SITTING ON A PLAYGROUND BENCH in Birmingham, Mich., her sparkling green eyes hidden by dark glasses, Vanessa L. Williams coolly interrupts a reporter's question. "Are you okay?" she calls out to her 4-year-old son Devin, who has bumped his head on a slide. After a comforting" moment on his mother's lap, Devin's off to play again, and Williams returns to the interview.

The 34-year-old singer-actress's ability to change gears quickly is rooted in more than just a mom's radar. The 1984 Miss America got a harsh lesson in capriciously shifting winds when nude pictures published in Penthouse cost her her crown. "I certainly don't look back," she says of those days. "I just try to enjoy the present."

There's plenty to choose from. For openers, the 10-time Grammy nominee is enjoying her first-ever music tour with pal Luther Vandross. (And on this weekend in Michigan, Devin and his sisters Melanie, 10, and Jillian, 8, have joined her on the road, a rare treat for all.) Williams is also garnering raves—"fierce intelligence and honesty" wrote the Los Angeles Times—for her work in the surprise hit film Soul Food, costarring Vivica A. Fox and Nia Long. Williams plays Teri, the uptight oldest sister of a family in crisis, with whom Williams identifies. Like her movie mother, she says, "my grandmother was a diabetic and died of complications of a stroke."

Williams shares something else with Teri: a relationship that unraveled. After 10 years of marriage, Williams and her former husband-manager Ramon Hervey, 46, divorced last February. The couple had met after public relations expert Hervey was called in to repair the Miss America debacle. He helped her rebuild a career that seemed irredeemably tainted, with an '88 hit album (The Right Stuff). By '94 she was starring on Broadway in Kiss of the Spider Woman and did an admirable turn opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in last year's thriller Eraser.

But as her star waxed, the love waned. She and Hervey separated in 1995, though in a recent issue of Ebony Williams suggested that her husband's roving eye contributed to the breakup. (She says her divorce agreement prohibits her from discussing specifics; Hervey would not comment.) "I wasn't miserable my entire marriage," she says. But "there are specific memories you have that you go, 'Wow, that really hurt, and I'll never, ever get over that.' "

Still, while they don't socialize, Williams, a devout Catholic, is determined to stay friendly with her ex. He lives not far from the stone cottage she's renovating in Chappaqua, N.Y., some 33 miles north of Manhattan. "It'll never be one of those relationships," she says, "where when one of the kids gets married it's, 'Oh my God! Mom and Dad sitting in the same pew!' "

On the road for much of the last two years (filming TV's The Odyssey, Soul Food and the upcoming Dance), the single mom's child care duties often fall to a nanny and to her parents, music teachers Milton and Helen Williams, who live in nearby Millwood, N.Y. "[The children] miss her when she's not here, but she's still their mommy," says Helen, 57. "[But] they've lived growing up with this lifestyle, so they're used to it." When she's home, Vanessa bakes cookies and rides horseback with her daughters. Says Williams: "That's reality."

Reality, of course, is full of strange turns, and perhaps no one was more surprised than Williams when she met screenwriter Chris Solimine, 34, in Turkey on the set of The Odyssey last year. "I felt like I'd known him for years," says Williams, after she discovered that he, like her, was class of '85 at Syracuse University. New York City-based Solimine, who has never married, sometimes joins her for a couple of days a week on the road and spends time with her and the children when she's home. "I'm always learning from him, and I love to learn," says Williams. One thing she has learned is that even happiness has its bumps. "I have 'bad hair days,' " she says. "I certainly get completely stressed out. So my life isn't completely Zen all the time. But it's great. It's right."

J.D. REED
LORNA GRISBY in Birmingham JULIA CAMPBELL in New York City and KAREN BRAILSFORD in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lorna Grisby,
  • Julia Campbell,
  • Karen Brailsford.