By Mark Dagostino
Updated December 21, 2009 12:00 PM

Backstage at her TV talk show, Wendy Williams’ dressing suite is exactly what her viewers would expect: fabulous, frilly and over the top. From the hot-pink walls to the closet of five-inch heels to the glittering chandeliers competing for attention with a pink-and-silver swordfish on the wall, the room epitomizes the outrageous style of its occupant. “Isn’t it great?” Williams exclaims in the same throaty voice that has made her show greeting of “How you doin'” into a catchphrase fans shout to her on the street.

But don’t let the diva details fool you. Williams has worked hard and long to get to this spot, spending 23 years as a radio personality before finally landing her eponymous daytime TV show this summer. The Wendy Williams Show had such a strong debut that FOX immediately ordered two more seasons. She goes where most other hosts dare not, asking celebrities about everything from their hair extensions to weight gain to feuds with fellow stars. But at 45, Williams is as honest with herself as she expects her guests to be with her. “I think what America sees is this really confident girl,” she says, sitting down with her makeup off and her wig mussed up, slathering moisturizer on her hands. “But I also try to let the audience know that I’m scared I’m gonna fall off my shoes. I wear wigs because I have thin hair. I’m a bit messy. But I own it.”

Learning to own herself, flaws and all, wasn’t easy. A middle child raised in the leafy suburb of Ocean Township, N.J., by an English professor dad and elementary schoolteacher mom, the 5’11” Williams was “fluffy” (her word for overweight), loud and one of only four African-American kids to graduate from her high school. “And the other three kids called me white girl,” says Williams. “I’ve always been the outsider. I swore to myself, ‘One day I’ll get out of Ocean Township and I’ll show ’em!'”

Following her parents’ advice that “you have a good personality—and personality will take you a long way,” Williams graduated from Northeastern University, strapped on some high heels and took her sass to radio with a mix of celebrity gossip and in-your-face advice that caught fire in New York City. By the 1990s, she was gabbing on Sally Jessy Raphael’s and Ricki Lake’s talk shows, eventually landing correspondent gigs on Extra! and VH1—sparking dreams of someday landing her own show.

Other dreams came first. “I begged God for a family,” says Williams, who, after a five-month failed marriage in her 20s, “wasn’t willing to settle.” In 1995 she met entrepreneur Kevin Hunter, now 38, when he passed her a note at a party. Married three years later (Hunter became Williams’ manager and is now one of her show’s executive producers), Williams suffered several miscarriages before giving birth to Kevin, 9. “In my life as Wendy Hunter, over in Jersey, I want you to know me because I’m Kevin’s mother—not because I’m on TV,” Williams says. When the workday’s done, she’s more likely to be found shopping at Marshalls (“Celebrity’s fleeting, so I’m frugal!” she says) than she is red carpet hopping. “I like to stay at home in my robe, with my wig in a drawer. That sounds so lame, like, I’ve gotta get a life,” she says with a big Wendy laugh. “But you know what? I do have a life—a beautiful life that I absolutely love.”