Vanessa Williams is an American singer, actress, producer and former fashion model. In 1983, she became the first African-American woman crowned Miss America.
Williams was born in Millwood, New York, the daughter of music teachers Helen L. (née Tinch) and Milton Augustine Williams, Jr. She is of African American, Welsh and Native American descent. Williams and her younger brother Chris, who is also an actor, grew up in Millwood, a predominantly white middle-class suburban area. Prophetically, her parents put "Here she is: Miss America" on her birth announcement.
Williams studied piano and French horn growing up, but was most interested in singing and songwriting.
She received a scholarship and attended Syracuse University as a Musical Theatre Arts major from 1981 to 1983. She interrupted her education at Syracuse during her sophomore year to fulfill her duties as Miss America, and subsequently left the university to focus on her entertainment career. Twenty-five years later, she graduated from Syracuse by earning her remaining college credits through her life experience. Williams delivered the convocation address on May 10, 2008, to 480 other students in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. She stated:
" It's been 25 years since I was a student here. It just brought home what my message was, which is cherish the moment; these days are irreplaceable and are the beginning of the rest of your life."
Williams competed in the Miss Syracuse (University) beauty pageant when a campus musical she was in was canceled in 1983. After winning the Miss Syracuse title, Williams won the Miss New York crown in 1983, and went to compete for the Miss America title at the national pageant in Atlantic City. Prior to the final night of competition, Williams won both Preliminary competitions – Talent and Swimsuit – earlier in the week (note: each day's Preliminary competitions have winners announced; therefore there can be as many as six "Prelim" winners; three each for Talent and Swimsuit. To win a "prelim" in both is a strong precursor to success in the finals.) She was crowned Miss America 1984 on September 17, 1983, becoming the first African American to win the title. Williams' reign as Miss America was not without its challenges and controversies. For the first time in pageant history, a reigning Miss America was the target of death threats and hate mail. Ten months into her reign as Miss America, she received an anonymous phone call stating that nude photos of her taken before her pageant days had surfaced. Williams believed the photographs were private and had been destroyed; she claims she never signed a release permitting the photos to be used. The genesis of the photos dated back to 1982, when she worked as an assistant and makeup artist for Mount Kisco, New York photographer Tom Chiapel. According to Williams, Chiapel advised her that he wanted to try a "new concept of silhouettes with two models". He photographed Williams and another woman in several nude poses. Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy, was initially offered the photos, but turned them down. Later, Hefner would explain why in People Weekly, "Vanessa Williams is a beautiful woman. There was never any question of our interest in the photos. But they clearly weren't authorized and because they would be the source of considerable embarrassment to her, we decided not to publish them. We were also mindful that she was the first black Miss America." Days later, Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse, announced that his magazine would publish the photos in their September 1984 issue, and paid Chiapel for the rights to them without Williams' consent. According to the PBS documentary Miss America, Williams' issue of Penthouse would ultimately bring Guccione a $14 million windfall.After days of media frenzy and sponsors threatening to pull out of the upcoming 1985 pageant, Williams felt pressured by Miss America Pageant officials to resign, and did so in a press conference on July 23, 1984. The title subsequently went to the first runner-up, Suzette Charles, also an African American. In early September 1984, Williams filed a $500 million lawsuit against Chiapel and Guccione. She eventually dropped the suit a year later, explaining that she wanted to put the scandal behind her and move on. Although she resigned from fulfilling the duties of a current Miss America, Williams was allowed to keep the bejeweled crown and scholarship money and is officially recognized by the Miss America Organization as "Miss America 1984"; Charles is recognized as "Miss America 1984-b".
After the media sensation over her nude photo Williams decided to realize her dream of becoming a successful singer. Williams released her debut album, The Right Stuff in 1988. The first single, "The Right Stuff", found success on the R&B chart, while the second single "He's Got the Look" found similar success on the same chart. The third single, "Dreamin'", was a pop hit, becoming Williams' first top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 8, and her first number one single on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. The album reached gold status in the U.S. and earned her three Grammy Award nominations, including one for Best New Artist. Her second album The Comfort Zone became the biggest success in her music career.The lead single "Running Back to You" reached top twenty on the Hot 100, and the top position of Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart on October 5, 1991. Other singles included "The Comfort Zone" , "Just for Tonight", a cover of The Isley Brothers' "Work to Do", and the club-only hit "Freedom Dance (Get Free!)." The most successful single from the album, as well as her biggest hit to date, is "Save the Best for Last". It reached No. 1 in the United States, where it remained for five weeks, as well as No. 1 in Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada, and was in the top 5 in Japan, Ireland and the United Kingdom. The album sold 2.2 million copies in the U.S. at its time of release and has since been certified triple platinum in the United States by the RIAA, gold in Canada by the CRIA, and platinum in the United Kingdom by the BPI. The Comfort Zone earned Williams five Grammy Award nominations.
