Inside the Final Days – The Hollywood Reporter
On the morning of Sept. 30, 2021, two television executives made their way to Wendy Williams’ apartment in downtown Manhattan. As the longtime producers of The Wendy Williams Show, Debmar-Mercury co-presidents Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein were trying to assuage the fears of the talk show’s 100-person staff, who they knew were reading about Williams’ health struggles in the press.
Already, the promotional tour that she had scheduled for the 13th season had been scuttled and its official Sept. 20 start date was pushed back. The plan was to have Williams piped in, via Zoom, to the show’s studio in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. “Because the staff had questions,” says her then-manager Bernie Young, whose job had morphed into liaising Williams’ tests and doctor visits. “So the idea was, ‘Look, they haven’t seen you or spoken to you, so let’s do this for the staff and let everybody know where things are.’ ”
The 58-year-old host, whose catchphrase “How you do-i-i- i-n’?” became a rallying cry for daytime gossip hounds, appeared to be in good spirits when Young arrived at her apartment around 8 a.m. The two had rehearsed what she would say a handful of times, and Young, who’d worked closely with Rosie O’Donnell and Martha Stewart before Williams, was feeling good about what was about to transpire. At 10 a.m., some 50 staffers, many of whom had worked at The Wendy Williams Show for more than a decade, were asked to congregate in the studio, with several more logging in from home. What happened next did not go as planned.
Williams, who had riffed live on TV for 12 years, and before that on the radio, did not seem herself, according to multiple people present, much less able to communicate a clear message, as her speech quickly became muddled and disconnected. “She gets on and she starts rambling about ‘I’m really fine, it’s going to be fine,’ and it’s like, ‘What are you saying?’ ” recounts one bewildered insider, who suggests she was “starting not to be coherent.” Aware that their plan was backfiring, the executives thanked everyone for their time and ended the Zoom abruptly.
“It lasted two and a half, three minutes, and it was not pretty,” says Lonnie Burstein, Debmar-Mercury’s executive vp programming, who had been seated in the studio with the show’s staff. “People were sort of freaked out. She was saying things like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait, I’ll be back with you really soon,’ but it was obvious to anyone watching that she was not going to be back really soon.” Instead, a revolving door of guest hosts filled in for the remainder of the year. By February, with Williams effectively AWOL, Debmar-Mercury decided it had no choice but to announce that the 13th season of The Wendy Williams Show would be its last.
Williams first sparked fears for her health in 2017, when she fainted live on air during the Halloween episode of The Wendy Williams Show. After an emergency commercial break, she’d regained consciousness and told her fiercely loyal audience of “Wendy watchers” that she’d overheated in her Statue of Liberty costume. But it proved not to be an isolated incident. In fact, her struggles seemed to snowball from there.
Over the next four years, the woman who rose to fame dishing the unvarnished truth about others had become her own hottest topic. Nothing, it seemed, was off-limits, which only endeared her to her audience. From her famous purple chair, Williams spoke openly and unapologetically about her ongoing struggles with substance abuse, revealing through tears in 2019 that she’d been staying in a sober living facility. Before that, the host had done time at a high-end rehab in Florida, which, according to Marcus and Bernstein, was paid for by Debmar-Mercury. Williams also discussed on the show the demise of her marriage of 20-plus years to Kevin Hunter and the baby he was having with his mistress, and later revisited both in her sanctioned Lifetime documentary, Wendy Williams: What a Mess! (Hunter, who had been Williams’ manager and a producer on the show, was fired from the latter in April 2019, a week after the host filed for divorce; earlier this year, he filed a wrongful termination suit against Debmar-Mercury, who declined to comment on the pending litigation.)
