This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
It has come to my attention that Wendy Williams: What a Mess, the documentary on the dirt-dishing daytime TV supernova’s life, career, struggles, and triumphs, begins with Williams reclined on a chaise lounge under a chandelier, crying while eating caviar off a Dorito.
This is important information, as the airing of this documentary immediately follows Saturday night’s premiere of the Lifetime original movie Wendy Williams: The Movie. As an alleged opening scene, it does a great service: reminding viewers that the outrageous personality and outlandish stories you just watched unfold for two hours in the scripted movie aren’t an exaggeration—at least not as Wendy Williams sees herself, and wants the world to see her, too.
I use the word “alleged” to describe that opening scene, as an advanced screening link of the documentary was not made available to me despite the fact that several journalists I know had seen it and multiple reviews and features were published online, proving that one existed. I can think of no greater slight than to deprive a gay pop-culture critic desperate to watch a documentary on the life of Ms. Wendy Williams—one that begins with a deeply emotional Frito-Lay fish egg amuse-bouche—the opportunity to do so.
But I did get to watch the bona fide masterpiece that is Wendy Williams: The Movie—it is important that you understand that this is not snark and I am absolutely serious—and am therefore emboldened to channel the Queen of Dirt and gossip and mention all the behind-the-scenes drama behind the making of this piece of writing.
The real lesson I took from watching the Lifetime film is, for however much we appreciate and exalt Wendy Williams right now, we’re not doing it enough.
Salacious, unfiltered, brazen, spiteful, unbothered, authentic, shrewd, luminous, hilarious, domineering, selfish, successful: It all amounts to an irresistible charisma that seems effortless. It’s been crafted over decades in the public eye, first during Williams’ time as a trailblazing antagonizer and now in what might as well be seen as essential worker capacity: a person who distracts, diverts, and makes us feel good in the midst of dark times.
There’s been an undeniable appeal to Williams’ persona throughout her entire career; that’s how she built her empire. But this Lifetime double-bill victory lap, timed after weathering personal tumult and damning tabloid controversy—on the receiving end of what she’s famed for dishing out—is a well-timed celebration.
Unlike so many made-for-TV biopics that exist solely to titillate with an absurdist exploitation of stars’ scandals, Wendy Williams: The Movie could only exist in that outrageous “Lifetime movie” tone. In fact, it capitalizes on the very kind of filmmaking critics typically make fun of to tell the story as Williams herself would tell it if she was gabbing on her show. The result is a coronation of sorts, the realization that, for her fruitful and long career, she may actually be the perfect celebrity for right now.
If you saw the brief teaser that went viral earlier this week, then you have a pretty spot-on sense of the kind of brisk, campy tone the film takes on. It’s a clip of the Halloween episode in which Williams, while dressed as the Statue of Liberty, stammers over her words as her eyes roll to the back of her head and she faints. It was a terrifying moment quickly made humorous by Williams’ a) immediate recovery and b) candor about how ludicrous and over-the-top the whole incident must have looked to the audience.
Ciera Payton, the actress who plays Wendy, acts out the sequence with all the subtle nuance of my performance as Willy Loman in a selected scene from Death of a Salesman in my Theatre 101 class sophomore year of high school. She approaches playing Wendy Williams like it’s her Fantine in Les Misérables, and, you know what, why shouldn’t she? If Wendy Williams is about one thing, she is about the juicy parts of a person’s life, and, with her intimate involvement in producing this movie, she delivers the goods.
Body image. Sexism. Rape. AIDS. Cocaine. Racism. Miscarriages. Plastic surgery. A husband’s secret second family. Alcoholism. Autoimmune disorder. 9/11 (?!). It’s all out there in Wendy Williams: The Movie, a film that features Wendy pulling over at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike to rip lines of coke in one scene set in the ’80s, and donning oversized sunglasses to incognito graffiti the garage door of the house her husband bought for his mistress in an uproarious sequence set in the just-recent past.
The beauty of the film is that, no matter how soapy or silly, Williams counts on the intimacy and trust she’s honed with her fans to ensure that her stories are never exploited or laughed at—even if things veer towards the loudly absurd.
Case in point: The film runs for barely a minute before the action stops, Payton-as-William breaks the fourth wall and looks into the camera, and, as Wendy is wont to do, spills the tea: “Now it’s time to dish my own dirt and, honey, nobody does it better.” She beckons at the camera. “If you really want to know my truth, come here, closer, closer. [Whispers] Come walk a mile in my size 11s.”
I’ve always been entertained by Williams and her talk show. And I’ve appreciated how, in an increasingly controlled celebrity space, she manages to cut through the bullshit and get to the truth of the matter: Rich and famous people lead messy lives that may be none of our business, but they also profit off our intrusive interest in it. That arguably (at least to Williams) makes it our business. If nothing else, this Lifetime movie and documentary prove that Williams is willing to turn that scrutiny onto herself.
But there’s something about the way Williams has navigated being a public figure muddling through scandal in a pandemic that I’ve found not just entertaining, but, in a way, healing. There’s the no-fucks-to-give of it all that we all need stronger doses of in our lives.
Seared into my memory is one of her first days shooting her talk show remotely from home during the early weeks of quarantine lockdown last spring. The episode launched with her venting honestly about how annoying it is to her that her producers are making her do it. Not only did I get it, but it was also astounding television. I’m not the first to celebrate this—John Oliver did an entire segment of Last Week Tonight on this—but it still sticks with me.
As does the way she’s manifesting resilience over personal hardship. In the promotion of these Lifetime projects, she has mentioned by name the musician she says raped her, the woman who had an affair with her husband, and the name of the children they now share together.
Is any of this appropriate? Well, that’s the question that hovers over Williams’ entire career. But I can appreciate how stark that mindset is compared to how every other celebrity behaves, and the fact that she is still a capital-C character while doing it. (When an interview with The View cut to commercial this week, you can hear her say, “We’re going to break?” and then grab her bowl of salad and start chowing down while still on camera.)
Should we all be using this never-ending pandemic as the setting for a grand airing of grievances in tandem with a self-produced tribute to all the things we’ve accomplished in our lives? The sheer chaos of it all is terrifying, yet tantalizing. That description is kind of how many people feel about Wendy Williams, and I can’t imagine a more baller impression to make.