She was the first black woman crowned Miss America — and the first Miss America to relinquish her crown. Ten months into her reign, on July 23, 1984, the day Penthouse published nude photos of her, Vanessa Williams reluctantly yielded to pressure from pageant officials and announced that she was stepping down ”to avoid potential harm to the pageant and the deep division that a bitter fight may cause.”
Williams maintained that nearly two years earlier, as a naive 19-year-old trying to break into modeling, she’d thought she was posing for artistic nude portraits (some with another woman); that photographer Tom Chiapel had said her image would appear only in silhouette; and that she had never signed the release form that would allow the photos to be published, a claim Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione disputed. The September ’84 Penthouse became the magazine’s best-selling issue ever, and although Williams would call the scandal ”devastating,” Guccione suggested that it would boost her career. ”It’s made her by far the most famous Miss America that ever lived,” he told PEOPLE.
Still, the future looked shaky. Soon after stepping down, Williams was dropped from a scheduled appearance with Bob Hope and lost an endorsement contract with Gillette. Then, two years later, she abandoned her $400 million lawsuit against Chiapel and Guccione, conceding that Guccione had indeed obtained a valid signature.
But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. Guided by her husband/manager, Ramon Hervey, Williams landed a record deal with the R&B label Mercury/Wing and in 1988 released her debut album, The Right Stuff. The title was prescient: Since then, she has released two more albums (which went platinum and earned multiple Grammy nominations); starred in Broadway’s Kiss of the Spider Woman; appeared at this year’s Academy Awards to perform the Oscar-winning theme song from Disney’s Pocahontas, ”Colors of the Wind”; jump-started her film career in Eraser, opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger; and recently inked deals for another movie and a fourth pop album.
Guccione, for one, isn’t surprised: ”It was the various gifts that Vanessa had that sustained her initial breakthrough and made her grow in the public eye.”
Williams agrees. ”I’m here because of my guts and my talent,” she has said. Finally, after all these years, she and Guccione are on the same page.
Time Capsule: July 23, 1984
Readers joined in with Helen H. Santmyer’s best-seller And Ladies of the Club; moviegoers hid in the dark with Gremlins; the Summer Olympics beat all its TV competitors; and Prince’s ”When Doves Cry” soared to the top.