MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Finally, today we want to tell you about a TV and radio personality that you might love or love to hate but whom you cannot ignore. The Wendy Williams Show will be back with a new season later this month. Wendy Williams got her start in radio more than 20 years ago and quickly built a reputation as a personality who loved to push people's buttons and push the envelope, even with the celebrities that other people fawned over or flattered. Here's Williams doing verbal karate with reality TV star Omarosa.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WENDY WILLIAMS SHOW")
WENDY WILLIAMS: Wait, wait, wait.
OMAROSA MANIGAULT: What?
WILLIAMS: You said you was going to straighten me out? What does the hell was that?
MANIGAULT: I said smooth you out.
WILLIAMS: Smooth me out? What does that mean?
MANIGAULT: We're talking, having a nice conversation.
WILLIAMS: Relax, Omarosa.
MANIGAULT: Oh no, I know how to chill, but I will not be disrespected.
WILLIAMS: OK. This is not the time for you to look for your moment. I invited you here in friendly...
MANIGAULT: ...Oh, I know how to find my moment.
WILLIAMS: ...I understand...
MARTIN: Moments like this first put Wendy Williams into the National Radio Hall of Fame and now have made her daytime television show one of the most popular programs in daytime. And it's given her a platform to talk about everything from her current choices to her own troubled past, which includes battles with addiction. Earlier this year I caught up with Williams and we talked about her book "Ask Wendy." And I began our conversation by asking how she was doin'.
WILLIAMS: I am doing really well. I'm very busy and busy is good. You know, this is the life that I dreamt of living.
MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask you about that. How come? Why is this the life you dreamt of living? What gave you the - that kind of the vision to do what you're doing?
WILLIAMS: Well, I didn't grow up with a trust fund. I grew up with - in a working-class household in New Jersey. And I knew that, you know, my future after high school was that I owed my parents four years of college. They did not have a penny more than four years. So I knew that I had to get out here because nobody was going to hand me anything.
MARTIN: What is it that you were hoping to do when you grew up?
WILLIAMS: I wanted to be either a newscaster or a radio personality. Growing up in New Jersey, a suburb of New York - the part of Jersey that I grew up. You know, I'm 48 years old, I'll be 49 in July, I grew up in an era where dinner was served at 5:00 p.m., TVs had rabbit ears, you know, I was around when the first remote control TV, you know, was invented. And I did not have a TV in my bedroom as a child. And radio was my source of entertainment in my room when I went into Wendy's world. And everybody just sounded so cool and just sounded like such a glamorous life.
And then regarding the news, well, you know, we were forced to watch the news 'cause that's what my mom and dad watched on only one of two TVs in the house. Of course, there were and still are tons of images for little, you know, white kids to grow up and look at and see as attainable, but as a black girl seeing, you know, Sue Simmons and Chichi Williams do - and Vic Miles do the news, I said, I want to do that.
MARTIN: The thing about your style, though, for people who have not experienced the "Wendy Williams Experience" is that - let me just put it the way I would put it, and you can tell me how you would put it - is that you say things to people that often people think but they don't say.
WILLIAMS: Well, I've always had to, because I come from the left side of society. You never stray far from the fiber that makes you, Michel. And the fiber of who I am was I grew up a fat kid, an average student at best, older sister an A and B student, a dilettante, perfect, you know, body type. My younger brother, well, he's the boy. Boys can never do any wrong. So I was the middle child.
I was also only one of four blacks in my graduating class. I've never been to a prom. I always thought a lot but kept it in my head and swore that once I escaped Ocean Township, New Jersey, that I was going to make something of myself and make my mark on the world. Until then, when I was young trying to fight my way for attention, I always had to say it right away, talk a little louder and say it immediately before I got cut off by the popular girl or the pretty girl or my smart sister or, you know, the more fabulous person in the class.
MARTIN: Well, just to give people a sense of it - who aren't familiar with this - one of the interviews that you're most known for is a conversation that you had with singer Whitney Houston back in 2003. This was before your television show, this was for your - for "The Wendy Williams Experience," your radio program. Let me just play it, and here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE WENDY WILLIAMS EXPERIENCE")
WILLIAMS: So Whitney, as far as you stand with drug use, is there drug use going on at this present time?
WHITNEY HOUSTON: Who are you talking to?
WILLIAMS: To you, Whitney, you.
HOUSTON: No. You're not talking to me. I'm a mother. Only my mother has privy to that information. You talk to your child about that. Don't ask me no questions like I'm a child.
WILLIAMS: I was a full-blown cocaine addict so I...
HOUSTON: Well, that's your problem, not mine. Move on.
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, that was my problem, Whitney.
HOUSTON: I hope you talked to - did you ask God to help you?
WILLIAMS: No. I managed, thank God, 'cause I have a good man.
