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07.12.09

The Anti-Oprah

As her new TV talk show debuts, outrageous host Wendy Williams speaks with The Daily Beast’s Kevin Sessums about forgiving Michael Jackson, her life as a MILF, and Michelle Obama’s hips.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast’s Kevin Sessums, explosive talk-show host Wendy Williams (whose network television premiere is today) talks candidly about her life as a MILF, her love for Michelle Obama’s hips, why she didn’t breastfeed to save her career, and how Oprah opened the doors for “flawed beauties” to become talk-show hosts.

Today is officially Wendy Williams Day in Manhattan— not only because a proclamation signed by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has made it so, but also because her nationally syndicated television talk show debuts. Williams, 45 years old, has long proclaimed herself to be the Queen of All Media, and now with the talk show, it doesn’t seem like self-aggrandizement. Her syndicated radio show has over 12 million daily listeners in its 2-6 p.m. time slot and her books—two autobiographical ones and the series of Ritz Harper novels— have all been bestsellers. She was recently nominated for the Radio Hall of Fame.

“I think Oprah and I have a lot in common. We both like a Lemon Drop Martini. We both love to eat and have a problem with food that we both are constantly trying to battle.”

Williams is known for her brashness. Her fans love her for it, but some of the celebrities she has interviewed have not—including Whitney Houston and Sean Combs and Apprentice “star” Omarosa Minigault-Stallworth. Unafraid to delve into the private lives of the famous, her own private life has become rather infamous itself. Her husband, Kevin Hunter, works with her in all her endeavors and was accused of sexual harassment by one of their co-workers in 2008. (Both Williams and Hunter deny the charges.) His alleged infidelity has been much discussed by her and her distractors alike. After several miscarriages (which she openly reveals), Williams gave birth to their son, Kevin Jr. eight years ago. She’s been public as well about her extensive plastic surgery—her breast implants, her Botox injections, and her liposuction—and wears wigs so luxurious they are more landscaped than styled. Her own past drug addiction has been some of the richest fodder for her books and radio show.

The Daily Beast’s Kevin Sessums got exclusive access to a closed-set rehearsal for the talk show last week and afterward sat down with Williams before she headed off to do her radio show. He waited patiently as one of her false eyelashes became unglued and she along with it. “Good God,” she shrieked, summoning her makeup artist. “I don’t want to diva-out but I’m about to click my fingers and go National Enquirer buck-wild. I gotta keep my look goin’!”

Kevin Sessums: First of all, congratulations. Some people on television have a face for radio, as they say. But you’re a radio personality who has a face for TV.

Wendy Williams: Ya think? Society is very judgmental but I’m ready to present myself warts and all. The idea of having a TV show is everything I’ve fantasized about but nothing I could truly imagine. I’m not talking about a cable show on Channel 400. I’m talking about a real network-TV show.

What’s your take on the grief-as-hoopla Michael Jackson coverage on TV this past week? I know on your radio show you were taking Al Sharpton’s side regarding how the press was overcovering the Jackson death.

I think if you talk about something too much then eventually you’re going to say something horrible about it. The press started out mourning the loss of Michael Jackson and now it’s turned into a witch-hunt almost. What is in that will? Did he really have vitiligo or was he just bleaching his skin? God I can’t believe I’m saying this—but in the interest of good taste let the man rest in peace.

But you take on people’s private lives all the time on your radio show. Is the difference that they’re alive?

No! I’ve taken on dead people before! But this feels different. This feels like we—the people, the press—have dragged Michael through the mud. But Michael started the smoke and we were just looking for the fire.

Let’s cut to the chase here, honey. Would you have allowed your 8-year-old son to be alone with him?

No.

It all comes down to that.

It really does.

“Michelle Obama married a man who’s on her take-charge level, not some Walter Mitty character she can continue to be the boss of at home. A lot of bossy women choose Walter Mitty.”

I did think the memorial service—for all the bread and circus atmosphere—was rather dignified. So you’ve got to give a tip of the hat to the family for that. But do you know who was one of the guests? Omarosa.

There you have it. I did think the service was dignified but I did not like the public spectacle of it all. Exhibit A: Omorosa. And a public spectacle in terms of a funeral often drives away people who do belong, like Diana Ross and Elizabeth Taylor. I’m not mad at them because that is their choice. Elizabeth Taylor has got one foot out the door. I’ve been following her since Richard Burton was dragging her across the floor at cocktail parties.That’s back when I was 8 years old myself and I’d go buy my mama her Merit cigarettes and she’d let me keep the change so I could buy the National Enquirer.

Look, hot topics are going to be an important part of this show and I do love celebrities. But I want America to know that I’m not mean-spirited. Case in point, the Michael Jackson story. There’s a lot I could say but I don’t.

You’re pretty caustic on your radio show. Will you be a friendlier Wendy on television?

It’s the same Wendy. I’ve always been a friendly woman. I’m just curious and I’m not shy about my curiosity. But I’m also more mature than I once was. I’m going to be 45 this coming week. I’m a mother now going to my son’s baseball games and having to put on a sensible wig to go to his school.

Do you think you’re the anti-Oprah?

I think Oprah and I have a lot in common. We both like a Lemon Drop Martini. She taught me how to make one of those when I was on her show. We both love to eat and have a problem with food that we both are constantly trying to battle. And we’re both black.

