Wendy Williams Offers Some Very Tough Love — & You’ll Want To Pay Attention

Photographed by Winnie Au; Designed by Meg Lazaros.
Wendy Williams can be a polarizing figure, starting with the famous celebrity spats from her radio days and extending to Hot Topics, the very opinionated celebrity-gossip segment she does on her TV show. One of the biggest syndicated talk shows in America — and airing in 52 countries — which she produces and hosts, between writing multiple New York Times best sellers, running a production company, raising a teen, and occasionally appearing on Broadway. NBD.
At 50, Williams is conquering pop culture, pretty much all of media, and so much more. But, if you happen to be one of those people who worship at the altar of Howard Stern but find her aggressive, exuberant — and, yes, loud — personality to be a little bitchy for your taste, well, she can't be bothered with what you think.
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Ahead, this Superwoman talks about dealing with the haters, her working-two-gigs-and-sleeping-in-the-car days, being an introvert (yes, really), and why you should never, ever cry at work. She also delves into her ideas about modern feminism — and whether or not she'd apply the label to herself. It's controversial, but very much worth discussion. That, plus a whole lot of tough love, right this way.
Photographed by Winnie Au.
You’ve built something incredible for yourself, as a sort of solo mission. I know that when you were growing up, your parents weren’t totally jazzed about the idea of you being a DJ. What gave you the strength to do it anyway?
“Being a newscaster or radio personality was something I had wanted since sixth grade. I grew up in Jersey with New York media, and I was very influenced by the radio and people doing the news. And, as far as my parents, I knew they weren’t going to be able to help me at all. We didn’t know newscasters or DJs; there were no telephone calls to make or nepotism that was going to happen to me. So, I had to block out their voices and just go for it.”
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What’s the advice you would give women who don’t feel like they have that kind of strength?
“If they don’t have that strength, it will never happen. The initial strength you need to get on a career path starts long before high school. You’re supposed to be doing your research and figuring out what you want. And, you can’t count on people to open a door for you. You have to have a hustler spirit to be able to get out there and hustle. You can’t listen to what your friends or your siblings say; you have to listen to yourself.
“But, always have a plan B. I’m not a dream killer; I’m a realist. Everybody can’t be a pop star. The church is filled with girls who can sing better than Mariah Carey, but Mariah is the one who grabbed the brass ring.”
What was your plan B?
“The advice I give now is different from the advice I took myself. If my dream of being on the radio had been crushed, I would have just been so crushed that I would have been a schoolteacher or something — just to pay my bills. But, the advice I give now is to find something that, even if it’s your second choice, it’s not going to suck for you to wake up and go to work every day.
“But, I didn’t even have a chance to get a plan B. There was never a time in my life where I said, ‘God, this isn’t working out. What am I going to do?’ I was only unemployed in my career for two weeks in my life. Over 20 years, just two weeks. I got my first paying job in radio two months before graduation; they saved it for me. I was going to be making minimum wage, which was $3.25 or $3.75 an hour, for a four-hour radio shift in St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. That wasn’t a lot of money, but my parents supplemented my income, calling it ‘grad school.’ And, I loved being on the radio so much that I would’ve done it for free, professionally, for those first few years, I swear.”
Wendy's own Michael Michael Kors jumpsuit; CC Skye earrings; Alexis Bittar cuff; Cartier watch, bracelets, and rings.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
How did you move up from there?
“After the Virgin Islands, I said, ‘I’m not going to leave this job unless I can monkey bar to the next job. So, I left there and worked in D.C. for $9,000 a year, which was a huge leap. And, I was in D.C. for a little under a year when I hustled my way into Hot 103. Back then, it was dance music here in New York — they played freestyle.
Was that the right move? To take a job playing music you didn’t love, because you were on a medium you loved?
