Vanessa Williams

UPDATED 12/24/1984 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/24/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

It was one of those rare and secretly cherished occasions when all Americans—regardless of race, creed, sex or mental or emotional condition—could feel equally entitled to occupy the judgment seat. The mayor of Talladega, Ala. demanded that she give him back the keys to his city. Teenagers in Millwood, N.Y. yelled dirty words as they drove past her parents' house. The Gillette Co., the American Greetings Corp. and the Kellogg Company hastily stripped her image from their displays, greeting card ads and cornflakes boxes, respectively. Stories about her brought the biggest response to a news poll in PEOPLE'S history: By 61 to 39 percent, the readers thought she had been rightly shorn of her honors, though many stuck up for her. And after all that, the Miss America of 1985, Sharlene Wells, proclaimed pointedly that her own life was "above reproach," a boast that even Jesus Christ declined to make.

What this was all about was that Miss America, the first black one in history, had quit, under pressure, because earlier she had posed in the nude twice. Now she is suing the photographer of the first set of photos for damages that she hopes will be in the "millions." She is also "planning to sue" Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, who ran the pictures. She was shown recently a photo release she supposedly signed and says, "I've never seen the document before."

So, so long, 1984. "Tear that year out of the calendar!" she says light-heartedly. And 1985? "It's got to be better," she answers. "But the hurt will never stop. If I have kids, I'm going to have to tell them about it. I'm going to have to live with it." It would be interesting to hear the conversation when she explains the scandal to her children. Being kids, they may have trouble understanding what all the fuss was about.

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