Do you think you’re the Auntie Tyra?

No. Tyra and I really don’t have anything in common at all. Except that if I lost 10 pounds and you looked at us both from the back you might get us confused.

BET has picked up your show. They never picked up Oprah. They never picked up Tyra. But they’ve chosen to pick up Wendy. Did you have any qualms about that since this show is a breakout for you, and yet going on BET could be perceived as “ghettoizing” you, for lack of a better term, with an audience you already have.

I wasn’t nervous about that because it could be said that there are many black people on TV that are said by our community to have abandoned their core audience.

Which leads me to a rather rude question. Do I have permission to use the n-word in your presence?

Sure. Go ahead.

I was speaking with Iman recently and she said that she hated much of her modeling career because she felt like black people looked upon her as a “house n--gger,” that she was the white fashion world’s idea of beauty, and that black people resented her for it. Do you think that in the entertainment business, with its own white hierarchy, there is a danger for you of being perceived as that term?

No. Because thank God for Oprah! Oprah opened the door. You see, I grew up with Jayne Kennedy. You remember her? The lovely black sportscaster who was a white man’s idea of a beautiful black woman. High yellow with what we call “good hair.” But then Oprah came on the scene. She wasn’t beautiful. She wasn’t thin. And she wasn’t light-skinned. She was the opposite of white America’s view of what a black woman should look like in front of a camera. She was no Lena Horne. She was no Lola Falana. She definitely wasn’t a Jayne Kennedy. Who let this woman in the door? And she stormed the whole entire building and took over. And then other flawed beauties came along. Sally Jesse Raphael. Ricki Lake. I mean, who is a great beauty who ever had a talk show?

And besides you and Kelly Ripa, almost all women who have talk shows are single for whatever reason—going all the way back to Dinah Shore.

Which is something else that I am offering. But keep in mind what it takes to get a talk show. Many women abandoned their home life to chase after a career. I never wanted to be one of those girls. No matter what my public image is, I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey where my mother baked apple pies. It was a two-parent household, which is odd in America, much less for black people. One brother and one sister and everybody from the loins of my mother and father

Do you think in the age of Obama and a dark-skinned first lady, which I love ...

Me too. And she’s got hips.

Do you think that because we have a black president that it puts a governor—to use a political pun—on the motor of your own outrageousness, that you have to now live up to the dignity that the Obamas now embody?

I’ve never even thought of that. But now that you’ve asked me, absolutely not. You know why? I am living up to the president. The core of his values is the family. I’ve got family. I’m not out there whoring. Michelle Obama and I are the same age and I think we both can hold our heads up equally high. She’s educated. I’m educated. She made time for her children while still being a hardnosed attorney and now first lady. And I made time for my child in my career also.

And she’s been able to masterfully transform her image from an ABW (Angry Black Woman) to the most admired woman in America.

And you know what else? She married a man who’s on her take-charge level, not some Walter Mitty character she can continue to be the boss of at home. A lot of bossy women choose Walter Mitty.

Did you have any qualms about taking this show being the mother of an 8-year-old?

First of all, I would have made it work with an 8-week-old. I love my career. Now I love my family—but be very clear—my son was in a nursery at three months. A lot of mothers hate me for that but I needed to get back to work. And I didn’t breastfeed. He was too ravenous and I couldn’t be there. In order to be a good mother, I think you have to be a good self. Without moms being sane and happy there’s hell to pay for everybody else.

You were voted “Guiltiest Pleasure” by the viewers of Logo. What’s one of your own guiltiest pleasures other than eating a cold pork chop while watching Kathy Griffin on Bravo?

Do you live under my bed? I mean you’ve got it. You forgot while I’m eating the cold pork chop I’m wearing my messy throw-up robe. I love watching cheap thrills on TV. As far as I’m concerned I’m a cheap thrill on TV.

Where do you find the time to write your Ritz Harper books? Or do you really write them?

“I’m flying the flag for me and Demi Moore and Vanessa Williams and Brooke Shields. We are all such wonderfully dynamic, attractive, MILFy women.”

I speak into a tape recorder and then I have writing partners. I drop off the tapes at a front desk. It’s just another example of finding the right people. There comes a time when you’ve just got to let go and let people.

That’s paraphrasing a 12-Step platitude: Let Go and Let God.

I know. But I don’t want to offend anybody who is an atheist.

But you’re not a 12-Stepper. You gave up cocaine but you still drink.

I love a drink. Drinking was never my problem. As long as we’re being candid, I did enjoy cocaine. I enjoyed it to the point of it being problematic. No judgments on anybody who still indulges.

But at some point you do need to sleep and to eat.

Yes, you do need to sleep but I did manage to maintain a very chunky body. Here’s the truth. At the time of stopping doing cocaine, I wanted a different life. I more than had to clean up my cocaine use; I had to clean up some friendships too. But that’s all part of it. This show is coming at the right time in my life. I have never felt better. I have never looked better. I really do feel like my life is just beginning. I’m flying the flag for me and Demi Moore and Vanessa Williams and Brooke Shields. We are all such wonderfully dynamic, attractive, MILF-y women.

I’m too white and gay to understand that term.

You know, MILF: Mothers I’d Like to Fuck. To me, if you’re 45 and there’s not a 25 year old who wants to do you, then you need to work on yourself.

Kevin Sessums is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on Mountain, will be published by St. Martin's Press.