Wendy Williams' catchphrase is "How you doin'?" It's not a question you need to ask her, though. Spend five seconds in her presence and you can tell she's doing great.
In town several weeks ago for the Circle City Classic festivities, Williams turned out to be every bit the oversized, outspoken personality she was on radio for 23 years and continues to be on The Wendy Williams Show (4 p.m. weekdays, WNDY-23), her new syndicated talk show.
"I'm 45," she said without prompting. "Me, Demi, Vanessa — all of us gals look terrific. But it doesn't come easy. Any one of them would tell you, it takes more than soap and water and a three-hour catnap to put it together."
Williams grew up in New Jersey in "a white picket fence household," went to charm school ("Although you couldn't tell by my manners now," she said, letting out a little earthquake of a laugh) and studied radio at Northeastern University in Boston.
She wanted to be a TV newscaster, but once she got behind a radio mike, she was hooked.
Now, after a career that will earn her induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame next month, she's having a ball on TV. The Wendy Williams Show is dish-y and tart-y, a non-stop party. She doles out celebrity gossip ("You need moisturizer and help," she says after showing a picture of Lindsay Lohan), offers advice to audience members and, of course, chats up celebrities.
"What I'm trying to build for myself is a good quality of life," she said. "That doesn't mean you have to have the most money. It means you have to be happy with what you've built for yourself."
Here's more of the conversation.
Nuvo: You must be happy to be out of radio.
Williams: The way you're saying that, you must know that radio is really in trouble. I was able to feel rumblings of it — we all were — for quite some time. And yeah, it does feel good to be out. It doesn't make it any easier being in TV, but I like trying fresh, new things. I'd been in radio for 23 years and the basic formula has been the same. I've gone through a few different radio stations, but the microphone looks the same, the audience is pretty much the same. It's not like I've gone from talk radio to jazz radio. I spent the majority of my career in pop-culture radio.
In my earlier years of radio, I was a liner jock (reading prepared copy) like all the rest of them. I was the one to break free from the liners and get the phone calls from the program director, who would say, "Look, that was more than the weather and your name. Nobody cares about Mary J. Blige. You get in 12 songs an hour, or else."
I'm like, "But I was out last night and Mary was there. You know she's dating K-Ci from Jodeci." This is a story from back in 1992. "Mary was there and they got in a fight and Mary splashed Heineken all over him. And then I'll play What's the 411?" So the program director who really allowed me to do that said, "All right, Wendy, tell your story." It was a love-hate relationship to try to break free.
Nuvo: I had friends who went into radio and all they were allowed to do was read what was put in front of them. I couldn't figure out why anyone would want to do that as a career.
Williams: It sucked. I grew up in New Jersey, so my influence was New York. Payola was hard, the parties were harder and it sounded all very glamorous from my bedroom. I didn't know anything about payola, but I knew jocks were talking about driving fancy cars and going partying with Bianca Jagger, and Grace Jones is coming to town, and the party's over at Studio 54. They're in the studio and they're talking and the lights are dim, as the jock is describing it. There's chicken and there's champagne, and this sounds like fun. These weren't liner jocks. They were able to talk and have conversations and laugh.
Nuvo: Did you pitch the TV show, or did they come to you?
Williams: They came to me. It was a weird phone call that Kevin (her husband) got. It was (the production company) Debmar-Mercury on the telephone and they're now our partners. They said, "We heard about Wendy, we want to meet with you. We understand you manage her and we want to talk about doing a show with her. He met with them within a couple of days and before you know it, the business was done.
I'd done five pilots before. And when Sharon Osbourne had her talk show and Ozzy took a bad fall and she had to go to London to be with him for about a month, they needed somebody to sit in for her. They wanted to know if I could do a two-week leg. All I can remember is, the reason I chose not to do it was because her numbers were low, the show was going to be canceled and I've always been protective of my brand. It might not be much, but at least any black marks on it were created by me. This was my opportunity to get on TV, but if it failed, I might not ever be able to have my own show.
Then remember the younger version of The View? It was called Life & Style, but it was like a View-type format. They wanted me to be one of the girls there, but I didn't want to be part of an ensemble cast. I felt my personality was too strong. I had something to bring to the table. I'm no Rush Limbaugh, in terms of being in 300 markets when I was on radio, but my voice counted for something. So here it is. And here I am. And it's good.
Nuvo: You turn on the show and it's obvious you're having a good time.
Williams: I am. And the show is totally Wendy. People seem to enjoy the show. Guests always leave with a smile. In yesterday's show, I interviewed Andrea Bowen from Desperate Housewives. Her mother was in the audience. I love when the parents come and I love talking to all factions of Hollywood. Melissa Joan Hart was there, Wayne Brady has come by, today's show was the Sugarhill Gang and Lisa Lampanelli — 'cause we can be blue on the Wendy show. Tasteful and blue for daytime.
There are no new guests, but there are certainly new twists to interviews. Lisa on my show would not be the same as Lisa on The Tonight Show. She brought her fiancé, and he was sitting in the front row. I was able to chat with him and talk to her. And then we did the Sugarhill Gang, and I changed into Nikes, and Lisa wanted to be out there. We just have a blast on the show.
Nuvo: Your competition is crazy at 4 p.m. — Oprah, Judge Judy and The Doctors.
Williams: I know. Who do you watch? There's room for all of us, though. I'm just glad to be here and I want to stay. I really enjoy this daytime genre. I always knew I could do it if I ever got the shot, but having done pilots and having been in on meetings and having been told how to act, as opposed to accepting me for how I am, it's not easy to get here.
My show is not rocket science, as you can see. You turn on my show and I want you to have fun, even if the TV's on mute. Look at that set — that's the loudest, gaudiest set. It's a mess. And I love it. Look at the audience — they dress up and they stand up. Then you've got me and my wigs. It's just fun.