Few careers have plumbed such unexpected depths or reached such thrilling heights as that of Vanessa L. Williams. “Everyone is human and everyone makes mistakes,” says Williams. “As I look back over the past 48 years of my life, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected.” Consider that nearly 30 years ago (yes, it’s been that long) at age 20, the Syracuse University junior became a trailblazer as Miss America, the first African-American to wear the tiara that 62 White women had worn before her. Ten months later Williams became another first: the sole pageant queen to relinquish her crown after nude photos of her surfaced in Penthouse magazine. How does one come back from such a devastating spectacle? Audition by audition; gig after gig; demo recording after demo recording. “I always knew I had talent,” says Williams. “I just needed a chance.” The single, twice-divorced mother of four charts her remarkable comeback in the new book (coauthored with her mom, Helen Williams), You Have No Idea (Gotham). Here the still graceful and ever substantive Williams speaks with ESSENCE about this revealing portrait of a feisty mother and her fearless daughter, and confides what keeps her going.

ESSENCE: I remember the night you were crowned Miss America. When you won we were all shocked and overjoyed. Did you know you were making history?
VANESSA L. WILLIAMS: It was a jolt for me. There were women who had chased this dream their whole lives. That wasn’t my story. I entered three pageants [Miss Greater Syracuse, Miss New York and Miss America] and I won all three. No one was more surprised than me because I was doing what I loved: singing. Looking back, I guess I probably didn’t come across as rehearsed as many of the women who had been doing this for some time. I was just being myself and that was refreshing.

ESSENCE: You reveal a lot in the book, from smoking pot as a college student to the painful end of your two marriages. Why was it important for you to share such personal moments?
V.L.W.: I have always been a genuine person. I think it’s why people appreciate my friendship. Growing up, if somebody asked me, “Girl, where did you get that blouse?” my natural response was, “Go to the so-and-so store at the mall and ask for this person.” Now if somebody asks me about Botox, I’m the same way: “I used this doctor and here is his number.” I share and I like to help, and there are a whole lot of young’uns asking how you become famous and they’re looking for shortcuts. Kids are given a lot of mixed messages.

ESSENCE: For so long you were typecast as this suburban standoffish person who could be a bit of a prude, but we learn that wasn’t the case.
V.L.W.: I was the girl who got good grades, played French horn, occasionally smoked pot and inhaled and drank beer, and had sex with my boyfriend. I never imagined being any type of beauty queen. I never thought of myself as beautiful.

ESSENCE: Your parents were strict and you always found a way to rebel, but the summer of 1982 was a fateful time for you.
V.L.W.: A lot was going on. I had taken a break from my boyfriend of three years. We consumed each other and I needed time by myself. Every summer I had gotten a job—I sold Avon, I worked at a mall, and I did telemarketing. Going into my sophomore year of college, I panicked because I hadn’t found a job. I saw an ad in our local PennySaver: Do you want to be a model? I went in and met the owner of the TEC Modeling Agency. I was hired as a receptionist and makeup artist. One day I agreed to let the owner take the photos that would lead to my [Miss America] demise.

ESSENCE: It seemed the release of the photos and your resignation eclipsed your actual win.
V.L.W.: It was a very difficult period. But you know what? I always had my family. My mother and father and brother Chris were very supportive. It was not a great time but they helped me get through it. I’m not one to feel sorry for myself. I realized I’d made a boneheaded decision and I was paying the consequences. I was looking for a chance to show what I could do in terms of my talent and I was not going to give up.

ESSENCE: There were highs and lows for you, but what was the hardest part about your time as Miss America?
V.L.W.: Truthfully? The response from some in the Black community. Most Black people were wonderful to me. There were people who said, “You made me so proud to be a Black woman.” But then there were others who thought I was never good enough. I was told, “You’re not dark enough.” People were upset that I had a White boyfriend. Tony Brown was relentless. I was told I was not being a true representative of Black women. Both my parents are Black. I got my blue eyes from my Black grandfather! Once I resigned, the same people who said I wasn’t Black enough accused me of shaming and disgracing all Black women. It was tough.

