By Isoul Harris | Photography by Olugbenro
“I love and value them,â€ says Wendy Williams of her audience, as she takes a bite of a small, leafy grilled chicken salad. We are having lunch in her sizable dressing room-cum-office thatâ€™s decorated as one would expect of a self-proclaimed, gaudy Jersey Shore girl: explosions of pink, a smattering of leopard prints, knick-knack nods to her past and a curiously framed photo of actor Shia LaBeouf (her hall pass crush) all adorn her studio sanctuary. She has just finished a Monday morning taping and she is still talking. But not about the dayâ€™s â€˜Hot Topicâ€™ Lindsay Lohan or any of the other celebrities she dishes about regularly on her popular show (this seasonâ€™s ratings have increased by 29 percent in the coveted 18 to 49 female demo). Sheâ€™s gushing over her â€œcoâ€“ hosts,â€ instead. â€œYou cannot turn on another talk show and find an audience where everyone looks as good or has as much energy as mine,â€ boasts Williams. And sheâ€™s right.
Soccer moms straight from the carpool and millennials decked out in their fast-fashion best are among the collection of fans who flock to her studio in New York Cityâ€™s Chelsea nabe. Walking onto the set just before the show, I was startled by the deafeningly loud house music blaring from the speakers. The almost ear-splitting booms triggered flashbacks of my summer in Ibiza. No wonder the audience is always so hyped by the time the red on-air light flashes. â€œItâ€™s a mistake to say that my show is solely a womanâ€™s show, a gay manâ€™s show or a black show,â€ Williams insists, while shaking low-calorie red wine vinegar dressing on her salad (her meal makes sense: weighing in at 165 pounds, she beams that sheâ€™s thinner now than she was back in high school). â€œThis show just happens to be hosted by a heterosexual, black woman who is married and almost 50 years old. In my mind, I am a fun but responsible woman.â€
Truth is, Wendy has been fun, but more importantly, responsible for decades. Her work ethic is impressive. After graduating from Bostonâ€™s Northeastern University, she snagged a job at a radio station in the U.S. Virgin Islands and then a position with Washington, D.C.â€™s WOL, owned by Cathy Hughes (now TV Oneâ€™s founder). While working at WOL, she moved closer to her dream of being a top New York DJ by securing a weekend gig at New Yorkâ€™s Hot 103.5, in Queens, and drove back and forth from D.C. and New York for months, sleeping in the Subaru her parents gifted her. When she was ready to leave WOL, she tried to give two weekâ€™s notice, but says she was fired by the station program director Dyana Williams, and Hughes cosigned. Not long after landing in Gotham, her compelling talk and uniquely brash humor immediately caught on with New Yorkâ€™s urban set and, in 1989, the fresh-faced upstart DJ joined WRKS (KISS-FM), and the city became her playground. â€œI was in my early 20s, making $60,000 a year, with no student loans or car note,â€ she says with the same verge she probably felt at that time in her life. â€œThat was rich! I was running around Manhattan, doing my thing.â€
In 1992, she appeared on an episode of Martin and Billboard magazine, the radio bible, named her â€œBest On-Air Radio Personalityâ€ in 1993. A year later, Emmis Communications purchased WRKS and shuttled their burgeoning radio star over to their other station, the now venerable Hot 97. Her mix of potty mouth comments, open discussion of her personal life (she was one of the first black public figures to admit to having plastic surgeryâ€”liposuction and breast implantsâ€”in 1994) and her refusal to extol celebrities, choosing to almost joyfully eviscerate their carefully-crafted PR facades instead, vaulted her to the top of the ratings heap in the nationâ€™s biggest radio market. Wendy Williams was on fire.