Behind the scenes, insiders say Williams was unraveling. “Everybody on that staff and crew witnessed all kinds of things,” says one show source. According to two more, during that four-year period, producers sent preshow text messages to higher-ups at the company questioning Williams’ sobriety on “at least 25” separate occasions. Those at the top would then have to make an ultra-quick judgment call on whether to go live at 10 a.m., which, those sources say, was typically complicated by the fact that Williams would insist she was “fine.” In some of those instances, the episode in question was the second taping of the day, which meant it wouldn’t air until later in the week, giving the execs time to rewatch the hour to see if Williams appeared inebriated. In all but one case, it was decided that she seemed “fine enough” and the episodes aired as planned. (The exception occurred in the spring of 2021, and a repeat ran in its place.) One of those sources adds that staffers would “find bottles [of alcohol] up in the ceiling tiles and other weird places in the office.”
Williams declined to comment directly for this piece, but spokeswoman Shawn Zanotti notes in an email, “It has been no secret that Wendy has battled with addiction over the years but at this time Wendy is on the road to recovery and healing herself from her chronic illnesses and her grievances of the past.” Asked about incidents involving her physical and mental health, Zanotti declined to comment on specifics, writing, “What we do know is that Wendy has a history of chronic illness that she has publicly spoken about.”
By the summer of 2021, Williams was in and out of hospitals and doctors’ care, according to multiple sources, who were not comfortable discussing her health publicly. Many initially assumed substance abuse was solely to blame, but, per those same sources, it became clear that there were other health issues at play. Soon, Williams, who’s been open about her battles with Graves’ disease (an autoimmune disorder that impacts the thyroid) and lymphedema (which can cause swelling in the arms and legs), was being whisked from one expert to the next, as medical professionals tried to figure out what was causing symptoms like nonlinear speech, brain fog, memory loss and even hallucinations. “To this day, we don’t know truly what the issue is,” says Burstein.
Young, who’d replaced Hunter as Williams’ manager in 2019, remained optimistic. Part of it, he acknowledges, is his general outlook, and, with Marcus and Bernstein’s help, he had her in front of the top doctors in Manhattan. If they could just figure out what was wrong, they could help her get back on track. Plus, he says, “She got sick the year before, and she was very sick one day and the next day she was 300 percent better, so while they’re searching [for answers], I’m saying, ‘That could happen.’”
Back at the show, the staff was focused on launching season 13. A promo shoot was scheduled for Sept. 2, which would focus on the number 13. “It’s such a random, scary number for a lot of people, so we had an idea of an elevator with a 13th floor and it opens up to our stage and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s OK,’ ” says Debmar-Mercury senior vp marketing Adam Lewis. An elevator was constructed at a nearby studio and Williams would be seen riding up to floor 13. The night before, word came, via Young, that she wouldn’t be well enough to make it. Williams was back in the hospital. With the set already built, Lewis and the team revised the plan, sticking Williams’ iconic purple chair in the elevator instead. A week later, the host bailed on her promotional appearances, too. A statement was posted to the show’s social feeds: Williams was dealing with some “ongoing health issues” and would need to undergo further evaluations. ”I think we thought, ‘Shoot, this is a little unexpected and we’re going to have to pivot,’ ” recalls Debmar-Mercury executive vp programming Alexandra Jewett. “But I don’t even think at that point we thought the show wasn’t going to launch Sept. 20.”
Then things went from bad to worse. Photos of Williams walking the city streets in blue hospital booties began flooding the internet. A few days later, reports of her being hospitalized for a psychiatric evaluation followed. It had become clear, internally, that they would need to push the season premiere by a couple of weeks, but Lewis and the show’s PR team were still trying to figure out what, exactly, they’d say. Then Williams came down with COVID-19. “It was one of those moments where it was like, ‘Oh no, now she’s got COVID,’ but at least there’s something, instead of, ‘We don’t know what to tell you,’ ” he says. “We were like, ‘We’re doing [quarantine] for two weeks,’ and that gave us a little bit of breathing room.” On Sept. 30, an hour before the ill-fated staff Zoom, the show’s social channels announced yet another two-week delay, noting that Williams was “under a doctor’s care.”
