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- September 10, 1984
- Vol. 22
- No. 11
Vanessa Fights Back
'I Am Not a Lesbian and I Am Not a Slut, and Somehow I Am Going to Make People Believe Me'
For Vanessa the pictures led to a bitter defeat. Hooted by the hyena press as "Vanessa the Undressa" and "Mess America," attacked by blacks who called her a blot on her race and pressured by pageant officials, she resigned her title and lost at least $2 million worth of endorsement contracts—not to mention a chance to sing and dance for around 70 million viewers on the upcoming Atlantic City pageant, to which she was expressly uninvited.
Now, just two weeks before the pageant—with all America focused on the absent queen—Guccione is again retailing Vanessa's dirty pictures. Not just Part II of the same salacious take he's announced for the November issue. Different ones. Last week Guccione gleefully reported that the January Penthouse (out in time for Christmas) will feature newly discovered views of Vanessa taken by a second photographer, which are "equally explicit but much more shocking—outrageously shocking." The shots, featuring Vanessa in leather, may menace the ex-Miss America's last hold on credibility and public sympathy.
Vanessa is far from surrender. "I intend to sue to vindicate myself," she said firmly last week. In stark contrast to Guccione, whose fortune is estimated at $225 million, Vanessa now has "about $30,000 in the bank and no income at all." But she is determined. "It will cost me a tremendous amount of money, and my lawyers tell me it will be a tough case to win. But my reputation and my career have been savaged and for no reason except to make money. I'm going to fight if it takes my last dime. I'm fighting for my life and for the people I've let down. I've let other women down and I've let the whole black community down, and I hate that. I made a terrible error in judgment, and I know I'll have to pay for it as long as I live. But I am not a lesbian and I am not a slut, and somehow I am going to make people believe me."
She won't get much help from Guccione. He compares Vanessa to Nixon and her "cover-up" to Watergate. "This is Pageantgate," he says. "Vanessa Williams was a fraud on the American people—a fraud certainly on her own people." The original photographs, he insists, had been taken at Vanessa's insistence. "She said it would be very sexy to pose with another girl. She was delighted with the pictures, she showed them to everybody." And he laughs off the idea that the scandal will damage her. "It's made her by far the most famous Miss America that ever lived."
That may be true, but Vanessa is not consoled. In an eight-hour interview with PEOPLE, she told in intimate detail for the first time her own side of the story: How in the summer of '82 she lost her way and wandered into the porn field—and how today, with the help of a new love, she's finding her way back to respectability.
Vanessa grew up in a cozy community named Millwood (pop. 2,500), about 40 miles northeast of New York City. For years the Williamses were the only black family in town, but Vanessa never felt different. Her parents, Milton and Helen, taught music to high school students in neighboring exurbs and were cultivated, prosperous. "We had a real nice raised ranch house, great clothes, new bikes, good foreign cars, a pool in the yard—I missed a lot of the black urban experience."
Vanessa studied piano and French horn, played in the school concert band and orchestra, sang in the school chorus, won leading roles in school plays and musicals, studied modern dance, ballet, jazz and tap, was elected president of her eighth-grade class. She was a born performer and a natural leader, but Mother was hard to satisfy. "Because you're black," she said, "you've got to do better than everybody else just to be noticed."
Mother was hard driving and adventurous, Father warmhearted and trusting. Vanessa was a mixture of the two: clinging and independent, daring and gullible. At an early age she rebelled against parental direction because she had a strong direction of her own, plus an intense relationship with a possessive boy named Bruce Hanson, who is white.
In the summer of '82, at the end of her freshman year at Syracuse University, Vanessa and Bruce temporarily broke up. At last Vanessa felt free to do whatever she wanted to do, to experiment with her life. In a burst of euphoria she dated other boys and decided to try her luck as a model. She showed up at an agency run by a pudgy, 35-year-old photographer named Tom Chiapel, who put together a standard portfolio and hired her as a receptionist-makeup girl.
Chiapel shot a lot of nudes and talked about them in art-school lingo: masses, countermasses, chiaroscuro, interplay of textures. Impressed by the jargon and soon accustomed to the images, Vanessa began to wonder how the lens would see her body. Daring and gullible, she felt sure she could trust Chiapel, whom she liked, so one day she agreed to let him shoot her in the buff. He did, promising to develop the film himself and show it to no one. "You're great," he told her after the session. "Your eyes really speak to the camera. I'd love to do a few rolls with you and Ami Gier. Just silhouettes. No features would be visible."
