August 18, 2014 12:00 PM

Wendy Williams is not one to mince words. Asked how she feels about turning 50 and becoming a card-carrying member of the AARP this year, the daytime talk host makes it plain: “I’ve still got all my teeth, and 90 percent of the time nothing hurts when I wake up in the morning,” she says, seated on the couch beside her kitchen table. “It’s not like the 1930s version of 50. I’ve got a whole other chapter of life to go.” And like most modern women of a certain age, she’s not interested in slowing down. After taping her syndicated talk show that morning in New York City, she raced back to the Livingston, N.J., home she shares with husband Kevin Hunter and their 13-year-old son Kevin Jr. for People’s photo shoot. And once the obligatory gown changes and surprise landscaping issues are handled, Williams takes a moment to reflect. “I feel good,” she says with a nod. “No, I feel like I’m just getting started.”

For the wildly successful radio turned TV host, whose Wendy Williams Show is syndicated for an audience of nearly 2 million people daily, it’s been a long journey to the top. And though the tough-talking Williams lives what she calls a charmed life now, it wasn’t always that way. She grappled with her body image as a teen, scraped through college, abused drugs in her 20s and struggled to start a family while climbing her way up the professional ladder. “I’ve been through a lot in life,” she says. “But I only stay down for a moment.”

When it comes to discussing her childhood, Williams is brutally blunt. “Honestly,” she says, “my life before 21 sucked.” The second of three children raised by Thomas, an English professor, and Shirley, a teacher, in Ocean Township, N.J., “I grew up being fat-shamed by my family,” Williams says bluntly, with a squint and point to Shirley, who’s lounging outside on the patio. “In the ’70s I guess that’s what they called ‘love.’ ” She and her parents, in town from Florida for her birthday celebration, have since mended their relationship, but Williams isn’t shy about calling them out. “My first diet was in the first grade! When I look back, I was a little fluffy, but I wasn’t fat.”

It’s an experience she says warped her body image early on. Today Williams stands just shy of 6 ft. tall even without the sky-high heels she favors. But as a little girl, “I knew plastic surgery was something I was going to do,” says Williams, who cops to having had multiple procedures, like liposuction and a breast augmentation, over the years. “Weight was a big thing for me to overcome.” As was adolescence in general. “When Wendy was young, she was very aggressive,” says Shirley. “She spoke her mind and was not afraid of being Wendy.” Adds Williams: “I was always the wild card. In high school I was thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here and set the world on fire!’ ”

Feeling like the odd one out in college as well, Williams discovered her passion at the campus radio station at Boston’s Northeastern University. She also discovered drugs. “I didn’t consider it a problem,” she says of dabbling in cocaine as an undergrad, “mainly because I had no money to fuel the habit.” But after landing a dream gig as a disc jockey on New York City’s WRKS station in 1989, “I was making $60,000 a year, and at $35 a gram, cocaine was cheap,” says Williams. “I was a young Jersey girl turning the city upside down. I wanted to live on the edge.”

Despite heavy cocaine use throughout her 20s, during which time she was briefly married, Williams abruptly got her act together after she began dating Kevin Hunter. “I decided to step back and take an assessment of my life,” she says. “Somehow I hadn’t gotten caught up in handcuffs or shamed my parents. I had just met this new guy. I said, ‘Count your blessings, Wen. It’s time to stop.’ ”

Williams, who’s now 15 years clean, faced a major challenge when she and Hunter decided to start a family after marrying in 1998. By then in her mid-30s, Williams had difficulty carrying a baby to term and suffered two devastating miscarriages, both of which occurred during her second trimester, when most women are told they’re in the safe zone. Discussing what she calls the “hiccup” on their road to having children, Williams grows teary-eyed. “Both were at 5 months. They were full babies,” she says. “Both little girls.” Taking a moment to gather herself, she says, “I do believe in the afterlife, so they’re waiting. In the meantime we have our little Kevin here with us.”

When she got pregnant for the third time, a petrified Williams spent nine months on bed rest per doctor’s orders. “I had the contraction meter and my radio equipment set up in my house,” she says. But the stress had a side effect. “I was also eating myself to death,” she says. “I wanted to take my mind off another possible loss. In the end I gained 103 lbs.” But with the delivery of a healthy baby in the summer of 2000, “we got our special gift from God. Now, he’s not perfect,” she says with a laugh, “but he’s a dear, sweet boy.”

With motherhood under her belt, Williams decided to get her body back the new-fashioned way. “I had my mommy makeover,” she says of getting a tummy tuck. “It was a kickoff to my new way of life.” And thanks to her having adopted a leaner diet a few years ago, “my stomach’s still as tight as this table,” says Williams, knocking on her granite kitchen stand for good measure.

Now, at 50, Williams admits that some things have changed, but for the better. “I’ve had a personality shift,” says the former “lightning rod” who publicly sparred with colleagues and stars like Whitney Houston back in her radio days. But since she landed her daytime talk show in 2009, “it’s different. I’m in millions of homes in 52 countries,” she says. “I’m too smart for that stuff now.”

These days she has more important things to focus on, like her health. “I’ll be getting my first-ever colonoscopy this summer,” says Williams, whose grandmother died of colon cancer at 50. “At this age health starts to matter more.” And though she has thyroid disorders (“That’s why I wear wigs,” she says, slipping her current piece off to reveal long but very thin natural hair)—including Graves’ disease, which causes her eyes to protrude—she still feels like she’s in fighting shape: “I’m 5’11”, 165 lbs., and I love my body at this point in my life.” And she’s loving life in general. “I’ve corrected just about everything that bothered the hell out of me in my 20s, 30s and 40s,” she says, reflecting on a tumultuous road and all she has now. “I have to say, this is not how I thought things would turn out…. I’m sober, I’ve got my Kevins, my parents are still around to see my success,” she says, shaking her head. “I knew life would turn out okay, but I didn’t think it’d turn out great!”