Vanessa Williams: A Beauty Queen's Crown of Thorns - Rolling Stone
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Vanessa Williams: A Beauty Queen’s Crown of Thorns

The truth about an embattled Miss America

Vanessa WilliamsVanessa Williams

Vanessa Williams

Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Vanessa is talking. “When I was Miss America,” she says, “I did an interview with Joan Rivers, and it was like, ‘Oh-my-God-you’re-so-smart-and-you’re-so-talented-and-for-once-we’ve-got-a-Miss-America-who’s-got-brains-and-she’s-got-no-hips-look-at-her-I-hate-her.’ You know, just very supportive and holding my hand, and then the pictures came out, and she was like questioning my moral character to get a laugh and that type of thing.

“I didn’t know that as a comedian you had to sacrifice your own personal beliefs. Of course, I don’t know what her beliefs are. I don’t know if she was sincere the first time or the second time.”

When she was small, people stared at her and wondered if she was a doll. Now people stare at her and wonder other things. She has learned not to notice. Noticing only makes things worse, just as caring does. She has also learned that strangers fit into two distinct categories: bozos and friends. Friends smile at her, give her a thumbs-up signal. Bozos roll their eyes, purse their lips, shake their heads. Now, three months after she has lost the Miss America title, she enters a department store and tries not to notice that she is being stared at by some bozos.

She walks quickly, moving like a dancer, feet wide apart, back straight, head erect. Her hair is streaked blond in front and shaped into a single braid in back. She wears skintight red pants, a belted black top, flat black boots, all purchased the day before at a Greenwich Village boutique. She is accompanied by the woman she calls “my associate.” Deborah Medeiros is twenty-nine, has wild curly hair, large dark eyes, perfect skin. She appears to be black but is Portuguese and Lebanese. She has known Vanessa almost a year, has worked for her since she gave up the Miss America title. Previously she was a fashion stylist. Now she organizes Vanessa’s private life: schedules her appointments, hires limousines to take her to the airport, selects makeup artists for photo sessions.

Because Vanessa is about to move to Manhattan, where she will live alone for the first time, Deborah has lately been educating her employer in certain niceties: what to tip doormen and cabdrivers, how to eat sushi, the merits of freshly ground coffee over instant, the desirability of a black lacquer bedroom set over the teak one Vanessa’s parents wanted her to have. This particular afternoon, they are buying accessories for Vanessa’s new apartment. Deborah wanted to shop at Conran’s, which is relatively inexpensive, trendy and located in Manhattan, but Vanessa’s mother insisted they go to the Fortunoff store in Wayne, New Jersey, where household items are sold at a discount and where Vanessa is now looking at an assortment of quilted comforters. She studies one a long time. It is lime green, covered with peach-colored flowers. Peach is one of Vanessa’s favorite colors. She puts the comforter back on the shelf. “I guess I’m looking for something more contemporary,” she says.

Late in the afternoon, she changes her mind. Embarrassed, silent, she takes the comforter and places it in a shopping cart. As with most young women of twenty-one, there is still a great disparity between who she thinks she should be and who she is.

By the end of the day, she and Deborah are pushing four shopping carts. They contain a pink wool-and-acrylic blanket; pink and rose sheets; a black semitransparent shower curtain; a navy-blue plastic toilet seat; a black vinyl toilet seat; and two bathroom sets, each of which contains a cup, soap dish, towel caddy, glass, waste basket, lotion pump and Kleenex cover.

“We need pillow shams,” Deborah says. Vanessa frowns. “So we get two shams,” she says. “Isn’t that right? Isn’t that how it’s done? I mean, usually?”

I Don’t Know
Always, she refers to the events surrounding the release of her nude pictures in Penthouse as “the ordeal.” Almost always, she refers to the first set of published pictures as “the woman ones.”

The ordeal began Friday, July 13th, 1984. Vanessa was guest of honor at the Miss New York State pageant in Watertown. She got a call, she says, from a reporter at the New York Post who wanted to interview her about Walter Mondale’s choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. This was the kind of interview Vanessa liked most: the kind that assumed she was intelligent.

“Oh, by the way,” said the reporter. “We hear there are pictures of you in the September Penthouse.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Vanessa. She hung up. She called her boyfriend. “Get up here quick,” she said.

