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Vanessa Lynn Williams (born March 18, 1963) is an American model, singer, songwriter and actress. In 1983, she became the first woman of African American descent to be crowned Miss America, but a scandal caused her to relinquish her title. Williams rebounded by launching a career as an entertainer, earning Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award nominations.

Early life

Williams was born in Tarrytownmarker, New York, the daughter of music teachers Helen and Milton Augustine Williams Jr. Williams and her younger brother Chris, who is also an actor, grew up in the predominantly white middle-class suburban area of Millwood, New Yorkmarker. 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 Universitymarker as a Theatre Arts major from 1981 to 1983. She discontinued her education at Syracuse during her sophomore year to fulfill her duties as Miss America, and then 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 with two long running Broadway shows and a Tony Award nomination under her belt. Williams delivered the convocation address on May 10, 2008, with 480 other students in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. She stated:

Pageants and Miss America title

Williams began competing in beauty pageants in the early 1980s. Williams won Miss New York in 1983, and went to the Miss America national pageant in Atlantic Citymarker. She was crowned Miss America 1984 on September 17, 1983 making her the first-ever Miss America of African American descent. Prior to the final night of competition, Williams won both the Preliminary Talent and Swimsuit Competitions from earlier in the week. 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 by a photographer prior to 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 Yorkmarker 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, including simulated lesbian sex.

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 first-runner up, African-American Suzette Charles. In early September 1984, Williams filed a $500 million lawsuit against Chiapel and Guccione. According to a Williams family representative, she eventually dropped the suit to avoid further legal battles choosing to move on with her life. Williams is quoted as saying "the best revenge is success."

Although she resigned from fulfilling the duties of a current Miss America, she was allowed to keep the bejeweled crown and scholarship money and is officially recognized by the Miss America Organization today as "Miss America 1984" and Suzette Charles as "Miss America 1984b."

Music career

After time out of the spotlight, Williams secured a record deal, and released her debut album, The Right Stuff in 1988. The first single, "The Right Stuff", found major success on the R&B chart while the second single "He's Got the Look" found similar success on the R&B charts. The third single, "Dreamin'", was a pop hit becoming Williams' first top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #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" (#2 R&B), "Just for Tonight" (#26 Pop), a cover of The Isley Brothers' "Work to Do" (#3 R&B), 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". The song was #1 in the United States for five weeks, as well as #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 rave 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 albums 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", "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 highly successful 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. The album is " a hybrid of samba, bossa nova, some salsa and also some pop and R&B" says Williams.

Williams confirmed on September 26, 2009 that she will start to record her ninth studio album in January of 2010 and she also stated that it is due for a Late Summer/Early Fall, 2010 release. It is going to be a pop and R&B album similar to the sound of her 2005 album, Everlasting Love.

Acting career

Theatrical roles

Williams parlayed her ascendant music career into a theatrical role when she was cast in the Broadwaymarker 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 Centermarker, 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 is tapped to star in a new Broadway musical along with Barbara Cook, Michael Arden and Leslie Kritzer entitled, "Sondheim on Sondheim", a look at Stephen Sondheim through his music, film and videotaped interviews. Directed by James Lapine, "Sondheim" will run from March 19 to June 13, 2010 at Studio 54.

Feature film roles

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' 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.

She has had many appearances in television movies and miniseries, including Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer and The Jacksons: An American Dream. 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 early 2006 she starred in the short lived UPN drama South Beach.

In 2007, Williams received considerable media attention for her comic/villainess role as former 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 & 2009, she was again nominated for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for Ugly Betty.

Other media appearances

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 Disneylandmarker and Universal Studios in a VisitCalifornia advert for the UK and Ireland 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 10 August 2009 as a celebrity guest during the show's 10th anniversary prime-time special editions, winning $50,000 for her charity.

Name conflict

Vanessa L. Williams is most often referenced and publicly recognized simply as "Vanessa Williams". There is, however, occasional confusion with similarly named actress Vanessa A. Williams, who first came to national notice in 1992, when she appeared in the first season of Melrose Place.

It is reported that Williams (VLW) first became aware of Vanessa A. Williams (VAW) in the 1980s when her New York Universitymarker registrar told her that another, similarly aged girl with the same name and from the same state had applied. When VLW appeared as Miss America in a Macy's Day Parade, VAW accidentally received her cheque for the appearance (which she returned).

