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Wendy Williams’ Family Feared She Could Die and That They’d Get 'That Call' amid Star’s Alcohol Abuse (Exclusive)

In this week's PEOPLE cover story, the former TV host's family open up about her struggles with drinking over the past two and a half years

Manny Carabel/Getty Wendy Williams
Manny Carabel/Getty Wendy Williams

The curtain is being lifted on a dark period in Wendy Williams' life.

In the two and a half years since she made what would be her last appearance on The Wendy Williams Show in July 2021, the star, 59, privately struggled with alcohol addiction and with several health issues including Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that can cause bulging eyes, and lymphedema, a condition that causes swelling in her feet.

"There were points during the past year when everyone in this family wondered whether that call [that she was dead] was going to come in the middle of the night," Wendy's sister, Wanda, 65, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week's cover story. "Everybody in this family sat on pins and needles every single night with their cell phones right next to the bed."

PEOPLE's Wendy Williams cover
PEOPLE's Wendy Williams cover

A new Lifetime documentary, Where Is Wendy Williams?, premiering Feb. 24, captures Williams in the throes of her struggles. When the documentary crew began filming in August 2022, it set out to follow Williams’ comeback after her show was canceled in June 2022 and as she prepared to launch a new podcast. It quickly evolved into something entirely different.

"She was already battling so much physically, and then it became clear that there were mental and addiction issues she was also battling," says executive producer Mark Ford. "But all through it, she was adamant that she wanted to tell this story. We asked ourselves almost every day, ‘Is this helping Wendy or is this hurting her?’ And in the end we felt like it was helping her."

Throughout the film, Williams' manager and jeweler Will Selby works hard to keep her away from liquor, but he notes that he can't be with her in her New York City apartment "24/7." At one point, he finds a mostly empty bottle of vodka in her home and asks Williams if she had a liquor lunch, to which she replies, "F— you."

"I think people got into something and didn't realize how big and serious it was," says Williams' niece and Wanda's daughter Alex, 33.

Related: Where Is Wendy Williams? Shocking Doc Reveals Star's Struggles with Money Woes, Health Issues and Alcohol

During Williams' visits to her family in Florida, Wanda says they kept a strict "anti-alcohol" policy, so she "started to push everybody away," including her son, Kevin Hunter Jr., 23.

"Wendy is right when she says, 'Wanda doesn't want me to drink,'" Wanda says. "It wasn't so much, 'I don't want you to drink because drinking is bad,' but drinking for you is not good."

For a long time, sources say Williams struggled with drinking behind the scenes of The Wendy Williams Show, which she first started hosting in 2008. “She would be drunk on air,” says a show source. "Slowly, we started being like, ‘What’s going on with her?’"

In 2017, she fainted in a Statue of Liberty costume during her Halloween episode, later attributing it to her Graves’ disease in a 2018 interview with PEOPLE. “That was the first sign something was really wrong,” says Alex now.

<p>Fox</p> Wendy Williams fainting on TV in 2017

Fox

Wendy Williams fainting on TV in 2017

The show’s co-executive producer Suzanne Bass also saw Williams’ issues.

“I knew she was struggling. How could I not?” says Bass, whose husband was the stage manager. "As her situation grew worse, she pushed us away.”

In March 2019, Williams revealed on the show that she’d been living in a sober house, noting her past problems with cocaine during her rise to fame as a radio shock jock in the ’90s.

Related: Wendy Williams Was 'Never Seriously Considered' to Be Asked Back for Talk Show's Last Episode: Exposé

A month later she filed for divorce from husband Kevin Hunter, 52, after 21 years of marriage, when it was revealed that he’d had a baby with another woman. (Hunter declined to comment for this story.)

“[Wendy's mom] Shirley, may she rest in peace, would always remind me that your aunt would trade everything that she has — every dime, every car, every wig — to be able to have a strong loving household and a loving husband," Alex says. "That was ripped from her right after her son had to go off to college [in 2018]. Emotionally, it was just a lot. It was too much for her world."

Williams' brother, Tommy, agrees: “It put her back into that dark space."

<p>BACKGRID</p> Wendy Williams being pushed in a wheelchair in 2021

BACKGRID

Wendy Williams being pushed in a wheelchair in 2021

When the COVID shutdown began in March 2020, Williams was isolated in her luxury apartment. In May 2020, her show deejay DJ Boof says he found her unresponsive at home, and she was rushed to the hospital, where she needed several blood transfusions. That November Williams’ mom, Shirley, died.

"When our mother passed, who was her greatest advocate and strongest support system out of anybody in this family, she never grieved,” says Wanda.

In May 2022, an independent legal guardian was appointed to oversee Williams' finances and health. Her family members say they don’t know why the court made the decision, and the court papers have been sealed.

A month after the guardian was appointed in 2022, Williams was caught on camera passed out at a Louis Vuitton store, drunk. She entered a wellness facility for two months starting in September 2022, but the next March, after she took a trip to L.A., Selby says in the documentary that she was “disheveled” and adamant about drinking.

Related: Wendy Williams Teases Return to the Spotlight in New Podcast Promo: 'I'll Be Back, Trust Me'

The documentary crew stopped filming Williams in April 2023, after they found her in her apartment with her eyes rolled back into her head. They worked with Selby to urge her legal guardian to get Williams help. That month she entered a facility to treat "cognitive issues," as Selby says in the documentary. Her son reveals in the film that doctors have connected these issues to alcohol use.

"The guardian did come around and was responsive to our pleas... to get her into a safer place," Ford says.

<p>T.JACKSON / BACKGRID</p> Wendy Williams in March 2023

T.JACKSON / BACKGRID

Wendy Williams in March 2023

Williams remains in the facility to this day, and her family says the guardian is the only person who has unfettered access to her. Her family says they don’t know where she is and cannot call her themselves, but she can call them.

Right now, the power over when Williams can leave the facility, if at all, remains in her guardian’s hands.

"All I want to know is that my sister is going to live and that she's going to be healthy," Wanda says.

For more on Wendy Williams, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday, or subscribe here.

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