American's biggest talk show host isn't Meredith Vieira or Rosie O'Donnell. It's a brilliant black woman from New Jersey who's almost as big of a star as her guests. A woman who comes across more like a relatable, opinionated aunt than a TV superstar—a bold, brazen risk-taker named Wendy Williams.
The Wendy Williams Show revolves around a unique combination of celebrity gossip and traditional interviews. Although the program (thankfully) lacks ludicrous premises and straight-up fist fights, Williams brings the drama and entertainment with her dissections of celebrities and the machinations of Hollywood.
Her greatest segment, Hot Topics, starts every episode and breaks down the celebrity gossip and news of the day. This year, she's offered an alternative theory behind Solange and Jay-Z's elevator fight and eaten literal crow because Kim Kardashian's marriage to Kanye West lasted longer than Kardashian's previous marriage. On the show, Williams regularly asks her audience (or "co-hosts" as she calls them) their opinion on subjects like Tori Spelling's marriage drama.
This format has paid off. At the onset of the sixth season premiere, The Wendy Williams Show's ratings climbed 36 percent, making the program the highest rated talk show among women ages 25 to 54—the key demographic for daytime television—beating out veteran competitors like The Ellen Degeneres Show and Live! with Kelly and Michael. Tonight, Williams plans to expand her empire Oprah-style with the premiere of Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, a new Lifetime biopic she executive produced.
When The Wendy Williams Show premiered in 2008, few people would have predicted Williams would follow in the big O's path. Williams was first known for her "shock" etiquette on the radio, often getting into on-air fights with celebrity guests. She had spent nearly two decades in the industry, hopping around from stations in New York City and Philadelphia before being syndicated across the country. Her big edge was that Williams hung out with celebrities in New York's nightclubs, giving her the ability to gossip and dish about R&B and hip-hop stars better than anyone else, while also dishing about her own issues.
Williams's radio image contrasted the racial politics of daytime TV in the 1990s and early 2000s. Back then the landscape was filled with tragic, trashy hatefests—The Jerry Springer Show, Sally, The Jenny Jones Show—and saccharine junk—Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee and The View. Other than Oprah's beaming goddess presence—and less successful hosts like Montel Williams and later Whoopi Goldberg and Sherri Shepherd on The View—I rarely saw black faces that looked like mine on daytime TV. Diversity usually arrived in the types of guests featured on each program—and they typically weren't enlightening or positive or even cool.
When Williams arrived, she differed from previous black talk-show hosts. Whereas Oprah focused on improving your life, Williams was about escaping it. She won't offer you tips on self-care or personal health, but she will give you the freedom to snark and laugh and let loose, a form of therapy many daytime talk show viewers sorely need.
"I genuinely am a curious person," Williams recently told me over the phone. "Some people might call it nosy."
Following Williams's hit ratings, daytime television has started to diversify. The revamped version of The View features a lesbian, a black woman, a Latina, and a white conservative Republican; the new talk show The Real has a completely nonwhite cast: Tamar Braxton, Loni Love, Adrienne Bailon, Jeannie Mai, and Tamera Mowry-Housley. In its first season, The Real has already beaten talk show rivals in key areas—according to the Hollywood Reporter, the program has scored a 0.7 rating among women 18 to 49.
The success of The Real and The Wendy Williams Show can be partially attributed to how those shows go after the same underserved audiences that have made the scripted ABC shows How to Get Away with Murder and Scandal huge hits.
Like the great hosts before her, Williams has found the way to tap into the basest desires of her viewers. As Oprah taught us to embark on a personal journey, and Ellen taught us how to act silly without anyone's permission, Williams has nailed the biting honesty most of us desire but lack in our reserved lives.
"I love that people give me permission to be exactly who I am," Williams told me. "I'm not on that TV to give you kumbaya moments."
Williams comes across as the best friend you need when you watch her on TV. Every day, one of my friends decompresses after long days at work by watching The Wendy Williams Show. For him and many of Williams's other fans, her show is like brunch; Williams offers us the break people need from the rest of their lives.
"Young people have got problems. Old people have problems. I don't need to be preached and lectured to during daytime," Williams said. "I'm smart and accomplished—I want somebody to take me away from the badness that is my life and come to me with a little bit of humor. We all live in a seemingly terrible world. I think that my show resonates with people because it's like that Ahhhhhh! for just one hour. Ahhhh!"
Maybe more importantly, Williams also understands celebrity—perhaps even better than anyone else out there. This is the woman who is not afraid to call out the Kardashians who have, within the last year, transformed their reality TV empire into being legitimate fashion icons. She has no problem playing favorites, spilling the tea, and offering a jaw-dropping and necessary read.
Tonight she hopes to extend her status as America's bold best friend and celebrity watcher with the premiere of the Aaliyah biopic. Starring Alexandra Shipp, the film looks at Aaliyah's early career, including her age-inappropriate marriage to R. Kelly.
"I think the cornerstone of her story is the dichotomy between her being this R&B star and her marrying this old man," Williams said. "Like who does that?"
Unsurprisingly for a project focusing on a dead celebrity who lived a turbulent life, the film has seen its share of behind-the-scenes drama, including vocal opposition from Aaliyah's family and a public outcry over casting choices. Disney star Zendaya was first cast in the role, but after Aaliyah's fans questioned the young star's emotional maturity and physical resemblance, she backed out.
Since Williams became executive producer, the critical backlash appears to have subsided. Making a film might seem like a far cry from William's interviewing background but it's not a complete stretch when you consider that Williams has been engrossed in the central tragedy of Aaliyah's life for decades. As a radio host, the marriage controversy proved to be a compelling run of events for Williams and her viewers: "I was on fire on the radio at the time that that happened," she told me. "The Cook County courthouse—a Wendy fan was in there and gave me the pleasure, a favor, of sending me the marriage license, undoctored, and I talked about it on the radio. It was a fact. They were married."
Today, many people forget R. Kelly married Aaliyah and allegedly sexually assaulted many other girls. (About once a year, a website or newspaper reminds everyone about the accusations.) Williams sees the singer's relationship with Aaliyah as complicated. "You know what? The way the story was told, they were in love," she said. "He wasn't just some old man in love with a young girl even though that was also clearly the reality of what it was. She loved him, and he loved her."
But this doesn't excuse R. Kelly's predatory behavior, or writing a song for Aaliyah called "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number." In the film, their relationship makes for uncomfortable viewing.
Ten years after her death, Aaliyah's rise remains relevant. "Nowadays, everyone wants to be famous," Williams said. "It's just disgusting. Everybody wants to sing, everybody wants the chance to play basketball, everybody wants to be on a reality show—everybody wants to be famous. And so, why do I think her story resonates? She had a very interesting life. While it was short, it was very interesting."
Williams's rise shouldn't be surprising to anyone: As a chronicler of celebrity and a celebrity herself, she displays a strong understanding of today's pop culture while bleeding personality and charisma. If anyone deserves fame in the age of Kim Kardashian's butt, it's the woman who knows everything there is to know about fame.
Want to see Wendy Williams live? Buy tickets to see her headline the How You Laughin' comedy special tonight at NJPAC in New Jersey at 8 PM.
Follow Brittany Julious on Twitter.