Born on March 18, 1963, in New York, NY; daughter of Milton and Helen Williams (music teachers); married Ramon Hervey II (head of a management firm that included Williams as a client), 1987 (divorced, 1997); married Rick Fox, 1999 (divorced, 2004); children: Melanie, Jillian Kristin, Devin (first marriage); Sasha Gabriella (second marriage). Education:Syracuse University, degree in musical theater, c. 1984. Addresses: Record company--Wing Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019. Agent--John Marx, William Morris Agency, Inc., 1350 Sixth Ave., New York, NY 10019. Management--Hervey & Co., Inc., 9034 Sunset Blvd., Ste. 107, Los Angeles, CA 90069.
Many performers overcome staggering odds to achieve fame; in the case of Vanessa Williams, success seemed a long shot after a devastating and very public scandal. A recording artist with two gold records to her credit, Williams was the first black woman to be crowned Miss America---and the first to relinquish her crown after a magazine published nude photographs of her. The road back to respectability was a long one for Williams, but the remarkable grace and vocal gifts that won her the 1983 Miss America title enabled her to establish a thriving career.
As Ebony's Lynn Norment described Williams, "The entertainer has not let obstacles defer her dreams so far, and it is doubtful that they will encumber her in the future." The singer observed that being crowned Miss America, considered the honor of a lifetime by many, was for her a stumbling block that almost ruined her chances for work in show business. "I think being Miss America was a major detour to what I wanted to do professionally," she said. "If [producers] think you are Miss America, they think you are an airhead ... a bimbo."
As far as Williams is concerned, nothing could be further from the truth. Even before the scandal that ended her reign, she was known as one of the most hardworking and outspoken women to wear the Miss America crown. She refused to be pegged as a symbol because she was black. She also freely voiced her opinions on abortion, government policies, and race relations, and presented herself as an articulate woman with well-defined goals for a career as an entertainer. "My parents really taught me that there are no limitations, that you can do anything you want," Williams told Ebony. "I recall my mother telling me that just because you are black, you are going to have to work 100 percent more than everyone else just to be considered equal. That is unfair, but it is the reality of the situation."
Raised in Musical Household
Vanessa Williams was born on March 18, 1963, in the Bronx, New York. Both of her parents had college educations and considerable musical talent. When Williams was just a year old, the family moved to Millwood, New York, an upscale community some 30 miles north of Manhattan, where both parents worked as public school music teachers. According to Elizabeth Kaye in Rolling Stone, Williams "was the only black child in her school until she was seven. When she was six, another child called her a 'nigger.' She didn't know what it was. Her mother began to teach her about her heritage, using black-history flashcards that detailed the achievements of [Underground Railroad hero] Harriet Tubman, and [former slave and abolitionist] Frederick Douglass. Soon she had black-pride posters in her bedroom. She decided that she wanted to be the first black Rockette."
By the time Williams turned ten she had immersed herself in music and dance. She took French horn, piano, and violin lessons, studied classical and jazz dance, and appeared in numerous school plays. Kaye noted that when Williams performed, "her father was invariably the first to start applauding and the last to stop. Her mother was more circumspect. 'Nice job, 'Ness,' she would say." Williams entered high school as a highly popular, if somewhat rebellious, student. Her interests continued in theater and music, and she graduated from high school with a prestigious Presidential Scholarship for Drama. Although she was one of only 12 students accepted into the Carnegie Mellon University theater arts program in Pittsburgh, she decided to stay closer to home and attend Syracuse University.
During the summer after her freshman year at Syracuse, Williams returned to Millwood, taking a job as a receptionist and makeup artist for local photographer Tom Chiapel. Chiapel photographed subjects in the nude, and Williams---19 at the time---was curious. "I had worked there for a month and a half when Tom Chiapel mentioned several times that he'd like to shoot me in the nude," Williams recalled in People. "He assured me that none of the photographs would ever leave the studio. He assured me." Williams did one nude session by herself and another in silhouette lighting with a second female model. Later that summer, on a visit to New York City, she did a third session with a Manhattan photographer. However, she was so distressed by the nature of that session, which involved leather gear and highly provocative poses, that she asked for the negatives and thought they had been destroyed.
At summer's end Williams returned to Syracuse, where she continued to excel in theater and music. She was appearing in a college musical when the director of the Miss Greater Syracuse pageant, an early step toward the Miss America contest, approached her. Williams was not enthusiastic about entering a beauty pageant, but her parents convinced her to do it. She handily became Miss Greater Syracuse and went on to be crowned Miss New York in 1983.
No black woman had ever been crowned Miss America. If the pageant favored a certain type, it was usually the blue-eyed, blonde southern woman. Williams remembered in GQ that the New York Daily News had run a story insisting that no black woman would ever win the Miss America title. "I knew I had the talent and brains," she said. "I just didn't feel comfortable in front of all those people in a swimsuit. I never thought I'd win. I mean, I was pro-choice and pro-ERA, not 'Little Miss Seawall' at the age of 5. The southern girls said I'd never win because I didn't fit the profile. They said it was all in the breeding."
