Like any woman who grew up around the mean streets of New Jersey, Wendy Williams does not back down from a fight. When Whitney Houston was a guest on her New York-based syndicated radio show in 2003, Williams baited Houston with so many questions about alleged drug use that Houston finally replied: "If this were back in the day in Newark I'd meet you outside. But not now, because I'm a lady with class." It's not for nothing that there's a line in a recent Mariah Carey song that goes, "All up in my business like a Wendy Williams interview." So it's a little surprising to learn that Williams says she was unhappy about her most recent dust-up, with reality-TV personality Omarosa. It happened during the taping of Williams's new TV talk show, when Omarosa made some unflattering comments about Williams's wigs and nose. Williams responded by exploring the depths of Omarosa's wrinkles. It went downhill from there. For someone looking to launch a talk show, it made for great headlines. But Williams says that's not what she wanted at all. "I think Omarosa came on wanting to have her moment by attacking me, and that is not what I do on my TV show," says Williams. "I really wanted to have a friendly chat."
A friendly chat? Who does she think she is-Oprah? Apparently, she does. After it debuted in July, "The Wendy Williams Show" hit the top five daytime shows in the four cities where it was test-marketed: New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Detroit. This while Winfrey's still-huge ratings have fallen 9 percent in the past year. If Williams, 44, is going to succeed—the show has just been picked up and will debut nationwide in 2009—she knows she'll have to take her program in a more mainstream direction than fans of her syndicated radio show are used to.
She has spent most of her career talking with African-American celebrities, often in the chattiest-and cattiest-ways imaginable. She's already planning to diversify her guest list-she says she's dying to get Lauren Conrad from "The Hills." That's also what's behind her desire to play nice with the Omarosas of the world. But it's a tricky move. The reason Williams got this show, and arguably the reason it's succeeding, is that she is the anti-Oprah: a woman who'll ask a celebrity if she's gay or drunk or fat right to her face. It's the un-nice Wendy who may be the one most likely to succeed in our Britney-drunk culture, and she knows that. "I was doing the gossip thing long before it was hip to talk about celebs and their lives being as much a mess as anyone else," she says. "This time I think people are ready."
Williams actually tried to make it on TV once before. In 2004, VH1 signed her up to do a series of red-carpet interviews. That gig lasted all of a year. "They thought they could fit Wendy into the network's usual type," says Ira Bernstein, whose company is syndicating her new show. "Our idea is to shape a show around Wendy's personality, to take the witty, down-to-earth persona she uses on her radio show and bring it to life with a studio audience." Like any good talk-show host, Williams says she has learned her lessons. "I know now that my right side is my best side, that I look terrible in red and that I need a regular dose of Botox," she says. "Without it, my eyes sort of bug out on television—not a good look."
About her looks. Williams is 5 feet 11, not counting the mass of faux hair piled on her head. When people do recognize her, they often think she's some semifamous cross-dresser. If she's something of a joke in that way, Williams is totally in on it. She drinks pink champagne at lunch and quickly puts on her diamond-studded Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses when she thinks she spies Matthew McConaughey getting out of his car. But for all her extra-large diva tendencies, there's also something charming about Williams. She comes across as just another one of the girls-she's talked about her weight issues and drug problems for years. It's the same vibe that Oprah or Tyra Banks or Rachael Ray try to mine but can't because they take their glammed-up personas too seriously. As tough as she can be on her guests, she's always been brutally honest about herself. "My bark has always been louder than my bite-I don't ask people anything I wouldn't answer about myself," she says. "I'm not saying I'm going to be the best talk-show host on TV, but I am the flyest." How fly? At the end of her six-week test run, she even had Ray J* on her show. She's also got her eyes on a bigger prize—Whitney Houston. "Are you kidding—I've been dying to do a girlfriend talk with Whitney when she was in her right mind," she says. "We would have a blast talking about fools and hair—synthetic or real." When it comes to keeping it real, there's no one like Wendy Williams.