MARTIN: That was a very controversial moment for you. On the one hand, though, you were obviously on to something. So talk to me about that, if you would. First of all, I'm just - is part of your feeling that people shouldn't come if they're not ready to come correct?
WILLIAMS: Well, first, you know, I just want to say that that conversation was not done in a mean-spirited way. I mean, it obviously took a left turn based on the dearly departed Whitney's tone and certainly, we all have learned since then that I was onto something. And I knew it at that particular time. But listen, I always feel that straight talk makes for straight understanding. And this has nothing to do with the Whitney interview, this is just more of my interview style.
When I come to an interview, I'm pretty much an open book. If you ask me something that I wasn't comfortable answering, it wouldn't be about me swinging my neck and raising my voice. I would say to you politely, you know, I'd prefer not to talk about that now, Michel. And that's all.
MARTIN: But why do you think it is that it's so - on the one hand, people - you're not - nobody's under subpoena. I mean, nobody has to come and talk to you.
MARTIN: But they do and then they're mad. And so I'm just - what do you think that is?
WILLIAMS: Because my audience has always been filled with the tastemakers and that's ultimately it. I mean, you might get the sense - you might, you know, sense something from me that maybe rubs you the wrong way, but if you look at my audience they're the ones buying your music, they're the ones buying tickets to the matinee to see you. I also get the sense these days that people - including celebrity to celebrity - celebrities so much want to be in the company of other celebrities. They want to be invited to your five-star wedding in Bora Bora. They want to be at your kid's christening. They want to be at your big New Year's Eve party. I am not one of those people.
Every fiber of me is just a girl from New Jersey who happened to have made it big. Because of my career and because I know how things can be spun horribly out of control with celebrities, I prefer to stay in the house. And I prefer to stay in Jersey. The gossips will talk anyway and people make stories and so on and so forth, and I've learned that being on both sides of the track, but my interview style, my approach to celebrity, is I am one of you - I am not one of them.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE and this is an encore conversation with television host Wendy Williams. We spoke with her earlier this year when she was promoting her book "Ask Wendy." One of the interesting things about being an African-American in the media interviewing other African-American stars is that there's been a kind of tradition in the black media of enhancing...
WILLIAMS: ...We don't talk about one another.
MARTIN: Well, making - yeah, making people look good. You know, enhancing.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: Like, the - not to take anything away from Ebony magazine's journalism, but the tradition was not to talk ill of people, not to take them - not to shine a negative light on anybody because the feeling was that the mainstream media is for that. And I kind of wonder whether you feel that you are either a reaction to that or is it taking them down a peg - or what do you think?
WILLIAMS: It is a heavy burden on the shoulders of black people in the public eye. We don't have enough of us out here in the public eye to have that luxury of doing wrong. The Obamas are in the White House but that's not enough. I'm a black girl from Jersey and being black in the media, I consider myself part of the mainstream.
Yes, I am black, I acknowledge my black all day long. My black husband, my black son, my black parents, blackie, black, black, and I eat pork and I love fried chicken. But with that said, everybody is talking hot topics these days. So for me to leave off the story about LL Cool J would be hypocritical, but I'm talking about Lindsay Lohan. It's a delicate line to walk, but it is what it is. We're in 2013.
MARTIN: But, as that clip, when the infamous Whitney-Wendy exchange also, you were also not shy about disclosing that you've your own problems...
WILLIAMS: ...There you go.
MARTIN: ...Including a cocaine addiction.
WILLIAMS: Well, that was my problem.
WILLIAMS: I mean, I wasn't addicted to alcohol or weed or pills or anything like that. I was addicted to cocaine. Crack cocaine - cooking it, getting it up in the Bronx - this is before cell phones, waiting just like a real fiend, waiting on Jerome Avenue at 3:00 a.m. in the morning as a single woman, with a thriving career here in New York. Thank God I never got stopped by the cops to shame my family and myself and lose my job. Thank God I never got raped, robbed or killed in an alley. Thank God my heart never palpitate to the point I was dead in my apartment. So I don't mind outing myself.
MARTIN: Why did you?
WILLIAMS: Because I think it's important to share. And I, you know, and I particularly think it's important to share in our black community. You know, it's important to share with everybody but we as a people - we've got a hard time sending Uncle Cecil, who's been an alcoholic for all his life, to alcohol rehab. Instead, we will just prop him up on the couch at Thanksgiving and keep feeding him his Chivas Regal. That's not right.
MARTIN: You know, well, to that end, your latest book - and I mentioned you have others too. You've got a number of novels. And you've got - you're also the author of the New York Times best-seller, "The Wendy Williams Experience," is a number of novels. But this is your first advice book, correct?
MARTIN: Well, actually, actually, I can make an argument that your advice is kind of embedded in a lot of what you're doing anyway. I would make that argument. But this is your first - what gave you the idea for this?
