In 1983, Vanessa Williams made history when she was crowned the first African-American Miss America. But soon thereafter, nude photos of Williams were plastered on the pages of Penthouse magazine. Horrified, the Miss America pageant board asked Williams to resign her post. Williams soon started a singing career, finding great success and then branching out into acting, again with success.
Entertainer Vanessa Lynn Williams was born on March 18, 1963, in Bronx, New York. Williams's parents, Milton and Helen, both worked as music educators. They moved Vanessa and her brother, Chris, to the upscale suburbs of Millwood, New York, when Vanessa was 12 months old, so they could take jobs as music teachers in Millwood's public school system.
Music was an integral part of Vanessa's early life, and by the time she was 10, she had devoted herself almost completely to music and dance. With plans to become the first African-American Rockette, she studied classical and jazz dance as well as theatre arts. She also excelled at French horn, piano, and violin. A natural performer and outgoing student, Williams was a high achiever who landed the Presidential Scholarship for Drama at graduation and gained entry into the Carnegie Mellon University theater arts program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although she was only one of 12 students accepted into Carnegie Mellon's program that year, Williams decided to attend Syracuse University in upstate New York instead.
During the summer of her freshman year at Syracuse, 19-year-old Williams took a job as a receptionist and makeup artist for local photographer Tom Chiapel. Chiapel frequently arranged photo-shoots involving female nudes, and when the photographer expressed interest in using Williams as a model, she took the chance. Williams sat for two sessions with Chiapel, followed by a third session with another photographer in New York City. Dissatisfied with the provocative nature of the third photos, she asked for the negatives and thought they had been destroyed.
Miss America Scandal
Williams returned to Syracuse in the fall, and continued to study theater and music. Around this time, she was asked her to participate in the Miss Greater Syracuse pageant. Initially hesitant to enter the competition, Williams decided to compete, winning easily. She went on to be crowned Miss New York in 1983.
On September 17, 1983, six months after entering her first beauty pageant, Williams made history when she was crowned the first African-American Miss America. Her prize included a $25,000 scholarship, as well as instant fame and a variety of product endorsements. As she came to the end of her year-long reign in July of 1984, Williams found herself in the midst of a scandal. The photos Chiapel took during Williams's freshman year, which the beauty queen had not authorized for publication, were plastered on the pages of Penthouse magazine. Horrified, the Miss America pageant board asked Williams to resign her post.
Williams stepped down from her position, relinquishing several million dollars worth of endorsement deals in the process. She was allowed to keep her crown, her scholarship money and the official title of Miss America 1984. But Williams was asked not to attend the coronation of the 1984 Miss America, in which the previous Miss America traditionally passes her crown on to the new queen. Devastated, Williams decided not to return to school, and instead focused on putting the embarrassing incident in her past.
In the wake of the incident, it seemed that Williams would never have a legitimate career in Hollywood. The fallen beauty queen was largely ignored by the film industry, with the exception of a few TV sitcom appearances-and more than a few offers to star in adult films. A music career was also beginning to seem out of the question, as mainstream record companies were timid to embrace the entertainer's less-than-wholesome image. A lawsuit against Penthouse seemed fruitless after several months of litigation that seemed to go nowhere. Williams eventually dropped the $500 million suit against the company in order to move on with her life.
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. Her debut album won her the title of Best New Female Artist award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that year, as well as three Grammy award nominations.
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 No. 1 on the pop charts, staying there for five weeks. Critics also recognized the album, and Williams was tapped for five Grammy nominations. In 1993, her duet with R&B star Brian McKnight, "Love Is", also met with popularity. The song spent three weeks at No. 1 on the adult contemporary charts.
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 Pocohontas animated film. 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 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 Eraser (1996), the action flick starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, 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 Sonheim'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 Cube Gooding, Jr. and Cicely Tyson.
Williams and Hervey ended their marriage in 1997. They have three children together: Melanie, Jillian and Devin. In 1999, Williams married basketball star Rick Fox. The couple divorced in 2004, after Fox was caught with another woman by tabloid magazines. They have one child, Sasha Gabriella.
In September 2014, Williams confirmed that she was engaged to Jim Skrip, her boyfriend of three years, during an appearance on The Queen Latifah Show. The couple met while vacationing in Egypt in 2012. They married on July 4th, 2015.
In September 2015, Williams returned to the Miss America pageant as a celebrity judge. She performed her song "Oh How the Years Go By," and then received a public apology from Sam Haskell, executive chairman of the Miss America pageant, for being forced to resign her title in 1984. “I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be,” Haskell told Williams onstage during the televised show. She responded by saying the apology was “so unexpected but so beautiful.”
Williams currently resides in Chappaqua, New York.
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