What we learn about Wendy Williams from her disturbing new documentary

From her signature pink armchair, Wendy Williams helmed one of the top-rated daytime talk shows for more than a decade, attracting a loyal following who came to expect her bold takes on celebrity gossip.

The former radio host is beloved for her idiosyncrasies: mistakenly calling Dua Lipa “Dula Peep,” greeting guests with “How you doin’?” and limp wrists, her quips-turned-internet-memes and her famous “Hot Topics” segments. A polarizing figure, she was also criticized for her celebrity slights that many consider disrespectful, including perpetuating a rumor that Tupac was raped in prison.

In “Where is Wendy Williams?,” a four-part special that aired on Lifetime this weekend, a documentary crew set out to chronicle Williams’s journey to revive her career amid growing concerns about health issues that forced her to abruptly leave her talk show in 2022. But the series centered largely on personal and unsettling scenes of Williams’s declining health and her addiction issues, which later derailed filming after she was admitted to a medical facility for treatment.

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In the days leading up to the premiere, Williams’s care team gave a startling update on those health challenges, announcing that she was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia (FTD) last year. She underwent medical tests amid widespread speculation about her condition, “particularly when she began to lose words, act erratically at times, and have difficulty understanding financial transactions,” a press release stated.

Primary progressive aphasia is a neurological syndrome that gradually impairs communication skills. FTD refers to rare types of dementia that affect the frontal and temporal lobes in the brain. Bruce Willis was also diagnosed with FTD last year.

“My mom has done a good job of making it seem like everything is okay, always,” Williams’s son Kevin Hunter Jr. says during the docuseries. “But in reality, there’s something wrong going on.”

Several scenes in the documentary show Williams appearing to struggle with her memory and following conversations. A trip Williams took to get vape pens from her usual smoke shop turned sour as she lashed out at her publicist Shawn Zanotti and her driver. She didn’t recognize the store, and repeatedly demanded the specific vapes she wanted despite Zanotti telling her they weren’t in stock.

Later, in an emotional sit-down from her New York apartment with reality star Angela White (also known as Blac Chyna), Williams removes her wig and shows White her bare feet, misshapen and swollen as a result of lymphedema. During their conversation, Williams appears confused and abruptly tells White that her real name is “Wendy Hunter. Yup. And I’m divorced. He’s got no money.” (Williams filed for divorce from Kevin Hunter in 2019, her husband of more than 20 years, after he fathered a child with another woman).

“When it comes to my aunt’s dementia, there are three things that didn’t help,” says Williams’s niece Alex Finnie in the docuseries. “Her divorce, the pandemic and then losing [her mom],” who passed away in December 2020.

Williams’s fractured relationships come to surface throughout the series. Cameras followed along as she reunited with her family in Miami last year for the first time in 8 months. Relatives interviewed in the documentary revealed she had previously stayed with them when “The Wendy Williams Show” was still in production and concerns for her health and well-being were growing.

Williams was doing better when she was with her family in Florida, Hunter Jr. said, adding that he kept her away from alcohol and helped her gain 20 to 30 pounds. But he and other family members claim that her talk show producers began pressuring Williams to return to New York and resume filming. “They saw that she was down here for too long and [that] our priority wasn’t just to dust her up and put her back onstage,” said Williams’s nephew Travis Finnie. “It was to actually focus on long-term recovery.” She only went back to New York after the court intervened, Alex Finnie added.

The family pushed back on accusations against them that contributed to the court-ordered financial guardianship Williams was placed under in June 2022, after Wells Fargo argued in a petition that she was a victim of “undue influence and financial exploitation.”

The bank questioned Williams’s son about spending $100,000 from his mother’s account, said Travis, even though Williams had previously approved spending similar amounts on her son’s birthday party, Uber Eats orders and rent. Hunter Jr. said he’s only spent his mother’s money with her consent.

Sabrina Morrissey, who says she’s the temporary guardian of “W.W.H.,” likely Williams, filed a sealed lawsuit in New York Supreme Court on Thursday against Lifetime parent company A&E Television Networks and Entertainment One Reality Productions to temporarily stop the documentary’s release. However, a judge decided Friday that the special couldn’t be barred from airing, as it would violate the companies’ freedom of speech.

“We are grateful the Court acted quickly,” Rachel Strom, an attorney for the entertainment companies, said in a statement. “Viewers can watch the documentary for themselves and form their own opinions about the show and hear about Wendy Williams’ recent struggles in her own words.”

Morrissey’s attorneys didn’t respond to a request for comment, and the rest of the case’s contents are still sealed, pending a Tuesday court hearing.

Amid the health, family and guardianship issues documented in the show, Williams appears eager to be in front of the camera and around people for her “career comeback,” doing photoshoots and planning her podcast with her manager Will Selby and Zanotti. But their working relationship often clashes — during filming, Zanotti flew Williams to Los Angeles without alerting Selby or her guardian.

