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Vanessa Williams Bio
Vanessa Williams (born March 18, 1963) is an American Actress and Singer who is particularly well known for her roles as Wilhelmina Slater in Ugly Betty, Renee Perry in Desperate Housewives, and Teri Joseph in the 1997 feature film Soul Food. She initially gained recognition as the first African American woman to win the title of Miss America (during the Miss America 1984 pageant on September 17, 1983). Seven weeks before the end of her reign, however, a Scandal arose when Penthouse magazine bought and published unauthorized nude photographs of Williams. She relinquished her title and was succeeded by the first runner-up, Miss New Jersey 1983, Suzette Charles. Williams rebounded by launching a career as an entertainer, earning multiple Grammy and Emmy nominations and a Tony Award nomination. She is also the recipient of 7 NAACP Image Award and 3 Satellite Awards. In September, 2015 at the Miss America 2016 pageant, Miss America CEO Sam Haskell apologized to Williams (who was serving as head judge) for what was said to her by the Miss America Organization during the events of 1984.
A few years after the Miss America pageant, Williams entered the Music industry, releasing her debut album The Right Stuff in 1988. The single, “The Right Stuff”, reached the #1 spot on Hot Dance Songs, and “Dreamin'” was #1 on R&B and No. 8 on Billboard Hot 100. Her second studio album, The Comfort Zone in 1991, topped the Billboard R&B Album Chart, and contained the Billboard Hot 100 number-one hit “Save the Best for Last.” In 1995 she recorded “Colors of the Wind”, the Oscar-winner for Best Original Song from the Disney animated feature film Pocahontas that reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Williams also became a well known Actress in film and theater. Her first major film role was in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Eraser in 1996. She later starred in films such as Dance with Me, and Shaft. Williams has appeared in television shows such as The Redd Foxx Show, T.J. Hooker, The Love Boat, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Ally McBeal, 666 Park Avenue, and The Mindy Project. She has also starred in a number of television films including The Jacksons – An American Dream, Bye Bye Birdie, The Odyssey, and The Trip to Bountiful (based on her role in the 2013 theatrical revival). Williams’ theatrical performances also include Kiss of the Spider Woman, St. Louis Woman, and the 2002 Kennedy Center performance of Carmen Jones. She joined the seventh season of The Good Wife as self-made businesswoman Courtney Boalt and the love interest for Alan Cumming’s character, Eli Gold.
Pageants and Miss America 1984
It began in the summer of 1982. I had finished my exams the first week of May at Syracuse University and came home to find a summer job. I saw an advertisement in a local newspaper reading “models wanted,” so I called up and talked to Tom Chiapel, who was the photographer and part-owner of TEC studios. He said to come down for an interview … When I returned later to pick up the proofs, Tom Chiapel indicated that he needed a makeup artist. He offered me an audition, so I came in and did a face. He decided to have me work for him as a makeup artist-receptionist … I had worked there for a month and a half when Tom Chiapel mentioned several times that he’d like to shoot me in the nude. I had never posed nude and I was curious. I was 19 years old. I agreed. He assured me that none of the photographs would ever leave the studio. He assured me … I trusted him not to do anything with the photographs. That was my error. I did not give my consent to him or Penthouse to ever have them published, used in any magazine or in any way. Nothing. I signed an application giving my height, weight, color of hair and my talents … I never told anyone about the pictures, not even my parents. I did not think it was a concern. We had made an agreement they would never be published. I feel as if I were just a sacrificial lamb. The past just came up and kicked me. I felt betrayed and violated, like I had been raped.
—Vanessa L. Williams in 1984
When she was 20 years old, Williams was approached by scouts from the Miss Syracuse pageant who had seen her perform while a student at Syracuse University. Despite their encouragement, Williams was not interested in participating in the pageant. She later changed her mind when she realized that she could earn scholarship money. Although she had never participated in a beauty pageant before, she won the title of Miss Syracuse in April 1983. She then went on to win Miss New York in July 1983 and finally was crowned Miss America 1984 on September 17, 1983, (becoming the first African American woman to win the title).
