Vanessa Williams was at Mass on Sunday morning, Sept. 18, 1983. I was a reporter at the Syracuse Post-Standard then and used to worship at the Newman Center at S.U. Father Charles, the celebrant, started the service by saying: “Congratulations, Miss America comes from among you” and students around me applauded and cheered.
I didn’t have a television and wouldn’t have been watching the pageant if I had, so it took me a minute to understand that a Syracuse University musical theatre major had been crowned the night before. Even though I wasn’t a student, I sat a little taller and felt proud. When I got back to my apartment I read the New York Times coverage of this historic win -- the first black Miss America.
Then I forgot about it until the next day when I got to work and the features staff was excitedly talking about Vanessa’s victory. It turns out she had done some modeling for the paper and the writers remembered her as being not just pretty, but a pleasure to be around and willing to do whatever they asked. They loved working with her and were thrilled about her win.
Following those two encounters, with just the mention of her name, I have always felt a connection to Vanessa Williams and have followed her career, cheering her successes and praying for her during the troublesome times. Both of these Vanessas from my early awareness -- the high-achieving superstar and the down-to-earth woman -- can be found in lively detail in her new book, You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other). The book, published by Gotham Books, is co-written by her mother, Helen, along with journalist and author Irene Zutell.
Vanessa and Helen hold nothing back, producing many surprise disclosures about the beauty queen/singer/dancer/actor who has been in the public eye for nearly three decades. Some revelations are sad, such as the one about Vanessa being molested at 10 by an 18-year-old girl whose family she was visiting in California. Others are gutsy, such as admitting that as a senior in high school -- and a Catholic -- she had an abortion. The ones about her family, marriages and children are moving. And those about her faith, which are my favorites, are inspiring. I liked Vanessa before I read this book and I like her even more now. What’s more, I now like her mom as well.
Vanessa grew up with her younger brother, Chris, in the tiny Westchester County town of Millwood, about an hour outside of New York City. Her parents, Milton and Helen, were music teachers in the public school system.
From an early age Vanessa showed promise of a musical career. And, also from an early age, a rebellious streak. “Vanessa always learns the hard way,” Helen tells us in the Introduction. “She’d do what she wanted, knowing she’d pay for it later. (Usually with interest.) Vanessa didn’t make it easy for me. She did not and she does not.”
I admire the honesty of both women. The nude photos scandal that toppled Vanessa’s reign as Miss America is well presented -- from both perspectives -- but so are incidents they might have preferred to keep behind closed doors, such as the time in senior year of high school Vanessa skipped school and went back to her house with her boyfriend, which just happened to be the very day Helen decided to do something she never did, go home for lunch. When Mom walked in she heard the stereo blasting and found the couple making love on the pullout sofa in the family room. Enraged, Helen called her husband, who came home and punched the boyfriend in the face.
What I like so much about this book is that it goes beyond juicy celebrity tell-all stories like that to show the other side of Vanessa, the one with the deep character to handle all of her misfortunes, many of which were self-generated. When she learned, six weeks before her Miss America year was to end, that Penthouse was going to publish the photos, she called her lawyer and “prayed for guidance.”
And she continues to pray nightly, often on her knees, as her father taught her:
”Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. May love guard me through the night and wake me with the morning light. Help me do the things we should, to be to others kind and good. In all we do and all we say, to grow more loving every day.”
Her faith also allows her to believe (rightly) in a loving God who forgives, even an abortion. “I’m still a practicing Catholic,” she writes. “Yes, I did confess, and I’m grateful for the opportunity of forgiveness. I go to church almost every Sunday and pray before I go to bed every night (like my dad taught me). I even have loving priest friends who have guided and helped me through many struggles in life.”
In contrast to the abortion experience, she writes about being pregnant many years later with her first child, when she was married, and seeing what looked like “a pulsating grain of rice,” which was the baby’s heart, on the ultrasound. “I watched the image and listened to the swish-swish sound of my baby’s heartbeat. I could see life at eight weeks. It was clear -- in black and white -- that this would be my child. Thank God, he gave me another chance!”
Although she remains pro-choice, each time she goes by the building in White Plains where she had the abortion “it always takes me back to that cold January day years and years ago. I still get a twinge in the pit of my stomach.”
Besides faith, it’s clear family is central in her life, both the one she was raised in and the one she has created. She has four children, three with Ramon Hervey, the L.A. publicist (13 years her senior) who helped her navigate the press once the word of the nude photos got out, and one with former L.A. Lakers forward Rick Fox (six years her junior). The marriages failed, but she maintains close relationships with both men, who have even developed a bond between themselves that had them taking the children on a vacation together while Vanessa worked.
