From insulting Joaquin Phoenix to joking about Amie Harwick: How Wendy Williams is turning her show into a 1.6m viewer a day bonanza

Chelsea Ritschel
·5-min read

As one of America’s most controversial TV hosts with a track record of shocking comments, Wendy Williams is rarely far from the headlines.

In a single week, the host managed to offend and outrage audiences on two wildly different subjects, drawing ire across America.

Just before Valentine’s Day, Williams made a string of offensive comments against gay men while presenting on her eponymous show.

"If you're a man and you're clapping, you're not even a part of this," the 55-year-old said during a segment about Galentine’s Day. "You don't understand the rules of the day. It's women going out and getting saucy and then going back home. You're not a part." She then went on to tell them to stop "wearing our skirts and our heels" and that gay men will "never be the women that we are. No matter how gay."

Just days after facing backlash for the comments, Williams’ attempt at a joke about the death of sex therapist Amie Harwick, who was found murdered in her Hollywood Hills home, sparked criticism.

Referencing Harwick’s former fiance, comedian Drew Carey, Williams said that, yes Harwick "was tragically murdered over the weekend," but that it was not by Carey.

Williams talks to the audience after a taping of her show
Williams talks to the audience after a taping of her show

Williams then said the famous catchphrase from the game show The Price is Right, "Come on down."

Williams later apologised for what many called homophobic comments - but has yet to admit any wrongdoing in regards to her coverage of Harwick’s death despite the widespread outrage, including from Hawick’s own brother.

The controversies came less than a month after the talk show host publicly apologised to the "cleft community" in January after she was criticised by viewers including Canadian football player Adam Bighill for mocking Joaquin Phoenix's cleft palate on the show. In addition to apologising, Williams' show donated to two charities in honour of Bighill's son Beau, who was also born with a cleft lip.

But, rather than making the comments in moments of poor judgement, it seems more likely that Williams is using the controversial remarks and resulting outrage to her benefit.

In 2019, Williams' show, which has already aired 11 seasons and averages 1.6m viewers per day, was renewed for two more seasons. At the time, Frank Cicha, EVP Programming at Fox Television Stations said: "Wendy is family to us, and post-AM news, her program jumpstarts the day in our markets."

Following the renewal announcement, Williams promised Fox and "all of our stations" that she would "never stop working" to bring the show's audience the "freshest national daytime television".

While people on social media may be quick to express their disgust over the host's comments, that outrage isn't felt in her ratings nor studio - or by her target audience.

We went to a taping of Williams’ show last week where we realised that, if anything, her controversial attitude just endears her more to her loyal fanbase.

While waiting in line to enter the studio, Tiffany told us: “I came all the way from Toronto I love the show and Wendy so much.”

Her excitement grew when the show’s production assistants handed us our tickets. “I have to put this on my Instagram story,” the 25-year-old said.

We were captured looking confused in the audience
We were captured looking confused in the audience

Tiffany wasn’t the only one that was brimming with excitement, despite having to line up outside the midtown studio in the cold, where we waited for roughly 30 minutes, before being escorted inside to wait some more.

Once inside the studio, we finally understood why. With bright colours, loud music and smiles all round, it feels more like a party than a live television recording. The audience, mainly women of varying ages with some young men, all appeared to be ardent fans of the New Jersey native.

We were sat in the second row, from which we had an uninterrupted view of the stage and Williams, who kicked off by walking the audience through what she ate for breakfast that morning (a kale salad).

“I love Wendy so much,” Ariana Ouedraogo from North Carolina said. “I came alone,” she added.

Although the taping was fairly tame by her standards, the thrilled crowd of around 60 people were delighted all the same. Spirits were high throughout - especially when the audience were gifted a $100 Walmart giftcard and an entire range of hair products - with frequent laughter, applause and nods of agreement, partly faked by crew member Suzanne Bass.

But, even when Williams turned on them, the audience lapped it up, expressing amusement when the host told one of them to “pipe down” during a short conversation about an app for divorced parents.

“She just comes here and does her job - that’s all,” 25-year-old Ariana said to me at one point, while expressing her admiration for the celebrity host.

Earlier in the day, Tiffany told me: “When someone gets on my nerves I think: ‘What would Wendy do?’”

The show ended on a positive note, with Williams coming over to greet the people who'd taken time out of their Wednesday mornings to see her.

"It's dangerous outside, we asked you to get up early, we asked you to put on a little extra sazón to make your outfits good," the host said. "So thank you for joining and being a part. If you're from out of town, any time that you're here, please come by."

Overall, it seems that Williams is able to exist, and flourish, on a fine line - where she can push her audience to the boundaries with offensive comments that other hosts would likely be cancelled for - without a concern for lasting backlash.

For now, her fans are loyal, but we can’t help but wonder if Williams will eventually say something that makes even her fans turn against her.

Read more

Wendy Williams apologises for mocking Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘cleft palate’