What really happened to Vanessa Williams while she was Miss America?

Since Vanessa Williams is on Celebrity Drag Race tonight, I wanted to dust off this old blog I wrote years ago when I was bored at the office on her birthday and didn’t have any patients.

So just picture me writing this at work on a random weekday afternoon instead of in my bed eating almonds late at night.

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Y’all.  I both love and hate the Internet.  I love that you can find out anything about anything with a few keystrokes, but I hate how you can fall into a hole clicking page after page and all of a sudden, your entire afternoon has slipped away.  That’s what just happened to me. 

I was just casually looking at celebrity birthdays, then I saw it was Vanessa’s birthday, then I started watching her music videos, then I ended up wondering how she managed to carve out this career after such a fall from grace, and then I got all deep into the Miss America 1984 business, and then I started stalking the other finalists from that year on Facebook (I go hard), and now I have to share because I didn’t even know the details.  I only knew she had some naked pictures published and relinquished her crown (to another Black woman, #bloop) and then bounced back a couple of years later and became the most famous Miss America ever.

I just finished listening to an interview she did with NPR a few years ago during promotion for her book, so now obviously I am a Vanessa Williams Expert and I can show y’all what I done learnt.  Let’s start with this picture I found on Deneen Graham’s Facebook (center):

Miss America 1984 saw five women of color in the competition, so it was already a landmark year.

In the center is Deneen Graham, (now Deneen Graham-Kerns) a ballet dancer from North Wilkesboro, NC, who was the first (and to date, the only) Black woman to win Miss North Carolina.  During her reign, but before the Miss America pageant, Graham had already had a cross burned in her yard because North Carolina was definitely not ready for a Black Miss NC.  That’s her in the center, just to the right of Vanessa Williams.  On the other side of Graham is Amy Keys who was the first Black woman to win Miss Maryland.  Miss New Jersey Suzette Charles is on the right – she was runner up to Vanessa and succeeded her as Miss America when Vanessa stepped down.  For the life of me I cannot find out the name and state of the Hispanic woman on the left, but Vanessa said in her interview that there were four Black girls and one Hispanic that year, so I assume she was the fifth woman of color.  It was a big year for representation, and it was especially big for Vanessa because it was her first pageant cycle.

Vanessa Williams had never done a pageant before, though the local representatives of the Miss Syracuse Pageant had approached her multiple times while she was a student at Syracuse University.  Vanessa was a musical theater major (who chose Syracuse over Carnegie Mellon), and after each performance, someone would approach her about competing in the Miss Syracuse Pageant.  She said no until she unexpectedly had April free when Cyrano was canceled, a show in which she was scheduled to perform.  The experience seemed like it could be fun and the scholarship money was a nice incentive if she won, so she entered.  And she did win.  And then she won Miss New York.  And then she won Miss America.

Two years prior, Vanessa had been working for photographer Tom Chiapel as an assistant during the summer break of 1982 after her freshman year at Syracuse.  He’s the one who took the pictures that ultimately forced her to give up her crown years later.

He had a concept of having two models pose nude for silhouettes. Basically to make different shapes and forms. The light would be behind the models. I was reluctant, but since he assured me that I would be the only one to see them and I would not be identifiable in the photographs, I agreed. He had also gotten another model to agree to this.

(source)

Vanessa Williams had a stressful reign as the first Black woman to win Miss America.  Security was heightened, she received regular death threats, her family was threatened, she wasn’t allowed to answer the door herself, and she traveled with a team of bodyguards.  Two years ago, Nina Davuluri (also a Miss New York winner from Syracuse University) became the first Indian woman to win Miss America and unfortunately the country hasn’t changed enough.  She and Vanessa traded stories about the hate mail and the threats, with Vanessa remembering back to the sharpshooters stationed on rooftops and Nina explaining how social media allows an even wider range of hateful expression.

Near the end of her reign, the pictures of Vanessa made their way to Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine.  He passed, noting that it would only hurt Vanessa Williams who had no intention of the public ever seeing these photos.  Bob Guccione wasn’t as scrupulous and he published the photos in Penthouse.  The Miss USA organization immediately pressured Vanessa Williams to step down, giving her 72 hours to publicly relinquish her title.  She did, and then she sued Chiapel and Guccione, but eventually dropped the suit because she wanted to move on.

Four years later, she was back with her debut single “The Right Stuff,” a new Jack Swing cut that did well on the R&B charts, but it wasn’t until “Dreamin’“ that Vanessa Williams saw her first taste of pop superstardom. More hits followed and Vanessa Williams became one of the biggest stars of the 80s and 90s.

I think it’s worth nothing here that the record label who signed Vanessa was struggling at the time. Wing Records was a big deal in the 1950s, but pretty much had nothing going on for the next 30 years. Mercury Records (Wing’s parent company) injected some fresh execs into the label, and Wing signed a handful of R&B singers in the 1980s who became really successful on that tiny label (Brian McKnight and Tony! Toni! Toné! were also signed to Wing). I can’t find any evidence to support it, but I think Wing was probably one of the only labels to take a chance on her because they had nothing to lose.

And for good measure, here’s a recent song I really like from a couple of years ago:

She’s probably one of the most well-rounded performers of her generation, with very recognizable roles on TV, on Broadway, and in movies, plus she has shelves full of awards and nominations (though she has yet to actually win a Grammy, Tony, or Emmy even with all the noms).  She herself said that if she hadn’t fallen (been pushed) so hard, she might not have fought as hard as she did to get back on top, so a mild thanks to Puritanical America and this weird aversion to nudity for giving us the greatness of Vanessa Williams’ career.

Plus, her daughter is a different kind of gem forging her own path now:

So good job Vanessa Williams! Way to have the best comeback of all time.

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