Bruce Hanson and Vanessa had been together off and on for the past three years. Bruce knew about the pictures of Vanessa in leather restraining gear. He had been furious about them, had taken Vanessa back to the photographer to get the negatives. He was under the impression that they had gotten all of them.

When the “woman” pictures were taken the month before, Bruce and Vanessa were not seeing each other. Afterward, Vanessa did not mention these pictures to anyone, and when she and Bruce got back together, she did not tell him either. Now she had to tell him.

She then told her parents. She cried the whole time she was telling them. They had viewed her Miss America year as important for black pride; they had answered her fan mail; and on a wall of their home, there was a framed, laminated photograph of themselves with Vanessa. It was captioned: America’s Royal Family.

Now they cried, too. “I’m so sorry,” she kept saying. They told her they loved her and that she did not have to be sorry.

On Sunday, Vanessa left the New York State pageant. All year long, she had told state winners, “See you in Atlantic City.” She did not say it this time.

On Monday, she went to see Albert Marks, chairman of the Miss America Pageant. She told him that pictures of her would be appearing in Penthouse. She was crying and shaking. “Is there a full-length nude?” he asked. “Well…yes,” she said. “Anything else?” he said. “No,” she answered. Afterward, she called her mother and said Marks had been very nice. And though he later denied it, she claims Marks said, “You look upset. Do you want a Valium or something?”

On Wednesday, Albert Marks received a phone call from a woman friend. “She described the pictures,” he said later, “and remained a lady, which is no mean feat.”

The next night, Vanessa’s parents received a phone call from their daughter’s chaperone, who was with Vanessa in Little Rock, Arkansas. “I have instructions to bring Vanessa back,” she said. “Back where?” asked Vanessa’s mother. “To Atlantic City?”

“Back to you,” the chaperone said.

The next morning on the plane to New York, Vanessa looked at the ground below and wished the plane would crash. She was terrified about what would happen once she got home. “I thought I would be killed by stones,” she says. “Or whatever.”

Her parents were on her side. Still, they asked: Why did you pose for the pictures, why did it happen? She thought about what she called her “adventurous nature.” She used to ride her bike down hills at breakneck speed, using no hands. And she never visited an amusement park without going on the roller coaster at least half a dozen times. That love of risk might explain why she posed for the pictures. But she wasn’t sure it was the reason, so when her parents asked why, she cried and said, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

The Color Turquoise
Her favorite color is turquoise because it reminds her of the ocean. Her favorite drink is a brandy Alexander. Her favorite foods are popcorn and chicken Parmesan.

Her favorite magazines are Vogue and People.

Her favorite song is “Wishful Thinking.” One of her favorite performers is Chaka Khan.

A word she likes to use is “apathetic,” as in, “After the ordeal, I felt apathetic.”

“She is still very young,” says her mother.

“She is, in many ways, still innocent,” says her father.

“She’s no innocent,” says Bob Guccione.

“She would never say she was innocent,” says her current boyfriend, “but she is naive.”

Just to Break Even
Her father was born in Oyster Bay, New York, in 1935. Milton Williams, a Catholic, was raised by his uncle, who worked for Grumman aircraft. Oyster Bay was an integrated community, and later, when he became the first black man to live in Millwood, New York, Milton could say, “It was easy for me not to feel threatened by whites.” His life followed a simple trajectory. He loved music and wanted to teach it. He worked his way through college, trained to be a music teacher and became arts coordinator for the public schools in Elmsford, New York. His wife’s experience of life was more complicated.

Helen Williams was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1939. She was a Protestant, raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather worked in the steel mills. One of the few blacks in her high school, she worked her way through college, where she and Milton met. Once, she auditioned for the female lead in a college musical, which required her to play opposite a white man. She knew she auditioned well, but the part went to a white woman. When she wanted to do voice-overs for commercials, she found that blacks were not hired for such work. She graduated from college in 1960. Later that year, she was married. And she became a Catholic and a music teacher. Just like her husband. When Vanessa was growing up, her father would tell her: You can be anything you want to be, the sky’s the limit.

When Vanessa was growing up, her mother would tell her: You have to try twice as hard as other people, just to break even.

