Wendy O. Williams

updated 07/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Heads turn as Wendy Orlean Williams, looking like a Hell's Angels poster girl, slips into a cafeteria line at a highway rest area outside Wilmington, Del. She is a vision in black: leather motorcycle jacket, clingy pants, leather boots and a leather belt studded with silver letters that spell out F—- YOU. But it is her platinum-blond, tornado-proof Mohawk-style hairdo that leaves fellow travelers gaping. Only one middle-aged customer seems not to notice. "Do you see the creamers?" she whispers. Obligingly, Williams steps over to a bin of half-and-halfs, scoops up a handful and bestows them on the now startled woman. As humanitarian gestures go, it is hardly of Nobel Prize caliber. But for Williams it is light-years removed from her bad-girl days, when she might have scalded the woman with curses and then stiffed the cashier to boot.

As in her rebellious days as a teenager, when she experimented with drugs and furious sex, Williams is still accustomed to swerving through life with one finger on the self-destruct button. Now, however, her flirtations with nihilism are usually confined to the stage. As lead singer for the outrageous heavy metal rock group the Plasmatics, Williams' sexually provocative get-ups and violent theatrics have made her one of rock's most controversial performers. She charges onstage with breasts exposed (though her nipples are concealed by strips of black electrical tape to comply with—and mock—local indecent-exposure statutes). She regularly bashes TV sets with a sledgehammer and takes a chainsaw to musical instruments. And for an MTV video she leaped from the roof of a school bus seconds before it crashed through a wall of 100 TV sets. "It's not that I don't value my life," explains the 5'7", 110-pound Evel Knievelette of shock rock. "It's just that I love taking chances, testing myself, stepping over the line. It's fun. It's a turn-on."

The violence has seldom got her in trouble, but she has been arrested in the Midwest on obscenity charges for simulating masturbation with a microphone or a sledgehammer. "I don't understand what the fuss is over that," she says. "To me, it's just a gesture. Like Italians speaking with their hands."

Okay, so maybe Wendy O. Williams isn't the girl to bring home to meet Mother. Unless, of course, Mom is Ma Barker. But Williams' life now provides the most stable existence she has known in a rootless career. The Plasmatics have given her a sense of purpose, as well as a sense of belonging. "I always knew I had a message," she says, in the voice that high-volume rock has turned into a rasp, "but I didn't know what it was."

Now she does. She aims to become "the heaviest female singer in the history of rock and roll." By routinely demolishing material symbols of popular culture, she hopes to "shock the s—- out of a complacent society that is destroying itself." That won't be easy. While the Plasmatics have a loyal cult following and command up to $15,000 a show, Wendy's breasts get more exposure than her music. The group is virtually ignored by pop radio, its best-selling album ever, Coup d'Etat, has sold only 70,000 copies, and its work is not highly regarded outside the heavy metal arena. "There have always been gimmicky acts in rock," observes music critic Dave Marsh. "But never has one been associated with so little musical talent." Gene Simmons of Kiss disagrees. "Wendy is a good musician because she puts across her ideas," he says. "The vast majority in rock and roll don't sing correctly, but I don't want to sound like Mario Lanza and neither does she."

Williams' brass-knuckle iconoclasm may sometimes seem dated, but there is no doubt about her sincerity; her existence offstage is almost ascetic. She has no permanent home, preferring to shuttle among sublets in a lower Manhattan neighborhood. She once listed her only domestic possessions as a hot plate and the foam-rubber padding she uses for a bed. "I'm more interested in having a place to work out my voice and my body than I am in having furniture," she says. She doesn't have a telephone ("There isn't anybody I want to talk to who I can't see"), doesn't own a dress, has never been to a play, and hasn't bought a new pair of pants in three years.

