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Ciera Payton/ Wendy Williams

Source: Ryan Plummer/ Lars Niki / Getty

Wendy Williams is widely recognized for her contributions to the world of media and entertainment. Though the tabloids have done their best to tarnish her reputation, the “Hot Topics” personality is taking back ownership of her narrative by partnering with Lifetime Movie Network to share her biopic, Wendy Williams: The Movie. Starring BET’s The Oval actress Ciera Payton, this biopic takes the audience on a journey through Wendy’s childhood, how she struggled with self-esteem, her drug addiction and the trials and tribulations behind closed doors with her ex-husband Kevin Hunter, portrayed by Morocco Omari. This forthcoming film is a true tell-all and it wouldn’t be Wendy if we didn’t get all the tea, even if it’s about her own journey.

“As a society, we’re very celebrity-driven and we kind of have all these preconceived ideas of who these people are that we’re watching on TV or in the movies,” Payton said in an exclusive interview.  “When a person is bold and brave enough to put their story out, it’s just so beautiful because it takes all the mythicism out of a person and let’s us have a moment to really relate to them on a human level.”

The New Orleans native continued to speak on her appreciation for biopics, which is why being part of the Wendy Williams story was more important to her than words could express. As she praised Wendy Williams’ contribution to the world of media and entertainment for over thirty years, Payton recognized Williams’ strength, resilience and intelligence displayed throughout her professional and personal life. “She’s always thinking ahead and she has been knocked down so many times, but the beautiful thing about her is that she knows how to always get back up,” said Ciera.

“I really, really, really feel that [viewers] are going to use Wendy’s story as a modality of healing for their own selves because Wendy’s had a lot of traumatic things that happened and the fact that she’s been able to brush them off, show up and show out in the way that she does with the glamour [and] the smile on her face is no easy feat,” Ciera continued. “I think a lot of women, and even men, are going to take that away from her story and just be in for one heck of a ride! At the end of it, they’re going to also have a newfound respect for Wendy Williams, who she is and why she does what she does.”

The Tyler Perry’s A Madea Family Funeral actress didn’t connect with Williams until a few weeks prior to filming, but she best describes her whirlwind journey to final production as “chance events.” Before the movie had a set to be shot on, Williams’ fanbase tweeted out to Ciera to say that she should play the talk show host if a movie about her life were ever to be made. In June of 2019, Ciera was flattered to have been hyped up by fans to be casted as Williams and decided to “brush up” on her Wendy characterization. Fast forward to January 2020, Ciera connected with a casting director (Precious, Empire) to audition for the part. The rest is history.

AOL BUILD Series: Wendy Williams

Source: Brook Christopher / Getty

Little did she know, by the time she booked the audition, Wendy Williams had seen all of her audition tapes and praised her for having the same eyes and hand gestures as her. “I think Wendy was very happy early on after seeing what I brought into the audition room but then when we got to speak a few weeks out before we started filming, that’s really where it started to fully solidify everything,” Ciera said. “Wendy and I, we spoke for hours and she went even deeper into some of the stories to bring in more clarity for me and how to portray it. One of the big things we really talked about was just not being a victim, not trying to play into the victimhood of all of the challenges and the trauma.”

Unfortunately while Williams wasn’t able to be as hands-on during filming due to two-week quarantine regulations in Vancouver and scheduling conflicts with her show taping, she was “watching from afar.” One could say that she was Ciera’s fairy biopic mother.

“I think we had a number of seventy-something wardrobe changes and there wasn’t time to do all of the fittings. There were moments in my lunch break where wardrobe would come in, hold it up to me and would be like, ‘Does this look good? Let’s try it on and see what works.’,” she reminisced about set-life. Williams had input in the styling and wardrobe direction for the biopic, but the true creative direction was the depiction of Williams’ style evolution throughout the years.

“On an artistic level, what we wanted to do,” she said as she referred to her character as well as the hair, makeup and wardrobe team, “was try to show how she used [her style] at times to either protect herself or be more of a chameleon. This was a woman who early on was always fed that message that she didn’t fit in, she didn’t belong, she stood out too much. She tried to make herself smaller [and] she tried to be like the people who were around her.”

Ciera used the example of Wendy at her radio gig in Washington, D.C. who she described as “classy women that [Wendy] knew that she didn’t look like or emulate,” but she tried out wrap dresses and high heeled shoes. As Wendy grew more into the “male-dominated side of the radio business,” as Ciera said, we see Wendy throughout the biopic try out tracksuits for the hip-hop side and even wear heavier clothing to be more modest and conservative. “Both the emotions and the wardrobe had huge influences on each other and we wanted to show how they all work in tandem.”

"NY Undercover" Wrap Party

Source: Ron Galella / Getty

Eventually in the Lifetime movie based on Wendy’s life, we see our protagonist embrace her femininity to the fullest and loving herself in all regards, even during her plastic surgery. When I asked about the scenes that walked us through Wendy’s decision to get breast implants, Ciera told me about her thoughts and feelings about the ideas of self-esteem and body positivity.

“In my opinion, she’s one of the only people in this industry who I felt have normalized it, humanized it and made it such a judgemental thing,” she said honestly as she pointed out that society tends to associate plastic surgery with low self-esteem and lack of self-love. “There’s so many studies from plastic surgeons that removing a bump from someone’s nose, enhancing this or doing that does so much for a person’s self-esteem.” Ciera is admittedly pro-choice and all for doing whatever it is that makes you happy, within reason of course, so she had no problem fully supporting Wendy’s decision to undergo surgery.

“As an actress in this industry and being a woman of color in this industry, there’s been so many messages since I was a little girl learning and hearing that I’m not enough, wanting to change myself to be enough or be enhanced,” Ciera confessed as she remembered her first time trying out hair extensions and loving it! “Filming that scene was delicate and [I] definitely wanted to be very gentle with it and come from a place of full and total understanding.”

Ciera herself admitted to still adjusting to the idea of being comfortable on set and in her own body. “Sometimes when I’m in the roles and wearing the tight dresses, lingerie or whatever, I feel extremely exposed and I have to coach myself through being comfortable in my own body. Not for anyone else’s sake but for mine.”

Wendy Williams Hunter Birthday Give Back Gala

Source: Johnny Nunez / Getty

“When we filmed that scene, it was me testing the waters. It was an interesting space to be in and tuning into where I feel uncomfortable and even where I feel really humble in what I have going on in my chest situation,” she joked as she empathized with Williams’ decision. “There’s so many layers but it was an eye-opening experience. As far as body positivity, that’s up to everybody’s interpretation. Whatever it takes for you to feel good and positive about your body. You don’t have to go out and change your body to feel better about your body, but if you want to, by all means. You’re not hurting anybody [because] it’s your body. ”

Ciera Payton expressed gratitude for being part of Wendy Williams: The Movie and hopes that fans will be able to grab more than what the media has fed to them over the years. “More so than anything, Wendy is human. She’s a human being who just so happens to be known worldwide as a talk show radio host and former radio DJ,” she said as she went on to celebrate what she deems as Wendy Williams’ gift. 

“She’s been interviewing celebrities all these years and one of the big things she does is shows that celebrities are humans too, they make mistakes, aren’t perfect but they’re out here doing their craft and living their dreams. They’re not our modality of who we should be all the time,” she broke down Williams’ gift of humanization through her celebrity interviews. Ciera Payton does an incredible job of humanizing Williams’ story in the biopic and bringing the mogul to life beyond the headlines.

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