Vanessa Williams Bio: In Her Own Words – Video Exclusive, News, Photos
Vanessa Williams is an American actress, singer, fashion designer, and a former Miss America title recipient, of which she was the first African-American woman to do so when she was crowned in 1983. She infamously resigned the crown on July 22, 1984, following pressure from the pageant after unauthorized nude photos of her were to be published in Penthouse. She has subsequently had a long and successful career spanning theater, film and music. She has earned several Emmy and Grammy nominations and is currently best known for her role as supermodel turned editor-in-chief Wilhemina Slater on the television series, Ugly Betty.
Vanessa Williams Bio: AGE, EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION
Williams was born Vanessa Lynn Williams on March 18, 1963 (Vanessa WIlliams’ Age: 53), in The Bronx to Helen L. Tinch and Milton Augustine Williams, Jr. Portending things to come, her birth announcement allegedly read, “Here she is: Miss America.” Williams later discovered on an episode of the celebrity ancestry show Who Do You Think You Are? that her maternal great-great-grandfather was William A. Feilds, a former slave elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1885. Both her parents were music teachers, and the family moved when Williams was 12 months old to the affluent—predominantly white—New York suburb of Millwood so that her parents could teach at the local public school. She has a brother, Chris Williams, who is also an actor. Unsurprisingly, music was a huge part of Williams’s childhood. At age ten, she was already an accomplished musician and dancer; she could play the French horn, piano and violin, and she was also trained in both jazz and classical dance.
Williams excelled academically and was one of only twelve students to receive the Presidential Scholarship for Drama to study at Carnegie Mellon upon graduation. She instead decided to attend Syracuse University on a different scholarship, enrolling in Syracuse’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, Department of Drama. She would study Musical Theater through her sophomore year.
Vanessa Williams Bio: MISS AMERICA AND PENTHOUSE SCANDAL
Prior to being crowned Miss America 1984, a then 19-year-old Williams took a job as a receptionist and makeup artist for photographer Tom Chiapel. Chiapel eventually had Williams sit for nudes. After two sessions with him, Williams had a third nude session with another photographer in New York City. She later believed she had this third set destroyed after expressing displeasure over their provocative nature.
Reluctantly, Williams entered the Miss Greater Syracuse Pageant after returning to school that fall. She was crowned Miss New York in 1983 and six months later became the first African-American Miss America. Williams held the crown for the majority of her year-long reign until the Pageant received word of her nudes appearing in Penthouse. They were the same photos Williams had shot with Chiapel, but she had not authorized him to publish the prints. Williams was pressured to resign by the committee and did so, forfeiting her numerous endorsements. In an interview with uInterview reflecting on the experience, she revealed that she first heard about the pictures while being interviewed by the New York Post about then vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferrara. “I said [to the reporter] I don’t know what you are talking about, and I called my lawyer immediately after I hung up the phone,” she said. “At 21 years of age, it was sheer panic and terror. And my immediate reaction was not only what was I going to do about the crown, but how is this going to affect my life and my parent’s life.” Following the scandal, Williams also decided to not return to school and instead start anew. She also dropped a $500 million lawsuit against Penthouse.
Vanessa Williams Bio: MUSIC CAREER
With her acting career tainted by the scandal, leaving only offers for adult films, Williams turned towards music and cleaning up her tarnished image. Enlisting the help of public relations master Ramon Hervey II, Williams signed a record contract with Polygram, releasing her debut album The Right Stuff in 1988. The album soon went gold, with three singles “The Right Stuff,” “He’s Got the Look” and “Dreamin’” all reaching the top ten that year (“Dreamin’” was so popular that it peaked at number eight on the Billboard Hot 100). The album eventually went platinum in the United States and Williams was nominated for three Grammy Awards. She won the Best New Female Artist award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), marking, at last, a relaunch of her career.
Williams went on to release three more albums. Her second, The Comfort Zone was her biggest success, selling 2.2 million copies in the U.S., reaching certified triple platinum, and garnering five Grammy award nominations. A popular single on the album, “Save the Best for Last,” has remained her biggest hit to date, staying at number one in the United States for five weeks. Her third album, The Sweetest Days, was also well-received, reaching platinum and earning two Grammy nominations.
