Born in New York City, a young Williams moves to Millwood, N.Y., where she's the only African-American student in her school until age 7. Her parents, Milton and Helen, both music teachers, encourage Vanessa and her brother, Chris, to play musical instruments. She chooses piano and French horn, but also studies tap, ballet and modern dance. Her mother tells her: "Because you're black, you've got to do better than everybody else just to be noticed."
While a student at Syracuse University, Williams attracts the attention of the director of the Miss Greater Syracuse Pageant. At first, Williams is uninterested in pageant competitions until she learns that scholarship money is at stake. She enters and wins Miss Greater Syracuse, later taking the Miss New York title. Next stop for the 20-year-old college junior? Atlantic City.
Williams becomes the first African American to be crowned Miss America, but with much controversy. The Moral Majority bristles when Williams, who is Catholic, expresses pro-choice views, while she finds herself defending her choice of having a white boyfriend. "I never imagined I'd be that depressed about being Miss America," Williams, who receives racist hate mail and even death threats during her reign, tells PEOPLE. The magazine names her one of its 25 Most Intriguing People of 1983.
Nude photos of Williams taken in 1982 with another woman are sold to Penthouse, and Williams is pressured to give up her crown and at least $2 million worth of contracts. Williams vows to fight back, telling PEOPLE, "I am not a lesbian and I am not a slut, and somehow I am going to make people believe me." Her camp hires publicist Ramon Hervey to do damage control after the scandal.
Williams returns to the public eye with her off-Broadway debut in the musical, One Man Band. The New York Times says Williams "does just fine" as part of the "fine trio of voices" and is "especially effective in the comic sequences where one might expect a newcomer to be bit awkward." But her most memorable scene comes in October 1986, when her publicist-turned-boyfriend Hervey (left) presents her with an antique diamond in a Tiffany setting over eggs Benedict, she tells PEOPLE.
Taking a break from career strategizing, Williams, 23, marries her publicist Hervey, 36, (right) who soon becomes her manager and is credited with helping orchestrate her remarkable comeback. The marriage, which lasts ten years, brings three children: Melanie, Jillian and Devin.
Williams releases her first album, The Right Stuff. "I had to beg people to give me any songs at all because nobody thought that they would be hits," she later tells USA Today in 1997. But Williams proves skeptics wrong when the album goes gold and produces three Grammy nominations.
Williams solidifies her musical success with her follow-up album, The Comfort Zone. The album's breakout single is "Save the Best for Last," which debuts on the Top 40 charts and is No. 1 for five weeks. Her next hit, "Love Is," which appears on the Beverly Hills, 90210 soundtrack, earns her a Billboard Music Award for No. 1 Adult Contemporary Single in 1993.
Williams, 30, makes PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful list, where she discusses more than her looks. "Who's Hot? Who's Not? I've been in both columns," she tells PEOPLE. "I enjoy the simple things. But I want always to enjoy life and be able to walk down the street with my kids." Singer Luther Vandross tells PEOPLE, "The way she looks, the way she sings, that inexplicable something called charisma all work in her favor."
Williams' star power continues to grow when she replaces Chita Rivera in the title role of Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway. She's called "sleek, proud and breathtakingly confident" by the New York Times, which says, "Whenever she's onstage, the temperature in the Broadhurst Theater shoots up about 20 degrees." The following year, she records "Colors of the Wind" for Disney's Pocahontas, which goes gold.
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