While out west, Williams prepared to meet with NBC about a new show, and took photos with fans by her Hollywood Walk of Fame star. “I’m sure it’ll happen,” she tells a fan who inquires about her return to television.

Producers for “Where is Wendy Williams?” said NBC declined to comment about the meeting and no offer for the show ever materialized.

Throughout the special, members of Williams’s team and family are often at odds about her well-being and express conflicting views about which pursuits are in her best interests.

“She always talks about how she wants to work,” Hunter Jr. said. “But I feel as though she’s worked enough. She has people around her who are ‘yes’ people and allowing this to continue.”

Williams gets defensive when questioned about her alcohol consumption, as her inner circle tries to deter her drinking. Meanwhile, her publicist Zanotti doesn’t think it’s a problem. “I’ve never witnessed her being drunk in my life,” Zanotti says, when a crew member asks her about Williams’s drinking. “She knows her limits, she knows when to stop.”

In August 2022, Williams made headlines after paparazzi claimed she was “passed out” beside a glass of champagne in a Louis Vuitton store in New York. The incident arrived a month after the court-ordered guardianship took her away from family in Florida, her nephew Travis said. “It’s very clear she has a problem with alcohol.” And according to her doctors, Hunter Jr. said, Williams’s dementia is alcohol-induced.

Zanotti also dismissed concerns about Williams’s cognitive state. “Sometimes she may forget a word or something along those lines,” Zanotti said, before saying that she has never spoken to Williams’s medical team. “But I feel that she’s okay and from the time I started working with her until now, she’s much better. She’s bouncing back.” In another scene later that day, Zanotti asks if Williams wants to attend the Oscars. Williams replies, “Who’s Oscar?”

Williams’s family appears wary and distrusting of Zanotti, who said she was first hired to help with “crisis and PR management” after the Wells Fargo’s petition.

After meeting Zanotti at Williams’s apartment, Alex Finnie abruptly walks out and confronts the film crew about the publicist’s presence.

“This is my aunt and I don’t need her in the room,” Finnie says. “I don’t even know who she is.”

Later, Finnie questions Williams about how much Zanotti is paid.

“The Aunt Wendy that I know that has instilled in me how to navigate this crazy business that we’re in, this isn’t it,” said Finnie, who is a reporter for a local news station in Miami. “Listen to the people in your life that are not taking a dime, that are not profiting.”

Williams claims she had “billions of dollars” in her Wells Fargo account that was stolen by a financial guardian, who is not named in the documentary. Producers say Williams has provided no evidence of the guardian or the bank stealing or mismanaging money from her account.

Court-appointed guardians, or conservators, have come under scrutiny in recent years after a 2021 documentary examining Britney Spears’s conservatorship raised questions about the ethics and origins of the arrangement. For 13 years, Spears’s father Jamie was the conservator of both her estate and her person, which allowed control over her daily activities, social life and medical care. Following months of widespread criticism and fan outcry, the star’s conservatorship was terminated in November 2021.

In revealing details about Williams’s own guardianship in “Where is Wendy Williams?”, her family is hoping for a similar outcome.

“I hope that when people watch this, they walk away thinking ‘how was it that the court was involved, she has a guardian that’s supposed to be managing her day-to-day, her finances, all of that.’” Alex Finnie said. “‘How is all that happening and Wendy’s life just fell through the cracks?’”

Following her trips to Los Angeles and Miami, Williams’s health spiraled as the cameras kept rolling. Producers arrived to her apartment for a scheduled interview where Williams was slumped on the couch and appeared intoxicated — her eye makeup smudged and words slurred.

After she’s asked about her time in Miami with her son, Williams begins crying before Selby steps in to shut down filming in what becomes the former host’s last appearance on camera for the documentary.

“This is the third time, for sure, that we’ve come to do the interview and she can’t do it,” a producer tells Selby.

In the following days, Selby provides updates on Williams’s health. He said he coordinated with the guardian to admit her into a medical facility. Her family was not aware of the location.

The news of her additional health issues has raised questions about the ethics of publicizing Williams, who is listed an executive producer for the documentary, in a vulnerable state. Longtime viewers of Williams’ talk show were especially concerned by footage of the former host without a wig, after years of wearing hairpieces in public due to her thinning hair.

“I don’t think a lucid Wendy would want people to see her this way,” former CNN host Don Lemon posted on X, formerly Twitter. “She would take her wig off at my house but not allow us to take pics.”

Others have argued that producing the documentary was fair, seeing how she’s acknowledged denying privacy to her “Hot Topics” subjects over the years.

During Williams’s six-month treatment, producers kept in contact with her family and team. They say she appeared healthier, happier and sober.

“I feel like she’s in a space now where she is dropping the work and understanding what’s more important to her,” Selby said. “And that’s her family.”

Many of her relatives were unified in their view that this time feels different.

“There is going to be a happy ending,” said Wanda, Williams’s sister, “and maybe the happy ending is fueled by the fact that this is all public … it forces us to just fight a little harder.”

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