First there was Oprah. Then there was Tempest (yes y’all know, Tempestt Bledsoe, also remembered as “Vanessa” from the Cosby Show?). Next came Tyra. And now there is Wendy. The trajectory of Black female talk-show hosts has come a long way from the early days of Oprah. We’ve gone from Big O, the rags to riches media mogul who skyrocketed from her poverty stricken childhood replete with potato-sacks for dresses, now being hailed as the most powerful woman in the world, to Miss Wendy Williams, the unapologetically plasticized gossip-radio personality turned silicone boob tube celebrity.
On July 19th, 2009, the Wendy Williams Show debuted on network television, 22 years after Oprah debuted nationally. Wendy Williams, 45, started in the media game shortly after her college days in Boston. From internships and radio gigs in Boston, St. Croix, Washington DC, and then New York, Wendy finally landed at one of the major epicenters of Black radio, New York City’s HOT97 FM. It was here at HOT97 that the dj personality made a name for herself, most markedly through her popular celebrity gossip, crass conversations, and public chitchat of her private life, including her (former) cocaine habit and drug addiction, plastic surgery, liposuction and miscarriages.
Because her notoriety is linked to both her character and the content of her shows, Wendy has been compared to a black female version of Howard Stern and has been reined the Queen of: “…Radio”, “… Dish” and of “Pop culture, gossip and fashion”. Wendy has also been dubbed the “Shock-Jock Diva” and even “The Mouth Almighty.” Some of Wendy’s infamous history-making encounters are her long-standing beef with Whitney Houston and her snafus with the likes of Sean “Diddy” Combs” and Angie Martinez.
In her chosen line of fire, the “shock-jockette” has been known to step on the toes and private lives of a host of other celebrities, including rappers Tupac Shakur and Method Man, along with questioning the sexuality of singer Blu Cantrell. With her no-holds barred antics, her signature colloquial drawl, official How you doin greeting and her hard to miss 36DD implants, it was only a matter of time before this airwave persona made splashes onto the visual landscape. In addition to radio and television, Wendy Williams has also penned several books, including a New York Times bestselling autobiography and a few paperback novels. She is also a spokesmodel for a champagne company and has big-screen movie production in the works. While her show’s content may differ from that her TV predecessors', Tyra and Oprah, her multi-media hustle is not too far off.
In any event, the evolution of the Black female talk television personalities may reflect a particular direction that "the media" is going in when it comes to presenting black faces in America -- or, what I like to call the "Blackface Revival." At any given moment nowadays, one can turn onto the slew of reality TV shows starring the kinds of notorious personalities who remind us all too well of certain folks we try to avoid at family reunions, even if they attempted their typical dramatic entrance upon arrival. Shows like Flavor of Love, Real Chance of Love, Frankie and Neffie, and so on, have developed the unique skill of identifying and spotlighting very specific and limiting aspects of the Black experience for the purpose of “entertainment”. If such entertainment were intended for and created by Black folks, that would be one thing. However, with corporate networks like VH1, Fox and Viacom (owner of BET entertainment chattel) determining which Blackfaces get aired, the issue of the historic gaze becomes that much more important and disturbing.
Back in the day, we had a whole line-up of Black women and men gossiping, talking smack and making complete fools of themselves on shows like Def Comedy Jam. However, when the rolling camera turned onto the audiences, it was predominantly black people laughing at the entertainers. This kind of entertainment was fine before Fox Viacom execs stepped in. Actin’ the fool and airin’ dirty sheets amongst ourselves is one thing; doing it on the bandstand-auction block of mainstream entertainment for American (read: Predominantly White) audiences, is another.
Black folks have been entertaining white audiences for centuries. Isn’t it about time we try something new? Maybe, perhaps instead of Wendy’s catchy saying “How you doin?” that naturally brings a smile to our faces upon recognition, we can start asking each other “WHAT you doin?” Indeed, laughter is necessary, but so is progress.