She Was Different
When Vanessa was a year old, Helen and Milton Williams moved from the Bronx to Millwood, which was near the two suburban schools where they taught. Their house had eight rooms, an acre and a half of land. It cost $32,000 and was the newest house in Millwood. At the time they bought it, an old ordinance still prohibited local land sales to Jews and blacks.

Vanessa was the only black child in her school until she was seven. When she was six, another child called her a “nigger.” She didn’t know what it was. Her mother began to teach her about her heritage, using black-history flashcards that detailed the achievements of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass. Soon she had black-pride posters in her bedroom. She decided that she wanted to be the first black Rockette.

Other children obviously thought she was different. They asked to feel her hair, but she never let them.

Daddy’s Little Girl
Her mother was strict. Her father was permissive. At his insistence, Vanessa and her younger brother attended Montessori schools from ages three to five. He called his daughter “Pussycat.” He adored her. “Well,” her mother would sometimes say in an injured tone, “you certainly are Daddy’s little girl.”

Both parents were ambitious for her. They urged her on in different ways. When she was in school plays, her father was invariably the first to start applauding and the last to stop. Her mother was more circumspect. “Nice job, ‘Ness,” she would say.

Her mother played the piano at weddings and always took Vanessa with her. The brides and grooms were usually white. Vanessa loved being dressed up, having her hair curled into ringlets and sitting near her mother while she played “We’ve Only Just Begun.”

Her father taught her to play the French horn and the piano. And he read to her each night before she went to bed. He began with Three Little Pigs. When she was older, he read her I’m OK — You’re OK, Psycho-Cybernetics and Play to Win.

Black and Blond
When she was two years old, her mother took her to an ad agency in New York, to see if Vanessa could get work in commercials. But it was 1966, the time of “black is beautiful.” Vanessa did not look black enough, and nothing came of it. Aside from that episode, her parents did not fuss over her appearance.

When she was in the sixth grade, her body began to develop. Boys started staring at her. She secretly wished she looked like Blythe, the prettiest girl in the class ahead of her. “She had a part in the middle of this straight, platinum-blond hair,” Vanessa says. “She typified what the American WASP should look like. You know, she put her hair behind her ears. I thought she was absolutely gorgeous.”

She Didn’t Come In
The summer before tenth grade, with her parents’ approval, she dated her first boyfriend. He was four years older than she was, black, Catholic and a body builder. She broke up with him in the eleventh grade and started dating Bruce, who was a freshman at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her parents did not like him. She thought this was because Bruce was white, though they denied it When she entered Syracuse University, he transferred there. “We had this very intense relationship,” she says.

Once she met Bruce, says Milton Williams, “we had problems. For instance, it hurt me when she didn’t come in at night on time. I don’t think it hurt my wife as much as it hurt me, when I expected her and she didn’t come in.”

“They would dock me,” says Vanessa, “but I think that only made me more rebellious.”

I Was Curious
“It was a summer weekday. It was after four o’clock, ’cause that’s when I finished work. It was the summer of my freshman year in college. You know, it was very awkward, ’cause I’d never done it before, I didn’t know how to pose, I didn’t know what to do. I remember saying, ‘What do I do now?’ He’d say, ‘Oh, just do this,’ you know. It was a very weird situation. But I felt comfortable with him, ’cause I liked being his secretary and ’cause I had worked for him for such a long time. Not a long time, but, relatively, a month and a half. But he tried to relax me and get me in the mood and say, ‘Close your eyes and think real nice about yourself,’ and then start the session.

“The funny thing is, he was like such an easygoing, trustworthy guy. Even though he looks…I remember the first time I saw him — ugh. But he was kind of a Sixties child, just a very trustworthy kind of guy.

“I saw two contact sheets, and they didn’t identify me. I wouldn’t have done a session with another woman knowing my face would have been recognizable. I mean, it’s not like I wanted to be Miss America at that point, but I wanted to be, not a star, but well known in the future. I trusted him. He promised no one would see them. He said, ‘Just do this little thing for me; I think you guys will look great together; you’ve posed nude before and she has, so it’s not any big deal.’ See, I posed for him once, by myself. I was curious to see what I looked like. But it wasn’t that I felt good about the pictures. I never asked for any of them, I never gave them to anyone. It wasn’t something I felt so great about. I didn’t know how to justify them. I still don’t. I guess it’s a lot of psychology when a photographer says, ‘Wow, you’d probably look great in a nude session; you’ve got this look; and I could do some wonderful things,’ and you start to think, ‘He could do a good job and portray me in a way I’ve never been portrayed before.’ And he says, ‘Oh, you just look gorgeous,’ and that kind of thing, and you start thinking to yourself, ‘Yeah, well, you know. Maybe.’ 

