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Vanessa L. Williams- Portrait of a Class Act and Survivor-From Millwood to Miss America and Beyond!
BACK ON TOP AGAIN
ACCOMPLISHED ACTRESS, BROADWAY, AND RECORDING STAR
UTTERLY DEVOTED TO HER FAMILY
A Totally Unstoppable and Classy Lady Bar None!
Vanessa Lynn Williams is the total epitome of class and savoire faire since she was crowned Miss America 1984 on September 17, 1983. However her Miss America victory was not without controversy. There were many Blacks who strongly contested Ms. Williams' Miss American victory, asserting that she was not a proper representative of the Black community because she was very light-skinned and blue eyed with sandy brown hair in addition to being from an upper middle class socioeconomic background.
Apparently many Caucasians were too uncomfortable with the fact that a Black woman was representing America and believed that the Miss America image was tarnished. Ms. Williams related in her various interviews that while she was Miss America, she was subjected to death threats by white supremacist groups such as the Aryan Nation and the KKK.
Ms. Williams was born to be Miss America and the road was long. She was born on March 18, 1963 in the Bronx, New York to Milton and Helen (Tinch) Williams, music teachers with Masters Degrees. The Williams family subsequently moved to Millwood in 1964. The Williamses were elementary school teachers and taught music publicly and privately. A younger brother, Christopher( also an actor) , soon followed. Music and culture were de rigueur in the Williams household. Ms. Williams and her brother received music lessons and was exposed to an eclectic mix of music ranging from gospel to Broadway tunes. She would periodically remark that her parents would often take her to Broadway plays as a child.
Ms. Williams and her brother were given music lessons such as playing the piano and oboe. Mr. Williams, during an interview, maintained that his children were allowed to choose any instrument; however, they were to continue with music lessons until they were 18 years of age. Mr. Williams asserted that this was to teach them perseverance and discipline. Besides music lessons, Ms Williams also took dancing lessons.
In school, Ms. Williams sang and participated in plays. One of my coworkers who lived in Chappaqua, New York in Westchester County and knew the Williamses, remarked that Ms. Williams was supertalented even as a young girl. Because of her prodigious acting and singing abilities, she won the Presidential Award in Drama to Carnegie Mellon University. However, it was her parents' desire that she attended a university in New York State. She elected to attend Syracuse University where she majored in Musical Theatre. In the summers, she and her brother did community theatre.
It was the desire and passion of Ms. Williams to be an entertainer. She voiced this desire from early childhood. Mrs. Williams stated during an interview that people would remark to her that her daughter had a star quality which other people did not have. Yes, Ms. Williams had star presence which was a plus factor for her when she started to enter beauty contests. She maintained that she only entered beauty contests for two purposes: money to continue and finish her education and for exposure which would be instrumental to her future career.
Ms. Williams was a winner from the start. She entered and won Miss Syracuse and Miss New York contests. Subsequently, she entered the Miss America contest. Miss America is considered to be the epitome of beauty contests. Women who enter and win Miss America contests have educational and career opportunities which far surpasses that of the average woman. In other words, being a Miss America participant and winner opens doors that are not usually opened. Ms. Williams had the looks, intelligence, and the talent and her beautiful, souful rendition of Barbra Streisand's HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN led her to winning the Miss America title.
Ms. Willilams was the perfect Ms. America. She exhibited class, elan, and grace. I remember when a news reporter interviewed her and asked if she was from the projects, she coolly elected to ignore the reporter. Ms. Williams was nonplussed at the fact the people kept emphasizing her Blackness when winning the contest. She indicated that Blackness was not a factor and that she was a person first and foremost.
Lucrative opportunities such as commercials and other ventures were opening up for Ms. Williams. She evidently was at the top and the world was her oyster so to speak. She was in demand at speaking engagements. However, this was about to came to an abrupt end. In late summer of 1984, Ms. Williams received an anonymous telephone call that questionable pictures of her were going to be published in a men's magazine. Ms. Williams, during an interview with PEOPLE MAGAZINE, reported that she became apprehensive about this.
Ms. Williams first denied that such pictures were taken but she later stated that the photographer told her that "these pictures would be for her personal viewing only, they would not be public." However, the pictures were published. The powers to be at the Miss America Corporation were in betwixt and between letting her continue with being Miss America and/or discharging her.
It was reported that one of the powers maintained that the pictures were "probably not so bad" and that she should stay. Ms. Williams even stated that the powers assured her of this. However, when the true nature of the pictures were revealed, it was unanimously decided that Ms. Williams should be dethroned hence she felt betrayed by the Miss America Corporation.
In a subsequent news interview, she bravely declared that she was "going to resign for the good of the pageant." Ms. Williams and her parents reported that although there were people sympathetic to their plight, there were others who made disparaging and pejorative remarks about her. There were many prominent figures who called her a disgrace.
People started to distance themselves from her and lucrative deals e.g. with companies such as Kellogg Cereals were becoming scarce to nonexistent. She was slated to star in a Broadway play with Tommy Tune; however, Mrs. Gershwin, one of the influential powers to be refused to consider her, indicating that she would "bring negative types of people" as an audience.