“I was passionate about radio. I could’ve played country music and had the time of my life. That’s the mistake a lot of people make. If you want to be a magazine journalist, you cannot say, ‘Oh my god, I would love to write for Vogue, and that’s it.’ If you’re a journalist, then you write. Whether you are writing for Field & Stream or Highlights, you write. And then, you work your way toward what you like. You don’t pigeonhole yourself.”
Wendy's own Diane Von Furstenberg dress; Nine West shoes; Cartier watch and rings.
Photographed by Winnie Au.
What was your next step in working toward what you really liked?
“The music I was playing in Washington, D.C., was old soul music. When I say old, I mean old as dirt. I was not familiar with this music at all. So, my thing was: How can I get back to New York? And then, I got a job in New York, working there once a week. I would work five days a week in D.C., where my apartment was, and I would work two weekend shifts in New York and drive back and forth and sleep at rest stops.
“It’s very, very lonely if you’re really going to succeed in something. Because you’re in your own head space if you block everyone out and don’t want to get caught up with the mess. It’s very lonely. I would sleep at rest stops with my pillow and blanket in the back and my alarm clock that I Krazy Glued to my dashboard. I got the baby shades and pulled them down. I would go in the bathroom and I would take a little bird bath and then go on to my next shift.
“And, guess what? That part-time job turned into a full-time job. And, that was $60,000, plus paid appearances. I was rich! You know, in comparison. So, I left D.C. and moved back home, and I haven’t left New York since.
“Going back to what I say to women that don’t have the strength? You’d better find it. Because the world will run you over. Nobody has time to wait for you to get strong. And, none of us are strong in the beginning, but you can’t let the world see that you’re not strong. Through the sleepless nights of crying and loneliness trying to do your hustle, there will be so many sacrifices you have to make, guys who don’t understand your drive, parents who don’t quite understand you.”
Wendy's own Diane Von Furstenberg dress; Nine West shoes; Cartier watch and rings.
Photographed by Winnie Au.
To deal with all of that, you have to have passion driving you forward.
“Right, and you have to have enough passion for yourself. You can’t rely on boyfriends or parents. Parents just don’t understand. And, my friends, the people I knew during that time, might say a lot about me because I don’t have a lot of time to hang out with them, but one thing they will unanimously say is, ‘Wendy was meant to do this; we just never freaking saw the vision.’”
At that time, did you have mentors who were able to guide you?
“No. Who knows radio people in real life? Maybe nowadays kids do. And, I go to speak at schools. But, [when I was in school] talk-show hosts never came to speak at schools. I would’ve loved that, but they always had the cornball professions coming in.”
Photographed by Winnie Au.
A few years back, you told xoJane that you’re so aware of how you’re perceived when you walk into a room and you manage that so people don’t feel intimidated by you. How do you manage that without feeling like you’re hiding yourself?
“It’s manageable if you are aware of the skin that you are in. And, I am aware of the skin I am in. I know that they’re implants, but I know my breasts are large. And, I know that at 5-foot-11 in flat feet I have no business wearing four-inch heels, but my power is in my height. So, I use it as my best accessory. Also, I’m aware that I like longer, blonder hair.
“My thing is too much. But, too much is never enough to me. And, I know that makes people intimidated, especially if you’ve watched the show and think I’m maybe judgmental or quick to give advice or something like that. But, I don’t hide who I am. I just know who I am. And, who I am is not someone people should be intimidated by. I don’t use my power for evil; I use it for good — unless you cross me. But, other than that, please, I’m the sunshine. And, I’ve always been that way. I got that from my mother. We are the sunshine.”
Wendy's own Diane Von Furstenberg dress; Nine West shoes; Cartier watch and rings.
Photographed by Winnie Au.
I do want to talk a bit about your persona on the show. It’s different from a lot of what else is out there.
“I don’t know that it’s as original as people think. I mean, I’m no fool. We didn’t invent Hot Topics. The View used the name, and we stole it. And, I didn’t invent talking about Britney Spears and Puff Daddy and Drake. Entertainment Tonight has been doing it for years. I didn’t invent going into the audience with a microphone, you know, Ask Wendy. Donahue, one of my heroes, was doing that years ago.