Williams later commented that she was one of five minority contestants that year, noting that ballet Dancer Deneen Graham “had already had a cross burned on her front yard because she was the first black Miss North Carolina .” She also pointed out that “Suzette Charles was the first runner-up, and she was biracial. But when the press started, when I would go out on the – on the tour and do my appearances, and people would come up and say they never thought they’d see the day that it would happen; when people would want to shake my hand, and you’d see tears in their eyes, and they’d say, I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime – that’s when, you know, it was definitely a very special honor.” Williams’ reign as Miss America was not without its challenges and controversies, however. For the first time in pageant history, a reigning Miss America was the target of death threats and hate mail. In addition, ten months into her reign as Miss America, Williams received an anonymous phone call stating that nude photos of her (Taken before her pageant days) would be published in Penthouse. The publication of these photos ultimately led to her resignation as Miss America.
Williams believed the photographs were private and had been destroyed; she claims she never signed a release permitting the photos to be used. The black-and-white photos dated back to the summer of 1982 (after her freshman year at Syracuse University) when she worked as an assistant and makeup artist for Mount Kisco, New York photographer Tom Chiapel. Williams stated at the time that Chiapel said that “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.” In a 2012 interview with NPR, Williams discussed these events stating that “my mother kept saying: You’re just like your father; you’re too trusting. And there’s a part of me that, I do give people the benefit of the doubt … it’s also being free … that was the mode I was in at that particular time, when I took those racy pictures, because I was already in college so you can’t tell me what to do. So – I wasn’t actually in high school – so my mentality was what – I’m living my own life; I’m a spirited, young woman; I can handle this; I can handle anything. And at 19, you think you rule the world, and you can control things. And a lot of times, you don’t. And again, when – you know – everything happened with this Scandal, you know, I had not signed a release. So I had trusted the person that I was – had Taken the photos, that I had worked for, that there was nothing, legally, that he could actually do.”
Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy, was initially offered the photos, but turned them down, stating: “The single victim in all of this was the young woman herself, whose right to make this decision was Taken away from her. If she wanted to make this kind of statement, that would be her business, but the statement wasn’t made by her.” Penthouse published the photos without her permission in 1984, however, in what the PBS documentary Miss America described as “the most successful issue of Penthouse magazine ever printed, netting publisher Bob Guccione a windfall profit of $14 million.”
According to Essence magazine, Williams “was forced to resign from her title as she faced public shaming and bullying from the public at large.” Williams herself later described these events as “the Betrayal, and the humiliation, that happened to me on a grand scale.” She also noted that her parents experienced “an incredible amount of Shame and humiliation” and were equally the subject of harassment at the time. She was given 72 hours to make a decision and later stated that “the heightened spectacle and circus of it all was kind of crazy. I had people saying ‘Fight for the crown! Fight for the crown!’ and people chanting ‘Don’t give it up! Don’t secede!’ ” Williams also later noted that the situation was particularly hard on her mother Helen, who felt that she should not resign as Williams had performed her “duties and excelled at everything I was asked to do plus doing 50% more of appearances that were not scheduled because I was the first African American Miss America.” Helen was also upset that “the pageant did not come to my support, they felt I needed to resign.” Regardless, Williams opted to resign and formally announced her decision in a press conference held on July 23, 1984. Later, on September 7, 1984, Williams filed a $500 million lawsuit against Chiapel and Guccione. She eventually dropped the suit a year later, explaining that she wanted to put the Scandal behind her and move on. The title subsequently went to the first runner-up, Miss New Jersey Suzette Charles who served out the final seven weeks of Williams’ reign. Although she resigned from fulfilling the duties of a current Miss America, Williams was allowed to keep the bejeweled crown and scholarship money and is officially recognized by the Miss America Organization as “Miss America 1984”; Charles is recognized as “Miss America 1984 B”.
The Philadelphia Inquirer states that after she resigned, “Williams’ career and reputation tanked. Overnight, she went from being America’s darling to a national disgrace.” Williams herself notes in her 2012 memoir, You Have No Idea, that for her, “it seemed like an eternity in which I was the punch line to every late-night monologue … Joan Rivers, whom I adored and met on The Tonight Show during my reign, was particularly relentless. Just when I figured she’d exhausted every possible Vanessa Williams joke, she’d have a whole new slew of them.” Thirty years later, after her success in Music, film, and television, Amanda Marcotte suggested in The Daily Beast that “we owe a lot to Vanessa Williams for being a pioneer when it comes to showing the world how to recover when you’ve been unjustly shamed for being sexual. Williams could have slunk off into the shadows in Shame, which no doubt many people at the time expected her to do. Williams picked herself up and kept Fighting for a career as an entertainer, first by becoming a successful Singer and then becoming a well-known comic Actress … Sleazy people tried to drag Vanessa Williams down with accusations of being sexual 30 years ago, but she moved on, showing she had nothing to be ashamed of.”
