Launching a daytime attack
Wendy Williams describes herself as a simple woman from New Jersey. But in addition to her quite normal fascination with big hair and gay celebrities and QVC, she happens to have a new talk show, which presents an interesting prospect for someone whose mouth has gotten her into trouble.
“You can say Wendy Williams said anything about anyone, and people more often than not would believe it,” she said on the phone last week, explaining why she’s gotten into a few scrapes with Whitney Houston and other guests on her highly rated syndicated radio program based in New York. “I’m a chatty woman.”
Ya think? “The Wendy Williams Show” -- which airs in L.A. on KTTV Channel 11 and (in rebroadcast) on KCOP Channel 13 -- had barely premiered earlier this month when the host sailed smack into a tempest named Omarosa, the onetime contestant on NBC’s “The Apprentice” and author of a forthcoming self-help book titled “The Bitch Switch.”
Famed for her quarrelsome disposition, Omarosa sat down on Williams’ sofa and instantly announced that she would not be “disrespected.” The pair then traded insults for several minutes as the studio audience ooh-ed and ahh-ed. Great TV for sure, but somehow this never happens to Oprah or Ellen.
“I was trying to steer the car in a positive direction. But Omarosa is apparently who they say Omarosa is,” Williams said. “There are a million different ways I could have come back at her, on live TV or right now in this interview, but I won’t because I’m a lady. . . . I feel sorry for celebrities who have to create drama to sell or get attention.”
Actually, Williams could probably give a few of those wayward celebs some pointers on attention-getting. But hers are desirable skills when you’re trying to sell a new show in the cutthroat world of syndicated TV. With so many would-be Oprahs and Tyras grabbing for a mike, every host needs to stand tall. And Williams stands about 6-foot-4 in heels, not counting her sometimes formidable helmet of hair.
The history of daytime chat shows is littered with familiar corpses: Jane Pauley, Tony Danza, Wayne Brady, Megan Mullally, Martin Short. So Williams’ producers are trying a new tack. Rather than spend a huge sum on a make-or-break national premiere, the Fox TV station group and Debmar-Mercury, the production and distribution company behind TBS’ “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” launched a six-week “sneak preview” in four major markets -- Los Angeles, New York, Detroit and Dallas -- to build an appetite for what it hopes will be a big rollout in fall 2009.
The initial ratings have been encouraging, especially on Williams’ native turf of New York, where the first two weeks ranked No. 1 in its time period among advertiser-friendly young-adult demographic groups. The show has performed more modestly on KTTV, placing third among adults 18 to 49 behind “One Life to Live” and “The People’s Court,” according to Nielsen Media Research.
You may detect an early swirl of envy brewing among others who once flirted with syndicated fame. When Jillian (Barberie) Reynolds, a former co-host on Fox’s now-defunct “Good Day Live,” gave Williams a premiere-day send-off on Fox 11, she noted, “It looks like Fox stepped up and got you a nice set, not like when they threw us on nationally and they kept us on the ugly anchor desk. They actually spent money on you.”
None of this means, though, that “The Wendy Williams Show” is a shoo-in. Bill Carroll, vice president at Katz Media Group, a company that advises local stations, noted the very high failure rate of daytime talk shows. “Even the biggest names don’t guarantee success,” Carroll said.
Her unique mix of honey and vinegar is Williams’ selling point. Even in the midst of trading barbs with Omarosa, for example, the conversation swerved without warning to the subject of shoes, and for a brief moment it was possible to forget that the whole affair had just threatened to erupt into a televised catfight.
Sometimes, the memory of the vinegar lingers. That was the case with her 2003 radio run-in with Houston, not long after the singer’s notorious “crack is wack” interview with Diane Sawyer. As Williams persisted in asking Houston, who was speaking by phone, about her alleged drug abuse and other personal problems, the pop star finally threatened: “If this were back in the day in Newark, I’d meet you outside.”
In 2006, rap star Method Man publicly called Williams an “idiot” (among other, unprintable words) for revealing details about his wife’s cancer.
Williams -- a pop-culture omnivore whose own “kitschy” TV tastes run toward QVC and HGTV’s David Bromstad -- isn’t apologetic. “Whitney did not seem in her right state of mind, if you know what I’m saying,” she said, adding that Houston may have spoken more freely with her than with other interviewers because they’re both black women: “She might have felt the ‘sistahood.’ ” As for Method Man, “I noticed that he chose to go on this tirade about me at the time that an album was coming out.”
“She’s not afraid to be confrontational,” Carroll said of Williams. “She’s direct. That’s going to help in distinguishing her.” Thus the “little go-round with Omarosa,” as he called it, only helped the cause. “In New York, it was all over the place,” Carroll said.
The producers still seem to be trying to find exactly the right sales pitch for her as a personality on TV, which due to the involvement of high-dollar advertisers requires hosts to be more politic than on talk radio. Ira Bernstein, co-president of Debmar, groaned when I mentioned a show last week that featured a gag photo involving a giant phallus (don’t ask) and took issue with my characterization of Williams as “polarizing.”
“You’ve got to walk a fine line,” admitted Mort Marcus, a veteran TV syndication executive who runs Debmar with Bernstein. “We want the show to be fun and energetic and controversial but tasteful.”
The host says amen to that. “I want celebrities and their publicists to understand,” she said, that “ ‘The Wendy Williams Show’ is a wonderful place to come and promote your product.” She points out that her interview with Vivica A. Fox was “lovely,” despite the fact that she asked the actress about an Internet sex tape that purports to feature her.
“I only know how to be me. I’m not a polished journalist. I don’t conduct my interviews that way. I am at times a very awkward woman,” she said. “Listen, I am sophisticated. At times.” She giggled. “But I’m also a clumsy mess.”
Maybe, but she’s more like a force of nature. Later this week, she’s parachuting into Los Angeles for a quick visit, after announcing to her husband, Kevin (who’s also her manager): “We need to go out to L.A. just to check the temperature of the Wendy.”
So don’t be surprised if she turns up at the Ivy or some other celebrity-choked spot. She’ll be hard to miss.
“I’ll stand out from everybody else,” she said. “ ‘Who is that woman with all that damn wig hair?’ ”
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at scott.collins @latimes.com