Williams released a cover of the Academy Award-winning Pocahontas song “Colors Of The Wind,” as part of the soundtrack release in 1994.
Vanessa Williams Bio: FILM AND TELEVISION CAREER
While Hervey was helping to build up William’s music career, he also managed to get filmmakers re-interested in the former Miss America. Her first role post-scandal was in the 1987 movie The Pick-Up Artist, starring Molly Ringwald, Robert Downey, Jr. and Dennis Hopper. Williams has also become a strong and familiar presence on television. Her first TV role was a guest appearance in 1984 on The Love Boat. She later combined her acting and musical skills for a role in the television adaptation of the Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie. She then portrayed the nymph Calypso in the 1997 Hallmark Entertainment miniseries The Odyssey.
Williams was thrust into the contemporary spotlight by playing the mean and scheming creative director turned editor-in-chief Wilhelmina Slater on the hit ABC series Ugly Betty. Of the role, Williams jokingly revealed to uInterview that Slater’s “death glare” was inspired by her no-nonsense mother. “I ended up using some of the traits that I had grown up with,” she said, with her mother at her side. “Wilhelmina was a strong boss who was very opinionated and was impatient and didn’t have much tolerance for ineptitude. And if it was in her face she would give ‘the look,’ which is one of the ones my mother has mastered.”
Williams would go on to receive Emmy nominations for the role. Williams continued working with ABC after Ugly Betty was canceled, playing Renee Perry, a college “frenemy” of Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman) on Desperate Housewives. She has continued to appear on television and is slated for the role of Maxine on Star Jones’s VH1 show Satan’s Sisters. Williams also joined the cast of TNT drama The Librarians in May 2016.
Equally impressive is William’s film resume. She portrayed Teri Joseph in the 1997 film Soul Food, which earned her a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture. She also appeared in the award-winning independent film My Brother. Appealing to broader tastes, Williams has also had roles alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Eraser, Samuel L. Jackson in Shaft, and Miley Cyrus in Hannah Montana: The Movie.
Vanessa Williams Bio: THEATER AND OTHER WORK
Williams has been performing on stage since 1985, starting with a production of One Man Band. She also channeled her inner seductress for the role of Aurora in the 1994 performance of the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. Like many of her theater contemporaries, she has appeared in a Stephen Sondheim musical, taking on the role of The Witch in the 2002 production of Into The Woods. In 2010, she followed up this role with a stint with a musical revue of the composer’s greatest hits, in Sondheim on Sondheim. She most recently starred in the Broadway musical, After Midnight in 2014, and appeared in a PBS production of Show Boat as Julie La Verne in 2015.
In addition to her various roles in the performing arts, Williams co-wrote a memoir with her mother in 2012, entitled You Have No Idea, which discussed her childhood, rise to fame and Miss America scandal. She also revealed in the book that she was molested by a woman at ten years old, and had an abortion while in high school.
Vanessa Williams Bio: PERSONAL LIFE, DATING, MARRIAGE
In September 2015, Sam Haskell, the executive chairman of the Miss America Pageant, publicly apologized to Williams on behalf of the 1984 committee. Williams was serving as a judge and later performed on stage.
She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007.
Williams has been married three times. She first married her publicist, Ramon Hervey II, in 1987. She divorced him in 1997 after the couple had three children; Melanie, Jillian Hervey, and Devin. Jillian Hervey is now famous in her own right, as the leader of the music group Lion Babe. Williams later remarried former basketball player Rick Fox in 1999, but later divorced in 2004 after tabloid photographers caught him with another woman. Williams has been married to businessman Jim Skrip since 2015.
A dedicated philanthropist, Williams is a strong supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage, participating in the 2011 campaign “New Yorkers for Marriage Equality.” She was also involved with Dress For Success, an organization that provides professional attire for low-income women.
Williams is a Roman Catholic.
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