The 1950s Fixation
In her sophomore year in college, three months after the pictures were taken, Vanessa was rehearsing for a college play. A friend approached her. He said, “Some people think you should be recruited for the Miss America Pageant.”

Vanessa laughed. “Get out of here,” she said.

A few months later, she was in another show. The director of the Miss Greater Syracuse pageant came to see her. “You’ve got the talent,” she said with no trace of irony, “to be the next Miss America.” Vanessa wasn’t sure she wanted to enter the Syracuse pageant, but her parents wanted her to. Her mother wrote her a letter. “It would really be something on your résumé,” it read, “to be able to say you were Miss America.”

A month later, Vanessa won the Miss Greater Syracuse pageant, then became Miss New York State. She went to the Miss America Pageant in September 1983. By now she had a mentor, Victoria Longley, Miss Greater Syracuse of 1973 and 1979. Longley understood the 1950s fixation of the pageant judges, and so it was she who designed Vanessa’s sequined gowns, helped select her conservative daytime clothes and insisted she sing “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

She first won the swimsuit competition, then the talent contest, and when she was crowned, she could see her parents in the audience, jumping up and down and crying. No one had explained what she should do if she won, so she just walked down the ramp and back again, beaming, waving, crying and hoping the crown, which was taped to her hair, would not fall off.

It was after winning the state pageant that she signed a standard form that stated, among other things, that she had committed no acts of moral turpitude. “Moral turpitude is hard to define,” she would say later. “And plus, I thought I had the negatives.”

The Logical Villain
Bob Guccione wears seven gold chains around his neck. From one of them dangles a tiny gold penis, which he enjoys describing as life-size. The press kit he sends to prospective interviewers contains an eight-by-ten glossy of himself and a clipping from Forbes that lists his net worth at $200 million and names him as one of the 400 wealthiest people in America.

Guccione is the key to why the Vanessa Williams story is ultimately unsettling: as the logical villain in the piece, he is nonetheless the only principal who has behaved honorably, to the extent that honor requires people to be who they say they are. On the other hand, as a publisher of girlie magazines, Guccione has made implicit moral claims for himself that are not especially difficult to live up to.

Discussing the Vanessa Williams case, Guccione exhibits the zeal of a man who is customarily embattled, who views himself as unfairly maligned and senses that fate and simple odds have deposited him at last on the side of indisputable righteousness.

“When she entered the pageant, she knew full well when she signed that agreement that she was hiding something. She knew that if what she was hiding were to surface, that it certainly would be embarrassing to the pageant and embarrassing to her — not to mention a lot of other people involved, as it subsequently turned out. She deceived the pageant officials. It’s as simple as that. She knew what she had done, and she really hoped, now that she had this marvelous opportunity  and in a way it’s hard to blame her  she wasn’t about to throw it out the window by telling them, well, look, I see this moral-turpitude clause, does it mean that I, now that I’ve done nudes for two separate photographers and I’ve signed releases for two separate photographers, giving them all the rights to the photographs and the permission to sell them, does that mean that I can’t qualify as a Miss America? She just wasn’t going to do it, so she didn’t tell anybody and hoped that it wouldn’t surface, and it did surface, as it always does.”

I Don’t Want To Talk About It
On Friday, July 20th, at three p.m., Albert Marks appeared on television waving a copy of Penthouse with Vanessa on the cover. He demanded Vanessa’s resignation within the next seventy-two hours.

The press gathered on Vanessa’s lawn, but she was at the home of her lawyer. Dennis Dowdell is thirty-nine years old, sharp, smart, with mischief in his face. He has been a friend of the Williams family since he moved to Millwood three years ago. He has been Vanessa’s adviser since she became Miss America.