Williams returned to the Miss America stage on September 13, 2015, when she served as head judge for Miss America 2016 and performed Oh How the Years Go By. The pageant began with Miss America CEO Sam Haskell issuing an apology to Williams, telling her that although “none of us currently in the organization were involved then, on behalf of today’s organization, I want to apologize to you and to your mother, Miss Helen Williams. 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.” Suzette Charles (Williams’ replacement) said in an interview with Inside Edition that she was perplexed over the apology and suggested that it was given for the purpose of ratings. Williams also commented on the events surrounding her return, stating in an interview with Robin Roberts that “there’s a lot of people who feel I should return, so the people who harbor the resentment I understand it but realize that all of those people that were part of the old guard are no longer there.” In the same interview, Roberts mentioned to Williams that in the present day (c. 2015), “people now release (similar) things to make a career.” Williams responded: “That’s crazy. To think that oh you can look at a Scandal and think that that would be good for your career, where for me it took every ounce of credibility and talent that I had and wiped it out.”
Williams’ first television appearance was on a 1984 episode of The Love Boat. She subsequently made guest appearances on a number of shows, including T.J. Hooker, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Saturday Night Live, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, LateLine, MADtv, Ally McBeal and Boomtown. Her appearances in television movies and miniseries include Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer and The Jacksons: An American Dream as Suzanne de Passe. In 1995, Williams starred as Rose Alvarez in a television adaptation of the 1960 Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie. She played the nymph Calypso in the 1997 Hallmark Entertainment miniseries The Odyssey, starring Armand Assante. She appeared as Ebony Scrooge the Ebenezer Scrooge character in an update of Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol called A Diva’s Christmas Carol. In 2001, Williams starred in the Lifetime cable movie about the life of Henriette DeLille, The Courage to Love. In 2003, Williams read the narrative of Tempie Herndon Durham from the WPA slave narratives in the HBO documentary Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives. In early 2006 she starred in the short-lived UPN drama South Beach. She also provides The Voice for the main character in the PBS Kids version of Mama Mirabelle’s Home Movies. In 2012, she starred in the ABC Supernatural drama series 666 Park Avenue.
In 2006, Williams received considerable media attention for her comic/villainess role as former Model/magazine creative director turned editor-in-chief Wilhelmina Slater in the ABC comedy series Ugly Betty. Her performance on the series resulted in a nomination for outstanding supporting Actress at the 59th Primetime Emmy Awards and in 2008 and 2009, she was nominated in the outstanding supporting Actress in a comedy series category for Ugly Betty. Williams next joined the cast of Desperate Housewives for its seventh season where she portrayed Renee Perry, an old college friend/rival of Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman). She joined the seventh season of The Good Wife as the self-made businesswoman Courtney Boalt and the love interest for Alan Cumming’s character, Eli Gold.
Feature film roles
Williams has appeared in several feature films. Her most prominent role was in the 1997 film Soul Food, for which she won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture. Williams appeared in the 1991 cult classic film Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. She also co-starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Eraser and opposite Chayanne in Dance with Me. In 2007, Williams returned to the big screen starring in two independent motion pictures, the first being My Brother, for which she won Best Actress honors at the Harlem International Film Festival, the African-American Women in Cinema Film Festival and at the Santa Barbara African Heritage Film Festival, and the second being And Then Came Love. In 2009, she starred alongside Miley Cyrus in Hannah Montana: The Movie. Williams stars as Janice in the movie Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor.
Williams broadened her ascendant Music career into a theatrical role when she was cast in the Broadway production of Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1994. She was also featured in the Tony-nominated and Drama Desk Award nominated performance as the Witch in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods in a revival of the show in 2002, which included songs revised for her.
