"Welcome to the glamour suite!" says Wendy Williams, the 46-year-old daytime TV host. It's just past 1 p.m. on a February day in Williams's studio in Manhattan. She's standing in her dressing room, surrounded by a half-dozen wig-wearing mannequins. Everything -- from the drawers to the walls -- is pink and purple.
"I'm looking for makeup!" she says. "I'm in the land of makeup and hair. And I just look at this every time, and I say that there's nothing in here that I could use." She's just finished taping an episode of The Wendy Williams Show -- in its second season and renewed for a third -- and she's in a rush. She has about 20 minutes to get ready for lunch with her parents to celebrate her father's 80th birthday.
"All I want to do is replace my eyelashes with natural ones," she says, rummaging through a closet. Makeup products come tumbling out, collapsing into a dusty mess on a tabletop -- kerplunk! Before you can blink, she's at the mirror and applying some pink lipstick -- really hot pink lipstick.
"See, if you put it on in layers," she says, pursing her lips, "you really get a mwah. It's good, right? With sunglasses it looks even better! With sunglasses and big hair." Now it's time for that big hair. That is, Williams is going to tease her wig into an oversize bouffant. But this creates yet another crisis. Where's the hairbrush? "How can I be around every wig in the center of the universe and there's not a friggin' hairbrush?" she says, opening and shutting drawers frantically. "Are you serious?"
After practically ripping out every drawer in her dressing room, she spots a brush. And now she's got her big hair. Williams, in a black dress with a cowl neck, is heading to lunch at Michael's, the midtown Manhattan restaurant best known as a scene-and-be-seen place for media executives, TV personalities, and magazine editors. She has only been there twice before, and, fittingly, she was starstruck by someone she saw there last time: campy Dynasty star Joan Collins.
'When I saw her I said 'Ooh, this is the place to be,' " says Williams. "She was wearing winter white in winter! And a lot of makeup! And a lot of lipstick! And a lot of wig! And she ate like she knew she was being watched, and she was totally playing the role and I loved it!"
Naturally, she loved it. If there's anyone who plays the role better it's Williams. "I'm too tall, my hair is too long, my lipstick is too pink, my feet are too big," she says, bursting into laughter. "I'm too much. I do understand the similarities between me and, perhaps, a person that dresses in drag. To do drag is to go big. And I've never been one to be beige -- ever. Beige is, like, a very nice color. You paint your walls with it. It's the color you see in all the model houses in the neighborhood, but not the color you really want. You want fire red. Or pink!"
Welcome to the Wendy Williams experience. For the last couple years, as host of The Wendy Williams Show, she has stood out by going big. She's made a transformation from a bad-girl radio shock jock to a morning television personality. And in the process, she's created a new species of daytime talk. Beige? That's for Oprah or Rachael Ray. Leave the sneakers and the blazers and finger-snapping dances to Ellen. This is a suede thigh-high boot show. This is a hot pink show. It's loud. It's filled with disco balls (six of them, to be exact). It's got the signature catchphrase ("How you doin'?"). It's a show heavy in gossip.
And then there's Williams, onstage, relatively new to television, trying to figure out how to look at the camera and talk at the same time. She's someone who has music cut off her interviews because she doesn't know when to stop talking; someone who pulls Post-it notes out of her wig. It borders on vaudeville.
Apparently they do want her. Consider the show's audience. Each morning, two hours before the show goes live, roughly 150 people come out to her studio. While they wait, they are entertained by a DJ blasting Top 40 hits. Less than 10 minutes before the show starts, the entire audience is invited onstage. There's a full-out, fist-pumping dance party. "Where's all my alcoholics!" screams the DJ, playing "Shots" by LMFAO, as the studio audience goes nuts before a February taping. It isn't even 10 a.m. yet. "They are my cohosts," says Williams, referring to her audience. "I want them to have a good time."It's a mess. And inexplicably, and sort of beautifully, it works. "Nobody wants a polished talk show host," she says, cascading into laughter. "They want'me! A messy woman from New Jersey."
