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Wendy Williams’ shameful masterpiece

The iconic celebrity gossip produces biopic, a documentary about her own scandalous life

If you haven’t heard her on the radio or listened to her talk show, you’ve probably seen her picture online, crying, fainting or smirking. Wendy Williams, the radio shock jock turned daytime talk show host turned everlasting meme, reports on celebrities while being one herself. The weight those two roles hold, and their conflict with each other, was examined at length in two films about Williams released Jan. 30 on Lifetime. 

Starting with the biopic Wendy Williams: The Movie then turning to the documentary Wendy Williams: What a Mess, Wendy devotees can bask in four hours of Williams footage if her daily, hour-long talk show doesn’t suffice.

Quite frankly, both movies are bad. But they were probably never meant to be good. Produced by Lifetime, a channel known for shows like Dance Moms and Married at First Sight, the two deep dives into Williams’ life are pure fodder for her dedicated fan base. The accents could have been worse, the set more vacuous, the storyline hastier, and Williams fans would still tune in. 

Those who watch Wendy, like me, aren’t concerned with quality. They just care about the unadulterated details.

Williams, who produced both movies, knows this. That’s why, after over three decades in the business, Williams decided to partner with Lifetime in 2019, an unrelenting year for her in the public eye. Grappling with a recent divorce from her husband after he impregnated another woman, being publicly treated for alcoholism and reeling from fainting live on television, Wendy was, well, a mess. So bring the cameras in!

The documentary begins with Wendy eating caviar off of a hot Dorito, crying. “Kevin f***ed up,” she exclaims, referring to her ex-husband. From the opening scene, no time is wasted. From weight issues to liposuction, coke addiction to sexual assault, marriage to divorce, the documentary — much like the biopic — hopscotches between the most scandalous aspects of Williams’ life while the subject guides the way. 

The most interesting thing about the Wendy Williams film extravaganza, though, isn’t necessarily Kevin’s infidelity or her recent relapse. It’s that Williams herself is telling the story. 

Karl Ove Knausgård, the Norwegian writer famous for his six-volume series recounting his life, “My Struggle,” described the experience of writing about one’s life as an exercise in shame: shame “regulates everything,” and in exposing your own shame, you free yourself. While perhaps indecorous to compare the prized Norwegian author to Williams, they both approach their own lives, their own shame, in the same way (Knausgård albeit a bit more poetically). By sharing everything, from the most embarrassing to the most self-aggrandizing, Williams has the power. She tells her own shameful story.

There are plenty of other celebrities who exist behind million-dollar, LA compounds of shame. They present as infallible until a tabloid releases pictures of them leaving rehab or leaks their affair. They protect their shame with such ferocity that when their secrets are inevitably published, they are left clutching their chest, denying the accusations. The story is no longer theirs to tell.

Williams, of course, is also one of the people tasked with the vile work of exposing other people’s shame. And she is extraordinarily talented at it. Known for her correct predictions about celebrity marriages — she reported on Jay-Z’s affair years before Beyonce exposed her own husband in Lemonade — and her deep knowledge of pop culture, she’s amassed a following of those interested in entirely frivolous news. Her years of dedication to other people’s drama have elevated her to an estimated net worth of $40 million. It has also given her a pretty good sense of how to be famous.

By scandalizing her own life, Williams is the Late-Stage Celebrity. She presents her biography as if it were a Page Six story. Talking about the first time she saw pictures of her husband’s pregnant mistress, Williams cries, “this is really going down!” In the movie, the actress playing Williams, Ciera Payton, tells the audience halfway through, “Trigger warning! The rest of this story is rough.” She congratulates The Daily Mail on doing an “excellent job” of reporting on Kevin’s affair. She has no shame as she cries in her new bachelorette pad, overlooking New York. She has no shame as she walks her audience through her liposuction and breast implants. She has no shame in recounting the time she spray-painted Kevin’s mistress’ house.

The relinquishing of shame, though, requires something else. While it is shameless to produce two movies about your own downfall, it also takes an impressive, almost unbelievable, amount of confidence to think people will want to watch it. Like her literary twin, Knausgård, the two have an arrogance that supports, respectively, four hours and six volumes about themselves. Shameless? Sure. Self-obsessed? Certainly. 

Williams’ talk show is called “The Wendy Williams Show,” and the two movies might as well be called that, too. Williams has little interest in investigating the historic role she plays as a major Black woman in media. She seems unconcerned about the rise in celebrity gossip or the implications of its sensationalization. Above all, she seems to be concerned with herself.

Toward the end of “Wendy Williams: The Movie,” Payton smiles at the camera and pronounces, “Now, finally, I’m proud of me.” But that doesn’t seem to be the accurate conclusion. 

Williams has always been proud of herself, proud of her job, proud of her body, even perversely proud of the news her divorce created. She prides herself on her shamelessness. In an added clip before the credits roll, the real Wendy appears to ask the audience her signature question in her signature New Jersey drawl. Looking, as she often is, at a mirror, she asks: “How you doin’?” This self-interrogation is a conclusion more befitting to the four-hour event. Wendy may be proud of herself for shamelessly reveling in the drama of other people’s lives and her own. Whether or not her audience shares the same pride is less certain.


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