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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.”
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.