Kids of the '90s remember her as the singer of an inescapable, sickly-sweet ballad, and the kids of today know her for her role as the calculating Wilhelmina Slater on ABC's "Ugly Betty," but those of us with longer memories can recall a time when Vanessa Williams was supposed to be nothing more than a pretty face -- the winner of the 1984 Miss America pageant, to be specific.
In '84, the pageant was a lot more popular than it is today, but even then, its winners tended to fade quickly into obscurity after grabbing the tiara and cash. Not Williams, who first had to endure death threats and hate mail from racist asswipes, then the embarrassment of a Hustler-enabled "scandal" involving photos Williams posed for in the early '80s, when she worked as a photographer's assistant. Pressured into giving up her crown, it seemed Williams would forever go down in history as "Miss America 1984(a)," and nothing more.
But not so fast. Williams took the lemons life gave her and made a big ol' pitcher of lemonade, parlaying her notoriety (and, it must be said, talent) into a career as a recording artist and actress. By 1988, she'd scored a gold album and several hit singles; by 1992, she'd recorded the ubiquitous prom theme, "Saving the Best for Last."
Hits have been hard to come by for Williams since the mid '90s, but she's kept her acting career going with stints on screens both big ("Eraser" and "Soul Food" among them) and small (most notably as America Ferrera's bitchy boss on "Ugly Betty"). Though controversy continues to dog her private life -- her second divorce carried with it rumors of a lesbian affair -- she's finally better-known for her body of work than her, uh, body.
Vanessa Williams Photos
Vanessa Williams on the Web
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Vanessa Williams on the Screen
More painful than the Miss America scandal was Williams' first television appearance, playing herself on a 1984 episode of "The Love Boat"; in the years since, she's racked up a list of film and television roles as long as your arm, including stints on "South Beach," "MADtv," "Ally McBeal," and "Boomtown," along with a wide array of television movies. On the big screen, she has starred opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Eraser," and made an award-winning appearance in the 1997 chick flick "Soul Food," among other roles.
Aside from showing up every week on ABC's "Ugly Betty," Williams is continuing her film career; she's currently filming a role opposite Eartha Kitt and Ben Vereen in the upcoming "And Then Came Love."
Vanessa Williams Says
On resigning from her position as Miss America:
"The past just came up and kicked me."
On her moral fiber:
"I am not a lesbian and I am not a slut, and somehow I am going to make people believe me."
On dishes best served cold:
"Success is the sweetest revenge."