Crowned Miss America
On September 14, 1983, just six months after entering her first beauty pageant, Vanessa Williams was named Miss America. Her closest competitor, Suzette Charles, was also black. Williams won with a torchy rendition of the standard "Happy Days Are Here Again," and impressed the judges with her honest and witty answers to their questions. Her parents and her entire hometown rejoiced as she won a $25,000 scholarship and the potential of earning much more for personal appearances and product endorsements.
Williams embarked on a hectic tour in keeping with her duties as Miss America. Because she was black, she came under unusual scrutiny from the press and public. As a People correspondent put it, "Vanessa Williams was perceived not simply as Miss America but as an emblem of social change---not Miss America at all, in that sense, but Miss New America, embodiment of a kind of collective national redemption." But Williams chafed at this characterization, saying she had never felt discriminated against while growing up and that she did not feel race was an issue in her selection. "People are reading too much into it," she concluded.
The frank but poised Miss America was nearing the end of her reign in July of 1984 when scandal broke: The photographs Chiapel had taken of her with another woman---the ones she insists she never signed for release---found their way into the pages of the men's magazine Penthouse. After glimpsing the pictures, the shocked Miss America pageant board of directors asked Williams to resign.
A teary Williams huddled with her family, her attorney, and a public relations consultant, Ramon Hervey II, who was called in to help minimize the damage. Within 72 hours of the revelation, Williams called a press conference and stepped down with dignity and dry eyes. Her losses were immense: Although pageant officials said she could keep the scholarship money, she was dropped from several major product endorsements worth an estimated $2 million. She was also barred from appearing at the 1984 Miss America pageant and was dropped from a Bob Hope television special. Williams confided in People: "I feel as if I were just a sacrificial lamb. The past just came up and kicked me. I felt betrayed and violated like I had been raped.... I think this would have to be the worst thing that has happened in my life. But I can't go anyplace but up. I've hit rock bottom."
Williams was forced to deny in print that she was a lesbian. She was hounded by obscene telephone calls at home and taunted on the streets. Movie scripts came pouring in, but all featured excessive nudity and near-pornography. Still, as Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione had suggested, the photographs gained Williams the media exposure that had eluded many former Miss Americas.
Though she may have earned a spot in the public eye, Williams was hardly the toast of Hollywood. Ebony's Norment reported: "The following years were exceptionally trying for the young woman. After the furor over her giving up the Miss America crown subsided, Vanessa continued to pursue her dream of a show business career. She knocked on doors that wouldn't open. She auditioned for parts but never got called back. She met with record company executives, but nobody took her seriously."
Nobody, that is, except Ramon Hervey, who became Williams's manager in 1985 and her husband in 1987. He helped Williams choose film roles that would not further tarnish her image, such as the 1987 movie The Pick Up Artist. He also paved the way for a recording contract with PolyGram's Wing Records, a rhythm and blues subsidiary. (In fact, Williams was the first artist signed to the label.) "There's no way [Vanessa] would have been taken seriously as an actress in Hollywood," Hervey conceded in GQ. "We decided it would be better to concentrate on her musical talents, which we could control. We made a conscious effort to build a base in the black community with a rhythm-and-blues album. If Vanessa didn't succeed in black music first, then she'd never succeed. We had to convince the black media to give Vanessa a chance to become a whole person again."
An early music milestone came when Williams provided backup vocals to funk premier George Clinton's "Do Fries Go With That Shake," which landed in the top ten. Williams's own album The Right Stuff was released in 1988. The record went gold, selling 500,000 units, and placed three singles in the top ten of the rhythm and blues charts. Williams supported the effort by appearing in high-energy music videos and touring the United States and Europe. Her diligence resulted in an Image Award for Best New Female Artist from the NAACP in 1988. She was also nominated for three Grammy Awards--one for Best New Artist and two for Best R&B Vocal Performance-Female, for "The Right Stuff" in 1988 and "Dreamin'" in 1989. GQ contributor Pat Jordan declared, "For the first time in years, the name 'Vanessa Williams' became synonymous not with scandal but with success and a kind of relentless courage. Her life was no longer defined solely by a single aberration from her past."
Williams followed her hit debut with another well-received release, 1991's The Comfort Zone. The disc yielded her first number one single, "Save the Best for Last," written by Wendy Waldman, Jon Lind, and Phil Galdston. The radio-friendly song, aided by heavy video rotation, stayed at number one on the pop, rhythm and blues, and adult contemporary charts for five weeks and was nominated for three Grammy Awards: Record of the Year, Best Female Vocal Solo-Pop, and Best Female Vocal Solo-R&B. Superstar recording artist Luther Vandross told an Entertainment Weekly correspondent: "I couldn't be more thrilled about what's happening for [Vanessa] right now. The way she looks, the way she sings, that inexplicable something called charisma all work in her favor." But Williams remarked in People, "I never for one second have felt that I've arrived. I will always have something to prove."
