10/03/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT
Save for a small, almost invisible tear that trickled down her right cheek, Vanessa Williams
was a cool breeze in a lavender gown as she strolled down Atlantic City Convention Hall's famous runway as the new Miss America. No gushing. No theatrics. Just a simple, "Thank you so much," as she broke into her characteristic wide smile. Yet as Williams, a 20-year-old singer and Syracuse University junior from Millwood, N.Y., knew well, she became at that moment more than just the 56th Miss America. She was bringing a new image to a standard of American beauty that traditionally excluded blacks. President Reagan himself took note of it by personally calling to congratulate her. The Miss Black America titleholder, Sonya Robinson of Milwaukee, finds a bittersweet irony in that. "I was very happy for her," she says, but adds: "I'm still waiting for President Reagan to call me."
To Williams, becoming Miss America is first of all a personal triumph. "I don't believe the fact that I am black has anything to do with my qualifications to be Miss America," she says. Still, she acknowledges, "I'm making some waves and I'm ready to handle it. I'm ready for whatever crisis I have to face." As a history maker, Williams is acutely aware that some might try to make an issue of the fact that her boyfriend, a business student at Syracuse, is white. Friends have suggested that she avoid the issue. But she says, "The fact that he is white doesn't make me any less black. I'm not going to lie about anything." Refreshingly frank, Vanessa is anything but doctrinaire: She supports the Equal Rights Amendment and thinks women have the right to legal abortions, "but I don't think everyone should have one." As for the notion that Williams will use her title as a platform for black causes, she told a press conference: "I am a spokesperson, but I'm also an individual with my own opinions. Just because I am black doesn't mean I am going to favor every black cause and opinion."
She is hardly unaware of race issues. "I have never been extremely discriminated against," she says, "but I've always had to do 150 percent more than anyone else just to get noticed. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I am black." Some have speculated that her candor—or her race—might cost her some of the expected $100,000 she could reap in personal appearance fees. Williams says stoutly, "I'd make up for them. There are others that would want to have me just because I am controversial."
Williams was one of a record-setting four black contestants—the others were Miss New Jersey, Miss Maryland and Miss North Carolina—in this year's pageant, but Vanessa was a favorite early on (PEOPLE, Sept. 19). The first night of judging she won the swim-suit competition in a white maillot with a plunging neckline. On the third night, she won her talent competition by singing a slow, cheerfully sly rendition of Happy Days Are Here Again. Yet in the end, only one point separated Williams and Miss New Jersey, Suzette Charles, also a singer, who became first runner-up. No other black had previously finished higher than fourth. Judges on the eight-member, all-white panel laid the dramatic turnabout to coincidence and dismissed the idea that there might have been any reverse bias.
Vanessa and brother Christopher, 15, were raised as Roman Catholics in the solidly middle-class, suburban hamlet of Millwood, 35 miles north of New York City. Helen and Milton Williams, both public school music teachers, were the first black family to move there, and Vanessa still remembers her early confusion when some classmates taught her a new word: "nigger." The close-knit family has been solid backup for both children. One home rule was that each child learn a musical instrument (Vanessa plays French horn and piano). They also had to pay for half of any nonessentials, such as dress-up clothes. The parents would buy the item, but it would stay in hock in a closet until the child earned enough to pay for it. Says Vanessa's father, "They had to become responsible for handling their own desires. That's what real life is all about."
"We didn't set out to raise a Miss America," Helen Williams adds. "But if our children feel qualified to do something, they should not hesitate based on someone else's prejudices."
Williams was the singing star of Horace Greeley High in nearby Chappaqua and racked up honors, including drama finalist in the Presidential Scholars program. If Millwood loved her before, they adore her now. Two busloads traveled to Atlantic City for the pageant, the volunteer firemen made a large congratulations sign, and neighbors decorated the Williams' home with balloons and streamers. "If anyone deserves it, she does," said neighbor Mary Anne Byrd. "It puts us on the map."