Before Wendy Williams became a fixture on daytime television with her syndicated gossipy talker she was airing out celebrities on the radio. She’s made plenty of enemies, but “telling it like it is” has proved good for business. The sixth season of her talk show opened with its highest ratings and is renewed through 2017 (it appears on channels 11 and 13 in Los Angeles). When she’s not dishing on Lindsay Lohan, the Kardashians or the “Housewives,” Williams, 50, keeps her plate full with myriad projects — books, stand-up comedy, producing — outside her guilty-pleasure talker.
Do you enjoy sitting down and being interviewed?
I don’t like it, no.
What don’t you like? The personal questions?
People sometimes expect a deeper answer than what I’m willing to give. Because I come from the place of interviewing I know how to answer a question giving you what you need to hear and not a minute more. I also have a habit of turning an interview into me interviewing you. It’s a very, very difficult habit to break. It’s not hard to break on my show because it’s only one hour … so I know what do there.
Your talk show has succeeded where others have failed. Many have faltered in the often unforgiving daytime slot -— Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric are a couple. What’s your secret?
Being myself. Not paying attention when people say you’re great and not paying attention when people say you’re horrible. I just listen to myself, I’m my own worst critic. The person that’s on TV is the person you see in the grocery store, with of course the usual modifications of decorum. I’m a quick wit, straight to the point, no nonsense. If I don’t have time to say ‘Hi’ to you at the grocery store because my son is standing outside in the rain, I’m going to tell you that. But it’s the same kind of delivery that I’m going to give you on my talk show. Like, George Clooney got married and I really don’t care, but you do so here’s the story.
Do you think your success has paved the way for opinionated talkers like “The Real” and diverse faces in daytime that are more loose?
I do believe in a way that our show has opened doors for others to be more forthright on TV. I don’t say “my show” because my whole staff is producing the girl they see in front of them. They aren’t trying to change me, they are just producing me with a little more taste than maybe I bring to the table. The landscape of daytime has changed. I’m not so sure people go to daytime TV for kumbaya moments anymore. I fit into that wheelhouse of people, who are very busy all day long doing stuff and want an hour to escape. I’m doing the kind of show I’d watch as a 50-year-old woman. I don’t have time to keep up with Lindsay Lohan and all of them, can I just turn on TV and have someone break it down as to why I should care or not?
You executive produced the Aaliyah biopic for Lifetime, but years ago your story was supposed to come to screen. What happened?
My autobiography [2003’s “Wendy’s Got the Heat”] was the first book I wrote. My husband and I made the decision that we were going to turn it into a movie. Robin Givens played me. We funded it ourselves, which I would never wish on my worst enemy. We shot around Manhattan and told the story of a girl from Jersey, me, with a pretty big radio career and a lot of potholes. Being married, having a child, going through infidelity and miscarriage, heartache and drug abuse. A month after the movie wrapped in 2007 the phone rings and it was Debmar-Mercury. They had been streaming my radio show and were looking for the next big thing in daytime. Less than a year later I was on TV doing a six-week sneak peek in four cities.
So you paused the film for the show?
I was doing radio and TV at the same time. I made the decision to leave radio and take a chance. Our executive decision was to put [the biopic] on the shelf because if we passed that test then we’re going to get a first season. And then when we got the first season we thought to keep it there because the bigger the show gets, the bigger the budget we’d have to make the film better.
Your profile has changed considerably, I imagine the film is a stronger sell now.
Yes. The way it ended was I got out of a Bentley and walked into a radio station with my headphones and my little swagger. Maybe the way it ends now is I get out of car service and I walk to a TV studio. Same girl, same story though.
Now that you’ve tried producing, any projects you’re eyeing?
I would love to be able to produce more made-for-TV movies. There’s no discounting the big screen. But me and my husband [Kevin Hunter, her manager and business partner] have developed some great relationships with various networks since having this talk show. We did a project for Oxygen [“Celebrities Undercover”]. We did a project for the TV Guide Network [“How You Doin’ Broadway?!”]. The talk show repeats on BET. I’m hosting the Soul Train Awards for Centric.
What would you want to develop?
I would love to do reality TV. Not me personally but to produce. And not the fighting kind, the cute kind. [Some shows] started getting really embarrassing to watch as a brown woman.
Earlier this year your seventh book was released. What’s your writing process?
Well, unlike a lot of authors, I will be the one to cop to having a ghostwriter. I’ve always written with someone else. Believe it or not, the past writer I had for “Hold Me in Contempt,” I never met. She’s an English professor at a school down South. All of our meetings were on the telephone. She never wanted me to tell you her name. She didn’t want credit on the cover of the book. But I know a lot of writers who lie and act like superwomen and supermen.
On the subject of branching out, I saw your face on a home goods line. Sheets, towels, etc.
You know how something happens and then it stops, but there’s still merchandise out there? That’s what that was. I was floating maybe a little too soon into other things. That was maybe during Season Two of the show. I’m shocked it’s still out there. I’m going to have go see.
But there are other, more current, things out there.
Like my wig line. Wendy Williams Hair World. They look nice. I had a hand in all the wigs in the line. They go all the way up to $1,000 if you want the kind of wigs that I wear. They aren’t for everybody, but there is something for everyone. I do have clothing and other things in the hopper for next year. But again, nothing moves without the talk show.
You’ve been trying stand-up comedy. How did that start?
I was turning 50, and I was asked what’s on my bucket list. I thought, “Well, I’ve always been told I’m funny; I want to do standup.” In New York there’s a million different clubs. I figured somebody would arrange something small. There would be a light bulb swinging from a string, a bunch of seedy drunks in the room and I’d be one of several to get up and tell a few jokes. Didn’t happen that way. The Venetian called and they wanted me in this series they were doing called Lipshtick, which were women comedians. Susie Essman, Loni Love, Joy Behar, Lisa Lampanelli — these are real comedians.
How did you prepare?
I thought, “OK, here’s what I’m going to do. I don’t do knock-knock jokes, and I can’t have somebody write me jokes. I can take regular scenarios in my life. I’m not a comedian, I’m more of a storyteller.” But it’s stories that I’m telling at my kitchen table, as opposed to sitting in a pencil skirt on “The Wendy Williams Show,” so I can be a little bit more … dirty.
Any plans to maybe take the act on the road?
Well, management has talked about doing a little comedy tour. I’m open to it; I only like to do things that I think I’ll be good at. But I don’t mind trying anything once. So we’ll see.