(N) EXCLUSIVE: Wendy Williams fans say new doc was ‘exploitative.’ Producers respond

Lifetime’s “Where Is Wendy Williams?” provoked a strong reaction from audiences used to seeing Wendy Williams as the fast-talking.

Quippy host of a daytime talk show host. Instead, over the course of four episodes.

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They saw a woman struggling with memory loss and alcohol use, and suffering from various health ailments like Graves’ disease and lymphedema.

“I hope that Wendy Williams gets the help she needs and maybe this show will help with that but something about this isn’t sitting right with me,” one user wrote on the social media site X. “She can’t consent to being on camera like this.

It feels exploitative.” Another said on X the documentary “should (never) have aired.”

The documentary series was filmed between August 2022 and April 2023, a time of shifts for Williams.

In January 2022, Wells Fargo petitioned to have Williams put under court-appointed guardianship stemming from financial reasons.

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The bank froze Williams’ accounts and in its filing wrote that the bank has “strong reason to believe that (Williams) is the victim of undue influence and financial exploitation,” which Williams “strenuously denied” in a statement.

“The Wendy Williams Show” ended in June 2022 after Williams’ prolonged health related absence.

At the time of the documentary, Williams was living in New York while her extended family was in Miami.

Williams’ family members, including sister Wanda Finnie and son Kevin Hunter Jr., express concern with the guardianship system.

Her main points of contact are her manager, Will Selby, and her publicist, Shawn Zanotti. Her guardianship is not shown or named. Today, Williams is in a treatment facility.

Williams seems to visibly struggle with memory loss and mood swings in the documentary.

Days before the documentary’s release, on Feb. 22, her medical team announced.

Williams has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia and aphasia via press release. Williams responded Feb. 23 in a statement.

“I want to say I have immense gratitude for the love and kind words I have received after sharing.

My diagnosis of Aphasia and Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD),” she said in a statement to TODAY.com.

“Let me say, wow! Your response has been overwhelming. The messages shared with me have touched me, reminding me of the power of unity and the need for compassion.”

Her court-appointed guardian also filed a sealed lawsuit against Lifetime’s parent company.

A&E Television Networks, but the network confirmed the doc would air as scheduled.

TODAY.com spoke to executive producer Mark Ford and executive producer and showrunner Erica Hanson about viewers’ concerns and the making of the documentary.

Williams, her son Kevin Hunter Jr. and her manager Will Selby are also producers.

TODAY.com has reached out to Williams. She has no comment at the time of the documentary.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

What is your response to the ethical concerns that viewers have raised about the documentary and whether it should have been released?

Mark Ford: We completely understand them and had all these conversations. Is this something we should do?

Is this something we should air? We shaped the documentary, ultimately, in a way that we felt could benefit Wendy, her family and the world at large.

What started as a story about Wendy and her biography turned into something very different.

(It became) more about what it is like when your family member, who you care about.

Is placed under legal guardianship and you don’t have any access to her anymore? What are the things that can happen?

Erica Hanson: I think we all ultimately wanted to shed light on this period of time in Wendy’s life to help understand what she was going through.

I can totally understand how, at times, it’s hard to watch. It was hard at times to film, but we wanted to be honest in painting a real picture of her isolation and her struggle with addiction.

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We didn’t know that she had dementia. We didn’t know that it was confusing at times.

Some days, Wendy was on and very Wendy. Other days, she wasn’t. We all felt this was a complex and sensitive story to tell, and we all felt a great responsibility to do it with dignity and sensitivity.

Have there been any updates from Wendy and her family following the release of the documentary?

Ford: We were in touch with Wendy’s family before and after the documentary aired. They are highly supportive of it and appreciate the platform to tell their story and explain their side of the story.

(They can show) what it’s like to be a family that’s dealing with someone under legal guardianship and how restrictive and painful it can be. They can’t reach out and call Wendy.

Kevin Jr. can’t call his mom. He has to wait for her to call him. They don’t know where she is.

They can’t go and visit her. Hopefully, that will change and the documentary will kind of be a clarion call to the world at large about how painful this can be for a family to have to go through this.

Hanson: We truly reached a point of concern. If we weren’t there, what would have happened to her?

We stopped filming when (her) guardian took that action to get her into a facility.

And that was our hope that she could be in a safe place and treated for what she needed to be treated for.

As documentarians, what about individuals like Wendy’s manager, Will, and publicist, Shawn, made you want to dive into their motivations?

Ford: We were there documenting the actual events happening around Wendy Williams.

We really didn’t know Will or Shawn well before we started filming, and just trusted that they would have Wendy’s best interests at heart.

I think you can make up your own mind, as viewers, whether they did or not, or whether some of their actions were misguided or not.

This was just simply the truth of what was going on around Wendy while she was under a legal guardianship in New York state.

These were the people in her life. These were the things she was doing, and we were just simply putting a camera and a lens on it.

What happened with Shawn? She seems to leave the documentary abruptly.

Ford: I don’t think Shawn … we don’t really know, to be honest; we haven’t spoken with Shawn for quite some time, and I don’t think she’s still employed by Wendy.

I’m not sure when that kind of ended. But again, we haven’t been able to speak with Wendy directly since April of 2023 when we stopped filming.

So there’s no idea if Shawn was let go by Wendy or by family or a guardian?

Ford: All I know is, according to (Wendy’s) management, Shawn no longer is Wendy’s publicist.

TODAY.com has reached out to Shawn Zanotti for comment and has not heard back at the time of publication.

What was Wendy’s overarching goal or intention for this documentary, as you understood it?

Ford: As it was in her previous documentary, it was just to tell the truth, to let the world in.

Alex (Finnie), her niece, has spoken about this in several interviews as to the why.

And it’s that she wanted to have control of her own story and let the chips fall where they may.

Everyone knows that Wendy has a reputation as one of the most radical truth tellers in the history of media.

So, we hope that the film honors her legacy of radical transparency even when it’s painful.

We just really felt, as filmmakers, that it was important to capture the truth and not sanitize it.

There are visuals of takeout food orders and open bottles in her apartment.

Do you think that she felt OK with seeing that on-screen and allowing other people in the world to see that on-screen as well?

Ford: I do. It’s just the truth of what she was going through. You know, Wendy never asked us to put the cameras down* or management never asked us to put, you know, the cameras down.

The couple times that she did, we did, you know, and there were many things we filmed that we didn’t air, you know, and never will see the light of day.

As filmmakers, we’re here to capture the truth, and that was what we were engaged to do from the beginning.

That was what Wendy wanted us to do. The truth of her life now is very different than what the truth of her life was two years ago when we all started on this journey together.

* At different moments throughout the documentary series, Williams dismisses the show’s production.

“Can you guys go so I can watch TV?” Williams asks for production to leave in Episode 4 after a confrontation with her niece, Alex Finnie.

It sounds like what you’re saying is that she had control and say in the release of the documentary. Would you say she’s OK with what people are saying?

Ford: We’re not able to communicate with Wendy since April 2023. Her family, you know, is communicating with her and they could explain more what her point of view is.

But Wendy was a partner as well as her guardian, her manager, all our lawyers, everybody’s signed off and was aware all the ways through what we were filming.

And so there was never anything that was, you know, done behind her back. She was very forthright and open about everything.

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