Dowdell deals fairly with people. He likes joking about the boat he will someday buy with his percentage of Vanessa. He likes to say, “Vanessa is not just a person, she’s a business.” He likes guiding Vanessa’s staff, which he refers to as “the team.” He views the world through a political prism and should be recommended to anyone who cares to prove that within the chest of most politicos there beats the heart of a studio executive, since both are propelled by a fascination with control and action.

On that Friday, it was Dowdell who was planning Vanessa’s future and who told her she would have to give a press conference.

“Fuck it,” she said. “I don’t need it” By this time she had decided she wanted to marry Bruce, move out west, have babies and raise horses.

Her parents thought she shouldn’t resign, that she should fight. Vanessa reminded them that there was a second set of pictures the public did not yet know about. “People can forgive one mistake,” she said, “but if the other pictures come out, everyone will say, ‘This girl took us for a ride.’ It isn’t worth it.”

She was nervous. She wasn’t eating. Her parents brought a psychologist, a friend of the family, to talk to her. On Saturday and Sunday, she was closeted with Dowdell, her lawyers and Ramon Hervey, a publicist from Los Angeles whom Dowdell had just hired. They planned what she would say to the press on Monday afternoon, while her parents, at home, accepted messages and tokens of support. Flowers from Ben Vereen. Phone calls from Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Jermaine Jackson, Diahann Carroll.

Bruce called her often. “He just hated that everybody saw me,” Vanessa says. “That was something private between us.”

He could not understand, she says, that her past was now a legal case, that she might sue Guccione and had been ordered not to discuss what was happening. “I’m your lover,” he would say. “I’m your boyfriend. You can tell me everything.”

“I can’t,” she would say. This bothered Bruce even more than the pictures.

The night before her press conference, Bruce called her again.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Vanessa said. “You have to,” said Bruce. “No,” she said, “you are my person I can escape to. You’re my outside connection. I need you to tell me something.” Bruce was silent. Vanessa tried to joke. “Well,” she said, “maybe Penthouse‘ll offer me a couple million dollars.” There was silence. Then Bruce said, “That isn’t funny.”

She Needed Someone
Vanessa resigned as Miss America precisely seventy-two hours after Albert Marks gave his seventy-two-hour ultimatum. After her press conference and an interview on the Today show, Dennis Dowdell drove her back to Millwood, where she spent the next few nights at his home. Ramon Hervey was staying there also. Ramon is thirty-four, buys his clothes at boutiques, likes leather pants and wearing his jacket sleeves pushed up to the elbows. Before opening his own public-relations company, he worked at one of the country’s major PR firms, an experience he almost never alludes to without saying, “I was their first and only black vice-president.”

In addition to his color, Ramon had several other advantages over Bruce Hanson: he was there with Vanessa when she needed someone; as her PR representative, he was privy to all information in her case; and most important, having just met Vanessa, he could not possibly feel betrayed by the pictures. Within a few weeks, men around the world were envying the joys he must be experiencing as Vanessa’s new boyfriend.

Because Ramon, like Vanessa, was raised in an almost exclusively white community, he could understand her and her predicament.

“One of the biggest misconceptions,” he says, “is that blacks brought up in white areas are capable of assimilating. In actuality, they stand out more. They have a capsule view of the black experience, based on how white people relate to them. Any minority person who reaches national stature becomes a symbol. In Vanessa’s case, she had no knowledge of what it would mean to be a black symbol for all America. That’s what magnifies her case more than if it had been a white girl. Because not many blacks are going to have an opportunity to reach national prominence as beauty queens or anything else. But that’s a societal question, and I don’t think Vanessa should be held personally responsible for it. I don’t think she understood the historical ramifications of what she did or how important a symbol she would become to the progress of black women.

“There’s also a lot worse things she could have done. She could be a drug addict. She could abuse children. She could be a chronic drunk driver. When you think of the state of the world today, taking nude pictures isn’t a big deal. The only person damaged by them was Vanessa herself.”

Getting Caught
Vanessa kept the $30,000 she had saved from her appearances as Miss America. She also kept her rhinestone crown. And she quickly learned, in the days following her resignation, what two afternoons and one attempt to cover them up had cost her: opening two shows for Bob Hope in the Midwest, singing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, being considered to host the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, being spokesperson for the Gillette Company, which would have paid her $100,000 a year for nine years. She was also no longer being considered as the endorser for Kona Kai of Hawaii, Proline hair products, Avon, 9 West shoes, Hawaiian Punch and Canada Dry.

