On September 17, 1983, Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America, making her the first African-American woman to win the title. Although scandal forced her to step down as Miss America, Williams never backed down in achieving her acting and singing dreams.
Born in the Bronx in 1963, her birth announcement in soothsayer-like fashion read, “Here she is, Miss America.” Williams’ reign as Miss America 1984 ended in scandal when Penthouse crammed their magazine with unauthorized nude photographs of her. The Miss America pageant board was subsequently scandalized. Although Williams was allowed to keep her crown, the scholarship money and the official title, they asked her to step down from her position and millions of dollars in endorsement deals. Some believed that the board’s response to the photo spread was simply a result of a racist backlash.
After the embarrassment, Williams was not ready to surrender from the spotlight, but she was met by a “you’ll never work in this town again” response from the entertainment industry. Nevertheless, Williams persisted and, in 1987 landed a legit film role in “The Pickup Artist” and released her debut album, “The Right Stuff,” which went gold with three top 10 hits and three Grammy nominations. Williams continued to put out critically acclaimed and Grammy-nominated music, including one of her most famous songs, “Save The Best For Last.” She is currently known for her many iconic film and television roles, including the demanding boss, Wilhelmina Slater, in “Ugly Betty.”
When Williams returned to the 2015 Miss America pageant as a celebrity judge and performer, she was finally vindicated for the 1984 incident. The executive chairman of Miss America surprised her on live television saying, “I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be.”
Although breaking the Miss America color barrier proved rocky, Williams stands as a role model for perseverance.