Imagine that you have a dream; one that is unbelievably difficult to accomplish even under the best of circumstances. Then imagine still trying to hold onto that dream when you are at your all-time lowest and have become an international laughing stock and the butt of countless jokes. Then imagine the type of person who could still, in the face of all this, manage to accomplish that dream (and then some!) and face down all of her detractors. Imagine Miss Vanessa Williams!
Williams came into this world on March 18th, 1963 in Millwood, New York. Her parents introduced her to the world with the phrase “Here she is: Miss America” on her birth announcements, never dreaming how prophetic the decision would be. The daughter of two music teachers, she and her younger brother Chris (born in ’67) grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, though they were descended of mixed race and identified as black. (Her father was biracial and her mother was black and of European descent.)
Heavily active in high school musical productions, she signed people’s yearbooks with the phrase “See you on Broadway!” One step in that direction was enrollment at Syracuse University, where she majored in Theatre Arts. While there, she worked as an assistant and makeup artist for a photographer. In an unfortunate decision that would later come back to crush her into the ground, practically, she agreed to pose nude, in some cases with another young woman, for the photographer as part of one of his creative projects with the understanding (according to her) that the pictures would never see the light of day apart from his own use.
When a university musical she was working on was cancelled and another professional gig she had been planning on also fell through, she was talked into entering the Miss Syracuse pageant, an opportunity for scholarship money, which she won. The light-eyed, deep-skinned beauty was then qualified to enter the Miss New York pageant, which she also won, placing her in the running for the ultimate title, that of Miss America.
On September 17th, 1983, the country watched as Vanessa Williams was crowned the very first black Miss America. Having already wowed the audience with her snow-white swimsuit and white, toga-style evening gown, she performed Happy Days Are Here Again in the talent competition to tumultuous applause. For the finale, she switched to a lilac-colored gown with a massive tulle poof on the right shoulder. (This poof has in some cases caused as much dissention between friends as her eventual resignation did! For the record, I like it!)
It wasn’t much of a contest, since Van pretty much mopped the floor with everyone else there, with the exception of fellow black finalist Suzette Charles who delivered a spirited rendition of Kiss Me in the Rain. Otherwise, the bulk of the finalists that year came off as awkward, phony or embarrassing, especially when compared to the slick, charismatic and confident Williams.
Vanessa didn’t get to hear the familiar song lyrics “There she is…” as so many before her had. Instead, Gary Collins was heard warbling a newer number called Miss America, You’re Beautiful. And she was beautiful, though she would later have some work done on her teeth and nose. What’s more, during the evening gown competition, she announced her desire to one day perform on the Broadway stage, a leap of sorts even for someone soon to be crowned Miss America (how many Miss America’s do you know who went on to be Broadway actresses and singers?)
Once the title was hers, she started off on her endless gamut of public appearances, being trotted out here, there and everywhere and even appearing on an episode of The Love Boat as herself, along with a few other former winners such as (from left to right: Jean Bartel ’43, Marian McKnight ’57, actor Gavin McLeod, Williams and Nancy Fleming ’61.) Sadly, her appointment to the title marked the first time that a Miss America ever received death threats and extensive hate mail from certain racist citizens of the U.S., so security was a factor in many of her appearances.
Ten months into her reign, the bottom dropped out of her life when she was informed that those (so she had believed) long ago “destroyed” photos taken a couple of years prior were about to surface in a major way. The photographer was hawking them to various men’s magazines in return for a cash payment. In a rather admirable moment of compassion over cash, Hugh Hefner decided not to buy the photos for Playboy, not only because they were not authorized, but also because he understood the significance of a first time black Miss America and didn’t want to be the spoiler.
Bob Guccione of Penthouse magazine had no such qualms and ran the photographs with a cover of Williams alongside comedian George Burns (of Oh, God! fame) that had originally been an innocuous photo shoot with the caption, “Oh God, She’s Nude!” The fallout was extraordinary. A media circus ensued and finally, feeling pressure from the Miss America Pageant officials, she called a press conference in July of 1984 and resigned from her post. As they say every time, “in the event that Miss America can no longer fulfill her duties…” diminutive first runner-up Suzette Charles (who, as I said, ironically enough, was also black!) was crowned as the replacement Miss America and served for a mere seven weeks.
Williams was permitted to keep her crown and the $30,000 in scholarship money and even remained in the official record of the pageant as Miss America 1984 (with Charles winding up with the unintentionally insulting sounding title “Miss America 1984b!”) She has not, however, as of this writing participated in anything related to the pageant (such as returning for anniversaries or as a judge, etc…)
If that weren’t enough, Guccione (who made by his own admission $14 million on the notorious issue) relentlessly managed to dig up still more nude and semi-nude photos of Williams (by a different photographer) and printed them later that year with the caption “Oh God, I Did It Again!” and this time she was shown biting George Burns’ ear in what in retrospect was an ill-advised pose to strike. (Was it absolutely necessary to keep dragging poor ol’ George into it?!) In all, she was on the cover of Penthouse three times, always with a new angle on the old photos, and was depicted inside even more times. Incidentally, it is illegal to sell that first issue of Penthouse without first removing the centerfold because it happens to contain a Miss Traci Lords, who was sixteen at the time, thus violating the laws that govern such matters.