WILLIAMS: It was a no-brainer. You know, "Ask Wendy" is something that I had been doing on my radio show for years. I devoted a full hour, you know, in between songs I would take telephone calls and people would come to me with their advice. And I find that the older I have gotten, the more people come with even deeper questions. And the more I've revealed about myself, the more people are not shy to reveal of themselves. The questions that I get right there on the talk show are fabulous. I love "Ask Wendy" and to me there's no question off-limits.
The idea of doing the book was a no-brainer because I only have about two minutes to answer your question on the show and when people ask you advice they need more than two minutes and I also need to explain my answer so that you don't walk away thinking that I am crazy. This book is based on letters you've written me so they're letters you write me. For instance, here's one - dear Wendy, my fiance and his friend like to smoke pot and do it whenever they hangout, which is every weekend. He says it's fun but I'm worried he's got a problem.
Well, if you're going to ask Wendy, I'm going to give it to you straight. And then at the end of each chapter, what I do is I give you a few tips on how to avoid - now, I don't know it all. You know, I'm a mess myself, admittedly so, but I feel, secretly, like the magic eight ball says, you know the answer to your problem. The answer lies within. I'm just flattered that I'm part of your counsel, 'cause I know that I'm not the only one you're asking for advice. You know...
MARTIN: ...I feel you. Yeah.
WILLIAMS: I am part of your counsel and I'm flattered. Look at this, look - dear Wendy, my husband is always commenting on how hot the babysitter is. Should I be worried? You know what I told her? Yes, and you should also fire the babysitter. And I go on and on and on and on.
MARTIN: So was this fun? Was this a fun project for you, doing this book?
WILLIAMS: It was - oh, my gosh, it was so much fun. And the book on tape was even better 'cause I was - I had to read every page and relive it. When I was reading the letters for this book I laughed and I cried. I called my mother and father for counsel to make sure that I was - you know, just to get a second opinion. Ultimately speaking, I always gave my answers.
I didn't care what they said, but they were both my counsel, you know, my dad is 83 my mom is 78, but they're very spicy and they're totally with it. And I would also ask my husband a couple of things or two. But if you were to hear me read these letters out loud you would think I was a lunatic because, honestly, they brought out the best and worst of my emotions.
MARTIN: Well, you are gathering no moss. You are taking on yet another project next. I understand that you are joining - is this public? You're joining the cast of "Chicago."
MARTIN: And you're not excited about it at all. To play the role of Mama Morton.
MARTIN: What made you decide to do that?
WILLIAMS: Hello? Who doesn't say yes when Broadway calls? I mean, it took me no time at all. Just like when "Dancing with the Stars" called. Now, while I wasn't the best dancer, who says no when "Dancing with the Stars" called? It was a wonderful opportunity. Now it's no secret, I am not a singer.
MARTIN: I was going to say, can you sing?
WILLIAMS: I can't sing and I can't dance. But what I can do is I can be sassy and I am full of energy. So I can report on time every night and do it.
MARTIN: And you are not lacking in confidence.
WILLIAMS: Well, here's the thing. I can't wait to multitask. I'm going to be working with a vocal coach. I think I go in with vocal next week. It's not to learn how to sing because you can't just all of a sudden learn that. It's going to learn how to pace my pipes. Pace my pipes so that I can sing at night and chat Hot Topics, and Ask Wendy and talk show during the day.
MARTIN: Well, I feel very flattered that you gave up some of your vocal capacity for us, so I'm going to thank you for that.
WILLIAMS: Well, I - it's a very exciting time. I mean, you know, between the talk show, the Broadway. I just - I love doing the talk show and I have my wig line. You know I wear wigs all the time. It's coming out in July.
MARTIN: Yes we do. We do know you - which wig are you wearing right now? Your fondness for wigs is something that you are very clear about. You said you had a wig - I heard you say to Jimmy Fallon that you have a wig to get your mail.
WILLIAMS: A wig for every occasion. Well, the one that I'm wearing now I have - this is called Center Part Street Wig with a Beachy Feel. You know, I wear wigs. Now, I make jokes about it. I have a disease, thyroid disease. I was diagnosed maybe 14 years ago, and I've been wearing a wig every day for my life for about the past 11 years. I do have hair, it's just too thin. If I had a smaller personality and a smaller physique, this hair would be fine.
But my hair is - I look like a snowman with my little tiny hair. You know, everything gets bigger as it goes down. So I wear a wig out of necessity, but I've turned it into something fun, which is how I was raised. Turn lemons into lemonade, stop feeling sorry for yourself, get up and keep moving.
MARTIN: Do you have any wisdom you want to share while we're at it?
WILLIAMS: Live big on your own terms.
MARTIN: That was television host Wendy Williams. We caught up with her last spring when she was promoting her book "Ask Wendy." She joined us from our bureau in New York. And that's our program for today. Happy Labor Day. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.