On This Day: Sept. 17, 1983
Host Gary Collins stood on stage with the six contestants left. With the audience waiting for the big reveal, Collins milked the moment for maximum drama. “One of them will be the new Miss America and the winner of a $25,000 scholarship…
And our new Miss America...
Is Vanessa Williams! Miss New York!”
And with that, Williams made history by becoming the first Black woman in the pageant’s six-decade history to win the Miss America title.
"I had the responsibility of something that I never thought would ever happen in my lifetime," Williams told Yahoo Entertainment in a 2021 interview.
To start from the very beginning, Vanessa Lynn Williams was born on March 19, 1963 and grew up in the suburbs of New York City. She wrote in her memoir that she was molested as a child, had a rebellious adolecence and had a secret abortion in high school. She honed her multiple talents while studying musical theater at Syracuse University.
She eventually competed and won the Miss New York title, then went on to Atlantic City, N.J., to participate in and win the Miss America Pageant — a contest that refused to allow Black women to compete for its first 30 years.
What Happened Next
Only months into her reign as Miss America, she became embroiled in scandal when nude photos of her surfaced. She had posed for the pictures when she worked for a photographer before her pageant days. The photos were later published in Penthouse; Williams said she never gave her consent for the magazine to print them.
"I felt extremely betrayed, and of course, stunned and humiliated," Williams recounted to Yahoo.
Just 10 months after her crowning moment, in July 1984, she was forced to resign her Miss America title.
Williams, only 21 at the time, briefly stepped back from public eye and regrouped. But she was undaunted. She decided to begin her comeback by focusing on her music. Her debut album, The Right Stuff, dropped in 1988, with multiple singles landing on the Billboard charts. Her third album released in 1994, The Sweetest Days, went platinum. Her rendition of the Oscar-winning song "Colors of the Wind" from the animated Disney feature Pocahontas, featured on both Sweetest Days and the film's soundtrack, was a top 10 single and earned Williams one of her 10 Grammy nominations.
In 1994, Williams showcased her talents on stage when she replaced Chita Rivera in the Broadway hit Kiss of the Spider Woman.
"Kiss of the Spider Woman was, she can sing, dance and act and she is a triple threat and the real deal," said Williams, who would go on to receive a Tony Award nomination for the 2002 revival of Into the Woods. "It was the opportunity for me to show really who I am."
Hollywood soon came calling, and Williams landed the role of Dr. Lee Cullen in 1996's Eraser opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger, which allowed her to "play with the big fellas." She followed it up with memorable cinematic roles in 1997's Soul Food, the 2000 remake of Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson and directed by John Singleton, and 2004's Johnson Family Vacation with Cedric the Entertainer. She received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in 2007.
She was even successful on television, earning multiple Emmy nominations for her role as the former supermodel/ruthless boss Wilhelmina Slater in the ABC comedy series Ugly Betty.
In 2015, more than three decades after her crown was rescinded, Williams found herself back on the Miss America stage in Atlantic City.
Sam Haskell, the pageant's chief executive, brought her there… to offer a mea culpa on behalf of the Miss America Organization.
"Though none of us currently in the organization were involved then, on behalf of today's organization, I want to apologize to you and to your mother, Miss Helen Williams. I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less than the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be."
Where We Are Now
Williams, now 60 and a mother of four, returned for a second season as a judge for RuPaul’s Queen of the Universe competition series on Paramount+ in June.
She will be heading back to Broadway on Oct 5, joining Patti LuPone and Joshua Henry at the New York City Ballet's 2023 Fall Gala where she will perform songs by George Gershwin.
Williams has also dedicated herself to creating sustainable change for artists of color. Following the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, she joined other Black theater leaders to launch the Black Theater United.
"I didn't think it would happen," Williams told Yahoo looking back at journey from scandal to redemption, ", and the fact that it did happen made my path mean something and that's tremendously heartfelt to me because I made a change in my own little way."