Part of her appeal is how approachable she is. "I love Wendy because she's so extra," says Nakia Richardson, a 25-year-old New Yorker in the audience. Williams routinely goes into the audience during the Ask Wendy segment. When she does her daily Hot Topics routine -- gossip ranging from the A-list to the D-list -- her audience is encouraged to shout down at her. Williams seems genuinely interested in what her audience is interested in. While other daytime hosts are falling over for Will Smith and John Travolta, Williams talks about breast implants and wigs with Kim Zolciak of The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
"I don't carry myself like I'm better than," says Williams. "Like, I had no idea who Esperanza Spalding was" -- referring to the young jazz musician who beat out Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy -- "and I know some highbrow people who'd say 'Oh, yes, I know exactly who that is.' Well I don't! So I asked my audience 'Do you know who she is?' Ninety percent of them were like 'No.' I said, 'Well, let me put you onto the game, 'cause I did some research.' "
What's particularly amazing is how she interacts so comfortably with an audience after spending years in the solitude of a radio booth. She's still learning the art of TV before our eyes. And it can occasionally be rough. "I can't sit on daytime TV with even a peep of cleavage!" she says, sounding aghast. "Did you know that? Did you know that was the unwritten rule? Look around the channels and show me who's showing cleavage. I wear a minimizer bra. However, certain things are always obvious." (She's referring to the size of her breasts, which are, to put it mildly, huge, thanks to the implants that she frequently mentions.)
Or there's the fact that she's still used to talking in four or five hour blocks per show, instead of in tiny segments of less than 10 minutes. "I've had to learn to edit my conversations," she says. "I'm not that good at it. I know I'll be cut off by an Ivory Snow commercial, and then they start the music!"
She's also had to tone down the sass a bit. Williams has managed to bring her irreverent commentary on the state of celebrities to her show, but she's not nearly as dramatic a grenade-thrower as she was on the radio. There, she was the scourge of the hip-hop industry. Williams had her fights with plenty of performers, including but not limited to: Lil' Kim, Puff Daddy, Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston, LL Cool J, and Mariah Carey. She has been the subject of less-than-flattering song lyrics. (Among other things, she claimed in her 2004 book, The Wendy Williams Experience, that Puffy "single-handedly tried to ruin" her career in the late '90s, getting her Hot 97 radio show taken off the air).
And then, above all else, there's one thing for which Williams really gained fame: Her outing of gay rappers. She even had a not-so-secret code when she referred to an allegedly light-in-his-loafers performer: "How you doin'?" Asked about this, she says, "I hate to seem corny -- that's a part of my past that I have no regrets about. Without my past, I wouldn't have my present. And that's something I don't want to talk about. I'm not a mean-spirited person." However loaded that phrase once was, it's been smoothed over and turned into a catchphrase, the signature flourish of her show. "It's just a friendly expression," she says, explaining its meaning now. "It's a twist on 'How are you doing?' Which is so beige!"
Today, Williams says her fan base consists of women who need a girlfriend -- and the gays. Within her studio, there is a winking acknowledgement of who, exactly, is in the crowd. "Fellas, move your backpacks, ladies move those purses," says a man working for the show before it goes live, adding, in a sort of sardonic whisper, "Guys, move your purses'"
The reason she's popular among gays isn't that hard to trace. "She looks like a tranny!" says Daniel Lawson, a 25-year-old fan at the taping. "If you have big hair and a big personality, gays are going to love you."
"I think they recognize the differences in me," says Williams. When she was growing up in New Jersey, she says, she was the outcast. By the sixth grade, she was already 5-foot-11 and wore a size 11 shoe. "I was the weirdo. On The Cosby Show, I was Lisa Bonet," she says, referring to the actress who played the misfit of the '80s comedy.
She's always stood out, and now she's transforming that into a daytime brand. "I embrace who I am, differences and all," she says. "In this world, where difference is not accepted, people like Madonna. People like Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Wendy. And I'm not saying you have to go to the extreme of arriving at places in eggs, because I don't go out of my way to be who I am. I just am who I am. And it happens to be bigger and more noticeable than the girl to my left and the girl to my right."