Another thing she would quickly learn is that the difference between those who are punished and those who are not often has less to do with what you do than with whether you get caught.

A Moving Target
Six weeks after Vanessa resigned as Miss America, she is living again in her parents’ home, where her sequined, floor-length Miss America gowns are wrapped in plastic and hung in the basement behind a freezer crammed with frozen meat.

Upstairs, in the living room, there is a brown shag living-room rug and a brown velour couch. There are glass shelves that display bronze owls and pigs, a marble statue of a discus thrower, brass cups, china cups, a glass piano and stool, a glass Christmas tree, marble eggs and color photographs of Vanessa, including one of her as Miss America. There are also back issues of Ebony, a complete edition of The World Book Encyclopedia, some Ella Fitzgerald records and a Cabbage Patch doll with white skin and bright red hair.

For the past six weeks, Vanessa has practiced the dictum that a moving target is harder to hit: she has vacationed in the Bahamas and worked in San Francisco and Los Angeles on an episode of the TV series Partners in Crime. She has seen a different casting director each day, has been interviewed and photographed for one cover story in Us and two in People, has auditioned for Joe Papp and Larry Kasdan. Also for Tommy Tune, who has been holding auditions for the job she wants most of all, the role played by Twiggy in My One and Only, a Broadway musical featuring the songs of George and Ira Gershwin. So far, nothing has come of the auditions. Vanessa isn’t worried. If they’re being cautious, she is, too. “My first major role,” she says, “will have to be superb.”

These days, she is saying in public, “I really think I could have made it without being Miss America.” These days, she is saying in private, “The bottom line is that as an actress, I could blow the socks off everyone, ’cause I’m new and a talent no one expected.”

Late one afternoon, Dennis Dowdell drives her to New York City on business. As they go down Fifty-seventh Street, Vanessa sees a perfume ad that pictures a man and woman so androgynous that both appear to be male.

“Is that two men?” Vanessa asks.

“Sure looks like it,” Dennis answers.

Vanessa shakes her head. “Golly,” she says.

Acquiring a Persona
It is mid-September. Vanessa is stuck at her parents’ home. She has no car, no friends, and her phone rings constantly with obscene phone calls. For the next few weeks, she cries herself to sleep. In her room is a poster that has been there since high school: a photograph of several trees in a vast, open swamp, with the words “The strongest trees grow in the most exposed places.”

In mid-October, she buys herself a silver Honda Prelude, then rents an apartment in a luxury building on Manhattan’s East Side. It has one bedroom, one and a half baths, an L-shaped living room and a small kitchen. The rent is $2388 a month, and it costs an additional $275 to park her car below the building. She doesn’t think she can afford it. Dennis Dowdell says she can, understanding perhaps that she is not simply renting a place to live; she is acquiring a persona. Because she is not working, the management insists her father guarantee her payments.

The building is what Vanessa calls “a hotel concept,” and each apartment is equipped with a list of available services. These include several restaurants that deliver to the building: Le Périgord, the Regency Deli and E.A.T., the city’s most expensive gourmet-to-go shop. The names of the restaurants are prettily engraved on thick, shiny paper. At the bottom of the list, beside a scribbled phone number, Vanessa has written in big green letters: “Pizza.”

The Wrong People
The first few weeks in New York, Vanessa auditions for Broadway musicals, cuts a demo of a love song, tries selling her autobiography to a number of publishers.

One day, she and her book agent, Mitch Douglas, are meeting with editors at William Morrow. Douglas is explaining how much Vanessa has lost. “Another thing she didn’t get,” he says, “the most recent thing, was My One and Only, because Mrs. Gershwin thought it would bring the wrong people to the theater.”

Vanessa can’t believe it. It is the first time she has heard about it. Earlier that day, Dowdell had been told there was still a possibility she would get the part. If there is one moment when she understands the impact of what she has done, it is this moment.

Now, it seems, wherever she goes, there are small opportunities for disaster. At a party for Whoopi Goldberg, a black actress who is appearing on Broadway, Vanessa is interviewed by Entertainment Tonight. She says Whoopi Goldberg’s skits were great, especially the one about the little black girl who puts a white skirt on her head and pretends it’s long blond hair. Later that night, she appears on television saying, “All little black girls wish they had long blond hair.”

