Sometimes the snow comes down in June. Sometimes the sun goes round the moon. Sometimes an ex-Miss America-turned-scandal victim can leave her Winnebago-size past behind with a hit single that fights its way to the top of the pop charts and stays there for five long, reputation-building weeks. Sometimes. Not often, mind you, but Vanessa Williams’ 30th year offered a lovely lesson in the plausibility of beating the odds.
It was in 1990 that Williams, then a part-time actress and fledgling singer working on her second album, The Comfort Zone, had recorded the velvety romantic ballad ”Save the Best for Last.” By the time the track was released as a single last spring, ”it was sort of gone from my mind,” Williams says. ”I was praying for its success, but I didn’t think it would last.” It lasted long enough to go gold, to keep The Comfort Zone on the charts for 67 weeks (and counting), and to wash away much of the tabloid ink that had once smudged Williams’ resume. The nude-photo flap that brought about her tough, tear-free , abdication as Miss America in 1984 is now officially old news, if you remember it at all — which many of Williams’ newest fans do not. ”Little teenage girls are lip-synching to me in their bedrooms,” she says, somewhat stunned. ”Kids who never knew me before. I guess this is my one career-making song.”
And her career-making year. Twelve months ago Williams was so discouraged she was on the verge of telling her agent to stop sending her on acting auditions; in 1992 she landed attention-getting roles in two high-rated TV movies. In ABC’s blockbuster miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream, she turned up in funky bell-bottoms to play Motown exec Suzanne de Passe, and in CBS’ Depression-era drama Stompin’ at the Savoy, she had what she calls ”the best role I’ve ever been able to play — a black woman who’s spunky, sassy, talented, and determined to make a better life for herself.”
”I still hate to audition,” she says. ”The strange thing about both of those roles is, the producers called me.” Strange, indeed, how often Williams’ telephone has been ringing lately: Would she like to sing on Saturday Night Live? Would she be interested in a guest shot on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? Would she appear in a series of VH-1 specials? Sure, why not? she responds, as if a second chance to ride the fast track were the most natural thing in the world.
Williams will return to the studio in January to begin recording her follow-up to The Comfort Zone. Since the success of ”Save the Best for Last,” songwriters have been lining up to secure a place on her next album, ”but,” she says, ”you’d be surprised how hard it is to find great songs.” Although she is pregnant with her third child (a boy, due in April), she says that she’s ready to get back to work. ”I never for one second have felt that I’ve arrived,” Williams says. ”I will always have something to prove.” In 1992, Vanessa Williams made her case — all you had to do was listen.