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The style and grace of Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. Go to www.ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places, organizations, and artists like Vanessa Williams that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers. (Edits by Tyson Horne and Ryon Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com rhorne@ajc.com)

Scandal cost her the title, but didn’t keep her from bigger stardom

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

“There she is, Miss America.”

Before 1983, those words had never applied to a woman of color. That changed once the crown was placed on Vanessa Williams’ head.

Six months after entering her first pageant, she made history by winning the most coveted crown in the U.S. Ten months after that she made history again, when she was forced to resign amid a scandal over nude photos.

» MORE: Full coverage of Black History Month

Williams had always planned to make history, only not this way. She wanted to , so she studied classical and jazz dance as well as theater arts.

When Vanessa Williams became the first Miss America that September in 1983, she changed the definition of beauty for many people. JACK KANTHAL / AP
When Vanessa Williams became the first Miss America that September in 1983, she changed the definition of beauty for many people. JACK KANTHAL / AP

Music was always a part of Williams' life. Her parents, Milton and Helen Williams, moved the family from the Bronx to upscale Millwood, N.Y., to be music teachers when their daughter was just a year old.

After high school graduation, multitalented Williams was one of 12 students accepted into the Carnegie Mellon University theater arts program in Pittsburgh. She decided to attend Syracuse University instead.

That’s where she entered her first pageant, as Miss Syracuse, which she of course won. She then took the crown as Miss New York, and six months later as Miss America.

On July 23, 1984, Williams stepped down after Penthouse magazine published nude photos of her taken two years before. Her reign as Miss America was over, but her rise to stardom was about to begin.

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As a girl, Vanessa Williams wanted to , so she studied classical and jazz dance as well as theater arts. GILLES TOUCAS
As a girl, Vanessa Williams wanted to , so she studied classical and jazz dance as well as theater arts. GILLES TOUCAS

Determined not to let this set her back, Williams worked with public relations specialist Ramon Hervey, who got her a role in 1987’s “The Pick-up Artist.” She took the role of Hervey’s wife later that year.

Her music career took off in 1988 with the release of her first album, “The Right Stuff.” The album went gold, and three singles reached the top 10.

Williams’ second album, “The Comfort Zone,” went triple platinum, with the single “Save the Best for Last” staying at No. 1 on the pop charts for five weeks.

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Singer Vanessa Williams talks to the crowd during the 2019 Atlanta Concours d’Elegance car show at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Singer Vanessa Williams talks to the crowd during the 2019 Atlanta Concours d’Elegance car show at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Since then she has established herself as both a singer and actress in film, on television and the stage. She was been recognized with four Emmy nominations, 17 Grammy nominations, a Tony nomination, three Screen Actors Guild nominations, six NAACP Image Awards, three Satellite Awards, and a Golden Globe, Grammy and Oscar for Best Original Song for "Colors of the Wind," from "Pocahontas."

And in 2015, she received an official apology from the Miss America Organization.

“I have been a close friend to this beautiful and talented lady for 32 years,” Miss America CEO Sam Haskell said. “You have lived your life in grace and dignity, and never was it more evident than during the events of 1984 when you resigned.”

Singer-actress-author Vanessa Williams has visited Atlanta numerous times, the most recent when she performed with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as part of the ASO’s 75th season this past September. GILLES TOUCAS
Singer-actress-author Vanessa Williams has visited Atlanta numerous times, the most recent when she performed with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as part of the ASO’s 75th season this past September. GILLES TOUCAS

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Haskell continued: “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.”

When Williams became Miss America that September in 1983, she changed the definition of beauty for many people. When she stepped down, she was replaced by Suzette Charles, also a black woman.

They were followed by Debbye Turner (1990), Marjorie Judith Vincent (1991), Kimberly Aiken (1994), Erika Harold (2003), Erica Dunlap (2004), Caressa Cameron (2010) and Nia Franklin (2019).

In the mid-90s, Vanessa Williams co-starred in the movie “Eraser.” In her career, she was been recognized with four Emmy nominations, 17 Grammy nominations, a Tony nomination, three Screen Actors Guild nominations, six NAACP Image Awards, three Satellite Awards, and a Golden Globe, Grammy and Oscar for Best Original Song for “Colors of the Wind,” from “Pocahontas.” JOE TABACCA /AP
In the mid-90s, Vanessa Williams co-starred in the movie “Eraser.” In her career, she was been recognized with four Emmy nominations, 17 Grammy nominations, a Tony nomination, three Screen Actors Guild nominations, six NAACP Image Awards, three Satellite Awards, and a Golden Globe, Grammy and Oscar for Best Original Song for “Colors of the Wind,” from “Pocahontas.” JOE TABACCA /AP

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It was six years after Williams broke the pageant title color barrier before Miss USA crowned Carole Gist its first black queen. Since then, four other African American women have won the title.

There have also been five black Miss Teen USA winners. And in 2019, all three crowns were worn by African American women: Miss America Nia Franklin, Miss USA Cheslie Kryst and Miss Teen USA Kaliegh Garris.

And it all began with the grace, dignity, beauty and talent of a 20-year-old Vanessa Williams.

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section that day.

Go to www.ajc.com/black-history-month/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.