EXCLUSIVE: Vanessa Williams Worried About Parents During Nude Photos Scandal
In 1983, Vanessa Williams became the first African-American woman to be crowned Miss America, but the personal and historical milestone was quickly tarnished when Penthouse magazine revealed that it had bought and planned to publish nude photos of the aspiring actress and singer. At age 20, Vanessa let go of her title and relinquished her reign, but what she remembers most about that time nearly 30 years ago was how her parents would react.
Vanessa, now 49, wrote about that chaotic time in her life in a new book, You Have No Idea, co-authored by her mother, Helen Williams. “It was a Friday the 13th in July when I was in Watertown, New York, there to crown the Miss New York that I had won the year before,” Vanessa recounts in our exclusive video. “And I was doing an interview with the New York Post about Geraldine Ferraro; it had just been announced that she was vice presidential candidate along with Mondale on the ticket, and I said that was great! And the interviewer said, ‘Oh, by the way, we heard from a very reliable source that there’s going to be, you’re going to be on the cover of Penthouse Magazine.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.'”
Vanessa explained that her initial confusion gave way to terror — not so much about what the public would think, but how she would be able to face her mom and dad. “Of course my reaction was, ‘What’s going on?’ I knew that I hadn’t signed any release for any photos. I really had no idea what was about to come. So, you know, at 21 years of age it’s sheer panic and terror. And my initial reaction was not ‘What am I going to do about the crown?’ but ‘What’s going to happen to my life and my family’s life?’ I think the initial response is, you don’t want to disappoint your parents. The reaction was, ‘How am I going to tell my parents?'”
Luckily, Vanessa was able to turn adversity into fruition: she went on to create a storied, multi-faceted career that landed her mulitple Grammy, Emmy and Tony nominations. Most recently, Vanessa’s starring roles in ABC’s Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives have introduced her remarkable talent to a whole new generation of fans. As the fierce fashionista boss Wilhelmina on Ugly Betty, Vanessa looked to her mother again — this time for inspiration.
“Wilhelmina was a strong boss who’s very opinionated and, really, was impatient, and didn’t really have much tolerance for ineptitude,” Vanessa explained. “And if it was in her face she would give ‘the look,’ which is one of the ones that my mother has mastered, which is, you know, the eyebrow and the cold stare. And it became so effective that they didn’t even have to write it out, they’d just say, ‘Wilhelmina gives the look.’ I attribute the look to my mother, because she’s the one, after being a school teacher for almost forty years, she definitely mastered it.”