In show business, revenge is a dish best served in cold, hard numbers, and lately, Vanessa Williams has become a master chef. Two gold records. Four Grammy nominations. And a No. 1 single. Those are useful figures for anybody who wants to refute two common beliefs that have dogged Williams for eight years: 1) that Miss Americas never become anything but former Miss Americas; and 2) that survivors of major scandal invariably end up as no more than No Excuses jeans ads. At 29, Williams is laying those homilies to rest: ”First black (and first deposed) Miss America” is starting to fade into early-résumé irrelevance, and so is her role in what she calls, with unblinking directness, ”the first great ’80s scandal.” She means, of course, the furor over those notoriously explicit photographs of her and another woman that cost her the 1983 Miss America crown when Penthouse magazine published them under the cover line ”Oh, God, She’s Nude!”
Since then, the private Vanessa Williams has done a remarkable job of rebuilding the famous Vanessa Williams — first by virtually disappearing after the scandal, then by moving from New York to Los Angeles to establish herself as a novice singer and actress, and finally by retaking the spotlight with a hit record, and without apology. Given that Williams is now in the middle of her second round of fame, it’s no surprise that she’s used to drawing stares. Though she dresses to deflect attention, her blond-brown hair and flashing green eyes make that a losing battle. ”People look at me and they can’t quite ; figure it out,” she says. ”They think they know me, but they’re not sure.”
That may be a tribute to Williams’ remarkable reinvention of her pub-lic persona. Her acting career got a boost last week with her scene-stealing role in CBS’ Stompin’ at the Savoy, and last month her efforts to transform herself from a trivia question into a legitimate singing success peaked: Her rich, slow-start-big-finish ballad ”Save the Best for Last,” cowritten by Wendy Waldman, zipped past Michael Jackson’s ”Remember the Time” to hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s pop, rhythm & blues, and Adult Contemporary singles charts. The song has stayed at the top for five weeks and pulled her 10-month-old second album, The Comfort Zone (Mercury), into the top 20.
For Williams’ colleagues in the music business, that’s how you spell respect. ”I couldn’t be more thrilled about what’s happening for her right now,” says Luther Vandross, who expects to tour with Williams this summer. ”The way she looks, the way she sings, that inexplicable something called charisma all work in her favor.” And Michael Mitchell, vice president of communications at rival label Motown, admits Williams ”has proved all the skeptics wrong. She’s turned things around for herself and become almost a black role model.”
Williams credits herself with patience, a salty, smart, inward laugh (Heh- heh-heh), and a very long memory.
”Oh, yes,” she says, letting a slow chuckle escape. ”I remember everyone. The people that support you and the people that dog you. There are two separate lists. And whether people make good on their promises or they don’t, those things make an indelible mark in your mind.”
Take, for instance, the endless round of radio-station promotions that accompanied Mercury Records’ push for her 1988 debut, The Right Stuff, and now The Comfort Zone. ”I’m always sensitive about where I had my first support,” she says, ”and that was black radio. They were great. Pop radio stations were the ones who would take potshots at me. Disrespect me. Try to make me into a novelty. I couldn’t say anything, but I’d walk out the door thinking, ‘That guy is a…you know, never again.’ You remember those things. They’re little knives.”
The blades were sharpened on Williams’ abruptly terminated reign as pop- culture royalty, an experience for which she admits she was unprepared. She grew up in the middle-class New York City suburb of Millwood, N.Y., where her parents, both music teachers, still live. In 1981 she won a musical-theater , scholarship to Syracuse University, but by the spring of 1983 those funds had been used up. ”It was time to get more scholarship money,” says Williams, who chose an unusual route: She entered the Miss New York contest, and less than six months later, with big hair and a big smile, she was walking down the runway in Atlantic City.
”Maybe it was to my advantage that I wasn’t as hungry as those other girls, the ones who were bred to do this,” she says. ”I was certainly one of those people who said it was a joke. I think of myself as a feminist and pretty liberal, and there are aspects [of the pageant] that are pretty exploitative. You realize it once you’re on the circuit.”
The “circuit” was an endless tour of hand shaking, autograph signing, mini- mart opening, and kissing everyone from babies to Bob Hope. And after 10 months, when a photographer for whom Williams had worked as a secretary and makeup assistant sold Penthouse nude pictures he had taken of her years before, it ended in less than a week.
“It was an interesting time,” says Williams. “I don’t know whether I’d say it was unhappy. I didn’t grieve — it wasn’t like a death in the family. I was more surprised than anything. Frightened, overwhelmed, and in shock. It happened very fast. I mean, I was 21 years old, and I couldn’t believe that the nation was making a big deal over me. When you see Dan Rather talking about you, it’s pretty amazing. They did public-opinion polls on me!”
In the days before she surrendered her crown, Williams met her future husband, Ramon Hervey II, then a publicist; in fact, he orchestrated her last press conference, on July 23, 1984. “I wasn’t on the verge of tears or anything,” she says. “When I walked in, the press made such buffoons of themselves jockeying for position that it took the edge off of anything I was feeling. I was laughing inside.” Heh-heh-heh.