The stations had been plenty patient up until then; now, a new plan was needed. “They started calling, saying, ‘Guys, if you don’t [put on new episodes], we’re going to pull it.’ So, what could we do? We started saying, ‘Let’s just do a couple of weeks of guest hosts until she’s better,’ ” says Marcus, with Bernstein adding: “For the first four, five, six, eight weeks, we think we’re putting a Band-Aid on it and Wendy’s coming back.”
Producing The Wendy Williams Show without Williams was never going to be easy, in part because Williams had established such a fervent fan base over 12 seasons, an eternity in syndicated television. She’s been described as either morning TV’s resident gal pal or its bomb thrower, and both her ratings (a top-three show in daytime’s core female demo) and her salary (about $6 million a year) reflected her prowess. She famously tussled with plenty of stars, from Whitney Houston to Lil’ Kim and, in her shock-jock days, outed others as gay — all under the headline, “That’s Wendy, just telling it like it is.” Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver once praised Williams as “an oasis of truth in a world full of lies.”
The first call to guest host went to Leah Remini, whose reps had reached out earlier that summer to gauge Debmar-Mercury’s interest in her as a host for her own show. Here was a chance for her to prove her chops. She was in, so long as she could bring her pal Michelle Visage. Michael Rapaport, who’d filled in before, was one of Remini and Visage’s week one guests; when it became clear Williams wouldn’t be back as quickly as anyone had hoped, he was asked to step in, too. Whitney Cummings, Fat Joe and Vivica A. Fox were among the other guest hosts, 16 in total. No one popped in the ratings like Sherri Shepherd, however, a comic, actress and former co-host of The View whose rep had inquired about the opportunity at the top of the season. Shepherd and Debmar-Mercury had come close on a talk show a few years earlier, so the executives there were well versed in her capabilities and happily added her to the lineup.
Several more names were pitched by their managers and agents, but they’d never done the show before or they weren’t people who would excite the stations. “And at that point, it was about keeping the [stations] happy as much as, if not more so than, keeping the viewer happy. We were battling for the life of the show,” says Burstein, who admits they faced plenty of rejection in their quest for guest hosts, too. “Wendy comes with a stink to it. It’s the same reason for the 12 years preceding we struggled to book guests. She was tough on many celebrities, and a lot of celebrities hate her. It’s also why she had success, she’s no holds barred. But even people who were interested in doing a talk show wanted no part of [hosting it].”
As daunting as the arrangement was for the staff, which was effectively producing a new pilot every week, live and in the middle of a pandemic, it was arguably more so for the hosts. “We were asking them to sit in that purple chair for up to 25 minutes, by themselves or sometimes with a co-host they’d never worked with or met before, and deliver for the Wendy audience, which is vociferous and loyal,” says Jewett, who, like many, still marvels at Williams’ ability to simply riff for extended periods of time on live television. Burstein, too, is among them, adding: “Almost nobody can go out and do what Wendy did, just off the cuff like that, which was maybe her most immense talent.”
All the while, producers waited on word from her, which came from Young, who was by Williams’ side until Thanksgiving. Right around that time, the host took off for Florida to be closer to family, including her college-age son, Kevin Hunter Jr., her brother, her sister and even her ex, who declined to comment for this story. “Things got really fuzzy around that point,” says Young. “Her family wanted to take over and do the things that they wanted to do for her and with her and it’s like, ‘All right, OK. Look, I don’t agree, look at the progress …’” Any communications Young had with Williams ended shortly after. Marcus and Bernstein were no longer able to reach her, either. Williams’ cellphone would simply ring and ring, they say; in fact, it wasn’t clear she still had a phone at all.
Back in New York, The Wendy Williams Show went on without her. But as Thanksgiving turned to Christmas, the stations were feeling pressure to finalize their fall 2022 lineups, which are done a year in advance in syndication. As much as they, like Debmar-Mercury, were eager for Williams to return, renewing the “Maybe Wendy Williams Show” was not an option. “At a certain point, you can’t really play what-if,” says Frank Cicha, executive vp programming for the Fox TV stations. “You do have to have an answer.” So, on Feb. 22, 2022, Debmar-Mercury made its plan official: The Wendy Williams Show would end with its 13th season that spring, and a new show from Shepherd would launch in its time slot in the fall. The announcement paid homage to Williams, whom it called a “true icon,” and praised her successor Shepherd as “a natural.” (Shepherd declined to speak for this story.)