At a party for Little Richard, a man in a white tuxedo, a porn star, tries to be photographed with Vanessa. As Deborah Medeiros moves her across the room, a man asks for Vanessa’s autograph. She smiles and says sure. He hands her a magazine. Vanessa stiffens. He holds up the magazine, so she can see it is not Penthouse but Essence, a magazine for middle-class blacks. The rest of the evening passes without incident.

Hey, I’m a Porn Star
In early November, Vanessa reaches agreement with St. Martin’s Press to write her autobiography for some $100,000. It will be cowritten by the woman who cowrote Cristina Ferrare Style. Given that Vanessa is merely twenty-one years old, the book may be distinguished only as the shortest autobiography in history.

Now there is a stack of eight scripts beside her bed. She doesn’t like any of them. A few weeks before, she auditioned for William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist. The part he wanted her to play had a lot of nude scenes. “Listen,” she told him, “this nudity, I really have a problem with it. It’s just too direct for me.” Friedkin said the script wasn’t finished yet.

A month later, she reads the new script “I think they took the word pussy out of it,” she says. “That’s as subtle as it got. It was so graphic it would have been saying, hey, I’m a porn star. There was this monologue where I have this dream about another woman and she gives me some scissors and asks me to cut her hair, you know, down there. And they were saying it wouldn’t be pornographic, and, you know, ‘Did you see Last Tango in Paris?’

“Then I got this other script. I couldn’t believe they had the nerve to give it to me. It’s supposed to be a legitimate script that David Bowie and Orson Welles are gonna be in. It has stuff like this one woman strokes the other one’s body and kisses her all over, and these black and white oiled, sweaty bodies are writhing on the floor. I mean, I hope they consider my future with this. I wonder like, wow, am I gonna be typecast as the easy-undressable actress who’ll do anything? Like, ‘There’s a nude role, give it to Vanessa Williams, she’ll do it.’ ‘Cause those are the only kind of parts that are coming in, really.”

I Can Take It
She wants to work. If she doesn’t get a job soon, she will have to accept an offer to open a disco in Sydney, Australia. They will pay her $10,000. She is told that other celebrities have been invited — Ringo Starr, Christie Brinkley — but they aren’t going. From the time she said no to the Friedkin script, she has not had an audition.

Show-business hype confuses and disappoints her. “Like, on My One and Only, they were saying, ‘Hey, you’ll get what Twiggy got; you’ll get a limousine; Tommy Tune loved you; he’s going to get you.’ So it’s like everything is going to happen, but then it didn’t happen. See, I thought a lot of things were gonna be happening in New York.

“People say, ‘Fabulous, oh, fabulous.’ That’s the word they use. ‘You blew them away.’ That kind of stuff. And you’re waiting, then you get let down, then it’s just apathetic; you don’t care. It’s just frustrating, and you cry. It’s like: What’s going on, is it gonna be dirty, is this what I have to do, is this what they’re looking for, what are they looking for, what’s the problem? And I say to them, ‘Look, I don’t want to go through this “You’re fabulous” all the time. Tell me why I didn’t get the role. Be straight with me. I can take it.’ “

Recalling Two Calls
Vanessa’s phone rings. It’s her mother calling, upset that Vanessa is going to Australia with Ramon.

Mother: I really think you should reconsider. Think about your image. Think about what people will say.

Vanessa: They’ll say I’m going to Australia with my PR boyfriend that everyone knows about anyway.

Mother: Just think of what our family has gone through.

Vanessa: Traveling to a foreign country with my PR person isn’t all right?

Mother: What foreign country? They speak English there.

Vanessa: Ma, a foreign country. Like 20,000 miles away.

Later, Vanessa says, “I couldn’t reason with her. I really couldn’t.”

Another phone call. A voice says, “Hi, this is Jack.” It is Jack Nicholson, whom she met at the Whoopi Goldberg party.

Vanessa: Hi, Jack. How are you?

Nicholson: Fine. You’re a hard lady to catch up to.

Vanessa: Yeah, I was gone for the weekend. I was in L.A.

Nicholson: Well, I’m in L.A. now.