"I know the pictures look incriminating," she says, "but believe me, there was no lesbian activity. Ami and I had scarcely met, and I'm pretty certain I never saw her again. Every move was choreographed, every pose was composed by the photographer. Later, when I saw the contact sheets, the pictures were in silhouette, just as Tom had said they would be. I couldn't be identified. Even so, I was shocked to see how the figures looked—while you're posing, you can't really tell what the camera is seeing."
Vanessa met the second photographer, a man named Gregg Whitman, about two weeks later. She had come to New York to make the rounds of model agencies and was walking up the Avenue of the Americas with her portfolio under her arm when a man in his middle 30s wearing wire-rimmed glasses said, "Excuse me, Miss, are you a model?" She said, "Well, I'm trying to become one." He continued: "I'm a photographer and I'd love to do some testing with you." Later, he told her: "You're very exotic looking and very shapely. I do a lot of work for the European market. Europeans would love your looks."
Intrigued and flattered ("I can't believe I was so naive!"), Vanessa made an appointment for a photo session at Whitman's studio, which turned out to be his apartment. Bruce went with her—by now their affair was on again—but left before the session began. Whitman began by doing straight photos, then suggested some art photography, European-style. Trying to seem sophisticated, Vanessa agreed. At first Whitman shot her with a long, burgundy scarf wrapped around her otherwise naked body. Then he brought out handcuffs, black sunglasses, leather scanties, studded belts and wrist bracelets and began to shoot her in attitudes suggesting S&M.
"I felt weird," Vanessa remembers. "I looked like a New Wave female cop. I thought, 'This isn't me. I can't believe I'm doing this.' The energy just drained out of me. He asked what was wrong, and I said I didn't feel right about what we were doing.
" 'Okay,' he said, 'let's stop.' And we did."
When Vanessa told Bruce what had happened, he insisted they go back and get all the negatives. When they showed up at Whitman's office, Bruce was carrying a steak knife in his back pocket—"just in case he had to scare Whitman into giving the negatives back." When Bruce saw the pictures, he was appalled. "You think this is art?" he blurted out. "You've got to be kidding!" He demanded the negatives. Whitman was indignant. Vanessa remembers him saying in a hurt voice, "We have created these pictures together. They are our child. I can't give up our child." Terrified that Bruce would reach for his steak knife, Vanessa quickly got him out of there. A week later she went back alone and persuaded Whitman to give her all the negatives—or so she thought.
Eight months later Vanessa was invited to enter the Miss Greater Syracuse competition, a preliminary round of the Miss America contest, and on a whim she did. "We all signed a contract," she says, "but I didn't really read it closely. I've found out since that it included a vague guarantee that we had not committed any acts of moral turpitude. Now who knows what that means? I thought I'd gotten all the Whitman pictures back, and in the pictures Tom Chiapel had taken, I thought I had been photographed in silhouette and couldn't be identified. Besides, I thought Tom was my friend and I trusted him."
On September 17, 1983 Vanessa was crowned Miss America—to her considerable surprise. "I knew I had the talent, the poise and the intellect. But I knew what they looked for in terms of beauty, and I wasn't sure I had it. At 5'6" I'm a little short and I have some slight acne scars—I still get acne now and then. And above all, I'm black. There had never been a black Miss America—why should a new dispensation begin with me?"
She worked hard at her job and did it well. Albert Marks, the director of the pageant, once acknowledged that Vanessa was "one of the best Miss Americas we've ever had."
And then came the fateful day—Friday, July 13—when an anonymous caller warned Vanessa what she would find in the September issue of Penthouse. "From that moment until the story broke was the worst week of my life. I had to keep smiling on the outside, but I was dying on the inside. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. I had no idea what was out there. I assumed that the pictures would be Whitman's. I never dreamed that Chiapel would betray me. Wrong again."
Terrified, Vanessa turned for support to Bruce. That time he stood by her. But later when she told him that there were two sets of nude photos, Chiapel's as well as Whitman's, "he felt betrayed because I hadn't confided in him before." Next day she broke the news to her chief adviser, a fatherly lawyer named Dennis Dowdell, who has been a close friend of the family for several years. With Dowdell's help she undertook "the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my whole life. I was appearing at the Miss New York State pageant and staying at the Ramada Inn in Watertown. Dennis and I went to my parents' room and I began to tell them what I had done and what was going to happen. It was so awful. I could hardly speak. I began to sob and cry. I'd never told them about the pictures before. I knew it would hurt them and I didn't want to do that. But now I had to. They'd had one of the best years of their lives, and suddenly I was destroying it. I could see they were stunned; their faces fell. 'I'm sorry! I'm sorry!' I said. 'I didn't want to hurt you!'
