Wendy Williams doesn’t consider herself a “star.” But try telling that to the fans who tune into her show every weekday, or have flown across the world to attend one of her Manhattan tapings.
“I don’t feel like a celebrity, and being celebrated is not my favorite part of this job,” she tells PEOPLE. “My favorite part is going out there and actually doing the show. It’s the best hour of any day, because if I feel like crap, somehow I’m always lifted up. If I feel really happy, I can spread that to other people. And seeing people whoop and holler and the various demographics of people that I see sitting in my audience and where they come from, far and wide … that makes me feel good.”
But there’s plenty to celebrate: On Monday, The Wendy Williams Show will air its 1,500th episode.
To borrow her own catchphrase: How’s she doin’?
“It feels good,” says Williams, 53. “It’s a sea of sharks out here on TV, whether it’s daytime or nighttime. But particularly daytime TV. A lot of people have tried and a lot of people have failed. I feel grateful.”
The Wendy Williams Show launched with a six-week trial in 2008, when the New Jersey native was best known as a “shock jock” on New York and Philadelphia radio who kept it real with everyone from callers to A-list celebrities — leading to notorious “feuds” with stars like Whitney Houston. But her brash, unfiltered, unapologetically “Wendy” voice is also the secret to her success.
“I can only be me, you know? It’s really difficult to be someone else. And I’ve always only been able to be me, and sometimes my mouth has made great friends in the past,” she says. “But … if you ask, I’m going to answer you. Sometimes honesty burns bridges. So how is it to be sort of the voice of the people? Easy. I’m one of the people. I don’t feel any different. I just feel like I’m on TV, but a regular person.”
During the show’s initial run, The New York Times snarkily called her a “scandalmonger” who wouldn’t last long. Nine seasons later, “Wendy’s share of the TV audience is growing faster in the critical November sweeps ratings period at the midway point than any other daytime talk show,” her rep says. “In fact, most others are down year-to-year.”
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“I live my life by a couple of different mottos, and one of them is, ‘I’ll show ‘em,'” she says. “We are the dark horse in the race, still. I still feel like people are looking, like, how did she survive? What is she doing? Now I watch other shows, and other shows are poking and pinching things from our show. Oh, they think I don’t know. I see stuff. Mm hm.”
She doesn’t mind that, despite multiple nominations, she hasn’t won that shiny Emmy yet. Who needs a trophy when you’ve got “mojo.”
Of the entertainment world, she says, “It’s very tough for women, it’s very tough for black people, it’s very tough for a black woman who’s not going to get out on TV and act like a buffoon, because the industry still wants a certain kind of shuckin’ and jivin’ from my people, and I can’t give that. I come out and laugh uproariously, but I am an intelligent woman, and I will not dumb down — unless I’m imitating someone dumb, you know?” she adds with a laugh. “It’s even more difficult in this industry to go it alone. I don’t have a panel of people out there like The Talk and The View and The Real and stuff. There’s nobody to alleyoop the ball to. And I love it, because all the shoes are mine and all the dresses are mine, and the crew dotes on me. And the staff is always concerned.”
“You know, fainting happens. It’s the first time it ever happened to me, and if it’s going to happen, I’m glad it happened on air. Because, you know, let me get a rating out of it then,” she joked. “I don’t want to faint in the middle of Food Town, you know what I’m saying? Where before they call 911, they start stealing my diamonds.”
Still, the online rumors that she’d fallen as a stunt did bother her.
“They thought it was fake,” she says. “Everybody’s a doctor. ‘You need iron.’ ‘I don’t believe any of it.’ ‘She looks sad.’ ‘There’s something going on.’ Oh, shut up.”
And Williams — who has never taken a sick day or missed a show — says she’s not going to put her work ethic above her health again, promising herself she’ll take time off if her body signals she needs a break.
It’s her least favorite part of her job, being treated like tabloid fodder. Throughout her career, Williams has been open about problems in her personal life. It’s part of her authenticity as a talk show host, plus a strategy of controlling her own story.
“I would rather get in front of a situation than have a situation get in front of me,” she says. “People talk. Even when they’re supposed to be confidential, they talk. And so I would rather talk first.”
“I don’t like the paparazzi, but they have a job to do,” she adds. “So you smile and you keep it moving. The great thing about being on every day and being live is that anything that they out there say, I will come and address in my own voice on the show. And I’m fearless about that. But it’s great to set the record straight on the show.”
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Despite her journalism background, Williams says she doesn’t conduct interviews anymore — she holds conversations, whether they be straight-to-camera during Hot Topics, one-on-one with a celebrity or with a member of her studio audience during Ask Wendy, when she gives out advice like a no-nonsense girlfriend.
That popular segment, she says, has “gotten spicier and spicier the longer we’ve been on TV.”
“It used to be, ‘Wendy, my mother hates these earrings. Do you love these earrings?’ But once you become a household name, so to speak, people trust you, and now, the Ask Wendys are really something else,” she says, laughing. “‘I’m having an affair with my boss. Nobody in my office knows.’ I’m like, ‘Do you see a camera right over there?’”
Does she ever feel overwhelmed playing therapist to her fans?
“Oh, we break up households all the time!” she remarks wryly. “Only because people ask. I always feel like people know the answer to what they’re asking.”
Even as she’s spilling tea and dishing gossip, though, Williams unites far more than she divides. Her viewers are every age, race and gender, and her appeal is universal, something she felt innately growing up in an all-white neighborhood back in New Jersey.
“I was born to do this, bring people together,” she says. “Old, young, black, white, one leg, one eye. Come one, come all, you freaks. I’m a freak, too.”
After hitting the 1,500 episode benchmark, Williams isn’t setting any lofty goals — beyond being herself.
“I think steady is the name of the game at this point,” she says. “You know, nine seasons in, I don’t want to tamper with what’s already good.”
“There’s no celebrities,” she says. “It’s just us.”
The Wendy Williams Show airs live on weekdays (check your local listings).