“I think that what separates our show from the pack is the host. And, I don’t mean that in a self-serving way. But, I get that question a lot, like, "What makes the show different?" and it’s the host. Because Jennifer Lopez goes on all the shows, but the difference is in the conversation we have when she comes on our show.”
To me, what stands out is that you have all of those elements together. You can call out Snooki or Chris Brown in one breath, but in the next moment, they will be there on your couch for the interview.
“Here’s the factual thing. People who are in my studio audience, my cohosts, watch the show enough to sustain us. You know we are renewed through 2017. And, they are the tastemakers. My audience is the audience that dictates what movie is good. And, when I say my audience, I mean the age group that is statistically attracted to my show. My 22-year-olds, they are young sassafrasses, they’re upwardly mobile, they are fashionable, and they’re not corny.
“Also, as a host, I’m not invested in celebrities past the show. I enjoy celebrity culture. I mean, I love Snooki, and she lives in Jersey; we don’t live too far from each other, I think. But, I’m not going over to Snooki’s house, and she’s not coming over to mine. I don’t like to get too close to the hot flame of celebrity because it’s going to taint my Hot Topics.”
Photographed by Winnie Au.
It’s just business. So, you’re not out hobnobbing with celebrities in life?
“Don’t get me wrong. Back when I was in radio and doing a lot of things and getting a lot of invitations, I did all that hobnobbing. Enough hobnobbing to know that now that I have this platform, I’m not hobbing or nobbing. I’m going home to make dinner.
“And, that’s why, if you take someone like Chris Brown, I’m only reporting what other people are reporting as well. I’m giving my twist on it and sometimes my twist might seem a little twisty, but no, I’m just keeping it real. And then, in the same breath, next week Chris will want to come to the show because my audience is the one who he wants to reach. I’m not a mean-spirited person. I’m just adding my opinion, if you care. As a 50-year-old woman, this is how I feel.
What about the double standard there, though? Howard Stern shocks or pushes the envelope, and critics call him brutally honest and fearless. You do something similar and share an unpopular opinion, and they call you overly aggressive — or even a bitch. Is that something you notice and try to combat?
“I don’t care. One of the things that I love about being on TV every day is that if you watch the show enough, you’re going to realize, ‘Oh my god, she’s not mean-spirited; she’s actually being funny. And, she’s not bitchy. She just has an opinion.’
“So, I don’t care. At this particular point, I leave that up to you younger girls at the front line. You be obvious with your change in terms of women and how we are perceived. Me, I’m living my life. There are not enough hours for me to stand there on the front lines with you.
“I could give a shit about what people say about me. ‘She’s too tall, or she’s too loud. She’s so mean, or she’s so judgmental.’ I know exactly who I am and exactly what I want out of life and exactly what it took for me to get here. I’m the luckiest girl in the world. I mean, did you see my shoe closet?
“I have earned every single bit of what’s going on today, and I am loving it. I love what I do. And, I love that I can do it by example instead of standing on the front lines with you.”
Photographed by Winnie Au.
It’s one thing to say it and another thing to live it. How do you deal with the truly negative comments? It’s hard not to take these things personally when people are making such pointed, personal criticisms.
“It’s very hard. It is really personal — whether it’s about the wigs or people saying, ‘I swear that’s a man.’ But, once someone calls you a man and you get over that, there’s no place worse that the haters can go. After that, what else are they going to call me? I’ve been called Wendel on my own site.”
And, you can laugh about it?
“I can laugh about it. I didn’t always. But, I can laugh about it now because I’m grown and I’m happy with the little life I lead. I know I’m a good human being. I also realize I’m not reckless with my opinions — I’m just calling it the way I see it.”
So, you feel like it doesn’t come from a malicious place when you’re calling people out?
