Vanessa Lynn Williams (born March 18, 1963) is an American pop-R&B recording artist, producer, dancer, model, actress and showgirl. In 1983, she became the first woman of African-American descent to be crowned Miss America, but a scandal generated by her having posed for nude photographs published in Penthouse magazine caused her to relinquish her title early and she was succeeded by the first runner-up, Suzette Charles of New Jersey – who was also African-American. Williams rebounded by launching a career as an entertainer, earning multiple Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award nominations.
Williams released her debut album The Right Stuff in 1988, which spawned the hits "The Right Stuff", a #1 on Hot Dance Songs, and "Dreamin'" a #1 on R&B and #8 on Billboard Hot 100. Her second studio album The Comfort Zone in 1991 topped the Billboard R&B Album Chart, which spawned the Billboard Hot 100 number-one hit "Save the Best for Last".
In 1994 she debuted on Broadway in the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. In 1995 she recorded "Colors of the Wind", the Oscar-winner for Best Original Song from the Disney animated feature film Pocahontas, which reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Williams's first film acting role was as the star of the feature film Eraser in 1996. She also starred in the movies Soul Food, Dance with Me, The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, Shaft and Johnson Family Vacation.
From 2006 to 2010 she played the role of the scheming, self-absorbed diva and former supermodel Wilhelmina Slater in the ABC comedy series Ugly Betty, for which she received three Emmy Awards nominations. In 2009, Williams released her eighth studio album, The Real Thing. In 2010 she joined the ensemble cast of the series Desperate Housewives as spoiled rich woman Renee Perry.
Along with Mario Frangoulis, she was the main host of the opening ceremony of the 2011 Special Olympics, held in Athens.
Williams was born in Tarrytown, New York, the daughter of music teachers Helen L. (née Tinch) and Milton Augustine Williams, Jr. According to DNA tests, Vanessa is of African American, Welsh, and Native American descent. Williams and her younger brother Chris, who is also an actor, grew up in Millwood, a predominantly white middle-class suburban area. Prophetically, her parents put "Here she is: Miss America" on her birth announcement.
Williams studied piano and French horn growing up, but was most interested in singing and songwriting. She received a scholarship and attended Syracuse University as a Musical Theatre Arts major from 1981 to 1983. She interrupted her education at Syracuse during her sophomore year to fulfill her duties as Miss America, and subsequently left the university to focus on her entertainment career. Twenty-five years later, she graduated from Syracuse by earning her remaining college credits through her life experience. Williams delivered the convocation address on May 10, 2008, to 480 other students in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. She stated:
It's been 25 years since I was a student here. It just brought home what my message was, which is cherish the moment; these days are irreplaceable and are the beginning of the rest of your life.
Williams competed in the Miss Syracuse (University) beauty pageant when a campus musical she was in was canceled in 1983. After winning the Miss Syracuse title, Williams won the Miss New York crown in 1983, and went to compete for the Miss America title at the national pageant in Atlantic City. Prior to the final night of competition, Williams won both Preliminary competitions - Talent and Swimsuit - earlier in the week (note: each day's Preliminary competitions have winners announced; therefore there can be as many as six "Prelim" winners; three each for Talent and Swimsuit. To win a "prelim" in both is a strong precursor to success in the finals.) She was crowned Miss America 1984 on September 17, 1983, becoming the first African American to win the title.
Williams' reign as Miss America was not without its challenges and controversies. For the first time in pageant history, a reigning Miss America was the target of death threats and hate mail.
Ten months into her reign as Miss America, she received an anonymous phone call stating that nude photos of her taken before her pageant days had surfaced. Williams believed the photographs were private and had been destroyed; she claims she never signed a release permitting the photos to be used.
The genesis of the photos dated back to 1982, when she worked as an assistant and makeup artist for Mount Kisco, New York photographer Tom Chiapel. According to Williams, Chiapel advised her that he wanted to try a "new concept of silhouettes with two models". He photographed Williams and another woman in several nude poses, including simulated lesbian sex.