The scene, from “Wendy Williams: The Movie,” is as ridiculous as one might expect from a Lifetime biopic about (and produced by) Williams, who made a career out of shameless celebrity gossip years before her own personal life became tabloid fodder. The movie, which features Ciera Payton in the title role, traces Williams’s trailblazing career, from her rise in New York and Philly hip-hop radio to the struggles that have played out on her eponymous daytime talk show.
Williams, who has written three books about her life and career, has always been forthcoming with her audience about everything from her plastic surgery to her past substance use As such, the movie contains few revelations. But Lifetime’s treatment, directed by Darren Grant, largely misses the opportunity to fill in what we might not know about Williams’s successes and setbacks. With Payton narrating in a thick and theatrical New Jersey-ish accent, the movie struggles to reconcile its theatrics with the more painful elements of Williams’s story, including a rape by an artist she interviewed early in her career, multiple pregnancy losses and lifelong insecurities about her body.
Williams has talked openly about regularly using cocaine in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In the movie, Wendy tells us the drug “suppressed my appetite and gave me all the chemical courage I thought I needed.” When she tests negative for HIV following her rape, she celebrates with a cocaine-fueled night at a club, where she lets out a guttural wail. She quits cold turkey — “It took four days,” she says — after meeting her husband Kevin Hunter. Wendy later tells Kevin that her parents weighed her weekly and that, following an “exhausting” struggle to control her weight, she has decided to get breast augmentation and liposuction.
The movie weaves in Williams’s meteoric rise in radio, offering nods to some of the beefs she courted in the ’90s. One appropriately over-the-top scene recalls R&B group Total showing up to Hot 97 to confront Williams over her on-air commentary. The retelling also seems to confirm long-standing rumors that Sean “Diddy” Combs — a frequent target of Williams — had a hand in Williams’s abrupt 1998 departure from the prominent hip-hop station.
Williams’s well-documented marital issues become a focal point of the movie: Wendy first discovers Kevin is cheating on her soon after giving birth to their son, but opts not to leave him for their child’s sake. By the time their son is in high school, Wendy learns that her husband, who is also her manager, is living a double life. After some sleuthing, she goes to the house he shares with his mistress and is stunned to find a single-family home with chandeliers, a pool — and dogs (“with my money!,” she says). Before leaving, she spray paints “Kevin and Wendy 4-ever” on the multicar garage door.
While a Lifetime movie about Williams is expected to be somewhat messy (it debuted Saturday night, followed by a documentary called “Wendy Williams: What a Mess,”) the campy scene is at odds with what happens next. Following a tearful confrontation with Kevin, Wendy resolves to stay married until their son goes off to college. She begins drinking heavily to cope, leading Kevin to suggest a stay in rehab. But Wendy denies having a drinking problem. This sheds new light on the unprecedented three-week leave Williams took from her show in 2018, just months after she slurred her speech and fainted on-air (a terrifying incident Payton restages, frame-for-frame).
A year later, following more on-air health scares, Williams told her viewers that she was staying at a sober-living house — a decision the movie casts as involuntary. Wendy repeatedly denies that her drinking is excessive, and accuses her husband of putting her in sober living unnecessarily. (Williams recently told The Los Angeles Times that her time in rehab and the sober house was “100 percent against my will.”) It’s while staying at the sober-living facility that Wendy learns Kevin and his mistress are having a child, a betrayal that leads her to decisively end their marriage — and their business relationship.
When Wendy proudly takes back the reins of her talk show — free of her cheating husband — in a bright pink power suit, she’s hardly allowed to relish the moment. Concluding a pep talk to her staff, Wendy declares she’s looking toward her future. “I’m about to be a single lady,” she says, with a wink, as she and her staff erupt into her trademark “woo woo woo.”
The movie ends with Williams — the real-life Wendy, not Wendy the character — proclaiming that she has no regrets. Perched in her iconic purple chair, facing a mirror, she delivers her signature line: “How you doing?”
It’s a shame we never find out.
“Wendy Williams: The Movie” will re-air Sunday at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.