The daytime television host came under fire last week for mocking the actor’s appearance during her “Hot Topics” segment about the Golden Globe Awards, pulling up her lip with her hand at one point and telling the audience, “He’s got this.”
“He knows how to transform — when he shaves [his beard] off, the way he looks at you,” Williams said of Phoenix, adding that she finds him “oddly attractive. “And he’s got the good nose that dips way down, like he’s happy with it and so am I.”
“When he shaves off his mustache, he’s got a hairline fracture,” she incorrectly added, continuing to hold up her own lip and expose her teeth and gums as the audience laughed. “He’s got one of those — what do you call it? — cleft lip, cleft palate.”
Phoenix has rarely spoken about his facial difference except for a brief mention in a Vanity Fair profile from last year, in which he describes it as “not a surgically fixed cleft” but a “nonsurgical scar he was born with.”
Cleft lips and cleft palates “occur when a baby’s lip or mouth do not form properly during pregnancy,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which notes that about 1 in every 1,600 babies is born with a cleft lip and cleft palate in the United States.
While the “Joker” star has yet to respond to Williams’ comments, plenty of others have weighed in online, including Canadian football player Adam Bighill, who demanded that the host address her comments and apologize to the cleft community.
The athlete, who was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate, has called on Williams to make a charitable donation to the community over the past week. He also shared on Twitter Wednesday that his son Beau recently underwent cleft palate repair surgery.
“Today is Beau’s big day. He is getting his lip repaired today in Winnipeg by the fantastic Dr. Ross,” he tweeted. “Thanks to everyone who has reached out, and in advance, thanks for any of your well wishes for Beau. He is so loved!”
Days after her initial comments, Williams responded to Bighill with an apology, saying that “The Wendy Williams Show” has donated to two charities benefiting the cleft community in his son’s honor.
“We’re thinking about Beau today as he is in surgery,” she wrote on Twitter. “I want to apologize to the cleft community and in Beau’s honor, our show is donating to @operationsmile and @AmerCleftPalate and encourage our Wendy Watchers to learn more and help support the cleft community.”
While the sports star publicly forgave and thanked Williams, others weren’t so quick to accept her apology. Among them was Cher, who called for the host to be fired over her comments.
“DOES AN APOLOGY MAKE UP FOR THIS?” she wrote alongside a screenshot of Williams using her hand to pull up her own lip.
“THESE ARE THE PPL @WendyWilliams IS MAKING FUN OF,” she wrote in a separate tweet. “Joaquin Phoenix was a Child,& We Dont Know What He Had To Go Through. HE IS ONE OF THE GREAT ACTORS OF OUR TIME,MAGNETIC,& MORE THAN HANDSOME SHE WILL BE JUDGED FOR THIS FOREVER.”
Williams’ response also didn’t sit well with the Cleft Lip and Palate Association, whose spokesperson Anna Martindale told BBC News that “an apology on Twitter really isn’t enough.”
“She did this on her show with millions upon millions of people watching, and I think she needs to apologise on her show as well,” Martindale added, comparing Williams’ imitation of Phoenix’s lip scar as “the first thing that bullies do” to children who have cleft lips and palates.