”Yes, and I can vamp on myself, too! Maybe the woman I’m giving advice to, telling her not to date a 28-year-old, is 52. I’m 50. Same difference. We are hot. Look how hot she is. But, she has no business having anything more than a one-night stand with him. So then, here go the comments on the thing. I read five and I’m over it.”
Wendy's own Diane Von Furstenberg dress; Nine West shoes; House of Harlow cuff; Cartier watch and rings.
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
“No.”
Because you don’t like labels, or because you’re truly against the idea?
“Oh no, I like a label. I think labels are very important in life. However, I’m not a feminist because I grew up in a time of Betty Friedan and the real feminists, the real bra-burning feminists. A lot of their platform was 'We don’t need a man, we can do it ourselves.'
“So, I don’t consider myself a feminist only because there are a lot of things I do in my life that weren’t on the feminist agenda back in the day. I’m the little woman back at home, and I enjoy being it. I enjoy making a meal for my family, keeping the kitchen clean, or making sure someone does it. We don’t argue over socks on the floor; I will pick up the socks and put them in the hamper. Because everyone who is married knows you pick your battles and you pick your wars. And, it’s not worth warring over a freaking sock on the floor.”
Sure, but what would you say to someone like me, who feels that modern feminism is really about choice? About feeling empowered to do all of those things, if that is what you want.
“Maybe I’m a modern feminist. You know what a modern feminist is? A girl who is not scared to be a girly girl or to be vulnerable — because, secretly, she knows she can be as hard and strong as any man.
“Maybe that comes from having a good career. I’ve always been able to pay my own bills; I’ve never needed a man for anything other than to tell me that I’m pretty and have some sex with me and love me and make me feel secure. And, that’s a really good feeling.
“But, I always felt that women have to have their own money. You might want to blend an account if you want. My husband and I just started blending, after 17 years, for accounting purposes. He’s got money; I have money. And, it works. It works very well. But, I would never open my own car door. I would never want to walk on the outside of the sidewalk. And, I like those things. But, if there was nobody there to do those things, I know perfectly well how to open my own car door and change the tire.”
Photographed by Winnie Au.
I don’t want to call it “having it all,” because I don’t think anyone can, but what is it that you do to keep your life running — balancing a really big career with a family?
“It’s been a sacrifice in terms of my personal life. When I was in college, I didn’t have friends from high school. When I left college, I didn’t keep any friends from college because I was always laser-focused. But, the big sacrifice I had to make, which I don’t consider a sacrifice anymore, is that I don’t have a big pool of girlfriends. There were no girlfriends sleeping in the Subaru at the rest stop. It was me, myself, and I.
“And, now that I’ve achieved the things I wanted to achieve, who has time to make new friends? After we finish here, I go home. I like doing my own grocery shopping and going to the school for parent-teacher conferences. I like to maintain a nice household. That’s the way I live my life. I’m not going to call it lonely because I’m definitely not lonely, but I spend a lot of my time alone. I enjoy my own company. I enjoy it at our house.”
It’s tough to figure out how to be happy doing things alone, though.
“You have to be your own best friend. That’s probably the best piece of advice I can give any woman: Be your own best friend and you will never be alone.
“After I do this show and all the things the show entails, whether that’s staying after for interviews, or hosting a gala, or attending a gala, I go home. I mean, it’s a very glamorous life, and I love it, but I’m an introvert and I need this life to pull me out of my shell. I need private time in order to be out.”
I feel like that would come as a surprise to a lot of people.
“Well, my career has made me an introvert because I feel like every time I walk into a room, everyone knows more about me than I know about them. I don’t like an uneven playing field, but doing the show creates that. So, I like going home and recharging where nobody is watching or gossiping or trying to get a piece of gossip from me.”
Photographed by Winnie Au.
But, when you’re out, you’re 100% on. I imagine you have no problem commanding a room. So, what’s the advice you would give to women who feel shy or anxious walking into a networking situation. How can they channel their inner Wendy?