Later that day, Howard Bragman, a crisis PR specialist whom Young had roped in in September, released a statement on Williams’ behalf, suggesting that the outgoing host “understands,” and is “incredibly grateful to Debmar-Mercury, to Sherri and everybody else who supported the show through this time.” Within hours, a new Instagram feed for Williams had clapped back: “Mr. Bragman: Although I appreciate your concerns and respect you immensely, I have not authorized you to make any statements on my behalf regarding my status with Debmar-Mercury.”
The offscreen drama didn’t end there. Bragman posted to his own social account: “I’m not honestly convinced of the source of that social media post, so when my old friend Wendy FaceTimes me personally and we alone have a chance to discuss recent events, together we can figure out the best path forward.” Asked about the back-and-forth, current spokesperson Zanotti maintains that Bragman did not have permission to put out statements on Williams’ behalf. Bragman declined to comment for this story.
Marcus and Bernstein didn’t know when or if they’d hear from Williams again; then one day in late February, or maybe it was early March, Bernstein’s phone rang.
What was all this about her show being canceled, Williams wondered. “I said, ‘We haven’t heard from you, and we had to make a decision.’ We should have made one in November, but we pushed it to January or February, and by then, it was like, ‘Make a decision or lose the time period,’” recounts Bernstein. “She said, ‘Well, what’s going to air at 10 o’clock?’ I told her, ‘Sherri’s going to air at 10 o’clock.’ ‘So, can I go on at 11?’ I said, ‘We’d love to work with you, and there are lots of ways and lots of buyers, but you need to come back, and we need to know that you’re OK. You can’t just call after nine months and say, ‘I’m ready.’”
A version of this conversation would take place several more times over the next four months. There were multiple phone calls — sometimes with Bernstein, sometimes with Marcus — and a sit-down lunch in Manhattan. Each time, according to the pair, Williams appeared to be having the discussion for the first time.
Marcus fielded her next call, and, as Bernstein had, stressed the importance of Williams getting cleared by a doctor before she’d be able to return to TV in any meaningful capacity. “We said, ‘Wendy, we need to have a diagnosis from a doctor — whether it’s the TV stations or a network or a new producer, anyone who’s going to do business with you, after you didn’t show up for a year, needs to know that you’re OK. [Without that assurance,] no one’s going to risk money or finance things,’” says Marcus. To date, Williams has been either unable or unwilling to present one, though Bernstein suspects it’s the former. “Unfortunately for Wendy, the happiest moments in her life were on TV. She said to me once, at a Christmas party, ‘You know when I’m happiest? 10 a.m., Monday to Friday,’ and she was great at it,” he says. “There are probably six or eight people in the world who can do it, and she’s one of them, and I believe that if there was a piece of paper that said, ‘No problem, she’s all good,’ she wouldn’t hesitate to show it.”
All the while, the team around Williams kept changing. At one point, Williams enlisted LaShawn Thomas, an attorney with close ties to her ex, leaving many to speculate about the latter’s role. Thomas, who identifies as Hunter’s lawyer for “entertainment-industry related matters,” tells THR that she was brought on by Williams to help her in her legal fight with Wells Fargo, which had frozen her accounts earlier this year. Before the case was sealed, the bank claimed that Williams was an “incapacitated person” and “the victim of undue influence and financial exploitation.” By May, a New York judge had appointed a guardian over her finances, an arrangement that would continue until at least July. According to Thomas and others, Williams’ financial guardianship has since been extended, though she was prohibited by the judge overseeing the matter from representing Williams because of a conflict of interest.
