Poised, beautiful and talented, Vanessa Williams burst into the public eye under a firestorm of controversy in the early 1980s. Experiencing both the praise of the press – and the fury – she managed to emerge from the chaos of the Miss America scandal and become a stronger woman and a true champion of her own career. She’s an actress, a musician, a vocalist, a mother, an entrepreneur, and – most importantly – an outspoken advocate for LGBT and women’s issues.
Six months after entering her first beauty pageant, Vanessa Williams was crowned the first African-American Miss America. But soon after, nude photos of Williams were plastered in the pages of Penthouse magazine, against her wishes and without her permission. Horrified, the Miss America pageant Board asked Williams to resign her post. Williams agreed and stepped down from her position; relinquishing several million dollars worth of endorsement deals in the process. While she was allowed to keep her crown, her $25,000 scholarship money and the official title of Miss America 1984, but Williams was asked not to attend the coronation of the 1985 Miss America, in which the previous Miss America traditionally passes her crown on to the new queen. Devastated and humiliated, Williams decided not to return to school, and instead focused on putting the embarrassing incident in her past.
That is exactly what she did. Believing the “best revenge is success,” Williams persisted in cleaning up her tarnished image. With the help of public relations expert Ramon Hervey II, Williams managed to land a legitimate film role in the 1987 movie The Pick Up Artist, starring Molly Ringwald, Robert Downey, Jr. and Dennis Hopper. That same year, Williams and Hervey were married. Hervey put Williams’s career back on track, helping her to sign a recording contract with PolyGram, and supporting her through the release of her 1988 album, The Right Stuff. The album went gold, and three singles—“The Right Stuff,” “He’s Got the Look” and “Dreamin’” all made it into the top 10. In 1991, Williams released her second album, The Comfort Zone. The album sold 2.2 million copies in the U.S., eventually going triple platinum. The single Save the Best for Last on the album jumped to Number One on the pop charts, staying there for six weeks. Critics also recognized the album, and Williams was tapped for five Grammy nominations. The Sweetest Days (1994), Williams’s third album, experienced success as well, going platinum in the U.S., and garnering two Grammy Award nominations. Other popular singles included Williams’s rendition of Colors of the Wind, for Disney’s animated film Pocahontas. The song became a hit in 1995, and earned Williams another Grammy nomination. All in all, Williams has received 16 Grammy nominations for her music career.
Williams has experienced equal success in both television and film. On the small screen, career highlights include her performance as Motown execute Suzanne de Passe in the TV movie The Jacksons – An American Dream (1992); a starring role as demanding boss Wilhelmina Slater in Ugly Betty (2006-10); and a recurring role as Renee Filmore-Jones in the drama Desperate Housewives (2010).
In film, Williams has demonstrated a wide range of ability with movies such as the action flick starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eraser (1996), and the romantic comedy Soul Food (1997), for which she earned an Image Award. She also appeared as the publicist for Miley Cyrus’ character, Hannah Montana, in the wildly popular teen film Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009). She continued her success on the silver screen with a role in the Tyler Perry film Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (2013).
Stage work also continues to be one of Williams’s passions. She showed audiences her dark side as the seductress Aurora in the 1994 performance of the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. She then wowed audiences with her performance as the witch in Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale musical, Into the Woods, in 2002. And in 2013 she joined the cast of the Tony-nominated play The Trip to Bountiful in 2013, playing the role of Jessie Mae Watts alongside Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Cicely Tyson.
I have been a fan of Vanessa Williams since I watched her win Miss America as a child (Yes, I was that Gay), and it was a thrill to catch up with her while she prepares for her upcoming performance with special guest Varla Jean Merman on Saturday, April 25, 2015, 8:00 PM at The Nourse in San Francisco.
Vanessa, you’ve been at the forefront of rights for women, people of color and the LGBT community throughout your life and career. Given what’s happening in the news with Ferguson and with the nasty, racist SAE chant in the Oklahoma fraternity scandal, do you feel like anything has changed since you wore the Miss America crown? Have we made any progress at all? Do you feel like the response from the country is appropriate? What has surprised you the most? What has surprised you the least? Well it’s been a long time since 1983, when there was not one Miss America of color before I was crowned. A lot has changed. Given all of the incidents that have happened concerning minorities and the LGBT community, we have made tremendous progress progress in awareness, acceptance and tolerance. Look at the media today and the roles in entertainment — and even selections in toys that are available to children have a vast variety of options. When I grew up there was only one black doll purchased for me and that Sasha doll wasn’t even made in America! She was made in China! <laughs> Honestly, the biggest difference now is the speed in which we see injustice, hate crimes and revolting acts of bigotry and respond. As long as there is difference and ignorance within cultures and economies – there will always be these acts that enrage us.
