Wendy Williams diagnosed with aphasia, frontotemporal dementia: What to know ahead of documentary release

Wendy Williams seated on a boardwalk by the beach.
Where is Wendy Williams? In treatment, her family says, but they don't know much more than that. (Calvin Gayle)

Wendy Williams has been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). The television personality was diagnosed with both conditions last year “after undergoing a battery of medical tests,” according to a press release.

Aphasia is a medical condition that can affect someone's ability to speak as well as to write and understand language, both verbal and written, according to Mayo Clinic. FTD, a form of dementia that impacts more than 500,000 Americans each year, can affect behavior, personality, language and movement. (Actor Bruce Willis was also diagnosed with FTD in 2023 after his aphasia worsened.) Both conditions “have already presented significant hurdles in Wendy's life,” according to the statement.

The news comes ahead of the release of Where Is Wendy Williams?, the new Lifetime documentary that looks at the famed TV host’s disappearance from the spotlight amid personal, health and money woes. It’s also a question that some of her closest relatives can’t answer.

What is the new Wendy Williams doc about?

Williams, 59, didn’t host the final season of her eponymous talk show from August 2021 to June 2022. She kept postponing her return to the purple throne she commanded for 12 years and worried fans as she was snapped needing assistance coming and going from wellness centers. Williams’s finances were frozen by her former wealth manager at Wells Fargo, who claimed she was “incapacitated” and “of unsound mind,” resulting in the TV star being put under guardianship.

That’s where things were when a documentary film crew began filming Williams in August 2022. The purported goal was to capture her comeback as she attempted to start a podcast. However, Williams — who has an executive producer credit on the doc — was plagued by alcoholism in addition to preexisting health issues (Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder and lymphedema, which causes tissue swelling).

Filming halted in April 2023 when Williams was found in her apartment with her eyes rolled back into her head, producers told People magazine. Williams was put into a facility to treat cognitive issues, which her son, Kevin Hunter Jr., said in the film are connected to alcohol use.

In the trailer for the doc, Williams seems confused and becomes angry when asked if she drank a bottle of alcohol in a day. Her family members express concern over her cognitive abilities, as well as her inner circle and guardian.

Where is Williams?

While the doc reveals Williams went into inpatient treatment nearly a year ago, some of the participants — including her sister — have no idea where she is living today.

Wanda Finnie, Williams’s sister, and Alex Finnie, her niece, told People magazine that Williams is in a better place physically and mentally. Wanda had just spoken to her one day prior and reported: She’s doing “really great” and is “not the person that you see in this film.” Alex said Williams had done “a 180” to where she had been physically, mentally and emotionally.

Yet further into the article, Williams’s relatives reveal that they don’t know where she’s being treated. They don’t know what kind of treatments are taking place. They can’t contact her directly. They only hear from Williams if she calls.

Wendy Williams lying in front of a star on the Walk of Fame.
Wendy Williams on the Walk of Fame in 2019. (Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

They blame the lack of communication on Williams’s guardian, whose identity is private. According to the family, that person is the only one with full access to Williams.

In the doc, Williams claims that the guardian stole money from her, but filmmakers said she didn’t provide evidence.

Nearly one year after she was put into treatment, “The people who love her cannot see her,” Wanda told the outlet. “I think the big [question] is: How the hell did we get here?”

How is Williams now?

According to Thursday's statement, receiving aphasia and FTD diagnoses has enabled Williams “to receive the medical care she requires.”

The decision to share this news was difficult and made after careful consideration, not only to advocate for understanding and compassion for Wendy, but to raise awareness about aphasia and frontotemporal dementia and support the thousands of others facing similar circumstances. 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.

There is hope that with early detection and far more empathy, the stigma associated with dementia will be eliminated, and those affected will receive the understanding, support, and care they deserve and need.

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.

Questions remain

Lifetime did not make an advance screener of the documentary available to Yahoo Entertainment by press time, but People had access to it. According to the outlet, the doc looks at Williams’s spiral in the final years of her onetime hit show.

In those final years, Williams passed out on the show, exhibited slurred speech, appeared disoriented and took (multiple) extended breaks. She said she was being treated for Graves’ disease, only to have tabloids out her for secretly moving into a sober house.

Things came to a head in April 2019 when she filed for divorce from her husband of nearly 21 years, Kevin Hunter Sr., as he welcomed a child with another woman. He was axed as executive producer on her show. Their son was arrested for allegedly getting into an altercation with “Big Kev.”

Williams’s brother Tommy told People that the end of her marriage put her into a “dark space.”

Multiple staffers told the outlet that Williams, who had previously battled cocaine addiction, “would be drunk on air” in the show’s final years. Co-executive producer Suzanne Bass said they saw her “struggling,” but “she pushed us away” when they tried to help.

As part of the broadcast, Lifetime will direct viewers to resources including SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness).

Taryn Ryder contributed to this report

Correction: The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, per the CDC. An earlier version of this story misstated that it was FTD.

Where Is Wendy Williams? airs Feb. 24 and Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. ET on Lifetime.