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Wendy Williams’ family reveals heartbreaking toll of her health issues in harrowing documentary

By Elizabeth Wagmeister, CNN

(CNN) — When Wendy Williams’ popular talk show was canceled in 2022, the first person to reveal the news to her was her niece and goddaughter, Alex Finnie.

“I got serious, and I said, ‘I want to really explain something to you so that you can get this,’” Finnie recalled in an interview with CNN this week. “’There’s no more ‘Wendy Williams Show.’ They decided to cancel it. After so many fabulous seasons, this curtain has come down.’”

Williams didn’t seem to grasp the reality of the situation, according to her niece.

”Are you aware?” Finnie recalled asking her aunt. “And I remember her saying, ’What are you talking about? Of course, I have the show.’”

“It took a little bit of convincing and conversations with the powers that be from her show for her to really understand that the show is no more,” Finnie added.

Williams’ response concerned Finnie, she said. In hindsight, it was, perhaps, an early indicator of what the public learned this week.

A care team for Williams announced Thursday that in 2023 she was diagnosed with aphasia and frontotemporal dementia, conditions which can impact personality and communication, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Prior to her diagnosis, Williams faced other health struggles that caused her to miss show tapings before her series came to an end. After 13 influential seasons of candid – and often controversial – cultural conversation, Williams all but disappeared from the public eye. Now her family is detailing their efforts to help Williams in a new Lifetime documentary, “Where is Wendy Williams?”

The documentary, which has been viewed by CNN, purports to be a painfully honest depiction of Williams’ life in recent years – showing her memory loss and mood swings, along with alcohol abuse. In several scenes, Williams is shown passed out in bed with an empty bottle of liquor beside her. At one point, production had to stop down for months over heightened concerns for Williams’ well-being when producers said they found her in her disheveled New York City apartment with her eyes rolled back in her head.

Williams is currently in an inpatient treatment facility for cognitive care, her niece, the documentary’s executive producer and a spokesperson for Lifetime told CNN. Vocal about her past struggles with substance abuse, Williams is also seeking help for alcohol addiction, her niece and other family members said in the documentary.

Finnie, who describes Williams as a second mother, told CNN that she is in regular communication with her aunt and spoke with her this week. However, because Williams is currently under a court-ordered guardianship, her family does not know the location or any other information regarding the facility where Williams is being treated, nor do they have access to call Williams directly.

CNN has been unable to speak with Williams about the project or verify her family’s account of their conversations. A representative for Williams’ care team declined to comment on the Lifetime documentary, and it is unclear whether this care team is working with Williams’ guardian.

“What I can tell you is that she sounds great. I only talk to her when she calls me,” Finnie said of Williams’ current state. “Wherever she is now, she has been there for a few months, and she is sounding good.”

Finnie said that Williams hopes “she can come out of where she is now, healthy, happy and she’s talking about potentially wanting to get back to work.”

Personal challenges

In 2017, Williams fainted on live TV during a Halloween episode, attributing the incident to feeling overheated. Two years later, she revealed in an emotional on-air monologue that while she was hosting her daily talk show, she was living in a sober house.

That revelation came within one month of Williams filing for divorce from her longtime husband and executive producer, Kevin Hunter Sr., who had a child with another woman and subsequently parted ways from his wife’s show that he had overseen since its inception. Williams, who gained fame for her unfiltered and often polarizing opinions on celebrities, suddenly found herself as the hot topic.

Prior to her employment at CNN, the author of this story appeared on “The Wendy Williams Show” as a guest and paid contributor on 11 occasions between 2018 – 2021.

Williams took various health-related hiatuses from her show during this time, some due to her Graves’ disease diagnosis. The autoimmune condition can cause bulging eyes and lymphedema-related swelling. Williams was unable to host her show throughout the 2021-2022 television season.

In February 2022, around the time that her talk show was canceled, Williams was placed in a court-ordered financial guardianship. The identity of Williams’ court-appointed guardian has not been publicly released, according to Lifetime and Williams’ niece. (CNN has reviewed the case number associated with Williams and Wells Fargo at the New York Supreme Court and all filings are sealed.)

The guardianship came about after Wells Fargo froze Williams’ accounts when a former financial adviser for the host reported to the bank that Williams was of “unsound mind,” according to court documents referenced in the Lifetime documentary. Williams’ attorney and publicist at the time said that she “denied all allegations about her mental health and well-being.”

CNN has reached out to her former attorney and publicist for comment.

A revealing documentary

After Williams’ talk show was canceled, she set out to resume her topical conversations in a podcast format and planned to produce a documentary to highlight her comeback project. As cameras began rolling, producers quickly realized the story they initially set out to capture would be much different.

“Where Is Wendy Williams?” – a four-part documentary airing February 24 and 25 – is the result. As an executive producer on the series, Williams is being compensated for the project, released with her participation and with approval from her guardianship, according to Lifetime.

“The documentary evolved into an honest and forthright depiction of Wendy’s dire health situation and whether or not she was receiving adequate care,” executive producer Mark Ford told CNN.

“Due to the unprecedented nature of the documentary, the producers were in a constant state of re-evaluating the approach to the project and how to tell Wendy’s story in the most responsible and truthful way,” Ford said. “We know it may be hard for some of her fans to watch. But we believe this documentary captures the truth of Wendy’s life over the year-and-a-half we filmed it.”

Williams and her manager, who is also an executive producer on the project, weighed in on what was being captured on a daily basis, Ford said.

“We never filmed anything they did not approve,” he added.

By the end of filming, Ford said producers became so concerned about Williams’ health that they urged her management team to get her new medical care. The project’s producers have not been in direct contact with Williams for more than six months, and Ford and Finnie said they do not know whether Williams has seen the documentary before it was approved by her guardianship.

“We’ve talked about it briefly. It’s a really sensitive topic. I take her lead on that because it’s not pretty and she’s in a bright place right now, in terms of the health and healing, and I try not to say anything that could rattle that for her,” Finnie said of the project.

A concerned family

While her family members are pleased that Williams now seems to be getting the help she needs, they have concerns about her guardianship – namely that they have been blocked out of the entire situation, they claim.

In the documentary, Finnie’s mother, Wanda, who is Williams’ older sister, said that she was willing to be Williams’ legal guardian before the court appointed one.

“Some stuff that people are going to see in this documentary, it’s just not adding up,” Finnie said. “I think a lot of people are going to have questions. Where is the guardian? Where is the oversight? How are these people able to seep into her life and essentially just control a woman?”

She hopes the project will help encourage change leading to more transparency in cases of guardianship and send a message beyond her aunt’s struggles.

“I think that this documentary will shine a light on the entire subject matter when it comes to guardianships and conservatorships,” Finnie said. “I do really hope that people walk away seeing my aunt as a human being, feeling for her and praying and hoping that she’s going to come out better than ever, but also with an understanding of the entire system that really is running her life right now, not just for her, but for so many other people that are also at the center of it.”

In sharing Williams’ diagnoses, her care team said they hope to raise awareness, too.

“Unfortunately, many individuals diagnosed with aphasia and frontotemporal dementia face stigma and misunderstanding, particularly when they begin to exhibit behavioral changes but have not yet received a diagnosis,” the statement from Williams’ care team read in part. “Wendy is still able to do many things for herself. Most importantly she maintains her trademark sense of humor and is receiving the care she requires to make sure she is protected and that her needs are addressed. She is appreciative of the many kind thoughts and good wishes being sent her way.”

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