When she consents to talk about the scandal—and she hardly ever does—Vanessa Williams
calls it "the incident" or "the situation." More than four years after the first black Miss America was forced to give up her crown, she prefers to leave the harsh memories of that dark time veiled in vagueness. It's not that she hopes to deceive. She knows that for as long as she lives people will remember the lurid Penthouse photographs that caused her dizzying plunge from triumph into disgrace. "The incident," she concedes today, "was a part of my life that was pretty devastating. But in the context of my whole life, I got over it."
With a vengeance, some might say. There she was...beating out Tracy Chapman for the NAACP's Best New Female Artist award on TV earlier this month. There she is...nominated for two Grammys, as Best New Artist and Best Female Rhythm and Blues Singer. There she will be...starring in The Sex Tapes, an NBC movie that airs Feb. 5.
And here she is, at home, with her husband-manager, Ramon Hervey, and their 19-month-old daughter, Melanie. "It took me a long time to get where I am," says Williams, 25, sitting in her Los Angeles apartment holding the restless toddler on her lap. "I'm here because of my guts and my talents."
Those talents were her original springboard to celebrity. A gifted singer nurtured by her Millwood, N.Y., music-teacher parents, Williams won the Miss America talent competition with a rendition of "Happy Days Are Here Again" reminiscent of early Streisand. A musical theater major at Syracuse University, she had entered the pageant in 1983 for two reasons: money and exposure. "Being Miss America was not something I dreamed about," she says. "It wasn't a life goal." From the night of her crowning as the first black winner, the distinction brought her both pride and pain. "I was getting hate mail from white people who hate black people and mail from black people who said, 'You're not really black, because you don't look black.' I expected mail from the KKK and other psycho groups but not from the black community. I went on some talk shows where women would say, 'The only reason you won is because you have green eyes and light skin.' I didn't like having my accomplishments negated because of the way I looked. That was harder to live with than anything else."
Or so she thought until the night 10 months into her reign when she learned that Penthouse was about to publish nude pictures of her in lesbian poses. After three days of merciless headlines, Miss America officials pressured Williams to relinquish her title. Although she was allowed to keep the $100,000 she had earned in scholarship and personal appearance fees, most of this money soon went to lawyers who helped her file a $400 million lawsuit against Penthouse and photographer Tom Chiapel, who released the photos. "It was a no-win situation," says Williams, who dropped the suit one year later. "Besides, I didn't feel like reliving all this stuff again, five years down the line. I just wanted to get on with my life. So many people have gotten burned by those people that I think they'll eventually get it in the end and die a slow, painful death." She further decided not to prolong the controversy by writing her memoirs. "I got several book offers, the biggest being around $250,000," she says. "A major part of why I didn't do a book was that I was only 21 years old. I didn't feel it would be just to do a biography. I pulled out a week before we were to sign the papers."
In her determination to set the bitter aftermath of her reign behind her, Vanessa has also banished all traces of the pageant victory. No photo of Williams as Miss America appears among the dozens displayed in her house. The walls and tables are decorated with snaps of Ramon and Melanie. Vanessa met Ramon, then a publicist based in L.A., when he was recruited by her attorney to organize the New York press conference in which she gave back her crown. Slowly, a romance developed. "I was 21 at the time and he was 33," recalls Williams. "He wasn't robbing the cradle, but he'd never gone out with anyone as young as me. We never really dated, because I didn't have a normal life. There was also the question of whether I was of clear mind to decide on a romantic relationship at that point. We just saw a lot of each other through business, and eventually—maybe four or six months after we met—we decided it was right."
On Jan. 2, 1987, they were married; shortly afterward, Hervey became his wife's manager. "He's been a good husband, a good father and a good son-in-law," says Vanessa's mother, Helen Williams. He has also been a good businessman: Though Vanessa had sung backup on the 1986 George Clinton album, R&B Skeletons in the Closet, her recording career was generally considered a joke. Hervey persuaded Ed Eckstine, Billy Eckstine's son and the general manager of Wing Records, to give her a shot. Believing that black radio audiences would be most receptive to Williams, Hervey and Eckstine carefully concocted an R&B-oriented debut album and gave it a never-say-die title appropriate for Williams, The Right Stuff. Their strategy proved correct; since its June release, the album has sold more than 300,000 copies. Three of its singles have gone Top 10 on the black music charts, the current "Dreamin' " is beginning to get some pop airplay, and a second album is in the works. "The key thing with Vanessa that a lot of people have underestimated is her talent," says Ramon. "There are people out there who like Vanessa Williams
no matter what's happened to her."
Her popularity will get a prime-time test next month, when Williams stars as a hooker trying to go straight after her roommate's murder in The Sex Tapes. It's not, Williams insists, as raunchy as the title suggests. "I don't have one scene where I'm walking the streets or turning a trick or bending over into a car or wearing a miniskirt," she says. "But I'm sure NBC will sell it that way. I've learned to expect it."
The world-weary tone would not have won over the image-conscious Miss America judges. But it's determination, not congeniality, that has earned Williams her current crown. "Obviously I'm more seasoned and less trusting, and—I don't want to say bitter, but a little harder," she says. "Many people say that everything that happened to me was for the best, that I wouldn't be famous if it weren't for the scandal. But I think I've shown that it didn't do me any good." What did do her good was a bottom-line belief in herself. With grim experience behind the beauty-pageant smile, Williams tosses off her remarkable comeback: "There was obviously nowhere to go but up."
—John Stark, and Michael Alexander in Los Angeles