The drama around Wendy Williams has been building for years, but the war over who gets to represent the ailing daytime TV star boiled over in the last couple weeks after the Lionsgate-owned syndication giant Debmar-Mercury announced it had canceled “The Wendy Williams Show” after 13 seasons.
Since then, an ugly battle has played out in public over who even represents Wendy Williams — which is currently being debated privately in hearings in a New York court.
At stake is the future of the multimillion-dollar syndicated television empire that reached 2 million viewers each day, was syndicated globally and has led to TV production deals, in addition to numerous endorsements and books.
The most recent missile was fired last week when Williams’ ex-husband, Kevin Hunter Sr., filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Debmar-Mercury.
In the complaint, obtained by TheWrap, Hunter Sr. alleges he was wrongfully terminated by Debmar-Mercury “on the basis of his marital status, which is barred by the New York City Human Rights Law” and asks for at least $7 million in damages.
Hunter Sr. was fired from his longtime role as executive producer on “The Wendy Williams Show” on April 18, 2019, a week after Williams served him with divorce papers after about two decades of marriage. (Hunter had fathered a baby girl with his then-mistress-now-fiance, Sharina Hudson.)
Fast forward nearly three years and an individual close to the situation told TheWrap that Hunter Sr. is helping to call the shots for one of the two groups battling over representation of the TV star and control of a fortune that Forbes pegged at $60 million in 2019 when she shared a household (and joint income) with Hunter Sr. Let’s review the players.
Williams is currently residing in Florida under the care of her son, 21-year-old Kevin Hunter Jr. Aligned with him are his father and their attorneys, including LaShawn Thomas, who was hired last month after Wells Fargo froze Williams’ accounts and requested a hearing from the New York Supreme Court to legally determine if Williams should be considered an “incapacitated person” who needs temporary guardianship.
Williams has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction over the years. In a March 2019 episode of her talk show, she revealed to viewers, “I have been living in a sober house.” She has also battles Graves’ disease, an immune disorder that leads to the overproduction of thyroid hormones. The illness prompted Debmar-Mercury to halt production on her show a couple times since she went public about the disease in 2018.
Sometime earlier this year, publicist Shawn Zanotti of Exact Publicity joined the family’s camp. Zanotti has since been releasing statements for Williams, but only until very recently has she (and Williams, if you believe her public statements are actually her own — more on that in a moment) sought to discredit veteran publicist Howard Bragman as an authorized rep for Williams — which brings us to the second group claiming to represent the host.
Williams’ business associates
This group is led by Williams’ manager (or former manager, if you ask the family), Bernie Young. Williams hired the producer, whose credits include talk shows fronted by Rosie O’Donnell and Martha Stewart, to fill the void after the TV host filed for divorce from Hunter Sr. and Debmar-Mercury fired him from “The Wendy Williams Show.” In addition to working on her talk show, Hunter Sr. also played a large role in managing Williams’ career during their marriage. Young didn’t assume her ex’s production role on the show, though. Young declined to comment for this article.
Bragman joined Williams’ team last September and the publicist, best known for crisis management and guiding LGBTQ celebrities as they come out publicly, has been very active in speaking for Williams to the press. His ability to do so went unchallenged by Williams’ family until Debmar-Mercury decided to end the show — a major source of Williams’ reported $15 million annual income (which also included revenue from books and endorsements, according to Forbes).
Since then, Zanotti has been very vocal about being the only approved press representative for Williams and began publicly stating that Bragman doesn’t represent Williams. The TV star soon followed with a post on her newly created and verified Instagram account stating: “Mr. Bragman, Although I appreciate your concerns and respect you immensely, I have not authorized you to make any statements on my behalf regarding my current status with Debmar-Mercury. Again thanks for your continuing concern and support.”
Bragman has called into question whether Wiliams is actually behind the new account and posts. And in the latest salvo aimed at Bragman, Zanotti told The Sun in a March 1 article about a cease-and-desist letter sent by Thomas to Bragman seeking to stop him from speaking on Williams’ behalf.
“I have been advised by Wendy that she has not authorized your office to make any statements on her behalf and I ask that you immediately retract your statements from all media outlets,” Thomas’ letter reportedly reads. “Additionally, Wendy advises that you are not her authorized representative so I ask that you refrain from making any further statements on her behalf.”
As of publication, there has been no actual legal complaint filed in court by Hunter Jr.’s attorneys against Bragman. TheWrap has reached out to Bragman for comment.
So what’s Debmar-Mercury’s role in the battle over Wendy Williams?
Hunter Sr.’s lawsuit helped answer the question of which side Debmar-Mercury occupied in all this battling over Williams’ representation. Additionally, an individual with knowledge of the relationships told TheWrap that the production company is more closely aligned with Young’s camp.
There has also been speculation in the press that Debmar-Mercury was behind the Bragman hiring, which a rep for the company had previously denied. The insider said Young hired the veteran crisis management expert and added that Bragman, who has called Williams a friend for over a decade, has yet to be paid for his services.
To its credit, the production company has been very accommodating throughout Williams’ very public health struggles and how they affected the show over the past several years. After her on-air 2017 fainting, the 2020 slurring incident and hiatuses due to a breakthrough case of COVID-19 and the host’s Graves’ disease diagnosis, Williams made her last appearance on her popular daytime talk show in July 2021. She was supposed to return in October, but never did. A rotating group of guest hosts have filled the hosting seat since then, ultimately leading to one of them, former “The View” co-host Sherri Shepherd, in effect replacing Williams’ show with her own later this year, simply titled “Sherri.”
Even in canceling Williams’ show, Debmar-Mercury said it would keep the door open for the star to return when she was able. In a statement after the show cancellation, Bragman said that Williams understood Debmar-Mercury’s decision: “She, more than anyone, understands the reality of syndicated television — you can’t go to the marketplace and sell a show that’s ‘The Maybe Wendy Show.'” Zanotti derided Bragman’s reference to “The Maybe Wendy Show” as “shade directed towards Wendy.”
A rep for Debmar-Mercury declined to comment for this article.
Who has the right to represent Williams?
Willams’ representation remains a multimillion-dollare question, but the insider told us there are ongoing hearings in New York to determine which party’s attorneys have the right to represent the star.
The family would appear to have the upper hand as they’re, um, her family, and she physically resides with them in Florida and is under their care. But the insider countered, “I don’t think in this case that possession is 9/10th of the law.”
Young’s camp may have an advantage in that it appears that Williams was verifiably part of the decision to hire the new manager and had previously booted her ex-husband from her affairs — decisions that were made when she was presumably of sound mind to make them and went unchallenged until a couple weeks ago.
Zanotti declined to comment for herself and on behalf of Hunter Jr. and Hunter Sr. for this story.
Additional reporting by Pamela Chelin.