The first black to win the Miss America crown, in 1983, Williams was forced to resign her title only 10 months later after nude pictures of her and another woman, taken years earlier, appeared in Penthouse. Publicly skewered both for demeaning the pageant and for being wild, Williams now reflects, "I was in the middle, an ail-American girl who might not have been Miss America, but certainly not what Penthouse portrayed either." Battered but unbowed, she quietly retreated to the embrace of her family in Millwood, N.Y., where her mother and father, both music teachers, still live. "My parents supported me through everything, and that was the key," says Williams.
She also had the assistance of Ramon Hervey II, 42, a publicist whom she married in 1987 and who helped her, during those years out of the limelight, to engineer a startling comeback. Since 1988, thanks to a sultry, soulful delivery, she has racked up one platinum and one gold record (The Comfort Zone; The Right Stuff), a No. 1 single ("Save the Best for Last"), seven Grammy nominations and has created a fresh, new image. Singer Luther Vandross put it in perspective when he said, "The way she looks, the way she sings, that inexplicable something called charisma all work in her favor."
Even though three children fill the hectic Hervey house in affluent Chappaqua, N.Y. (Melanie, 5½, Jillian, 3½, and newborn son Devin), Williams plans to have her new album finished sometime early next year. Sure, pop stardom appeals, but Williams has a more important agenda these days. "Who's Hot? Who's Not? I've been in both columns," she has said. "I enjoy the simple things. But I want always to enjoy life and be able to walk down the street with my kids."