The roller coaster career of actress and singer Vanessa L. Williams provides an excellent example of fortitude, resilience, and real talent winning out over adversity. In 1983, Williams made history when she was the first black woman to be chosen Miss America. For a time she was the country's darling as she toured about, attending to her royal duties, but when Penthouse magazine published nude photographs that she had posed for years before, Williams lost her crown, two million dollars in product endorsements, and the lead in a Broadway show; suddenly, America's sweetheart found herself the subject of moral outrage, criticisms, and cruel jokes. But though her career and reputation were in shambles, Williams kept her dignity and faith, and continued on, first making her name as a successful R&B singer (one of her songs went gold, "Save the Best for Last") and then receiving considerable critical acclaim on Broadway for starring in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Williams made her feature film debut in The Pick-Up Artist (1987) and went on to forge a steady career as an actress. Notable subsequent film roles include one co-starring with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Eraser (1996) and the part of a career-obsessed wife in Soul Food (1997). After spending the early 2000s working on theatrical productions, including the Broadway Musical Revue Sondheim on Sondheim, Williams returned to the big screen for the award winning drama My Brother in 2007, and won rave reviews in 2006 for her portrayal of Wilhelmina Slater, the ruthless editor-and-chief of a fashion magazine on ABC's hit series Ugly Betty, and was praised for her portrayal of Renee Perry in the seventh season of Desperate Housewives. After Housewives ended, she starred in the short-lived series 666 Park Avenue. She then returned to the stage, appearing opposite Cicely Tyson in The Trip to Bountiful.
Biography by Sandra Brennan
- Parents were both music teachers.
- Was the first African-American Miss America in 1983; she was forced to resign after unauthorized nude photographs of her were published in Penthouse magazine.
- Appeared in commercials for RadioShack, Crest, Proactiv Solution, and L'Oréal Cosmetics.
- Her 1988 debut album, The Right Stuff, received three Grammy nominations.
- Had her first leading role in a feature film (opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger) in 1996's Eraser.
- Took a break from Into the Woods to perform in a Kennedy Center production of Carmen Jones in 2002.
- Sang at Arnold Schwarzenegger's inauguration as Governor of California in November 2003.
- Received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007.
- Attended Syracuse University from 1981 to '83; was awarded her BFA degree in 2008 after having earned the remaining credits "through industry experience." After Ugly Betty wrapped up its final season in 2010, she returned to the stage in Broadway's Sondheim on Sondheim.