hits a button that makes the word “allegedly” flash on the teleprompter in big yellow letters.
“A lot of the time, it comes up two or three seconds too late, so Wendy says ‘allegedly’ to something that wasn’t really the thing that we needed her to say ‘allegedly’ about,” Perler said. Williams openly complains about this on the air—“Lawyer lady hit the button!”—as if being zapped by an electrode.
The described decor is incredible. At Williams’s home, Schulman recounts seeing a “painting depicting her and her ex-husband as a mermaid and a merman,” which Williams explains Chaka Khan painted for her 50th birthday. In Williams’s backstage office, the writer notes “a leopard-print couch beneath a bedazzled swordfish that was made by a fan. (‘They’re real Swarovski crystals!’ she said.)” Williams’s penchant for wigs is a result of “a thyroid condition stemming from Graves’ disease has thinned her hair.” I just thought... she liked wigs? Williams also pulled the plug on the early pandemic filming at her New York apartment after seven weeks because “the experience had felt intrusive, even unsafe: ‘Anybody could be watching to case the joint.’”
She describes dining at the residence of Dr. Oz as “a beautiful scene,” describing “Plants. Servants. Not even housekeepers—servants, you know, with the clothes on. But all with a smile.” Also interviewed is Don Lemon, who at one point filled in for Williams during a hiatus, and also was outed by her earlier in his career:
Don Lemon, who was then a local NBC correspondent, recalled Williams outing him after he was spotted at the gay bars on Twelfth Street. “Listen, was it uncomfortable? Yes,” he told me. “Was I in the closet? Not really. I just didn’t talk about it. Was it something where I was, like, ‘I wish this woman would shut up and stop talking about me’? Yeah.” Williams’s penchant for outing hasn’t aged well, but her gay fans seem to have forgiven her. “Black queer folks create a sense of community through throwing shade, through spilling the tea,” Tanisha Ford said. “Wendy is coming out of that communal tradition of joy and healing. There is something restorative in revelling in all of your imperfections. Wendy has become a voice for the weirdos, the outcasts, the people who say, O.K., you don’t want me? Well, I want me.”