September 27, 1983– Vanessa Williams Becomes the First Black Miss America
You might be too young to remember, but in 1983, Vanessa Williams represented New York State in the Miss America Pageant and became the first African-American to be crowned the winner. But, her triumph was sadly short-lived. At the start of her career, Williams had posed for nude photos for Penthouse Magazine, and when they planned to publish them in 1984, it created a scandal that forced her to resign as Miss America. Nowadays, that sort of thing wouldn’t hurt your reputation even as First Lady, but in the 1980s, no one expected such a thing from their Miss America, much less from Nancy Reagan.
When she was 20-years-old, Williams was discovered by scouts from the Miss Syracuse Pageant who had seen her perform at Syracuse University where she was a student. But, Williams was not much interested in participating in the pageant. She changed her mind when it was pointed out that she could earn scholarship money. She won the title of Miss Syracuse. A few months later, she was crowned Miss New York. During the preliminaries for the Miss America Pageant, Williams won the Talent Competition, singing Happy Days Are Here Again. She was crowned Miss America on this very day, September 17, 1983.
“There were a lot of people that did not want me to be a representative of the United States and Miss America. And not just white people. There were a lot of people who had issues. I was too light. My eyes were the wrong color. My hair wasn’t the right texture and getting criticism for being who I was.”
Williams was the target of racist hate mail and even death threats. 30 years later, Nina Davuluri, also a former Miss New York and Miss Syracuse, became the first Miss America of Indian heritage, and she also became the target of a racist backlash, as well as social media bullying.
In July 1984, two months before the end of her reign as Miss America, Williams learned that nude photos of her, taken before her involvement with the pageant, would be published without her consent in Penthouse. Williams believed that the photographs had been destroyed and stated that she never signed a release permitting publication or use of the photos in a public format.
The black-and-white photos had been taken in the summer of 1982, after William’s first year at Syracuse University. She worked as a makeup artist for photographer Tom Chiapel at the time. Williams claimed that Chiapel asked her to pose in silhouette with another model as an experiment.
After learning that Penthouse planned on publishing the photos, the Miss America Organization told Williams that she had 72 hours to resign. Williams:
Williams wrote that it was particularly hard on her mother:
“… who felt that she should not resign as Williams had performed her “duties and excelled at everything I was asked to do plus doing 50% more of appearances that were not scheduled because I was the first African-American Miss America. She felt that the pageant did not come to my support, they felt I needed to resign.”
Yet, Williams did resign. It was done at a press conference on July 23, 1984. The title then went to the first runner-up, Miss New Jersey, Suzette Charles, who served out the final seven weeks of Williams’ reign. Charles, also a singer and actor, is of West Indian and Italian heritage.
Penthouse published the unauthorized photos in its September 1984 issue. It is their bestselling issue ever.
After her resignation, Williams went from being America’s darling to a national disgrace. Williams:
“I had so much trouble being taken seriously not only because I was a beauty queen but a scandalous beauty queen on top of that. Having that perception of me was when I realized what an obstacle I’d have.”
Williams had trouble finding work. She was turned down for the lead in the Gershwin musical My One And Only, because Leonore Gershwin, the wife of lyricist Ira Gershwin declared: “Over my dead body will that whore be in my show.” Williams parents were shamed and harassed.
Williams showed the world how to recover from being publicly shamed. She didn’t disappear; she picked herself up and fought for a career in showbiz. Williams:
“You can’t give up…you always have to remember what you’re made of and not let circumstances get in the way. They might delay your progress for the moment, but you always have to remember who you are, and that will give you the eyes on the prize.”
Williams rebounded nicely, not only putting the scandal behind her, but putting out a series of slick, sophisticated R&B tinged hits, starting with The Right Stuff (1988), that made her one of the most popular Adult Contemporary singers of the era. She then had a string of successful albums and singles. She found even greater success working as an actor with a light touch for comedy, first with the film Soul Food (1997) and then becoming a Gay Icon with her portrayal of Fashion Diva Wilhelmina Slater on Ugly Betty (2006-10) and naughty Renee Perry on Desperate Housewives (2004-12). In 1994, Williams starred on Broadway in the lead role of Kiss Of The Spider Woman. In 1995, William recorded Colors Of The Wind the theme from the Disney film Pocahontas; another huge hit. It won the Academy Award for Best Song, but it left me wondering what color was my wind? She earned a Tony Award nomination for the 2002 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods.
Williams has been a longtime supporter of the LGBTQ community:
“I am one of the lucky people; growing up, my mom had gay friends. So, I grew up having my mom’s relationships with gay men something that was completely normal, natural, fun, and exciting. Even high school, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when people, especially in high school, were not out, there were my couple of friends that were not out that would always hang out with the black girls and eventually came out.”
Last year, the CEO of the Miss America Organization, Sam Haskell, offered Williams a public apology at the start of the Miss America broadcast, where Williams served as a judge:
“You have lived your life in grace and dignity, and never was it more evident than during the events of 1984, when you resigned. Though none of us currently in the organization were involved then, on behalf of today’s organization, I want to apologize to you. 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.”