Vanessa: So, I understand you’re doing a movie or something.

Nicholson: Yeah, we only have like six more weeks to go. [Pause] So when are you gonna come see me?

Vanessa: Well, I don’t know the next time I’ll be out in L.A. I have to go to Australia this week, so I don’t know when I’ll be back there.

Nicholson: Well, I just wanted to say that when I met you I thought you were as cute as a button, and I just wanted to say hi.

Vanessa: Thank you.

Nicholson: Let me give you my number in case you ever come to L.A.

Later, Vanessa says, “I thought it was funny.”

I Feel Very Lonely
It is early December. Vanessa is proceeding with her suits against the men who photographed her nude, charging that neither one had the right to sell the pictures. Aside from that, she is not doing much. She was supposed to audition for a show called Grind. They wanted her to play a stripper, so she didn’t audition.

“I feel very lonely living here now,” she says. “Everyone in my life is new: Deborah is new, Dennis is new, Ramon is new. I was talking to my attorney, and he was saying that he went to Keith Richards’ wedding, and the people Keith invited were like his attorneys and managers. It’s just like you don’t have any friends outside this circle.

“But it’s amazing how fast my relationship with Ramon is growing. He was talking to my mother about marriage. He said, ‘I love your daughter, and I want to marry her eventually, and I don’t want it to be a battle. I know you want her to be independent and have her own place and decorate it. And I encourage her to do that, and I would never discourage it.’ It’ll take some time to convince my mother. And sometimes I wonder: what is this feeling of independence that I’m supposed to have and feel so great about?”

I Don’t Know Why
It is five a.m. in Vanessa’s living room, and a Chaka Khan tape is blaring. There is a huge bowl containing a full twelve dozen roses on the coffee table. Beside the roses is a card from Ramon. It reads, “One dozen roses just doesn’t say how much I love you.”

Vanessa is appearing this morning on a talk show called “Essence: The Television Program.” At the studio, she and Deborah are met by Felipe Luciano, who will be interviewing Vanessa. He tries to win her trust by confiding that he once went to jail for a felony, apparently trying to equate a criminal act with posing for nude pictures.

“My problem,” he says, “is that if we don’t ask questions about the subject at hand it affects my credibility. So first, it’s what happened, then the impact on you. Personally. Because I like to talk about the personal. I have a tendency to get terribly intellectual.”

Vanessa tells him that she would rather focus “on the positive,” by which she means her efforts to get her life going again. She says she would like to discuss her hopes for a singing career.

“Definitely we’ll talk about that,” he says. “That’ll put pressure on the record industry.”

During the interview, Vanessa runs through her standard responses. Sometimes, she says, you have to act like you are enjoying something when you’re not. Sometimes, she says, you have to create an illusion. She knows, she says, that God will forgive her.

Luciano keeps asking her about the pictures. The minutes of the interview are slipping by. He is not keeping his promise to discuss her hopes for a career. On the sidelines, behind the camera, Deborah Medeiros is pacing angrily, knowing Vanessa is being sold out and wishing she would just stand up and stop the taping. In front of the cameras, Vanessa is calmly answering his questions. She seems to have lost all track of what her self-interest is. Her only interest, it seems, is to move in whatever direction he suggests. Then the interview is over. She smiles, thanks him and, leaving, says to Deborah, “He’s a good interviewer, don’t you think so?”

The Real Point
“Sometimes,” Vanessa says, “I let people walk all over me. I don’t know why. I can remember being Miss America and having people come up to me and say, ‘You know, you really aren’t that pretty,’ and it hurts, but you don’t let it show. And like stopping myself before the pictures happened. Saying, ‘Listen, I don’t feel cool about this,’ but then having somebody say, ‘No, it’s all right, just go ahead and do it.’ Just wanting to please somebody. I don’t know why.”

“There is,” says Bob Guccione, “a classic personality of the young nude model. A strange combination of this terrific willingness to comply and please and do what’s expected of them — which is all part of their manifest determination to succeed.”

“The Miss America Pageant,” says Gloria Steinem, “reinforces a belief that women are merely how they look and how they please.”

In ways that pageant officials never dream of, Vanessa Williams is the real Miss America after all. 

In This Article: Coverwall, Vanessa Williams


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