The Sweetest Days, her third album, was released in 1994 to highly-favorable reviews.The album saw Williams branch out and sample other styles of music that included jazz, hip hop, rock, and Latin-themed recordings such as "Betcha Never" and "You Can't Run", both written and produced by Babyface. Other singles from the album included the adult-contemporary and dance hit "The Way That You Love" and the title track "The Sweetest Days". The album was certified platinum in the U.S. by the RIAA and earned her two Grammy Award nominations. Other releases include two Christmas albums, Star Bright, released in 1996, and Silver & Gold in 2004; Next in 1997, and Everlasting Love in 2005, along with a greatest-hits compilation released in 1998, and a host of other compilations released over the years. Notable chart performances from subsequent albums, motion picture and television soundtracks have included the songs "Love Is", which was a duet with Brian McKnight, the Golden Globe- and Academy Award-winning "Colors of the Wind", "Where Do We Go from Here?", and "Oh How the Years Go By". In total, Williams has sold more than six million records and has received 15 Grammy Award nominations. In May 2009 she performed two concerts at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City to sold out crowds. On June 2, 2009, she released her 8th studio album on Concord Records titled The Real Thing. It features songs written and/or produced by Babyface, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Bebel Gilberto, and Rex Rideout. Williams described the album as "a hybrid of samba, bossa nova, some salsa and also some pop and R&B". The title song "The Real Thing", the fourth single released from the album, peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs chart. Williams is working on a new album to be released in 2012.
Williams broadened her ascendant music career into a theatrical role when she was cast in the Broadway production of Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1994. She was also featured in the Tony-nominated and Drama Desk Award nominated performance as the Witch in Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods in a revival of the show in 2002, which included songs revised for her. Other notable theatrical roles include her performances in Carmen Jones at the Kennedy Center, the off-Broadway productions of One Man Band and Checkmates, and the New York City Center's Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert, St. Louis Woman. In 2010, Williams starred in a new Broadway musical revue along with Barbara Cook, Tom Wopat and Leslie Kritzer entitled, Sondheim on Sondheim, a look at Stephen Sondheim through his music, film and videotaped interviews. Directed by James Lapine, Sondheim ran from March 19 to June 13 at Studio 54 in New York City.
Williams has appeared in several feature films. Her most prominent role was in the 1997 film Soul Food, for which she won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture. Williams appeared in the 1991 cult classic film Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. She also co-starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Eraser and opposite Chayanne in Dance with Me. In 2007, Williams returned to the big screen starring in two independent motion pictures. The first being My Brother, for which she won Best Actress honors at the Harlem International Film Festival, the African-American Women in Cinema Film Festival and at the Santa Barbara African Heritage Film Festival, and the second being And Then Came Love. In 2009, she starred alongside Miley Cyrus in Hannah Montana: The Movie. Williams stars as Janice in the upcoming movie Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor'.
Williams' first television appearance was on a 1984 episode of The Love Boat, playing herself. She subsequently made guest appearances on a number of shows, including T.J. Hooker, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Saturday Night Live, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, LateLine, MADtv, Ally McBeal and Boomtown. Her appearances in television movies and miniseries include Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer and The Jacksons: An American Dream as Suzanne de Passe. In 1995, Williams starred as Rose Alvares in a television version of Bye Bye Birdie, a Broadway musical from the 1950s. She played the nymph Calypso in the 1997 Hallmark Entertainment miniseries The Odyssey, starring Armand Assante. She appeared as Ebony Scrooge the Ebenezer Scrooge character in an update of Charles Dickens' story A Christmas Carol called A Diva's Christmas Carol. In 2001, Williams starred in the Lifetime cable movie about the life of Henriette DeLille, The Courage to Love. In 2003, Williams read the narrative of Tempie Herndon Durham from the WPA slave narratives in the HBO documentary Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives. In early 2006 she starred in the short lived UPN drama South Beach. In 2006, Williams received considerable media attention for her comic/villainess role as former model/magazine creative director turned editor-in-chief Wilhelmina Slater in the ABC comedy series Ugly Betty. Her performance on the series resulted in a nomination for outstanding supporting actress at the 59th Primetime Emmy Awards. She also provides the voice for the main character in the PBS Kids version of Mama Mirabelle's Home Movies. In 2008 and 2009, she was again nominated for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for Ugly Betty.
Williams has appeared in advertisements for RadioShack. She is a spokesmodel for Proactiv Solution, and was the first African-American spokesmodel for L'Oréal cosmetics in the late 1990s. Her other media appearances include endorsing Crest Rejuvenating Effects Toothpaste, endorsing Disneyland and Universal Studios in a VisitCalifornia advertisement for British and Irish television in 2008, and hosting the 6th Annual 2008 TV Land Awards show. She appeared on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in 2000 as a contestant, and once again on August 10, 2009 as a celebrity guest during the show's 10th anniversary prime-time special editions, winning $50,000 for her charity. In a commercial that began running during Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, Williams voiced the new character Ms. Brown, a brown M&M.