Her social conscience, too, is a prickly one. She contributes to several animal-protection and environmental funds, and refuses to wear makeup manufactured by companies that use animals for laboratory experimentation. Since joining the Plasmatics, Wendy, 32, has also become protective of her much-abused body. Once a heavy smoker, drinker and drug user, she has sternly purged herself of those vices. Her dressing room is off limits to smokers, and even an aspirin is a no-no. "I don't take anything that can dull my senses," she says. "Feeling good is the most important thing to me." She jogs and works out daily, and swims regularly. By far her biggest passion is pumping iron, which she does diligently 10 to 12 hours a week. "It's what keeps me together," she says. A vegetarian for 17 years, she insists that her dressing room be stocked with natural fare like alfalfa sprouts, tofu and honey before all of her concerts. Once, before an appearance in Philadelphia, she ordered an empty Coca-Cola bottle removed from her backstage digs. "Bad karma," she said.

Offstage, Williams' defiant public persona gives way to reveal an unexpected shyness and warmth. Any tidbits of self-revelation are punctuated by nervous, almost embarrassed giggles, as if she were thinking, "Uh-oh, there goes the image." She has been known to greet strangers with a prankster's buzzer planted in her palm (giggle, giggle), admits to being a big fan of Joan Rivers, and is always gracious to fans who clamor for her "F—- and Roll, Wendy O" autograph. Still, Wendy insists she is the same onstage as off—that only the intensity is different. "I'm a ballbuster," she says. "What can I say?" Giggle, giggle.

In fact, Wendy isn't always a pussycat. In 1981 she was given a stern warning by a Chicago judge after punching a free-lance photographer who tried to snap her picture during a morning jog. It may have been a natural defensive reaction for someone whose sense of privacy is almost compulsive. Williams dislikes talking about her past and family and tells people she was born in "Plasmaville, U.S.A." In fact, she was born in Rochester, N.Y., one of three daughters of an Eastman Kodak chemist and his wife. When she was 5, her family moved to the middle-class suburb of Webster. "I was an outcast, a loner. I never felt like I fit," she says. At age 6, she won a tap-dancing contest that landed her on the Howdy Doody show, and a few years later she took clarinet lessons for six months at the prestigious Eastman School of Music. Still, other children made fun of her birdlike figure and hand-me-down clothes. She was kicked out of the Brownies after flirting with some boys on a canoe trip. "They told me I wasn't Girl Scout material," she says. A few years later Wendy hosted a party at her home. "We were picking teams for a scavenger hunt when somebody spotted Wendy in the corner, crying," recalls a junior high classmate. "It was her party, but we had forgotten to include her on our teams." Wendy's sense of betrayal was heightened as a teenager when she learned that her beloved dog Butch, who had disappeared years earlier, had in fact been put to sleep by her parents. An animal lover since earliest childhood, she had often brought home strays—from wounded birds to raccoons—and cared for them in her backyard. "The thing about animals is that they don't judge you," she says. "They accept you the way you are."

Her schoolmates and teachers recall Wendy as a shy and pretty girl, an average student who played in the junior high band, paid attention to her hair and clothes, and who spoke so softly, an acquaintance says, "you had to lean toward her to hear her." "She was the meekest little lamb you would ever want to know," recalls George Hugel, a guidance counselor at Webster's R.L. Thomas High School. "Sometimes girls turn out to be topless dancers or go-go girls and you expected it because they were characters," he recalls. "But Wendy Williams, no way."

Nevertheless, Wendy continued to regard herself as an outcast. She felt inferior to her popular older sister, now a school librarian in suburban Rochester, and misunderstood by her parents. "They were cocktail zombies," she says. "They wanted me to get a 9-to-5 job and all the fringe benefits. I said, 'No way.' " By her sophomore year in high school she had dyed her brown hair blond, begun staying away from home for nights on end, and at 15 was arrested for sunbathing in the nude at Letchworth State Park south of Rochester.

Also at 15, she had her first affair. "I didn't want to be a virgin anymore so I went to a bar and picked somebody up," she recalls. "For me, that was sex." In fact, it was more like a mutiny. "If you were supposed to do one thing, I did the other," says Wendy. "Just because I didn't know what to do."