For a while Williams moved back in with her parents. “They forgave me, which is all I cared about, but they were not ones to shelter — when someone would call, they’d just put me on the phone,” she says. “People camped out on their lawn, and they left the curtains open so people wouldn’t think they were doing anything dishonest.”
In January 1987, Williams married Hervey, 41, who now serves as her manager, and moved to L.A., where she began to cobble together an acting career. Recently, she has appeared in the films Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Another You. But she emphasizes that she is not the actress, also named Vanessa Williams, who played Wesley Snipes’ girlfriend in New Jack City. “The role was really demeaning and I turned it down,” she says dryly. “As you can see, they used a lot of imagination in looking for another actress.”
But Williams’ primary aim all along was a record deal. In 1987 she met Ed Eckstine, then an A&R man at Mercury Records and now its president. “She came around and just sort of hung in my office all day,” Eckstine recalls. “I had heard her sing ‘Do Fries Go With That Shake?’ on a George Clinton record, and I liked her.” They had similar musical taste, he discovered; both liked classic R&B and funk. Soon after, Williams began work on her first album, with time out for the birth of Melanie (now 4) and the regimen it took to lose 45 pounds afterward.
On The Right Stuff “we had our share of bumps and bruises,” says Eckstine. Chief among them was the last-minute departure of the hot production team L.A. Reid and Babyface, who took with them songs that eventually became hits for Bobby Brown and Pebbles. Nonetheless, the album, a carefully balanced blend of light dance-funk and kittenish ballads, went gold and won Williams three Grammy nominations.
It was a nice affirmation, but deejays were still introducing her songs with one-liners about Vanessa-the-undressa. “The industry was skeptical up until the third single from the album,” says Williams. “It was about six months before they got the picture that they could make money.”
The birth of Williams’ second daughter, Jillian, in 1989, lengthened the gap between albums to three years, but it proved to be a productive period. By the time The Comfort Zone was released last summer, Williams had recrafted her musical image into something tougher and stronger. “She developed more assertive relationships with her songwriters,” says Eckstine. “For this album, she said, ‘I don’t want to sing just another wimpy-girl, oh-honey-you-left-me- but-I’ll-wait-forever ballad.'” Instead she recorded an impressively original mix: the killer dance hit “Running Back to You,” the 55-year-old standard “What Will I Tell My Heart,” a sharp feminist remake of the Isley Brothers’ “Work to Do,” and “Save the Best for Last,” a sweeping, built-for-radio love song that Eckstine says “couldn’t miss. It would be a pivotal point in her career unless we f—ed it up in the studio.”
They got what they wanted. “I’m very happy now that fewer people are using ‘former beauty queen’ or ‘dethroned Miss America’ as opposed to ‘pop star’ or ‘singer,'” Williams says. “At 25, I felt that I was living the life of a 50-year-old, with all of the heartache I had gone through. But I’m coming to a turning point. I’m 29. I’ve been in this business for a while. I always feel that I have something to prove, but I’m really happy with where I am now.”
She’s also careful. Although Williams’ songs are siren calls to get closer, and her look, in videos and on album covers, is sex-drenched (check out her soaking-wet, come-hither appearance on the Comfort Zone cover), she is unwilling to entrust custody of her erotic image to handlers. “The album cover was my idea,” she says. “I wanted this to be an album people can make love to, sensual and inviting. On the other hand, I’ve heard people from the record company saying, ‘Don’t talk about the kids so much, and can you dress a little more on the edge?’ And I say, ‘Listen, I love my kids. I’m not ashamed of them. And I don’t allow anyone to dictate what I’m going to say or be like.'”
That determination has caused the occasional clash with her management — including her husband. “They did a glowing piece on me on [the tabloid show] Hard Copy,” says Williams. “Yes, their stuff is always a little scandalous, but it was very complimentary — ‘Look at what she’s done since what happened to her.’ They wanted to show a piece of my latest video, and I remember Ramon freaking and saying to the record company, ‘How dare you [supply the video to] such trash? We’re trying to forget all that!’ They never did get the video. And I didn’t see the piece. I was in the bathtub with my girls when it came on.”
Williams’ daughters are frequent touchstones in her conversation. “I’m always with them,” she says. “If I’m working away for a few days, they get on the phone with psychosomatic illnesses.” What will she tell them about becoming Miss America? “I’d never do it again,” she says crisply, “never tell someone to do it, never ask my kids to do it. Not that they’d be interested anyway.”
As Williams prepares to shoot a music video, she recalls a career path she crossed during the making of three of her earlier videos: Her director was Alek Keshishian, who peeled Madonna like an onion in the documentary Truth or Dare. Could Williams imagine unlayering herself in the same way?
“I don’t think I’d have a problem with that,” she says. “I don’t have anything to be embarrassed about. My life is pretty normal. I do a lot of normal things with my kids. It would be rated PG. Probably disappointing to many. But hey,” she concludes, with a heh-heh-heh, “too bad for them.” * (Additional reporting by David Nathan)