Many Black and Caucasian entertainers would deride her and even the magazine publisher stated that Ms. Williams was a grown woman and she was at fault for posing for the pictures, not the magazine nor the photographer. Ms. Williams naturally became dejected, feeling that her dreams and life were nearly ruined. Even the publisher of the men's magazine boasted that she should have glorified in those pictures and flaunted her so-called notoriety instead of hiding.
However, Ms. Williams wanted to be an entertainer first and foremost. She adamantly refused to let this incident deter her from her dreams. Her parents hired lawyers in order to sue the magazine. She indicated that she no longer wish to sue the magazine and wanted to proceed with her life. Soon, a publicist, Ramon Hervey II, was hired to salvage her career. Mr. Hervey instructed her to reach out to the Black community. He also assigned her record deals with Mercury records whose president was Billy Eckstein Jr.
Ms. Williams' road to fame was rocky and perilous indeed. She reported that because of her so-called scandalous and tarnished reputation, no one would hire her and take her seriously. She further added that people would interview her just to say that they saw a Miss America. She would be always be known as the "most controversial" Miss America. She even remarked that the movie roles offered her at the time was semipornographic and graphic in nature. She stated that she would always be known as "something sexual". She remarked that she would prove to people that she is not just a merely sexual being.
The road was long and slow. She first apprenticed as a pop star. Her first album, THE RIGHT STUFF, was a chart stopper. Many of the songs in the album went to the top of the charts. Her second album, THE COMFORT ZONE, also went to the top of the charts and had her signature song, SAVE THE BEST FOR LAST. However, her record style evolved, going from pop rhythm and blues to a more mature soulful jazz which her subsequent albums aptly and vividly demonstrate.
Ms. Williams in her musical style has the uncanny ability to change her inflections and her moods. She has matured from rock star to chanteuse. This is obviously evident in her song presentations in her latest album, THE REAL THING. When she sings, one is reminded of a young Nancy Wilson or Shirley Bassey regarding her vocal range in interpreting songs. She is truly gifted musically. She has an astounding mature command of songs, unlike most recording divas in her age category who elected to be emotionally teenagers. She is unafraid to be and sound like a woman.
Ms. Williams' status as a serious celebrity was cemented when her first two albums were at the top of the charts. Nine years after her Miss America reign, she finally became a headliner in THE KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN on Broadway. Her dream of being a Broadway star was being recognized and fulfilled although she was initially denied a role on Broadway. Other Broadway roles were soon to follow such as the witch in INTO THE WOODS and her latest play SONDHEIM on SONDHEIM. She also performed in the plays CARMEN and in ST. LOUIS WOMAN. Her phenomenal success in the music field and as a Broadway star was beginning to receive critical acclaim. She was then slated to star as a leading lady with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film ERASER.
Ms. Williams' film roles expanded and she received numerous awards in movie roles such as DANCING AT THE SAVOY, HOODLUM, SOUL FOOD, SHAFT, and DANCE WITH ME. She acted in and was the executive producer of THE COURAGE TO LOVE, a movie based upon the life of a Black nun in antebellum New Orleans. Even though her film roles have expanded, her acting roles in movies and television have been sporadic as she was not given many choices regarding acting roles. However, whatever acting role she was given, she garnered excellent reviews and displayed immense professionalism and discipline. People have often reported that her performances were brilliant, flawless, and right on target. She subsequently received the plum role of a lifetime-Wilhelmina Slater in UGLY BETTY!
Wilhelmina Slater, a devilishly, delicious character was the apex of Ms. Williams' career. Her character in UGLY BETTY is one of the most important and pivotal characters in the series. In my opinion, there should be THE WILHELMINA SLATER SHOW as she has so much intricacies about her. Ms. Williams performs the character of Wilhelmina Slater with such aplomb and confidence. Her portrayal of Wilhelmina Slater earned her critical citations everywhere and resulted in her winning various NAACP image awards. It is a pity that Ms. Williams never won any Emmys for that role.
In 2010, UGLY BETTY was cancelled and eventually went off the air. However, Ms. Williams has gotten another role in DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES as the character Renee Perry, a divorcee about to start havoc in the suburb of Wisteria Lane. This shows that cream always rises to the top. Ms. Williams' career is now as hot as a red engine racing car. As a result of Ms. Williams stellarly brilliant performances in UGLY BETTY and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, she has been signed by ABC to a holding deal. DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES is ending its run after 8 seasons so she is currently slated to star on 666 PARK AVENUE. In addition to this, she is also working on a new record which hopefully will be finished in latter 2012.
Ms. Williams has always exhibited perfect self-confidence in everything she undertakes. She is perfect to the core. Besides her many successes, she is a role model and devoted mother to her four children, one of whom is following her footsteps. She is also involved in varied charities for underprivileged and variously challenged individuals. Ms. Williams has proved that her beauty is more than skin deep.
© 2010 Grace Marguerite Williams