Williams went public in People Magazine to express her despair over the horrid decision she had made as a young student. She also filed a $500 million lawsuit against the first photographer and Guccione for publishing photos for which she had never given her consent. (Unfortunately, I do not know the outcome of that case, whether it was settled or dismissed or won or what!) She also hired a press agent named Ramon Hervey to help her navigate the treacherous scenario she had become mired in. She would marry Hervey in 1987 and have three children before their divorce in 1997.
Coming out of what she described as hitting “rock bottom” seemed an impossible task. What helped was that she still possessed those striking looks and, more importantly, she had genuine talent as a singer. Her journey on the comeback trail was slow, but steady. She began by taking guest roles on a variety of television series including He’s the Mayor, The Redd Foxx Show, T.J. Hooker and The Love Boat (again, this time as a character on board.)
Next she did a walk-on role in the Robert Downey Jr. film The Pick-up Artist. She began working on her first album, struggling to find material since no one seemed to take her seriously or demonstrate any faith in her ability. Finally, for once, she caught a break. Her album The Right Stuff in 1988 produced a top ten hit, Dreamin’, and she was nominated for two Grammy Awards!
She costarred with (the hunkalicious) Sam Jones in a low-budget action thriller called Under the Gun in her continued attempt to forge an acting career. The faux-sleazy TV-movie Full Exposure: The Sex Tapes Scandal played somewhat upon her circumstances, though she was not the direct victim of the scandal in it. She played the murder victim in Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer and was shown to decent advantage in a series of flashbacks within the telefilm.
Now with an increasing foothold in the acting biz, she found just one more headache. When she went to apply for membership in the Screen Actors Guild, she was informed that the name Vanessa Williams was already in use by another actress! (In fact, the actress had been mistakenly given a check meant for her as far back as her Miss America days, which the actress promptly returned.) This wasn’t something that was just going to go away as the other Vanessa Williams was enjoying a career surge and was part of the original cast of Melrose Place. It’s not like they could pull a Suzette Charles and call them “Vanessa Williams” and “Vanessa Williams b.”
For this reason, Williams was forced into being billed as Vanessa L. Williams for a time. (Eventually, she became famous enough that she reverted to her regular billing and the other woman came to be known professionally as Vanessa A. Williams, though she remains a working actress.)
She landed roles in the big screen films Another You (the final time Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor costarred), which turned out to be a rather troubled production with director Peter Bogdanovich being fired after six weeks, and Harley Davidson and The Marlboro Man, a low-brow action flick starring Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson. She portrayed a barmaid named Lulu.
Williams’ next album The Comfort Zone yielded the incredible hit Save the Best for Last, which was a number one song for five weeks. It, along with the duet Love Is with Brian McKnight, laid to rest any doubts that Williams was a vocalist worth reckoning with. She was again nominated for Grammys for material on this triple platinum album. (I can never forget my black friend Lynn at this time dismissing Vanessa with the outrageous remark, "She tryin' tah pass..." It wasn't just Caucasians that Williams still needed to win over.) She would continue her music career with The Sweetest Days and a couple of Christmas-oriented albums as well as others. The song she recorded in 1993 for Pocahontas, Colors of the Wind, was another staggering success. in 1996, she sang the song at the Oscar ceremony and it won for Best Song. She still records today and has an album slated for release this year.
The long-awaited dream of performing on Broadway finally came true for Vanessa when she was approached to replace Chita Rivera in the lavish musical Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1994. She was heaped with praise for her work in the show, which featured sensual and exotic singing and dancing. She won the Theatre World Award in 1995 for her performance.
Continuing to act on TV as well, she had performed a featured role in the miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream and then did a TV remake of Bye Bye Birdie (playing the role that Chita Rivera had originated on Broadway!) The oddly cast and strangely muted project promised to be better than it was, though she got to sing a number specially written for this version (one of three songs added, the other two for Tyne Daly and Jason Alexander.)
Action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger chose Williams to be his costar in Eraser, citing the fact that he understood how it felt to be judged primarily for one’s body rather than for anything else (he being a former Mr. Universe and she a former Miss America.) In the high-tech film, he plays a U.S. Marshal assigned to protecting her and “erasing” her previous identity. It was not one of his major league blockbusters, but she was being presented in a more tasteful and professional light. She also got to sing the movie’s theme song Where Do We Go From Here.
Her exotic and sensual looks were put to use when she played an ancient being named Calypso in the Armand Assante miniseries The Odyssey. She also entered the sizeable world of the Trekkers when she guest-starred on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1996.