Are you a Hillary supporter? I think women, by nature, are negotiators (ask any mother who has children under the age of ten). Do you think a woman would bring something new to the office? I do! If it were a win for Hillary Clinton, she would be a dynamic force worldwide. She is supremely intelligent, a phenomenal speaker, has strong opinions and not afraid to take control. She’s the perfect woman to blow the doors off the White House and make history!
You are very close with your mother, and in your book you reveal a lot of personal struggles. Your daughters, Jillian (who I understand is also a singer!) and Melanie, are now young women out in the world – what advice do you give them when it comes to life? To love? To being a mother? To managing a career and a family? What have you learned from your children? Luckily my children have been able to learn many of life’s lessons by watching and listening to my life lessons. They realize that life is full of struggles and obstacles, but always trust your gut. Be open to opportunity because, even though you may have a plan scoped out, you never know when a new opportunity may lead you to somewhere that may be even better than you thought. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Tap into mentors that you respect, and absorb all new experiences like a sponge. Work hard, be the best you can be and be prepared so people can count on you.
You live a public life – how do you manage your privacy in a world of camera phones and social media? And seriously, aren’t you glad they didn’t have Facebook and Twitter when we were in high school?! You make a mistake or do something stupid and suddenly it’s there instantly for the world to see. It seems like this is a whole different world than the one we grew up in; there is all this connectivity. Do you feel like this changes the way kids develop? Are your younger children caught up in the social media? Social media has totally permeated the average kid’s life. It’s hard for a mom to keep up with every new trend, app and fad. But what we deal with when it comes to bullying, embarrassing mistakes and privacy, the end result is now humiliation on a global scale. I’ve personally experienced what that feels like – so I tell my youngest, who is a freshman in high school, that everything online is permanent. It may seem insignificant now but it can creep up and bite you in the ass in the future when you least expect it. I feel sorry for this generation because they don’t have the luxury of failing on a small scale. What used to be handled privately in the principal’s office at school or between parents within a community is now instant footage on the local and, sometimes, even the national news.
You are so refined musically. You have a distinct voice that is so warm and soothing – I think I listened to ‘Save the Best for Last’ over a million times (I also own the Pocahontas Soundtrack because of you). Have you always been a singer? I am lucky to have a wonderfully expansive career which allows me to pop in and out of areas that I love. All interconnected and all extremely fulfilling. As a recording artist, I still get a chance to sing my hits with symphony dates, club spots, outdoor venues and international events. So my music, although it’s been around for over 25 years, still gets performed and enjoyed. I’m so glad that I had my big hits when I did, back when consumers purchased vinyl, cassettes and CD’s. It’s a whole new game, which my recording-artist daughter, Jillian Hervey of LionBabe, is experiencing now. But I know she’ll find her way and be a success. Of course, I’m a crud mother <laughs>
Do you prefer performing on Broadway? Broadway is my absolute favorite because it allows me to do all of my talents simultaneously. Performing in front of an audience as a character – acting, breaking into song, working with a tremendous ensemble led by a gifted director is my ultimate. Who are some of your favorite artists? The music that I listen to varies and is seriously across the board: Earth, Wind & fire, Steely Dan, Drake, Brazilian, Latin, Tribe Called Quest, Led Zeppelin, Jill Scott…the list goes on and on. <laughs> I was lucky to have both parents as music teachers so there was always a huge variety of music being played in our house along with the private instrumental lessons that were given on a daily basis. From the Beatles to Bach, Staples Singers to Stravinsky, there was always music.
You’re an advocate for Botox and you are the spokesperson for the Revivalistic Skin line (available on your website.) Is there a balance we can find with aging gracefully and also being young at heart? What are some things you do to stay young at heart? Yes, I do use botox twice yearly, and being in front of the camera, it makes me feel better and refreshed. When I’m doing theater, it isn’t necessary for me, but it is my reality and that is my choice. I also use micro current for lifts, which is non-invasive, plus I’ve tried other machines that are great for stimulating collagen. Whatever makes you feel good, why not try it — but do your research and know the consequences. And the most important thing is to stay active! If you don’t move it, you lose it. I do kickboxing, yoga, Pilates, weight training, salsa dancing, whatever is close by, I partake! Jump in there! Don’t let life pass you by!
Vanessa Williams will perform in San Francisco on April 25th.