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Wendy Williams documentary called ‘exploitative’ by star’s publicist, fans

FILE - Wendy Williams' publicist said the star's new documentary 'Where is Wendy Williams?' is exploitative and takes advantage of Williams' dementia diagnosis. Michael Tran / FilmMagic

A new documentary focusing on and starring Wendy Williams has been the subject of intense criticism from fans — and even members of the star’s own PR team — who branded the project exploitative and uncomfortable.

The two-part docuseries, Where Is Wendy Williams, aired Saturday and Sunday on Lifetime.

Two days ahead of the release, Williams, 59, and her team published a statement that said the star was diagnosed in 2023 with primary progressive aphasia (a language-related disorder that affects conversation and literacy) and frontotemporal dementia (a brain disorder that impacts personality and behaviour, as well as memory).

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The now-public knowledge of Williams’ mental decline made the documentary a difficult watch for many, including Shawn Zanotti, who began working as Williams’ publicist in 2021.

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Zanotti, who appears in the documentary, told NBC News on Wednesday she felt Williams was “being exploited” by producers.

“She thought we were focusing on the comeback of her career,” Zanotti said. “She would be mortified. There’s no way you can convince me that she would be OK with looking and seeing herself in that way.”

The episodes, while highlighting the cultural impact of Williams’ talk show career, show the star in a number of vulnerable moments.

Throughout the documentary, many of Williams’ family members claimed they’d been cut off from contacting Williams, who the family said was surrounded only by people on her payroll. In the second episode, Williams’ manager, Will Selby, finds an empty vodka bottle by the star’s bed and confronts Williams about alleged heavy drinking.

In the documentary, Williams is often agitated, weepy and confused.

Zanotti told NBC News that the final product of Where is Wendy Williams? is not what was initially agreed upon.

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She said she told Williams’ guardian (who was court-appointed in 2022) that she “did not agree with what was going on with this documentary.”

“I made it very clear to the guardian. The production company was aware of that,” Zanotti recalled. “I didn’t agree with the way this was moving and shaking. And instead of them dealing with it with me, they decided to ignore me. They ignored me from that moment, and I never heard from them again.”

In 2022, Williams was appointed a legal guardian, Sabrina Morrissey, who would oversee the star’s finances and health decisions. The guardian was appointed after Wells Fargo froze Williams’ accounts and told the courts there was strong reason to believe that Williams was an “incapacitated person” who is “the victim of undue influence and financial exploitation.”

Morrissey sued Lifetime’s parent company, A&E Television Networks, ahead of the documentary’s release in an attempt to bar it from airing, USA Today reported. The lawsuit was dismissed over First Amendment rights.

“My concern at this point is: What’s really going on? Who really does have her best interest at heart?” Zanotti questioned.

Morrissey has not commented publicly about the documentary or being Williams’ guardian.

‘We did not know she had dementia,’ say filmmakers

Where is Wendy Williams? was filmed between August 2022 and April 2023. Producers on the project said they were, at the time of filming, unaware of Williams’ cognitive issues.

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In an interview with Today, executive producers Mark Ford and Erica Hanson, who is also showrunner, said they understand why some of Williams’ fans have ethical concerns about the documentary.

“We shaped the documentary, ultimately, in a way that we felt could benefit Wendy, her family and the world at large,” said Ford. “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?”

“We didn’t know that she had dementia,” added Hanson. “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.”

The pair claimed to have not spoken to Williams since filming wrapped in 2023.

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Ford said he felt Williams would have been fine with using clips that showed empty liquor bottles and take-out orders in her home because “it’s just the truth of what she was going through.”

“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,” he continued. “There was never anything that was done behind her back. She was very forthright and open about everything.”

Regardless, many of Williams’ fans and viewers of the documentary thought the endeavour was slimy and conscienceless.

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Williams hosted The Wendy Williams Show from 2008 to 2021, winning admiration and an even larger following of fans who appreciated her honest, often dramatic, recounts of pop culture moments and her own history of addiction and struggles with Graves’ disease and lymphedema.

The Wendy Williams Show was cancelled in 2022, and the primetime talk show slot taken by Sherri Shepherd.

Lifetime did not respond to a Global News request for comment before press time.

Global News and Lifetime Canada are properties of Corus Entertainment.

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