Vanessa Williams by Uinterview

For three decades, Vanessa Williams, 49, has entertained audiences as both a recording artist and actress. Whether belting out such ballads as “Save the Best For Last,” and “Colors of The Wind,” starring on Broadway in Kiss of The Spider Woman, or making life miserable for her employees as Wilhemina Slater on Ugly Betty, Williams has earned a reputation as a multi-faceted performer. Now, along with her mother Helen, she has released a memoir, You Have No Idea, about her life, career and relationship with her mother.

Williams speaks candidly about the scandal in 1984 in which she lost her Miss America crown after Penthouse Magazine published nude photos of her. “I really had no idea what was about to come,” she told Uinterview exclusively. “So, you know, at 21 years of age it’s sheer panic and terror …. 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?’”

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Mom Helen also discusses seeing the photos and how she comforted her daughter. “It was not something that she was proud of, and that I could see the sadness, a great deal of sadness, in her eyes,” Helen told Uinterview. “And when she told her dad and me about it, we both gave her big hugs and just told her that we loved her, we supported her, and we knew that there were going to be a lot of bumpy roads ahead and we were prepared to ride those roads with her.”

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Q: Can you describe what you were feeling when you first learned that Penthouse was publishing nude photos of you when you were Miss America? - Uinterview User

Well, I write about my reaction in detail in the book. 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 (I went on to win Miss America). 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." And they said "Well, we heard from a reliable source that you are." And I said, "I still don't know what you're talking about," and I called my lawyer immediately after I hung up the phone. 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?"

Q: Your role in Ugly Betty was iconic. Can you tell us who you modeled your character on? - Uinterview User

Wilhelmina had a four-year run on a fantastic show that was so unique that we didn't even think it'd get picked up. Because we had so much fun and it was shooting in New York and it was one of those, you know, everyone said, “This is really good and not like anything, but who knows? It was so unusual that will it ever get picked up?” So, after shooting the pilot and working on Wilhelmina, I ended up using some of the traits that I had grown up with at the house, due to my mother over here. Wilhelmina was a strong boss who's very opinionated and, really, was impatient, and didn’t really have much tolerance for ineptitude. 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.

Q: In the book, your mom discusses her decision to take a look at your nude photos while your dad decided not to. Did you ever talk about this decision at home? - Uinterview User

Helen: My feelings were, I looked into Vanessa’s eyes in the photos, and I could see that she was not comfortable. It was not something that she was proud of, and that I could see the sadness, a great deal of sadness, in her eyes. And when she told her dad and me about it, we both gave her big hugs and just told her that we loved her, we supported her, and we knew that there were going to be a lot of bumpy roads ahead and we were prepared to ride those roads with her.

Q: It's clear from the book that you and your mother had very different relationships with your mothers. How do you think this affected the way that your mother treated you? - Uinterview User

Helen: Well, I was not raised in a family where people showed affection, and never, I was never told as a child "I love you" at all. And so, it was difficult for me with my first born (who is Vanessa) and as a girl, to show her the kind of physical affection that I wish I could've done comfortably and a lot more often.

Vanessa: Well, in the book she's opposed to pretty much everyone that I've ever dated or married, so that's a moot point. At the time that I met Ramon he came in as my publicist to handle the press conference of my resignation as Miss America. I was 21 years old. He was 13 years older than me and had a career, a very successful career, as a publicist out in LA. He was my knight in shining armor. He was definitely a distraction from the chaos that was happening in my life. I knew that he would make a great life in terms of being a husband and kids. And we ended up having three beautiful kids together. I have four, but three from Ramon. I trusted him in terms of my career. He had been in the business for a long time. He's the one who I asked to manage me after going through a couple of people who didn’t have the same vision as I did. He knew what I was capable of doing. So, he really was the one who steered me into recording, because he knew that I would have way more control over my image and my career as a recording artist then I would waiting for the perfect part to come as an actor when I was being pretty much judged and written off because of all the scandal.