I especially like the stories of family life during the holidays. Christmas Eve sounds fun -- 5:15 Mass, then back to Vanessa’s for her homemade lasagna, afterwards the children are allowed to open one present. “Being with her children is when Vanessa’s the happiest,” Helen writes. “Being on the Broadway stage takes a pretty close second.”
The homey stories are nicely balanced by plenty of glamorous ones. The month after she was crowned Miss America, she attended a state dinner in Ronald Reagan’s White House. (Reagan had called her in Atlantic City right after her win: “Hello, Vanessa? This is President Reagan. Congratulations. This is a great thing for our nation.”)
Pretty exciting for a 20-year-old. So was the White House. “I was on my own -- and nervous,” she writes. “In the receiving line before me was the legendary designer Halston and two of my dancing idols, Martha Graham and Ginger Rogers.”
In time, she would go on to meet both President Bushes, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, the Clintons, who are now her neighbors in Chappaqua, NY, not far from where she grew up, and Barack Obama.
The book also has painful episodes -- the breakup of both marriages and the yearlong estrangement from her beloved father, which had only begun to heal at the time of his unexpected death of acute pancreatitis in January 2006.
“I’d gone through two divorces, I’d known the pain of lost love, the agony of rejection,” Vanessa writes. “I thought I understood what it was like to be heartbroken. The moment I saw my dad’s lifeless body, I realized I had no idea.”
And, of course, the book serves up lots of career stories, from recovering from the scandal and becoming a successful recording artist, to achieving her ultimate goal -- starring on Broadway -- and the movies and TV shows she’s graced.
“For years and years I’d walk into an audition or meeting and I could feel the judgment,” she writes. “They thought I was a beauty queen devoid of talent and intellect. Actually, not only a beauty queen -- I was a scandalous Miss America. I was Vanessa the Undressa. [That’s what the tabloids had called her at the time.]
From the career anecdotes one of my favorites was about that moment she had wanted since high school --where her yearbook inscription was “See you on Broadway” -- when she replaced Tony-winner Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman and got fabulous reviews, drew standing-room-only crowds and had her run extended for three months and then another three months.
Getting to Broadway as soon as possible had always been her goal. She entered her first pageant, Miss Greater Syracuse, to earn money for her junior year studying theatre in London, something she had to give up once that win led her to Atlantic City and the ultimate beauty pageant victory. The recording career also hadn’t been on her agenda, but her notoriety kept her from getting theatre work right away
The most shocking story of that discrimination was after a successful audition for a part in a Mike Nichols directed production of My One and Only, a musical based on George and Ira Gershwin’s “Funny Face.” Ira’s widow stopped that cold, saying, “I just want to be clear: I don’t want that whore in my play.”
Vanessa was stunned, but not stopped.
“I knew it would be tough, but I never doubted I would succeed,” she writes. “When you know this, you don’t have dark days, you don’t hit rock bottom.”
Her confidence and focus will offer motivation for recent college graduates or anyone looking for work.
Realizing “this Miss America thing is going to be a huge, huge obstacle,” she put Broadway on hold and began working on her first recording. When she did make it to the Great White Way, she brought with her a gold album and positive name recognition.
Other career passages I loved were those about playing the much-feared fashion magazine creative director Wilhelmina Slater on “Ugly Betty.” Helen partly inspired that character, with Vanessa recreating what she used to refer to as The Look, the hyper disapproving stare her mother focused on her all too often. And also her mother’s high standards and impatience.
“Mom’s exasperation is exactly what I channeled into “Ugly Betty.” Wilhelmina, my character, was always annoyed by everyone’s inadequacies. Her attitude was, ‘Get it together, people! UGH! Do I have to do everything?’
“ That’s exactly my mother.”
And a bit of Vanessa as well, at least in her determination to be the best. No one was going to stop her. No matter what was said about her in those early post-scandal years, she forged forward.
“I silently thought, ’You have no idea who I am and what I can do. One day the dust will settle and you’ll see what I am made of. You’ll accept me for who I really am.’”
We’ve know for a long time what Vanessa can do, and how well. And now with this book we get to see even more of what she’s made of and who she really is. I can add another personal note here that speaks to Vanessa’s quality as a person. At the end of my interview with her for my book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, she told me that if I needed anything more I could call her. I was impressed by her empathy and graciousness. She put herself in my place, anticipated my need and offered to make herself available to me, again. No attitude of “I’m a big star, you’ve had your hour, that’s it.” Nope, she was willing to be helpful, just as she had been all those years before when she modeled for our paper. And that is the mark of a true star.