As friction at home mounted, Williams left school in her junior year (though she later passed equivalency tests to earn her diploma), and soon hitchhiked to Colorado with $50 she'd saved from a part-time job at Dunkin' Donuts. She also severed ties with her family, and says that she has neither seen nor spoken with them in five years. "I don't know where they are and I'm not interested," she says. "It was mutual distrust." She and her family were last reunited at her father's funeral in Alabama. "I felt a loss," she concedes. "How many times in your life does your father die?"

Wendy had hoped her journey West would help her to find herself. She camped in a tent outside Boulder, Colo., hustling jobs and selling handmade beaded necklaces, experimenting with mind-expanding drugs like LSD and mescaline, and dabbling in Far Eastern religions. Later she moved to Fort Lauderdale, where she worked as a lifeguard, sailing instructor and concessionaire, selling vitamins, hanging plants and her own hand-fashioned macrame swimsuits. Taking off for Europe in 1974, she pushed drinks in an Amsterdam bar and then joined a traveling modern-dance troupe. She was picked up in England for shoplifting, and spent one night in an Italian jail for unintentionally passing counterfeit money.

Disillusioned with Europe, Wendy returned to the U.S. in 1976 and took a roach-filled room in a seedy Times Square hotel. She quickly landed a job nearby at Captain Kink's Sex Fantasy Theater, where she performed scripted sex fantasies, usually as a fierce dominatrix. "It wasn't sleazy," she maintains stoutly. "It was a legitimate theater."

There she met Rod Swenson, a conceptual artist with a master of fine arts degree from Yale who ran Captain Kink's. Williams wanted to become a rock singer, and one day in a cab sang an old Bessie Smith tune to him, Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl. "She had a sense of style," says Swenson, now the Plasmatics' manager. "She was an original." Says Wendy: "Rod was the first person who didn't try to change me." The Plasmatics debuted at the New York rock club CBGB in July 1978. Williams originally billed herself as "The American Dream Girl Gone Nightmare," but the image backfired. "People were treating me like a blond pea-brain," she says. "If you're a woman, they just look at you as tits and ass." In 1979 she traded in her flowing blond hair for her now famous Mohawk, which is kept in place by layers of hairspray. "To me, it was the ultimate f—- you to the cosmetics companies who dictate to women what they should look like," she says. The Plasmatics' first national exposure came in September 1980 when Williams bailed out of a Cadillac seconds before it exploded on a New York pier during a concert. The group later appeared on such shows as Fridays, the Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder, and SCTV.

Unfortunately for the Plasmatics, the group's forthright approach to social criticism is sometimes reciprocated by the forces of law and order. After a concert in Milwaukee in January 1981, Williams was arrested on obscenity charges for suggestively fondling a sledgehammer. When a cop allegedly pawed her indecently, she slapped him and in turn was bloodied and beaten by several other policemen. "It was terrifying," she remembers. "I thought I was dead." Charges against Wendy of battery and resisting arrest were dropped; she later filed a $4.5 million civil suit against the policemen involved. The case is still pending. A few days after the Milwaukee incident, she was busted in Cleveland on an obscenity rap but was acquitted by a bemused jury. Regardless of legal perils, she refuses to tone down her act. "All I can do is be myself," she says.

Offstage, Williams is apparently on a self-improvement kick, polishing both her voice and her mind. "Before the Plasmatics, I couldn't string a sentence together," she says. Now she is a voracious reader (The Killing of Karen Silk-wood is a recent rave) and has taken to keeping a diary "to better organize my thoughts." A horror-film freak, she has signed to extend her professional horizons next fall by starring in the low-budget film Hell Camp of the Gland Robbers. "It's a futuristic thing," she says. "Totally profound."

Mostly, though, she reserves her energies for the Plasmatics, who are working on their fourth album. The search for the real Wendy O., it seems, has concluded to the satisfaction of the principal sleuth. "It took a lot of living," she says. Still, Williams is only semicontent with her place in the rock music pantheon. "I want to cause a change with my life, make the world a little better," she says. "I haven't achieved that yet, but I am stirring things up." While she does, she savors each day as if it might be her last. For someone who is so obviously tantalized by flirting with at least the illusion of danger, it is a logical precaution to take.

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