Vanessa Williams revealed that she was denied one her first chances at Broadway glory because of the scandal that interrupted her reign as Miss America.
Williams was the first Black woman to be crowned Miss America in 1984. Shortly before the end of her time with the title, Penthouse acquired and published nude photographs of her resulting in a national outrage that prompted Williams to return her crown.
The Grammy Award-nominated singer and Tony Award-nominated performer shared how the experience impacted her career on the season three premiere of The Fabulous Invalid podcast. “My career has been one of always, ‘I didn’t know she could do that.’ So I’ve always been kind of, I don’t want to say counted out, but having to prove my worth,” she said. “And I think that’s across the board, not only theater, but in film and television, there’s been low expectations because of being labeled a beauty queen label, a scandal beauty queen you’re put in a box.”
“I’m a fighter. And every time I go into any situation, it’s like, okay, now I’ve got to prove myself again,” she continued.
The Bad Hair star was working to prove herself by auditioning as a replacement in an ongoing Broadway production of My One And Only when judgement shut her down.
“Mike Nichols happened to be the director. I met with him, sang dance, learned all the tap from Tommy—it was fantastic. And I remember walking into the theater and doing the audition and killing it. And, Mike Nichols was in the front row or sitting in mid house. And he was like, great job as I left. And, I got a call later on from my agent saying, well, it’s not going to happen.”
Her agent declined to explain why the production decided to pass on her talents. During a chance encounter with Nichols, Williams found out what led to the choice.
“Years later, I ran into Mike Nichols at the opening of West Side Story. This was probably 2010,” she said. “And, he said, ‘Oh God, remember that? Remember that story?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah. I said, yeah.’ He said ‘Well, you know what really happened.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said Leonore Gershwin was the widow of Ira Gershwin obviously and she was head of the estate. I walked in, did my audition, uh, left. And Mike Nichols turned around to her and said to her, ‘Wasn’t she terrific?’ He left and went downstage, and went backstage down the spiral staircase. So the phone was ringing when he got to the foot of the steps and he answered the phone and it was Lee and she said over my dead body will that whore be in my show,” said Williams.
“So I never knew exactly what had gone down. But years later I said, ‘Oh, okay. That was it, she didn’t want to bring scandal. She didn’t want to sully her show with someone who was talented and who was worthy of the position, but because of what she felt, I was a scandal beauty queen. She didn’t want to sully her show with me,” said Williams, to The Fabulous Invalid podcast.
She continued: “I knew that it didn’t happen back in the day, but that was confirmation. I said, okay, not only does it have to do with talent being a part of the equation, but its image,” she added. Williams built her own image through a decade of hard work and came back to the Great White Way with her name in lights in Kiss of the Spider Woman—and she even returned to Miss America as a judge.
“And it took me a good 10 years from 84 to 94 to have success in every other way, have a number one single for six weeks in a row, get 11 Grammy nominations. And finally, okay, now you’re worthy to be on Broadway.”
To hear the full episode of The Fabulous Invalid podcast, listen here.