Monday, May 12, 2008
I was happy to see in today’s paper that Vanessa received her bachelor of arts degree from Syracuse University on Saturday, nearly 25 years after she dropped out to become the first African-American Miss America. Reading that brought back a lot of memories for me.
I was a reporter at the Syracuse Post-Standard in 1983 when Vanessa, a musical theatre major, won the title. Back then I was a Roman Catholic and used to worship at the Newman Center at S.U. On the day after Vanessa was crowded I was there as usual. What was different that Sunday morning was the announcement from the priest, Father Charles. He said: “You should be proud. Miss America comes from among you.”
That was the first I heard of it, and even though I wasn’t a student, I felt proud to be a small part of that community spirit. If I had I been on campus the night before, I would really have experienced the pride. Jubilant students had filled the streets, shouting out Vanessa’s name.
When I went into the newsroom the next day, the features writers were talking about how Vanessa had modeled for their fashion section and said how extremely nice and professional she had been. I felt even more pride then, and another small connection.
The following summer I was living back in Baltimore when news broke that several sexually explicit photographs Vanessa had posed for before earning the title would be appearing in Penthouse magazine. I so much hoped it wouldn’t hurt her, and was glued to the TV for her scheduled announcement of her plans. I was truly sorry when she said she was resigning; I had hoped she would fight it.
But that, of course, wasn’t going to be the end of Vanessa. She went on to a career as a hit recording artist, eventually winning nine Grammy nominations and selling more than four million albums. I remember the first time I heard one of her songs on the radio. The DJ announced that the singer was Vanessa Williams, and I wondered if it was “our” Vanessa. After the song he said she was the former Miss America and I was delighted. “Good for her,” I thought.
In 1994, 10 years after resigning her title in disgrace, she was announced as Chita Rivera’s replacement in The Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway, which was the place she had always wanted to be; the beauty pageant had just been a way to earn money for school. I remember praying for her opening.
Answered prayers -- and all that talent! Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times: “She’s not a performer who holds back. She’s throwing everything she has into this performance, which pays off with the audience.” He acknowledged Rivera was a hard act to follow, but that Vanessa “appears to have both the intelligence and the intuition that separate merely competent performers from those who are first rate and more.”
That was before I was a critic and I couldn’t afford tickets, so I had to miss that performance. When she was back on Broadway in 2002 as The Witch in Into the Woods, I was there -- twice. And she was fabulous.
Because of these feelings of connection I had to Vanessa, and because I knew her Roman Catholic faith was really important to her, she was one actor I knew I wanted to interview for my book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors. It took awhile to get it set up because she’s such a busy woman; in addition to being a singer and an actress on TV, Broadway and in feature films, she’s also a mother of four.
The time did come, though, and we sat down together one Wednesday between shows at a restaurant across from where Into the Woods was playing. She was just as gracious and down-to-earth as I expected her to be. She shared wisdom with me that greatly strengthened my chapters on In the Moment, Prayer and Self-Knowledge.
I was equally impressed when at the end of the interview she said: “If you have any questions later, you know how to get a hold of me.” How thoughtful, and how in-tuned to the needs of others. She could have had the attitude that, “I’m a big star and I’ve given you an hour. That’s enough.” No, she recognized that journalists often need to ask follow-up questions. She didn’t waited to be called, but made the offer out front. What a class act!
Vanessa’s latest role as a college graduate came after the university decided she had earned her remaining credits for her degree through industry experience and performances both on stage and on screen. On Saturday, wearing a cap and gown, Vanessa, now 45, delivered the convocation address to graduates of Syracuse's College of Visual and Performing Arts, encouraging them to “treasure the moment.” Her degree is not her first recognition from S.U. In 1996, she had received the George Arents Pioneer Medal, the university's most prestigious alumni award.
As my grandfather, Patrick O’Neill, used to say: “Cream always rises to the top.”