Wendy Williams’ unsettling swan song

One of TV’s most vibrant, unapologetic voices has been reduced to spectacle and speculation.

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 16:  Television personality Wendy Williams speaks onstage during her celebratio...
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Wendy Williams does not like it when legends release new music. No matter where she has shared this sentiment — on her long-running WBLS radio show; her deeply under-appreciated VH1 late-night show; or her greatest platform, daytime’s The Wendy Williams Show — she’s stressed that after reaching a certain stature, legendary acts should stick to their classics rather than drop new material past their presumed primes. Not only did she not want to learn new lyrics, but she also felt the offerings would be subpar in comparison to the artist’s biggest hits.

In recent months, I’ve wondered if Williams is aware that she might be living her greatest fear in the aftermath of the unceremonious end of her daytime talk show in June, nearly a year after she had already taken a medical leave of absence. After she reportedly took time off to recover from “serious complications” related to Graves’ disease, an autoimmune thyroid disorder, hosting duties for the final season of The Wendy Williams Show were handled by a variety of guest hosts like Sherri Shepherd, Bevy Smith, Jerry Springer, and Leah Remini.

Much as that made sense, given Wendy’s medical issues, the finale did not resemble the previous 12 seasons when the host was at the helm. In addition to a tribute video, The Wendy Williams Show brought back the show’s first-ever guest, Vanessa Williams, who commended Wendy Williams on how “real” she’s been through the years, adding that she would “miss her presence.” Wendy’s ex-husband, Kevin Hunter, who previously served as an executive producer on the show, was blunt about his unhappiness with Entertainment Tonight: “I feel like it is a travesty on the part of Debmar-Mercury to have such an unceremonious departure without Wendy being involved. It is the first time in the history of talk shows for this to be done, especially for a show that has been on for more than 10 years. There is absolutely no reason why a bigger celebration that involved Wendy couldn’t happen.” It’s unclear the conditions the staff had to contend with, so this comment is less critical and more observatory: It wasn’t a proper goodbye.

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Norman Baker, who served as supervising producer on The Wendy Williams Show, was recently asked about fan critiques of the finale in an interview for Carlos King’s podcast, Reality with The King. “There’s actually no way to end that show,” Baker said. “There’s no actual, really sufficient way to encapsulate what we feel in our hearts for her anyway.” It’s true that there is no perfect way to end a show, and surely the staff did the best they could in the circumstances, but how do you say goodbye to Wendy Williams without Wendy present? Baker noted the question about Wendy’s lack of participation was “above my pay grade.”

While viewers can deal with a less than stellar farewell to her daytime talk show, there is reason to worry about her legacy given what’s transpired since she stopped hosting her show. No matter what anyone makes of reports about her mental state (none of us are qualified to make a proper diagnosis), even Wendy’s most ardent supporters can agree that Williams does not sound the way she did before she took a leave of absence from her talk show last year. Even if she rightfully feels hurt about being unable to say goodbye to her talk show and wants to begin another project on her terms, now might not be the best time to tackle such an endeavor. As much as we all miss the Wendy we knew (and who some loved to hate), and as much as she should be given the opportunity to launch a new venture, that project will be better when she actually sounds ready for it. Anything else is unserious and exploitative.

Although Williams has visibly appeared to be in good spirits in recent months, her interviews remain a challenge to watch in real time. First, there was the phone interview she gave to Good Morning America to address reports about her finances being withheld by the bank following a claim she was not of sound mind. She struggled to offer coherent answers to most of the questions posed to her. It was mostly repetition about wanting access to her money. Then in May, Fat Joe interviewed Williams on Instagram, where she appeared distracted, repeatedly pointing at someone behind her camera, which immediately sparked concerns among fans. On a video of the interview posted on YouTube, one commenter wrote: “I really feel for her. I feel she shouldn’t have been interviewed yet. I hope and pray things get better.” Another wrote: “Honestly, this was tremendously painful to watch, try to get through, follow and understand.” Others were more wrapped up in Williams’ comment that she wouldn’t watch Shepherd’s new talk show.

Williams gave another interview to TMZ Live in June. She’s never made a secret of her battles with lymphedema, but it was surprising to see her pull her foot up to the camera for audiences to see. That could have been done for the sake of awareness, but this interview was designed to promote a podcast she’d announced. When asked about it, Williams offered little detail but stressed motive. “Podcasts will make more money for me, being famous, than doing the Wendy Williams Show,” she explained. As she has in the other interviews, she struggled to engage with the host.

Back in 2011, Williams self-funded a biopic starring Robin Givens — so it’s clear she doesn’t mind stepping out on her own. But it’s hard not to question the people presently managing her affairs when they give cringey interviews like the one her manager Will Selby gave to The Sun. As he tells it, the two are planning to record a podcast called The Wendy Experience from her penthouse apartment that will feature a video component. “I want to shoot everything in her home,” Selby said. “I want to get the full Wendy experience — everything from filming in her glam room or shooting in her kitchen with her favorite chefs as they prepare food for her and her guests. I want Wendy to feel like she could be as open and honest as possible, and I want everything to be at her home.” In essence, her talk show but as a podcast with a YouTube link?

It’s rare for viewers to be privy to the behind-the-scenes drama and workings of talk shows in this way, and though there is irony in Williams, a pop culture gossiper, being mired in the tabloids herself at the end of her daytime TV run, ​​her legacy is being reduced to spectacle and speculation. And the plans for her purported next moves only raise more questions. The prospective podcast has no production company or network attached to it or has yet to announce one, but Selby has already made plans for guest hosts. “I started the process of considering shooting something with our first potential guest as Fat Joe,” Selby explained vaguely. “He’s ideal because he’s somebody that she trusts, he is a New York icon, and he was the last person that she spoke to. I figured we should pick it up from there.”

Since Williams prefers people say it like they mean it: If she can’t do coherent interviews right now, she shouldn’t host a podcast. Let her rest. Let her heal. Let her do whatever is necessary to get back into shape. Until then, stop putting Wendy Williams out there for our consumption to look like what she stressed one should never become: the legend who now makes missteps.