Having been crowned the first African-American Miss America, in 1983, would assure Vanessa Williams a place in entertainment history. But she is so much more than that — singer, actress, dancer, former fashion model and she is also an accomplished pianist.
So much time has elapsed, and so many things have been achieved, that it is sometimes hard to believe that there was a time when Williams’ life appeared to be derailed because of pictures published in Penthouse magazine that cut her Miss America reign short near the end. (They were old pictures taken when she was a teenager.)
She was down, but hardly out, and had no intensions of crawling into a corner and going down in what some judgmental people would call infamy. It was just a matter of assessing the situation, regrouping, and then launching a carefully strategized comeback.
“What people forget is that Vanessa has talent,” said Ramon Hervey, her husband, in the spring of 1988 when Williams was enjoying the success of her first hit record, “The Right Stuff.”
Three years before that, producers of the TV special “Motown Returns to the Apollo” bravely chose Vanessa Williams to perform during a segment on legendary ladies. Williams appeared as Josephine Baker.
In 1989, Williams received an NAACP Image Award in the Outstanding New Artist category. In her tearful acceptance speech, among those she thanked were Ed Eckstine from Mercury Records “for giving me a chance,” her family, husband — and the Black community because “when I needed you, you were there for me.”
It was a powerful, heart-touching, race-affirming moment.
VANESSA WILLIAMS was born in Millwood, New York, and since both of her parents were music teachers, it comes as no surprise that she was musically inclined. After high school she attended Syracuse University from 1981 to 1983. She was a musical theater arts major, but left the university before graduating due to winning the Miss America pageant, and entering was not something she had planned on doing.
“The Right Stuff” was just the start of Williams’ success as a recording artist. It reached No. 4 on the national R&B charts and after that it was one Top 10 hit after the other, including “(He’s Got) The Look,” “Dreamin’,” “Darlin’ I,” “Running Back to You,” “The Comfort Zone” and “Work To Do.”
But her biggest hit was the lovely “Save The Best For Last” which was No. 1 on the R&B chart for three weeks and No. 1 on the Pop chart for an impressive five weeks. It was also a smash in Australia, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands and Canada.
The album “Save The Best For Last” appeared on, “The Comfort Zone,” was certified Double Platinum by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) for selling two million copies and has since been certified Triple Platinum. There were also five Grammy nominations.
“Success,” said Williams, “is the sweetest revenge.”
HOWEVER, she also had a strong desire to do stage and film work.
Williams didn’t have to start at the bottom. She landed a lead role on Broadway that hundreds of other actresses wanted, replacing the great Chita Rivera in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Following that critically acclaimed role was the theatrical gems “Carmen Jones,” “Into the Woods” and “Sondheim on Sondheim.” She is currently featured on Broadway in “The Trip to Bountiful,” also starring Cicely Tyson (who recently won a Tony Award for her performance) and Cuba Gooding Jr.
Williams’ film history is long and diverse, and once again critics have written favorably. Among the movies are “Eraser” (with Arnold Schwarzenegger), “Soul Food,” “Johnson Family Vacation,” “Dance With Me” and “Shaft.”
Television viewers have seen Vanessa Williams in, among many others, “Ally McBeal,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “The Jacksons – An American Dream” (a made-for-television movie), “Bye Bye Birdie,” “South Beach” and “Desperate Housewives.”
AND THEN there was her role in the long-running series “Ugly Betty” in which she played the villainous modeling company owner (and former model) Wilhelmina Slater.
Looking over all she has accomplished in various fields (Broadway is her favorite), and how challenging her start was, Williams said, “You’re always going to have people that are naysayers, that don’t believe in your talent, that don’t believe that you will have any kind of longevity.”
Well, as Will Smith once advised, use criticism and defeat for fuel.
Vanessa Williams has four children, three with her first husband, Ramon Hervey, and one with her second, NBA star Rick Fox. She is currently single and gets along great with both ex-husbands.
Anyone wishing to know more about Vanessa Williams’ personal life should read “You Have No Idea,” the autobiographical and revealing book she wrote with her mother, Helen Williams, that was published in 2012.