You’ve got to love the title of the new autobiographical book by Vanessa Williams and her mother, Helen Williams: “You Have No Idea,” with its equally attention-grabbing subtitle, “A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other).”
Vanessa Williams, of course, became famous and, in fact, made history on Sept. 17,1983 when she became the first Black woman to be crowned Miss America. This prompted Dr. Maya Angelou to comment, “I can only assume that the walls of prejudice are coming down.”
The next few months were exciting and glamorous. The beautiful new Miss America was everywhere, and African Americans were bursting with pride. Then the morally bankrupt publisher of Penthouse magazine decided to print salacious pictures of Williams, taken years before, when she was in her teens.
The “scandal” reverberated throughout the country. It was a media frenzy in the truest sense of the term, culminating with Vanessa Williams relinquishing the Miss America title on July 23, 1984 — when she only had two months left in her reign.
MANY PEOPLE thought that would be the end for Vanessa Williams, but they could not have been more wrong. One journalist described what happened this way: “Vanessa Williams must be credited with making one of the most startling and unexpected comebacks in show business history.”
The comeback started in 1985 when Williams was hired to appear in the much-watched, star-studded television special “Motown Returns to the Apollo.” She dazzled as Josephine Baker in a segment that paid tribute to five legendary Black ladies — Baker, Dinah Washington, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday.
The next “breakthrough” event was Williams being signed by Mercury Records. Her debut album, “The Right Stuff,” was accepted by radio programmers and the public, yielding five Top 10 singles, one of which, “Dreamin’,” cruised into a Top 10 slot on the national Pop charts as well.
Around this time, Williams came to Detroit as part of a national promotion tour. She was accompanied by Ramon Hervey, her husband at the time as well as her publicist. He commented, “What people forget is that Vanessa Williams is talented.” That is, not just a pretty face and a nice body.
During her Chronicle interview, Williams made it clear that she had no intentions of letting the Miss America fiasco stop her from moving onward and upward, the hurt and embarrassment notwithstanding.
WILLIAMS WON an NAACP Image Award in 1989 as Outstanding New Artist. In her emotional, tearful acceptance speech she said, “And I also want to thank the Black community because you were there for me when I needed you.” She received a rousing, lengthy standing ovation that was heartwarming. It was “a Black thing.”
Her follow-up album, “The Comfort Zone,” equaled the success of its predecessor. Five singles enjoyed placement on the national R&B chart, and “Save the Best For Life” soared to the No. 1 spot on that chart and on the Pop chart too.
By this time, 1991, not many people cared much, if it all, about the Miss America debacle. Like the phoenix, the mythical firebird that was reborn, Williams had re-emerged and there was no stopping her.
Indeed. Success proved to be non-stop as singer and actress, and her skills as dancer and pianist are also praiseworthy.
IN ADDITION to more hit records and awards, there were constant television appearances, in such notable programs and specials as “Desperate Housewives” and “Ugly Betty” (both regular roles), “The Jacksons: An American Dream” (miniseries), “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Ali McBeal” and “Bye Bye Birdie” (TV movie). Upcoming is the drama series “666 Park Ave.”
She took Broadway by storm in 1994 when she replaced Chita Rivera in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” And there was a Tony Award nomination in 2002 for “Into the Woods.”
Williams’ filmwork includes “Eraser” (with Arnold Schwarzenegger), “Soul Food,” “The Pick-Up Artist,” “Dance With Me,” “Shaft” and “Light It Up.”
In 2007 Vanessa Williams received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.”