On her show, Wendy Williams openly mocked every adult and child who has a cleft lip.
I am one of those people and I am angry over her actions. At about the 11:00 minute mark in the video below, Ms. Williams discusses the actor Joaquin Phoenix and references the scar on his upper lip. She starts to use the derogatory and outdated term “harelip”, before catching herself and saying hairline fracture in reference to Joaquin Phoenix’s scar. She is repeatedly making a mocking gesture of pulling her lip upward to demonstrate a unilateral cleft lip while talking at the same time. This action garbles her speech, much like someone with a cleft lip might sound.
The gesture Wendy Williams made was extremely familiar, personal, and very painful. As someone with a bilateral cleft lip and palate, her actions and comments were offensive and insensitive to me and to the cleft community that I am part of. As a child, I regularly experienced the same insulting and disparaging behavior in playgrounds and in the classroom. Even as an adult, fellow coworkers would engage in similar behavior and comment they were “just joking”. Ms. Williams’ actions today brought back raw and emotional memories of the never-ending bullying, teasing, mockery, and torment I endured throughout my entire childhood from classmates, other children, their parents and other adults because of my cleft lip and palate.
I am certain Ms. Williams wouldn’t have dare thought of saying such derogatory comments or committing such an offensive, mocking gesture about a little person, someone with a missing limb, down syndrome, autism, Parkinson's, another different facial difference, or any other disability. What makes it okay to make fun of people with a cleft lip? Just because a cleft lip and palate may not be as well-known, obvious, or debilitating as other disabilities does not mean it is okay to mock us as if this is an elementary schoolyard! Is Ms. Williams aware that with her words and actions today she insulted and offended several other celebrities in addition to Joaquin Phoenix? Jesse Jackson and Cheech Marin both have a cleft lip, Peyton Manning has a cleft palate, and Stacy Keach has a cleft lip and partial cleft palate. Technically, Joaquin Phoenix does not have a cleft lip nor cleft palate, as Ms. Williams stated. He has a microform cleft, which means his cleft was closed before he was born. That still does not make it acceptable for Wendy Williams to poke fun at people with facial differences and disfigurements regardless if they are celebrities or not, and certainly not even if she finds one of them oddly attractive as she stated! Does that mean that someone without a cleft lip is normally attractive?
1 in 700 babies are born with a cleft lip or palate, and 1 in 1,000 babies (less than 1%) are born with a cleft lip and palate. The cause of the birth defect is still unknown.
A cleft lip or cleft palate is when the lip or palate (or both) does not properly close while the fetus is developing in the womb. A unilateral cleft lip is where the opening is on one side of the lip, while a bilateral cleft lip has both sides of the lip opened. Numerous surgeries are required to repair the cleft lip and palate, with the first surgery occurring during the first few months of the baby’s life. I was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate, the most rarest form of a cleft lip and palate. I had 4 corrective surgeries before my 2nd birthday. By the time I was 13 years old, I had 6 more surgeries. Over the past 49 years of my life, I had about 15–20 corrective surgeries, including bone and skin grafts and dental implants.
What’s the big deal?
To someone without a cleft lip or palate, the birth defect and facial deformity may appear minor, or even inconsequential. It may seem like we have nothing more than scars on our lip and perhaps a speech impediment or a lisp. I’ve been asked numerous times by uninformed people “what’s the big deal? Your speech isn’t that bad. So, you have some scars. You still have your limbs, you still have your ability to think, you’re not disabled”.
The big deal is the emotional and mental scars from the countless surgeries, the pain of recovery, the inability to eat with utensils while recovering from surgery and, stitches in your mouth. All of this occurring at a young age, too young to fully understand what is going on, or why. Then there were endless hours of speech therapy, and the continual challenges of coping with upper respiratory and infections and ear infections among other physical challenges. I can’t eat Jell-O (especially orange or green Jell-O) without getting nauseous because that’s all I could eat as a kid in the hospital after my surgeries and it brings back horrible memories. Simple tasks most people take for granted, like drinking through a straw, eating from a spoon, whistling, and blowing up a balloon are difficult, if not impossible for a person with a cleft lip and/or palate. Sometimes, one of my biggest challenges is drinking something and having the liquid coming out through my nose due to a tiny hole in my palate that could not be fully closed.
Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
If Wendy Williams was educated and aware of the challenges, hardships, and obstacles that a person with a cleft lip and/or palate had to overcome, and continues to live with on a daily basis would she have behaved the way she did?
I encourage Ms. Williams to use her celebrity status and her television show in a positive manner to educate the public on cleft lip and cleft palate.
It would be wonderful if Ms. Williams could take time to learn about cleft lip and cleft palate and perhaps someday dedicate a show to all the children, adults, and celebrities who have a cleft lip and/or cleft palate. By becoming educated in this area, she can serve as a celebrity ambassador to help the public become more knowledgeable about this birth defect.
At the very least, I hope Wendy Williams becomes aware of international organizations such as Smile Train that provides cleft repair surgeries to children in other countries who do not have the same medical resources that we have in the United States. Just because a facial deformity is not classified as a disability, does not mean it can be mocked. A birth defect should be treated with the same compassion, understanding and dignity as any other disability, regardless of how major or minor it may seem and no disability or birth defect should ever be mocked.