Wendy Williams in Philly, red, white, and woo-hoo
Wendy Williams is on her way to the mall, y'all.
Big deal, you say. Daytime's reigning talk-show diva is known as a fierce shopper.
Only this isn't Paramus, honey. Wendy is pulling up to Independence Mall on Fifth Street, where speakers on the lawn have been blaring her show's disco theme, "Shout It Out," on an endless loop for the better part of an hour.
The palpably misty May morning has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the waiting crowd, almost exclusively female, pressed around a jerry-rigged outdoor platform.
It's the first stop on Williams' "How You Doin', America?" summer tour. That hypothetical question "How you doin'?" is her trademark phrase and the ceremonial salutation exchanged between her and her fans, usually accompanied by a seal-like downward flip of both wrists.
Williams, 49, is helped out of a black Lincoln SUV by a massive bodyguard who steadies her as she makes her way to the stage in a clingy red-white-and-blue sheath that looks like Betsey Johnson meets Betsy Ross.
The Asbury Park, N.J., native has a tentative, Mariah Carey-like gait that says "I'm too top-heavy, too impractically heeled, and just too damn sexy to walk this earth."
The tour is designed as a thank-you to the fans who have flocked to her syndicated show in record numbers this season. Among women 25 to 54, ratings are up 30 percent across the board, 40 percent in Philadelphia, where the program airs at 10 a.m. on Fox29, and a remarkable 100 percent in New York City.
Williams takes the stage, booming, "How you doin', Philly? This is where 'How you doin'?' was born!"
The catchphrase was developed in 1998, at one of the low points in her career, when, exiled from radio in New York, she came to DJ at Power99.
"I appreciate you taking me in when I was a broken bird, a broken radio bird," she tells the crowd. "When I had miscarriages, you allowed me to cry on the radio." (Her son, Kevin, born during her time in Philadelphia, is now 13.)
That rather shocking candor is typical of Williams, one of the unconventional qualities that endear her to viewers.
"She keeps everything real. I like it when she's talking about what I'm thinking. And," says Charlotte Smith of South Philadelphia, sweeping back her gull-wing hairdo with one hand, "we both love wigs."
"I love her hair and her makeup," says Katrina Corbett of East Falls. "I love how she say how she mean it. Plus, she a Cancer; I'm a Cancer."
Other women by the stage have far more polished responses. They seem to be put together with more care, too. Turns out that more than 100 members of the crowd are paid participants, generally aspiring models or actresses who were recruited by local casting companies.
They're there to dress up the promos Williams is shooting on the mall for her sixth season, which begins in September.
Mike Jerrick makes an appearance. Williams had just spent a couple of hours cohosting Good Day Philadelphia with him at Fox29's nearby studio.
The morning-zoo atmosphere was a little more pungent with Wendy around. It's the 8 o'clock hour and she's alternately snacking Haribo gummi bears and french fries from Ishkabibble's on South Street.
At one point, she blurts out, "I weighed 297 pounds when I gave birth to Kevin at Methodist Hospital" on South Broad Street.
"Let's just call it 300," Jerrick jokes.
Afterward he says, "She's one of my favorite people. She is just totally herself on TV, which I love. She doesn't even know she's on TV."
Across from the Bourse, it's time to tape the promos. Switching into red flats to walk out on the grass, Williams stands in front of the crowd, facing the elevated camera for a series of calls and responses.
In one, she recites, " 'How you doin'?' is sweeping the nation." The mob, volunteer and compensated, roars, "How you doin'?"
On the sidewalks bordering the grassy quadrangle, student tours of the National Constitution Center continue without interruption. The grade-school kids are fascinated by Williams' TV rumpus and crane around excitedly.
The high school kids walk past glumly, with studied apathy, never turning their heads to see what's making all the noise.
They're teenagers. They couldn't care less how you're doin'.