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Wendy Williams Struggled with Alcohol During Her Show: 'She Would Be Drunk on Air,' Says Source (Exclusive)

"We started being like, 'What's going on with her?'" a source says of the host, whose care team has revealed she has aphasia and frontotemporal dementia

<p>Fox</p> Wendy Williams during her final appearance on her talk show in July 2021

Fox

Wendy Williams during her final appearance on her talk show in July 2021

Wendy Williams had long-simmering problems with alcohol prior to her medical team releasing her primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia (FTD) diagnosis on Thursday.

In this week's PEOPLE cover story, a former Wendy Williams Show source says Williams — who is currently being treated in a facility — "would be drunk on air" of the show.

"Slowly, we started being like, ‘What’s going on with her?’" says the source. "We knew she was drinking off camera, but we also didn’t know what else was involved. We were all in the dark. None of us really knew what was going on with Wendy’s health."

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."

Now knowing her diagnosis, Bass says that "it makes me very sad."

"I hope she's getting the right treatment and support," she adds. "Her diagnosis helps explain why on air she had problems remembering things that left her grasping for words."

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

Williams' family also claims they were kept in the dark about her recent progressive aphasia and FTD diagnosis. In the new Lifetime documentary, Where Is Wendy Williams?, premiering Feb. 24, her son Kevin Williams, Jr. says he was given a diagnosis of "alcohol-induced dementia" by doctors his mom was seeing while she was staying with family in Florida during her hiatus from The Wendy Williams Show, which she appeared on from 2008 to 2021.

Williams, 59, last appeared on The Wendy Williams Show on July 23, 2021, during the season 12 finale. Though she promised viewers they'd see her on TV again in just "two months and two weeks," that day would never come.

In September 2021, it was announced that the season 13 premiere of the show would be delayed for Williams to recover from a bout with COVID. By October, the show decided to go forward without Williams — who had taken several brief hiatuses from the series before to deal with symptoms of her longtime health issues, and to mourn the loss of her beloved mom Shirley in 2020 — at the helm, with a rotating lineup of celebrity guest hosts instead.

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

It was announced in February 2022 that Williams would not return for the remainder of season 13 of her show. By that June, the show was canceled.

"Wendy loved doing the show," says the show source. "Losing it just broke her."

For the Asbury Park, N.J., native — who first gained notoriety as a radio shock jock in the ’90s — The Wendy Williams Show had long been a source of pride.

"We were the little engine that could," says the 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."

<p>Fox</p> Wendy Williams on The Wendy Williams Show in 2019

Fox

Wendy Williams on The Wendy Williams Show in 2019

The show developed a passionate following, in part due to Williams’ no-holds-barred celebrity gossip.

"Wendy was so unique because she wasn't afraid to speak her mind," Bass says. "She had an opinion about everything and knew if she wanted to be authentic to herself and her Wendy watchers, she had to say what she felt. She never wanted to let her watchers down. She loved them."

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

Williams' niece, Alex, 33, says the "first" time she noticed something was really wrong with her aunt was when she fainted in a Statue of Liberty costume during her Halloween episode in 2017. (Williams later attributed it to her Graves' disease, an autoimmune disorder that can cause bulging eyes, in a 2018 interview with PEOPLE.)

"I remember just feeling like, 'What is happening? This isn't normal,'" Alex says.

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

Fox

Wendy Williams fainting on her show in 2017

In March 2019, Williams revealed on the show that she’d been living in a sober house, noting her past problems with cocaine.

"When she announced on the show that she was living in a halfway house I was just as surprised as the audience," recalls Bass.

A month later, Williams 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.

“[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 [Kevin Hunter Jr.] had to go off to college [in 2018]. Emotionally, it was just a lot. It was too much for her world."

Related: Wendy Williams Is in a Facility to Treat Cognitive Issues, Doing 'Really Great,' Says Family (Exclusive)

Bass says Williams' marriage had "helped keep her focused," and when it broke down, "I think it took a huge emotional toll on her."

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 died.

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

In August 2022, Williams began filming for Where Is Wendy Williams? It set out to follow Williams’ comeback after her show was canceled 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."

<p>Lifetime</p> Wendy Williams with her dad in the Where Is Wendy Williams? documentary

Lifetime

Wendy Williams with her dad in the Where Is Wendy Williams? documentary

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 Alex.

After several months of back and forth with her bank Wells Fargo, an independent legal guardian was appointed to oversee Williams' finances and health in May 2022.

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

A month after the guardian was appointed, 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.

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 what was described by Selby as cognitive issues.

"The guardian did come around and was responsive to our pleas... to get her into a safer place," Ford says. The guardian did not respond to PEOPLE's requests for comment.

<p>Calvin Gayle</p> Wendy Williams and Will Selby

Calvin Gayle

Wendy Williams and Will Selby

Williams remains in the facility to this day, and her family says the guardian is the only person who has unfettered access to her. Wanda and Williams' brother Tommy said they had not been told what Wendy's specific diagnosis was before her care team's Feb. 22 announcement that she has aphasia and frontotemporal dementia.

According to a press release, Williams received her diagnosis last year and her medical team said the conditions “have already presented significant hurdles in Wendy's life.”

“Wendy is still able to do many things for herself,” the team said in a statement. “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.”

Related: Wendy Williams' Niece Talks About the 'Wall' of Communication Between Them, Causing Months of Radio Silence

According to Mayo Clinic, aphasia "robs you of the ability to communicate" and "can affect your ability to speak, write and understand language, both verbal and written." The group adds that the condition "typically occurs suddenly after a stroke or a head injury. But it can also come on gradually from a slow-growing brain tumor or a disease that causes progressive, permanent damage (degenerative)."

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is an all-encompassing term for a group of brain disorders that threatens the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. This means that parts of these lobes atrophy, and the shrinking of these areas can cause speech issues, emotional problems and changes in personality.

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

T.JACKSON / BACKGRID

Wendy Williams in March 2023

According to experts, alcohol-induced dementia and frontotemporal dementia (FTD) can be related, in that chronic alcohol abuse can cause brain damage, often in the frontal lobe. FTD can be triggered by genetics but also by alcohol abuse, especially alcohol abuse later in life. And while alcohol-related dementia can be reversed if caught early, permanent brain damage can occur if a person does not abstain.

Williams' family says they don’t know the location of the facility she is in and that they cannot call her themselves, but she can call them from a blocked number.

During a recent conversation, Williams has sounded "really great," says Alex. "To hear my aunt now in terms of just how clear she is, just how focused she is on the importance of family and the reality in terms of facing and understanding where she's at physically and mentally and emotionally, it is like a 180."

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

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Read the original article on People.