In the area of acting, the two ran into name conflict when Screen Actors Guild rules prohibited duplicate stage naming. VAW had registered the name "Vanessa Williams" first, so as a compromise, VLW was occasionally credited as "Vanessa L. Williams" in acting credits. To compound the confusion, both actresses starred in versions of the drama Soul Food (VLW in the film version, and VAW in its TV series adaptation). The Screen Actors Guild eventually took the issue to arbitration and decided that both actresses could use the professional name "Vanessa Williams". Today the stage name "Vanessa Williams" has widely come to be solely attributable to VLW. She is credited as such in the American television series Ugly Betty, and as owner of the internet domain name To differentiate, VAW is most often publicly and professionally referenced as "Vanessa A. Williams".

In a 1997 interview with Playboy magazine, VLW claims VAW made a "catty remark" about her when VAW appeared in a Broadwaymarker play. A year later, VLW told "(The other Vanessa Williams) registered the name first, but I made the name famous so I have more claim to it these days".

There is also a third singer named Vanessa Williams, a gospel vocalist.

Personal life

Williams is Roman Catholic. She has been married twice. Her first marriage, to her then-manager Ramon Hervey II, was from 1987 to 1997. They have three children: Melanie (born 1987), Jillian (born 1989), and Devin (born 1993).

Her second marriage was to former NBA basketball player Rick Fox. They married in September 1999 and have a daughter, Sasha Gabriella (born May 2000). After The National Enquirer published pictures of Fox kissing and hugging another woman in mid-2004, Fox's representative announced that the couple had been "headed toward divorce" for over a year. A few months later in August 2004, Fox filed for divorce. Williams is currently single and resides in Chappaquamarker, New York.

During an interview with Barbara Walters which aired on February 24, 2008, Williams not only admitted to using Botox but also called it "a miracle drug, no cutting, nothing, and I love it. But I also want to act so I don't do it to freeze my face."



Motion pictures

Year Title Role Notes
1987 The Pick-Up Artist Rae, Girl with Dog
1991 Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man Lulu Daniels
1991 Another You Gloria Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor's final film pairing.
1996 Eraser Dr. Lee Cullen Nominated for Blockbuster Entertainment Award
1997 Hoodlum Francine Hughes
1997 Soul Food Teri Won Image Award, Nominated for American Black Film Festival Black Film Award
1998 Dance with Me Ruby Sinclair Nominated for ALMA Award, also starring Chayanne as Rafael Infante
1999 The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland Queen of Trash
1999 Light It Up Detective Audrey McDonald Nominated for Image Award
2000 Shaft Carmen Vasquez Nominated for Image Award
2004 Johnson Family Vacation Dorothy Johnson Nominated for BET Award for Comedy
2007 My Brother L'Tisha Morton 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
2007 And Then Came Love Julie Co-star Eartha Kitt's final film
2009 Hannah Montana: The Movie Vita, Hannah's Publicist


Year Title Role Notes
1987 Under the Gun Samantha Richards
1989 Full Exposure: The Sex Tapes Scandal Valantine
1990 The Kid Who Loved Christmas Lynette
1990 Perry Mason and The Case of the Silenced Singer Terri Knight
1992 The Jacksons - An American Dream Suzanne de Passe
1992 Stompin´ at the Savoy Pauline
1995 Nothing Lasts Forever Kat Hunter
1995 Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child - Beauty and the Beast Animated; Voice
1995 Bye Bye Birdie Rose Alvarez
1997 The Odyssey Calypso
1998 FutureSport Alex Torres
2000 The Courage To Love Henriette Delille
2000 Don Quixote Dulcinea/Aldonza
2000 A Diva´s Christmas Carol Ebony Scrooge
2000 Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Herself Playing for charity
2001 WW3 M.J. Blake
2001 Santa Baby Alicia Animated; Voice
2002 Keep the Faith, Baby Hazel Scott
2004 Beck and Call Zoe
2006 South Beach Elizabeth Bauer One Season
2006 -
Ugly Betty Wilhelmina Slater Main character
2007 -
Mama Mirabelle's Home Movies Mama Animated; Voice

Guest appearances

Year Title
1984 Love Boat
1984 Partners in Crime
1986 T.J. Hooker
1986 He's the Mayor
1986 The Redd Foxx Show
1992 The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
1996 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
1997 Between Brothers
1999 LateLine
1999 L.A. Doctors
2002 Ally McBeal
2003 Boomtown

Plays and musicals

Year Title
1985 One Man Band
1989 Checkmates
1994 -
Kiss of the Spider Woman
1998 St. Louis Woman
2000 A Diva's Christmas Carol
2002 Carmen Jones
2002 Into the Woods
2010 Sondheim on Sondheim