Young says he read in the tabloids that he’d been fired. To this day, he insists that nobody has actually said as much to him. “I saw that and said, ‘OK, look, there’s a lot of things to clean up. I think I’m a good person and a good businessman, and I’ll take care of the business that I need to take care of until it’s not there to take care of, which is what I’ve done, which is what I’m doing,” he says. “If there are loose ends, if there are questions, I do that, it’s not a problem. When I say I’m in, I’m in. But if I’m out, look [me in the] eye and tell me I’m out.” Williams’ camp maintains that Young was indeed fired.
By March, Williams had taken to Instagram to accuse Young of charging $10,000 to her American Express account without her consent “to hire an attorney to file a petition against [her].” Young confirms he spent the money to hire Abrams Fensterman’s Carolyn Wolf, a leading mental health lawyer, whose official bio says she “specializes in guiding families through the complex landscape of legal issues that impact loved ones with serious mental illness and/or substance use issues.” His goal, he tells THR, was to protect Williams. As for the reports that he’d filed a petition seeking to be appointed Williams’ guardian, Young says: “I would not file to be guardian and I didn’t file to be guardian. Those are the facts.”
In the interim, the role of Williams’ manager has been filled by William Selby, a high-end jeweler who says he met the host through a DJ five or six years ago. As Selby tells it, he had helped her procure some diamonds and the two remained tight; when he started to see others in her purple chair this past season, he stepped in. “Wendy’s a very strong woman, she’s positive and optimistic, so in her head, she’s thinking she’s going to get better and everything’s going to go back to normal. And I was just looking at it from a business standpoint and saying, ‘Hey, it doesn’t look too good, so let’s start thinking about some other options,’” he says. “It’s like a basketball player after the NBA. What are you going to do? You’ve got to think about it.” The pair have been busy with a few projects, including a restaurant and a podcast, titled The Wendy Experience. Per Selby, there will be audio and visual components to the latter, and ideally Williams will have friends like Fat Joe, Andy Cohen and Dr. Oz on as guests.
Williams began teasing the new ventures in a series of bizarre interviews this spring. There was an Instagram Live with Fat Joe in early May, during which she seemed to have trouble staying on topic and, at one point, declared that she’s “absolutely” going to be back on The Wendy Williams Show. During a TMZ Live interview, she spoke erratically and at times aimlessly. Halfway through, she also revealed that her lymphedema had caused her to lose 95 percent of feeling in her feet, a point that she drove home by holding up a swollen, discolored limb. Viewers were left perplexed and saddened, and many of her former colleagues were horrified. “You just don’t put somebody like that on live, it was total exploitation,” says Burstein, stating what several others will say only off the record. Even Selby acknowledges that those early interviews were “a little shaky,” though, as he’s learned, trying to muzzle his client is a fool’s errand.
Earlier in August, celebrity blog Hollywood Unlocked reported that Williams had called its CEO, Jason Lee, and said that she’d gotten married to an NYPD officer, which Selby later walked back, telling Page Six that his client was in a new relationship but “probably got carried away in conversation” and was not married. Williams then doubled down, telling Lee in a follow-up call that she is, in fact, married, even if “everyone seems to have a problem with that.” Asked for clarification, Selby denies her marital claims once more.
“She’s an adult. I can’t lock her up in a house and say, ‘Don’t move, don’t even look out the window.’ This isn’t prison,” Selby says, urging fans to have patience with Williams, even as photos of her asleep in a Louis Vuitton store or doling out worrisome interviews out of a car window whip around the internet. “In going through so many things, she’s going to have off [moments]. Doesn’t mean she’s about to die, doesn’t mean she’s going crazy, it just means maybe she’s not feeling well today.”
