NEW YORK >> Any fan of talk-show host Wendy Williams knows her signature question: "How you doin'?" in a thick New Jersey accent.
Put it to her now and the answer has to be, "pretty well, thanks." Williams is holding her own in a tough business, even growing her audience in some measurements during her seventh season. "The Wendy Williams Show" is watched by roughly 2 million people each day.
The bejewelled microphone she carries and the collection of wigs in her dressing room speak to Williams' outsized personality. She's noticeably toned things down, however, to broaden her appeal.
"Much like Obama winning the White House, you cannot just deal with your base — black women and gay men," Williams said. "You've got to learn to bend a little bit to expand, but you can't alienate your people."
A successful New York disc jockey, Williams had been approached for talk shows in the past. She admittedly copped some attitude when producers Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein called her husband/business partner Kevin Hunter in 2007 to suggest a meeting. "I thought, 'here we go again,'" Williams recalled.
She came in determined not to compromise. No short wigs. No flat shoes. No khakis. No cleansing the Jersey from her voice. To her surprise, she found Marcus and Bernstein had called because they liked what she did.
"They wanted to do a talk show centered around a host, as opposed to formulating a talk show and dropping a host in the middle," she said. "That's where a lot of people get it screwed up."
In an unusual approach, several weeks of test shows were aired in some Fox markets during the summer of 2008, doing well enough to justify a full season order. Talk shows fail more often than succeed, but Williams has settled comfortably into the middle of the pack. She trails leaders like Dr. Phil and Ellen DeGeneres, but outdraws a second tier of Dr. Oz, Jerry Springer, Rachael Ray and the like. The time slots she's been given are improving, as much a measure of success as ratings, said Bill Carroll, an expert in the syndication market for Katz Media. Her audience skews young.
"She didn't walk away from who she is, but over time they made her more accessible," Carroll said. "When she came on, she was a lot more New York and a lot more like she was on the radio. She's grown into television."
Williams acknowledged the transition wasn't easy.
"It is difficult to not leave behind that 30-year-old black woman who has listened to me since she was 10," she said. "But yes, I want to have Sarah Jessica Parker on the show."
This season already she's had an eclectic mix of celebrity guests. Eva Mendes, Taye Diggs, Gloria Allred, The Game, Al Sharpton, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Eichner, George Takei and Ja Rule have stopped by.
"In my opinion, a celebrity would be foolish not to come to Wendy," she said. "Even if you don't care about me, you should care about who's attracted to the show. My audience, they're the tastemakers. They're the ones who dictate what becomes No. 1 at the box office, what shoes you'll be wearing this season, what the best mascara is, what you're going to watch on Netflix."
Increasingly, it's more about Williams and her audience, which she calls her co-hosts. Williams blatantly stole the "Hot Topics" idea — even the name — from Goldberg's show "The View" and expanded the amount of time she chats about pop culture and current events. Monday's shows are entirely devoted to "Hot Topics."
One recent day she brought up Mariah Carey, Lil Wayne, Malia Obama and the disturbing video of a student dragged out of a classroom by a police officer. She suggested that rapper Future and actress Meryl Streep were lookalikes.
She'll bound up the stairs to interact with spectators, who sometimes seek advice. One young woman asked Williams about a boyfriend who keeps requesting threesomes. Mostly women fill the seats, but Williams quickly zeroes in on a guy she can tell has been dragged there by a wife or a girlfriend. She'll check on a break to see if he's enjoying himself.
Her description of how the show tries to make things as comfortable as possible for guests also reveals some of the resolve that has helped the 51-year-old host succeed.
"Here at 'Wendy,' we're family," she said. "Until you don't do your job right. Then we're not."