ESSENCE: What do you say to your children about that time of your life?
V.L.W.: I’ve always been forthright with my kids. My children know who I am. People who attacked me were attacking an image. That ordeal was one part of my life, and for many people it was a huge part of my life, but to me, it was only one part of my journey. My children and family have been the greatest part of this journey. They get that.
ESSENCE: In 1989 you won Best New Female Artist at the NAACP Image Awards. You said: “I definitely want to thank the Black community because when I needed you, you were there for me. I thank you for giving me the opportunity and encouragement, for showing me how to spread my wings and fly because I’m flying now.” You received a standing ovation.

ESSENCE: In 1989 you won Best New Female Artist at the NAACP Image Awards. You said: “I definitely want to thank the Black community because when I needed you, you were there for me. I thank you for giving me the opportunity and encouragement, for showing me how to spread my wings and fly because I’m flying now.” You received a standing ovation.
V.L.W.: When my music came out R&B listeners embraced it. Until my song “Dreamin’ ” broke, the pop stations considered me a one-hit wonder. I wanted to thank all the people who validated my talent and accepted me as an artist.

ESSENCE: When you replaced Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway in 1994, that was another high point. The New York Times wrote: “Whenever [Vanessa Williams] is onstage, the temperature in the Broadhurst Theater shoots up about 20 degrees. The air-conditioning bills are going to be hell to pay, but the box office is bound to start jumping as word of her performance gets around.”
V.L.W.: The Right Stuff album proved I could sing, and starring on Broadway was a perfect showcase for all that I could do. I got a chance to sing and dance and act on Broadway. Eraser was the big shift in terms of movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger [Williams’s costar in the film] was a huge star and the picture made over $100 million. Doing Ugly Betty gave me a chance to carve out another frontier. When Desperate Housewives wraps this month, I have a holding deal with ABC. I’ve worked with them for six years. Talent is only one part of what got me this far. I show up prepared. I know my lines. I don’t behave in a manner that doesn’t promote teamwork. I dislike what’s happened with the word diva. To me a diva is Leontyne Price. That’s a woman who makes you leap to your feet. Audra McDonald sends shivers down your back with her voice and acting. She had training. My talent has earned me a fan base. I enjoy the work. I’m grateful for each opportunity I have to perform because I understand how fickle this business can be for performers.

ESSENCE: Why did you decide to write a book with your mother, Helen Williams?
V.L.W.: Everything I’ve gone through in my life that has been a major pinnacle, my mother has been there to support me and offer her opinions. I don’t have the greatest memory. My mother forgets nothing. When I tried to look back on my life, my mother would say, “That’s when I was handling the death threats.” Here I was on the road [as the first Black Miss America], and she’s handling [racist] death threats and talking to the FBI. My mother has so much great advice and she’s such a fierce person, and her grandmother was such an incredible person. I want my children to understand their lives and journey, and I hope everyone can take something away from our story and our lessons.

ESSENCE: You were married to Ramon Hervey and to former NBA star Rick Fox. For the book, how was it revisiting your great and not-so-great moments with them?
V.L.W.: I was happy when the audiobook was done! Breakups and divorce are painful. Reliving those memories while writing the book was uncomfortable. I gave chapters of the book to Bruce [her college boyfriend], Ramon and Rick so they would be aware of what I wrote. There was no shock value. These are people I respect and it was the right thing to do. Mostly, they thought I was fair.

ESSENCE: All these years later you’re once again a role model for up-and-coming entertainers.
V.L.W.: I had great role models. My mother and grandmother were role models. I learned so much about being a mother to my own children from them. I grew up loving Diahann Carroll on Julia, watched Debbie Allen on 3 Girls 3. Eartha Kitt was fabulous. Lena Horne was glamorous and gorgeous. They paved the way for me. When I portrayed Wilhelmina in Ugly Betty, it wasn’t a matter of whether this had been done before. Diahann Carroll had played Dominique Deveraux on Dynasty. All these women made my job so much easier.

ESSENCE: What advice would you give to someone who has been written off professionally or personally? How would you encourage them to stay true to their dreams?
V.L.W.: Whatever you do, you have to remain focused and committed to whatever it is you want to accomplish. Always be prepared. Always be your best. Always be professional. Never stop learning. It will pay off.

ESSENCE: You did an interview when you were Miss America and they asked how you wanted to be remembered. Do you remember what you said?
V.L.W.: Respected?

ESSENCE: No. You said, “Interesting.”
V.L.W.: Not bad for 20 years old, huh?

ESSENCE: And you are still interesting and respected.
V.W.: Thank you

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