Selby continues, insisting that he genuinely cares about Williams, even if others seem to doubt him. “I know everyone thinks [that we’re all] trying to take advantage of her, and what I don’t understand is, don’t I look rich? Why would I come into Wendy’s life to take advantage of her? I don’t have the time for that,” he says. “So no one’s trying to make her do anything that she doesn’t want to do. She wants to work right now, I’m the one saying, ‘Hey, Wendy, let’s wait, let’s assess, and if you really feel 100 percent ready, then let’s do it.’ “
As the series finale of The Wendy Williams Show approached in June, the team at Debmar-Mercury began having meeting after meeting about how they’d bid farewell. There wasn’t exactly a handbook for such a thing. “We knew we really didn’t want it to feel like an in-memoriam because she’s very much alive,” says Lewis. At the same time, “we weren’t going to do this huge countdown with celebratory balloons because it didn’t feel celebratory.” One of the many ideas proposed was simply to air the final episode without any acknowledgment that it was the last one. Ultimately, the group decided the best way to honor Williams and her legacy was with a feel-good highlight reel from her 12-season tenure, which Shepherd would introduce mid-show.
When the seven-minute tape was first screened for the executive team, there were few dry eyes. What was never seriously considered, however, was bringing Williams back for the final show. “To put her on as a guest or to do a video message from her would be a disservice to Wendy, who is so much bigger than that,” says one producer, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity. Plus, the executives agreed that she was not in a position to appear on TV. Even the stations, which likely knew they’d pop a big rating with Williams back in her chair, didn’t push. (Williams and her ex have since blasted the choice in the press, with the former suggesting the finale was “ick” and the latter calling her absence “a travesty.”)
The team wanted to be sensitive to Shepherd, too, and having Williams return, even just to say goodbye, “would have been incredibly awkward,” says Burstein. “It would have stolen the spotlight and, at this point, our chips are all on Sherri.” Shepherd would soon be unfairly blamed for a series of moves outside her control, including Debmar-Mercury’s decision to remove the Wendy Williams Show YouTube channel and its social accounts, which Lewis attributes to a “rights and clearance issue.” That somehow Shepherd had stolen Williams’ show or her social followers became narratives in certain corners of the internet as well. “It honestly wouldn’t have mattered who we chose,” Marcus acknowledges, “because it isn’t actually about Sherri, except now she’s taking the brunt and she shouldn’t.”
The day before the final show, Williams is said to have caught a promo on Fox. “She called me, like, ‘Wait a minute, what do you mean it’s canceled? What are you talking about?’” says Marcus, who would have to have the same heartbreaking conversation once more. Selby believes that his client didn’t think the show was actually ending until that point. “No matter how many people could have told her — you could have told her, I could have told her — she’s thinking, ‘I’ll be ready in a week and I’m coming to shoot,’” he says. “So, it kind of happened all of a sudden for her, even though it was unraveling before her eyes.”
At 10 a.m. on June 17, Williams sat in her downtown Manhattan apartment, watching The Wendy Williams Show air for the last time. Before the tribute reel rolled, Shepherd thanked the “incredible” staff, almost all of whom will be staying on for her show, along with “Miss Wendy” herself. “There is nobody, nobody, like Wendy Williams,” she said, crediting her predecessor with single-handedly changing daytime talk. Looking right into camera, she added: “You are an icon, and you are loved by so many.” Through thunderous applause, she repeated, “So many.” Right then, the studio audience rose to its feet and began chanting, “WENDY! WENDY! WENDY!”
Once it was all over, the entire staff filed into the studio audience, where a series of speeches and toasts began. Marcus and Bernstein both fought back tears as they reminded those gathered, many of whom had been there from the start, how special The Wendy Williams Show had been for them, too, in part because it was the first original show that Debmar-Mercury ever did. “We practically bet our houses on it,” says Bernstein, “and we just wanted to thank everyone for hanging in there.” Jewett also remembers most in the room crying that day. “I’ve been working in daytime for over 30 years, and lightning in a bottle like Wendy Williams doesn’t come through very often,” she says, fighting back tears in her retelling. “And I think I can speak for everybody in saying that we all feel so lucky to have been along for the ride. So, yeah, the final show was really hard, and it was really hard, to a large degree, because Wendy wasn’t there.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.