"And then my father got up and came to me and took me in his arms, and my mother came, too, and they were both crying. 'It's all right, you didn't hurt us,' he said. 'It's all right. We love you. We know who you are. We're with you.' And they have stood by me, a thousand percent. I'm closer to my mother than I've ever been. And to my brother and my father, too."
Two days later, Vanessa says, she told her story to Albert Marks (he denies it). As she recalls the incident, she was in tears—and amazed at how calmly he took the news. "Oh, we heard a rumor about those pictures a couple of months ago from Playboy," she remembers him saying, "Don't worry, dear. There are plenty of girls who have done worse things. It'll all blow over. Would you like a Valium or something?"
Three days later, as the magazine hit the newsstands, Marks called a press conference and asked her to abdicate the title within 72 hours.
The reaction was instant and immense. Jesse Jackson telephoned Milton Williams direct, left a message for Vanessa to "hold her head high" and said such savage things about Guccione that Milton refused to repeat them to his family. Gloria Steinem spoke for the feminists: "Guccione is the King of Slime—you wouldn't even want to shake his hand, let alone be photographed by him." Before the September issue hit the stands, Guccione himself received more than 200 death threats by telephone or in the mail, and one day for about two hours the offices of Penthouse were vacated by a bomb scare.
The adverse reaction to Vanessa was almost equally ferocious. She was denounced in press and pulpit as a "lewd exhibitionist," and many agreed with Guccione that she should have confessed her sins in advance and spared both the pageant and herself a painful episode. Despite some inconsistencies in her story, her hometown rose fiercely to her defense. Teenagers organized a Victory for Vanessa rally that paraded past her house. And nobody dreamed of demolishing the sign that greeted motorists at the edge of town: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING MILLWOOD, HOME OF Vanessa Williams, MISS AMERICA, 1984.
The question was whether she should or should not resign. Vanessa wanted to fight for her crown and so did her family, but Dowdell argued that it was more important to fight for Vanessa's long-term career than against the pageant, and his view was supported by the public-relations counsel he had retained, Ramon Hervey, 33. For hours on end Vanessa and Ramon discussed her problems and her possibilities and worked on a public statement of her intentions. She unflinchingly told him the truth about her stupidity. He ruthlessly explained the consequences yet quietly supported her sense of self-worth. Fortified by these exchanges, Vanessa endured one of the more frenzied press conferences of recent memory with remarkable poise.
In the days that followed, Vanessa, Ramon and Dowdell met constantly to reshape her career. Some of the movie offers coming in called for nude scenes, and nudity was now a no-no. "I want to be an actress, not a piece of meat," Vanessa says. "One salacious role right now and I'd be typed." The same restrictions apply to recording contracts: "It'll be 10 years before I can sing The Lady Is a Tramp."
In early August, Vanessa flew west to play a torchy rocker, with Afro wig, in the new Loni Anderson-Lynda Carter series, Partners in Crime, and Ramon flew with her. The show went well. For one thing, Vanessa's part was large and well written. For another, both Loni and Lynda were "warmly supportive."
More important, she was once again in love—with Ramon. "Being with Ramon," she says, "has made me realize that I need a strong man with a clear sense of himself, a man strong enough to set my mind straight when I get off the track. I tend to act before I think. Ramon makes me stop and reason things out. Yet he leaves me free. We're very close, but we're separate individuals, too. It's the first time I've been with a really independent man. I've always been the more independent one. It's a little frightening, but it's exciting too. I feel as if I'm growing up very fast."
The Partners shoot completed, Ramon ran Vanessa through a rapid series of major job interviews. She read for director William Friedkin, who is casting a new thriller. She was interviewed by producer Mike Nichols as a replacement for Twiggy in Broadway's My One and Only, and a few days later by the show's director and leading man, Tommy Tune. Joe Papp of the New York Public Theater auditioned her for the role of Musetta in a production of Puccini's La Bohème that will star Linda Ronstadt. She is up for a guest shot on Hill Street Blues, for major roles in two Richard Pryor movies and for a couple of television pilots. No deals have been signed, but Vanessa expects to be working by October.
"Things will be different now," Vanessa says. "Dennis has built a strong team to guide me. He's found strong agents and strong lawyers. He found Ramon, and we've found each other. I really think I could have made it without being Miss America and I think I can make it despite Guccione. One thing you can be sure of. I won't let that man destroy me."
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