Wendy Williams' Family Break Their Silence on Her 'Shocking and Heartbreaking' Struggles Over the Past 3 Years (Exclusive)

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The former talk show host's sister, niece and brother reveal the battle over her future in this week's PEOPLE cover story

PEOPLE's Wendy Williams cover; Wendy Williams in 2022

It's been two and a half years since Wendy Williams asked her final "How you doin'?" on TV, and since then, the larger-than-life personality has remained mostly quiet as rumors have swirled about her well-being.

Now the former Wendy Williams Show host's family is speaking out for the first time in this week's PEOPLE cover story about what went down during this dark period, as Williams' life devolved into the exact kind of drama she once would have gossiped about during her Hot Topics segment.

“We've all seen the images over the last few months — and, really, few years — of what has seemed like a spiral for my aunt,” says Williams’ niece Alex Finnie, who also appears in the new Lifetime documentary, Where Is Wendy Williams?, premiering Feb. 24. "It was shocking and heartbreaking to see her in this state.”

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

When the Lifetime documentary crew began filming in August 2022, it set out to follow Williams’ comeback as she prepared to launch a new podcast. The film quickly evolved into something entirely different, as the crew captured Williams (who served as an executive producer on the project) in the throes of alcohol addiction and struggles with health issues including Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that can cause bulging eyes, and lymphedema, a condition that causes swelling in her feet.

A particularly gut-wrenching scene shows Williams — who turns 60 in July — asking her driver to take her past the former Wendy Williams Show studio, forgetting that he had done so only moments earlier.

"I don’t know what the hell is going on," her driver says in the documentary. "I think she’s losing memory. She doesn’t know who I am sometimes.”

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

The documentary crew stopped filming Williams in April 2023. That month, she entered a facility to treat “cognitive issues,” her manager and jeweler Will Selby says in the film. Her son reveals in the documentary that doctors have connected these issues to alcohol use.

Williams remains in the facility to this day, and her family says a court-appointed legal guardian is the only person who has unfettered access to her.

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


Wendy Williams being pushed in a wheelchair in September 2021

Her family says they don’t know where she is and cannot call her themselves, but she can call them.

"The people who love her cannot see her,” says Wendy's sister and Alex's mom Wanda, 65. “I think the big [question] is: How the hell did we get here?”

Related: All About Wendy Williams' Son Kevin Hunter Jr.

In Fall 2021, season 13 of her eponymous show was delayed several times before moving forward without Williams and with a rotation of celebrity guest hosts, including Leah Remini and Sherri Shepherd. In early 2022, Wells Fargo froze her accounts after her financial adviser at the time alleged that she was of “unsound mind,” according to Williams’ court filings. The bank successfully petitioned a New York court to have Williams placed under a temporary financial guardianship, reportedly because she was at risk of financial exploitation due to cognitive issues.

Williams’ 23-year-old son Kevin Hunter Jr., whom she shares with ex-husband Kevin Hunter, came under scrutiny for his spending but strongly denies in the documentary that he exploited her: “I’ve never taken [money] without her consent.” (Kevin Jr. declined to comment for this story; Wanda says he is still financially supported by his mother.)

Wendy Williams and her son Kevin Jr. in Florida in 2021
Wendy Williams and her son Kevin Jr. in Florida in 2021

Williams claims in the documentary that her guardian, whose identity is private, has stolen money from her. Filmmakers say she didn’t provide evidence, and neither her guardian nor Wells Fargo responded to PEOPLE's requests for comment.

Amid the fight over her finances, Williams spent time in Miami with her family. There, Kevin Jr. says he kept her away from alcohol and had her eating vegan and working with a trainer. Her family wanted to extend her visit, but they say the show disagreed.

"I said [to the producers], ‘No, she’s not coming back up because she needs to get better,’” Kevin Jr. says in the documentary. "I made sure that business was always on the back burner and that health was the number one priority."

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

In February 2022, the show announced that Williams would not return for the remainder of the season. That May, an independent legal guardian was appointed to oversee her finances and health. Her family members say they don’t know why the court made the decision, and the court papers have been sealed.

“All I know is that Wendy and her team walked into the courtroom one way, and they walked out, and the family is completely excluded,” Wanda says.

By June, The Wendy Williams Show was canceled.

“Wendy loved doing the show,” says a production source. “Losing it just broke her.”

<p>Fox</p> Wendy Williams on her show in 2019


Wendy Williams on her show in 2019

For the Asbury Park, N.J., native — who first gained notoriety as a radio shock jock in the ’90s —The Wendy Williams Show had been a source of pride since its 2008 debut. The show developed a passionate following, in part due to Williams’ no-holds-barred celebrity gossip.

“We were the little engine that could,” says a show source. “When we got renewed each season, we were shocked. They say fish stinks from the head, but if it’s great, fish glows from the head. In this case, we all basked in Wendy’s glow.”

Related: Wendy Williams Reveals the One Topic She Shies Away from in Interviews: 'I Don't Ask That Anymore'

Behind the scenes, several sources say, Williams struggled with drinking. “She would be drunk on air,” says the 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 her niece Alex, 33, now.

<p>Fox</p> Wendy Williams fainted on her show in 2017


Wendy Williams fainted on her show 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. A month later, she filed for divorce from 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."

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

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.

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.

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


Wendy Williams in March 2023

Producers say they stopped filming that April after they found Williams in her apartment with her eyes rolled back into her head and worked with Selby to urge the guardian to get Williams help. Executive producer Mark Ford says, “The guardian did come around and was responsive to our pleas... to get her into a safer place.”

“How did she go from this aunt or sister that we love and is healthy one minute to this person who’s in and out of the hospital?” Wanda asks. “How is that system better than the system the family could put in place? This system is broken.”

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

Related: 'The Wendy Williams Show's' Official YouTube, Website and Instagram Removed After Series Finale

After high-profile cases like Britney Spears’, the legal guardian and conservator systems in the U.S. are being reexamined. A New York State Assembly bill was proposed in 2022 to expedite the hearing process when an appeal is filed in a guardianship. (Williams’ family is not currently contesting her case.)

Ford says filmmakers proceeded with the documentary to shed light on Williams’s situation: “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. This is about the guardianship system and how it can be improved.”

Despite the unknowns, Williams’ loved ones say they’re focused on getting her better.

“There is not a person in this family who doesn’t want the same thing for Wendy, and that is her health,” Wanda says. Alex adds, “She can’t wait to start the next chapter of her life.”

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

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