Williams was also offered roles in the mainstream, if not blockbuster, films Another You and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, and made appearances in the television productions Stompin' at the Savoy and The Jacksons: An American Dream. In 1992 she became hostess of VH-1's The Soul of VH-1, a weekly video presentation featuring rhythm and blues. In the midst of recording sessions, tours, and film work, she and Hervey had three children. Asked in Ebony how she could find time for her various projects and the demands of child rearing, she explained: "Black women have been doing this forever. It is really not a question of how you can do it. It needs to be done, and you do it. ... There are so many single family households, and black women have to be strong to keep their families together. Being a black woman, I think that is one of the roles, the strengths you just acquire. I think we are a strong people."
Williams released new albums yearly from1995 through 1997. In 1997 she and Hervey divorced. She remarried in 1999, to basketball star Rick Fox; the couple's first child, Sasha Gabriella, was born in 2000. Their marriage did not last, however; Fox filed for divorce on August 10, 2004.
In 2003 Williams signed to appear in ten episodes of NBC's police drama Boomtown. She told a reporter for the Grand Rapids Press that although it would be difficult for her to fly back and forth from her children in New York to the studio in Los Angeles, "It's a time in my life when I think that I have the flexibility" to do so.
The year 2004 was a busy year for Williams, who appeared in the film Johnson Family Vacation. In the film she played the estranged wife of an insurance sales representative who joins him and their three children for a family reunion and trip. In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Eleanor Ringel Gillespie wrote, "The underappreciated and gorgeous Williams makes a fine foil, but she's too young to be relegated to disgruntled-wife roles." In 2004 Williams also released a Christmas album, Silver and Gold.
In 2005 Williams released an album, Everlasting Love, on Lava Records, which featured reinterpretations of modern romantic classics. In conjunction with the release she gave a performance at Carnegie Hall. In the Palm Beach Post Leslie Gray Streeter called the album "inspired," and noted, "I was stunned at how powerful and deep her voice is. She shows off those pipes through the album most impressively." In the Orlando Sentinel Jim Abbot commented, "This stuff is primo romantic mood music that even a guy can understand."
Williams told People that she knows some Americans will always remember the Penthouse pictures, and she knows she will have to explain them to her children some day. "The incident was a part of my life that was pretty devastating," she confessed. "But in the context of my whole life, I got over it." The versatile performer added in Ebony, "I'm not dwelling on [the past] now. I'm just moving on, for there is nothing I can do to change that, so I just have to deal with it and move on. ... If situations arose where I could get revenge, I absolutely would. But at this point, success is the best revenge."
by Kelly Winters
Vanessa Williams's Career
Worked for photographer as receptionist and makeup artist, Millwood, NY, c. 1982; crowned Miss America, September 14, 1983; relinquished crown, July 23, 1984; worked as a backup singer; signed with Wing Records and released first album, The Right Stuff, 1988; film appearances include The Pick Up Artist, 1987, Another You, 1990, and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, 1992; became host of weekly cable television program The Soul of VH-1, 1992; appeared in Boomtown, 2003; appeared in Johnson Family Vacation, 2004; released Silver and Gold, 2004; released Everlasting Love, 2005.
Vanessa Williams's Awards
NAACP Image Award, Best New Female Artist, 1988; Image Award, Outstanding Actress in a Television Miniseries, for "Stompin' at the Savoy," 1993; Image Award, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Motion Picture, for Soul Food, 1998.
- Selected discography
- The Right Stuff Wing, 1988.
- The Comfort Zone Wing, 1991.
- (Contributor) A Very Special Christmas A&M, 1992.
- (Contributor, with Brian McKnight) "Love Is," Beverly Hills 90210: The Soundtrack Giant, 1993.
- Sweetest Days Wing, 1995.
- Star Bright Mercury, 1996.
- Next Mercury, 1997.
- Silver and Gold Main Street Music, 2004.
- Everlasting Love Lava Records, 2005.
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 7, 2004, p. E1.
- Ebony, April 1987; December 1988; April 1990.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 24, 1992; December 25, 1992.
- Grand Rapids Press, July 30, 2003, p. B7.
- GQ, June 1990.
- Jet, September 16, 1991; February 3, 1992.
- Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, May 8, 2004, p. NA.
- Newsweek, August 6, 1984.
- New York Post, January 30, 2005, p. 82.
- Oakland Press (Oakland County, MI), June 14, 1992.
- Orlando Sentinel, February 3, 2005, p. NA.
- Palm Beach Post, December 12, 2004, p. 1J; February 18, 2005, p. 24.
- People, October 3, 1983; December 26, 1983; August 6, 1984; September 10, 1984; December 24, 1984; January 30, 1989; May 3, 1993.
- Rolling Stone, January 31, 1985; April 16, 1992; April 30, 1992; May 14, 1992.
- San Francisco Chronicle, April 7, 2004, p. E2.
- Time, August 6, 1984.
- Billboard.com, http://www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_5/index.jsp (January 21, 2004).
- Additional information for this profile was provided by Wing Records, 1992.