"It’s true. I don’t even need a drink before I do it. I would say maybe have one glass of wine before an event, but one always leads to three and you don’t want to embarrass yourself. I feel like being a true conversationalist is something that you either have or don’t. But, for the purpose of networking, or the few moments that you are at that event, you have got to channel it and you have to walk in the room with something prepared to talk about. Whether it's that the weather is horrible, or you wear an interesting pin so someone will say, ‘I like your pin,’ and then you get into a conversation about it.
“Have a five-point checklist of things that are interesting that you can talk about it. Two of them should be social and three of them should have to do with your career or the event at hand.
“Shy people have to plan ahead more when they go into rooms like that. And, project your voice. I don’t mean scream, even though I’m screaming right now. Also, nobody likes a weak handshake. Anytime I shake someone’s hand and it’s weak, I’m like, ‘Oh, weak.’ And, I immediately do an entire character assessment. Finally, give firm eye contact.”
Has that always been easy for you?
“When I was growing up in New Jersey, there was no television in the kitchen and my mom, although she was a career woman, she would have dinner on the table every night by five o’clock. And, every night, everyone would come with conversation prepared. It wasn’t an assignment, but you wanted to be heard.
“And, listen: If you’re not heard, the world will roll over you. You can be as good as you want in the career you have, if you don’t sing about it, nobody will care.”
Photographed by Winnie Au.
You have to do your own PR!
“Yes! I still do my PR and I’ve got PR people! And, there’s one other thing that I wanted to say to women. A lot of times women lose themselves in love so early in their career that they end up getting stuck or settling.
“Or, they think it should be a 50-50 thing. For instance, there was no way I was staying in Boston after graduation. I didn’t have a job there. I had a boyfriend, and we broke up. Goodbye. He had a great job and he was older than me. So, I could’ve waited around for a job and sold Lancôme at Macy’s or something like that, but no way.”
You needed to start your own adventure.
“Exactly. And, that’s not to say that you should never succumb to love. But, just don’t do it in those grinding years. Give yourself your 20s to go out, date, have fun, and grind out that career. At least wait until 27 before you start falling in love. And, even then, don’t let that love take you out of your game.”
I’m also curious about any bad advice you’ve gotten over the years. What have people told you that you wish you hadn’t listened to?
“I’ve gotten so much bad advice. I remember when I got fired one time and I cried. (By the way, don’t let them see you cry at work! You are entitled to do that at least five times when you are really young, but don’t ever do it again. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever.)
“So, I got fired. I was 22. They called me into the office and fired me, and I sobbed with the ugly face, with my shoulders going up and down, and I couldn’t control it. Then, I said, ‘But, why?’ In an office full of men. They said, ‘Well, we just don’t need your services now.’ And, I was like, ‘What am I going to do now?!’ I asked them that. First of all, stupid me. But, do you want to know what they told me? One of them said, ‘Well, you can always marry your boyfriend.’ Exactly. Terrible advice. But, I didn’t marry that boyfriend! And, now I have a talk show.”
Wendy's own Michael Michael Kors jumpsuit; CC Skye earrings; Alexis Bittar cuff; Cartier watch, bracelets, and rings.
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Now that you’re the boss, do you feel compelled to create a different kind of environment, to nurture the next generation of women?
“Young men, women, I don’t care. I want everyone to work hard, and it’s important for me to lead by example. I would venture to say that most everyone who works here absolutely loves it. There’s a lot of celebrities that are like, ‘You can’t ride my elevator,’ or, ‘You can’t look her in the face.’ But, not here.
“I think that this is a great work environment and that greatness has been created from the top. For me, no matter the crap I had to deal with the day before, when I come in here, I have to lead by example. I have to remember that this is a dream and a joy. I am the luckiest girl in the world to have this talk show, and to have it myself and not to be on a panel show. Because that means that everything here is all about me! And, without getting carried away, I love it.
“So, the environment I create is of gratitude, and six seasons later, I still have that spark in my eye. I can’t think of a better job, either. You might like what you do, but this is better. The president might like what he does, but this is better. It’s the best.”