When she starred in Soul Food, a film regarding the conflicts of three sisters whose mother’s illness prevents her from holding her standard family dinners, she was presented with an Image Award by the NAACP for her work. The family drama, aimed at a black audience, contained a strong ensemble cast. Unfortunately, the language in the film necessitated an R rating, which might have cut down the available viewing audience somewhat, though a successful TV series was developed from it and run on Showtime for several years. (Williams didn’t work on the series, but to add to the confusion, Vanessa A. Williams did, though not in the same role!)
1998 brought Dance With Me, a sparkly, showy movie that costarred a diverse cast from hunky Puerto Rican Chayanne to craggy Kris Kristofferson to old guard Brit Joan Plowright! Based on some of the stills from the movie, I think I need to see this one sometime just for the hair and makeup alone! In 1999, she married second husband Rick Fox, a former NBA basketball player, and had another child, but some photographic evidence of his canoodling with another woman helped tear up the marriage. It ended officially in 2004.
By now, Williams was busy, busy, busy. She costarred with The Adventures of Lois & Clark cutie Dean Cain and Wesley Snipes in a telefilm called Futuresport, its title self-explanatory. She filmed a three-episode arc on the TV series L.A. Doctors. Then, having apparently shed any stigma that might be considered an undue influence on children, she appeared in the kiddie flick The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland. (She, however, was playing a character called The Queen of Trash!) She portrayed Dulcinea/Aldonza in the TV adaptation of Man of La Mancha opposite John Lithgow. (With no harm to Mr. Lithgow, or even Miss Williams, I think I'd rather hear about this one than watch it! maybe someday...) She also starred along with Samuel L. Jackson in the remake of Shaft before creating the role of Ebony Scrooge in A Diva’s Christmas Carol for TV.
In 2002, she really got her shot at the big time on Broadway. She headlined a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, playing The Witch, a role Bernadette Peters had originated in the 1987 production. With a previously cut song (Our Little World) restored for this revival, she finally had the chance to open a Broadway show in a featured role. The production won the Tony Award that year for Best Revival of a Musical and she was nominated as Best Actress in a Musical
Despite being a mother of four, she continued to work non-stop on television and in movies. In 2006, she took on the part that would gain her a significant following and christen her something of a gay icon. She was cast as the power-hungry co-editor of a fashion magazine, Wilhelmina Slater, in the TV show Ugly Betty. Based on a Colombian soap opera, but executive produced into an American version by Salma Hayak, the series depicted a gawky, unsophisticated (but endearing and kind) young girl who comes up against an entire building full of shallow, greedy people, Williams chief among them.
Williams was buffed and polished, clothed and coiffed to the hilt in order to bring this larger than life shrew to fruition. Her hair was never higher and her body was never more showered with exquisite clothes and jewelry. In short, she was just they type of female that is a hit in The Underworld! She was a hit with audiences too, as well as critics. Then there was the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, who saw fit to nominate Williams for an Emmy for each year that the show was on the air. She didn’t win a statuette, but this distinction did a lot to legitimize her acting career.
As soon as the series was canceled, she was added to the cast of another popular show, Desperate Housewives, playing the old college roommate of one of the established ladies on Dogwood Lane.
In 2007, Williams was presented with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her work as a singer. Now people might walk all over her again, but they were doing the same to Marilyn Monroe, Sylvester Stallone, Red Buttons, Jaclyn Smith, Robert Wagner and all of the other countless movie, TV and music stars who are represented in the legendary stretch of embossed slabs.
Williams’ exposure on Ugly Betty as the commandeering, haute couture gorgon Wilhelmina made her a go-to gal for various charity runway shows and seemed to inspire the actress to take chances in her own approach to clothing. When Vanessa Williams attends a premiere, she may look stunning, she may look outrageous or she may look unusual, but in nearly every case, she’s going to have a “look” and make people sit up and take notice. I dare say she looks far better now than when she took home the title of Miss America more than twenty-five years ago!
In what seems an almost impossible comeback story, she has conquered virtually every field of show business and realized her dreams, something that very few people truly accomplish. Perhaps in the wake of so many “celebrity sex scandals,” many of which have gone far, far beyond hers thanks to the video age and the explicit nature of the tapes, her “crime” of posing for a studio photographer doesn’t seem so momentous. More likely, the primary scorn was because she, as Miss America, a symbol of the ideal, popped the balloon of purity that many people had concerning her awarded position. It’s quite possible that she has fans now who either have no idea of what she went through to get where she is or for whom the whole matter is a faded story they hardly know about. What’s good about knowing the story is that one can see how “through hard work and determination” (words of her own, spoken at the pageant), a person can overcome adversity, even when it is brought upon one’s self.
On that, I leave you with a quote from what was, to me, a surprising source, silent film legend Mary Pickford. She once said, “If you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. What we call failure is not the falling down, but the staying down.” Miss Vanessa Williams chose not to stay down and for that wins applause in The Underworld.