Awards and accolades

Grammy Awards history

Year Category Track/Album Result
1989 Best New Artist "The Right Stuff" Nominated
Best Female R&B Vocal Performance "The Right Stuff" Nominated
1991 Best Female R&B Vocal Performance "Dreamin'" Nominated
1992 Best Female R&B Vocal Performance "Runnin' Back to You" Nominated
1993 Record of the Year "Save the Best for Last" Nominated
Song of the Year "Save the Best for Last" Nominated
Best Female Pop Vocal Performance "Save the Best for Last" Nominated
Best Female R&B Vocal Performance "The Comfort Zone" Nominated
Best Group Pop Vocal Performance "Love Is" Nominated
1995 Best Female Pop Vocal Performance "Colors Of The Wind" Nominated
Best Female R&B Vocal Performance "The Way That You Love" Nominated
Best R&B Song "You Can't Run" Nominated
Best Musical Show Album "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" Nominated - as part of cast
1996 Best Song written for a Motion Picture "Colors Of The Wind" Winner - awarded to the writers of the song
1997 Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album "Star Bright" Nominated
2002 Best Musical Show Album "Into The Woods" Nominated - as part of cast

Other awards/nominations

Year Award Body Category Awarded For Result
1983 Miss America N/A N/A Winner
1989 NAACP Image Award Outstanding New Artist "The Right Stuff" Winner
1993 American Music Award Favorite Female Artist - Pop / Rock "The Comfort Zone" Nominated
Favorite Female Artist - Soul / R&B "The Comfort Zone" Nominated
Favorite Album - Adult Contemporary "The Comfort Zone" Nominated
MTV Video Music Awards Best Female Video "Save the Best for Last" Nominated
Best Cinematography "Runnin' Back To You" Nominated
Billboard Music Award No. 1 Adult Contemporary Single "Love Is" Winner
Playboy Magazine Best Female R&B Vocalist. "The Comfort Zone" Winner
1994 Theatre World Award Best Debut Performance "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" Winner
NAACP Image Award Outstanding Female Artist "The Sweetest Days" Winner
Soul Train Music Award Best R&B Single by Group, Band or Duo "Love Is" Nominated
1995 Academy Award Best Original Song "Colors Of The Wind" Winner
1996 Soul Train Music Award "Lady of Soul" Award Career Achievement Winner
NAACP Image Award Outstanding Female Artist "Where Do We Go From Here" Nominated
Blockbuster Entertainment Award Favorite Actress - Action Eraser Nominated
1997 NAACP Image Award Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture Soul Food Winner
Outstanding Album "Next" Nominated
Outstanding Actress in Mini-Series The Odyssey Nominated
Online Television Academy Awards Best Guest Actress - Syndicated Series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Nominated
Black Film Awards Best Actress - Motion Picture Soul Food Nominated
1999 ALMA Award Best Song from A Movie "You Are My Home" Nominated
2000 Blockbuster Entertainment Award Favorite Actress - Action Shaft Nominated
NAACP Image Award Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture Light It Up Nominated
2001 Shaft Nominated
Drama League Award Most Distinguished Performance Into the Woods Nominated
2002 Satellite Awards Best Actress - Miniseries or Movie Keep the Faith, Baby Winner
NAACP Image Award Outstanding Actress in Mini-Series Nominated
Black Reel Awards Best Actress Nominated
Tony Award Best Performance By a Leading Actress In a Musical Into The Woods Nominated
2004 BET Comedy Awards Outstanding Lead Actress in a Box Office Movie Johnson Family Vacation Nominated
2006 Satellite Awards Best Supporting Actress in a Series Ugly Betty Nominated
2007 Screen Actors Guild Awards Best Performance - Ensemble in a Comedy Series Nominated
NAACP Image Award Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Winner
Emmy Award Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Nominated
Teen Choice Awards Choice TV Villain Winner
Hollywood Walk of Famemarker Recording Career Achievement Awarded
2008 Human Rights Campaign "Ally For Equality" Award Humanitarian Work Awarded
Jacobi Children's Arts Award "Humanitarian/Charitable" Awarded
Satellite Awards Best Supporting Actress in a Series Ugly Betty Winner
Screen Actors Guild Awards Best Performance - Ensemble in a Comedy Series Nominated
Best Performance - Lead Actress in a Comedy Series Nominated
NAACP Image Award Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Winner
Teen Choice Awards Choice TV Villain Nominated
Emmy Award Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Ugly Betty Nominated
2009 NAACP Image Award Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Ugly Betty Nominated
Daytime Emmy Award Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program Mama Mirabelle's Home Movies Nominated
Emmy Award Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Ugly Betty Nominated

See also


External links

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