Other notable theatrical roles include her performances in Carmen Jones at the Kennedy Center, the off-Broadway productions of One Man Band and Checkmates, and the New York City Center’s Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert, St. Louis Woman. In 2010, Williams starred in a new Broadway musical revue entitled Sondheim on Sondheim, a look at Stephen Sondheim through his Music, film and videotaped interviews. Sondheim ran from March 19 to June 13 at Studio 54 in New York City. Williams also starred as Jessie Mae Watts in the Horton Foote play The Trip to Bountiful,based on the 1985 movie of the same name. Williams was also a special guest star in the Broadway musical After Midnight.
Other media appearances
Williams has appeared in advertisements for RadioShack. She is a spokesmodel for Proactiv Solution, and was the first African-American spokesmodel for L’Oréal cosmetics in the late 1990s. Her other media appearances include endorsing Crest Rejuvenating Effects Toothpaste, endorsing Disneyland and Universal Studios in a VisitCalifornia advertisement for British and Irish television in 2008, and hosting the 6th Annual 2008 TV Land Awards show.
She appeared on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in 2000 as a contestant, and once again on August 10, 2009, as a celebrity guest during the show’s 10th anniversary prime-time special editions, winning $50,000 for her charity. In a commercial that began running during Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, Williams voiced the new character Ms. Brown, a brown M&M.
See also: Vanessa L. Williams discographyWilliams released her debut album, The Right Stuff in 1988. The first single, “The Right Stuff”, found success on the R&B chart, while the second single, “He’s Got the Look”, found similar success on the same chart. The third single, “Dreamin'”, was a pop hit, becoming Williams’ first top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 8, and her first number one single on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. The album reached gold status in the U.S. and earned her a NAACP Image Award and three Grammy Award nominations, including one for Best New Artist.
Her second album The Comfort Zone became the biggest success in her Music career. The lead single “Running Back to You” reached top twenty on the Hot 100, and the top position of Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart on October 5, 1991. Other singles included “The Comfort Zone” (#2 R&B), “Just for Tonight” (#26 Pop), a cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Work to Do” (#3 R&B), and the club-only hit “Freedom Dance (Get Free!).” The most successful single from the album, as well as her biggest hit to date, is “Save the Best for Last”. It reached No. 1 in the United States, where it remained for five weeks, as well as No. 1 in Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada, and was in the top 5 in Japan, Ireland and the United Kingdom. The album sold 2.2 million copies in the U.S. at its time of release and has since been certified triple platinum in the United States by the RIAA, gold in Canada by the CRIA, and platinum in the United Kingdom by the BPI. The Comfort Zone earned Williams five Grammy Award nominations. The Sweetest Days, her third album, was released in 1994 to highly-favorable reviews. The album saw Williams branch out and sample other styles of Music that included jazz, hip hop, rock, and Latin-themed recordings such as “Betcha Never” and “You Can’t Run”, both written and produced by Babyface. Other singles from the album included the adult-contemporary and dance hit “The Way That You Love” and the title track “The Sweetest Days”. The album was certified platinum in the U.S. by the RIAA and earned her two Grammy Award nominations.
Other releases include two Christmas albums, Star Bright, released in 1996, and Silver & Gold in 2004; Next in 1997, and Everlasting Love in 2005, along with a greatest-hits compilation released in 1998, and a host of other compilations released over the years. Notable chart performances from subsequent albums, motion picture and television soundtracks have included the songs “Love Is”, which was a duet with Brian McKnight, the Golden Globe- and Academy Award-winning “Colors of the Wind”, “Where Do We Go from Here?”, and “Oh How the Years Go By”. In total, Williams has sold more than six million records and has received 15 Grammy Award nominations. In May 2009 she performed two concerts at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City to sold out crowds. On June 2, 2009, she released her eighth studio album on Concord Records titled The Real Thing. It features songs written and/or produced by Babyface, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Bebel Gilberto, and Rex Rideout. Williams described the album as “a hybrid of samba, bossa nova, some salsa and also some pop and R&B“. The title song “The Real Thing”, the fourth single released from the album, peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs chart.
Vanessa Williams (age: 56) is an actress and singer known for Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives, Soul Food, Shaft, Daytime Divas and winner of Miss America 1984.