On today in 1983, 20-year-old Vanessa Williams becomes the initial African American to win the Miss America crown. Less when compared to a year later, on July 23, 1984, Williams quit her crown after nude photos of her surfaced. Despite the scandal, Williams later launched an effective singing and acting career, including a featured role on the hit television sitcom Ugly Betty.
Vanessa Lynn Williams was created on March 18, 1963, and raised by music-teacher parents in suburban New York City. She attended Syracuse University, where she majored in musical theater. After winning the Miss New York title, Williams visited Atlantic City, New Jersey, to take part in the Miss America pageant. On September 17, 1983, Williams made history by becoming the initial African-American woman in the pageant’s 63-year history to fully capture the Miss America title. (For the competition’s first 30 years, blacks weren’t permitted to become contestants even.) Scandal later erupted, however, when nude photos surfaced of Williams that had reportedly been shot when she worked for a photographer before her pageant days. She was forced to resign her Miss America title in July 1984. The photos later appeared (without Williams’ consent) in Penthouse magazine.
After time away from the general public eye, Williams re-emerged and embarked on an effective music career. In 1988, she premiered by her debut album, The Right Stuff, a dance/pop/R&B collection that went gold and garnered her three Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist. Her second album, 1991’s The Comfort Zone, sold over two million copies and contained the chart-topping single “Save the Best for Last.” Williams’ third album, 1994’s The Sweetest Days, also went platinum. In 1995, she recorded “Colors of the Wind,” the theme song on the soundtrack for the animated feature Pocahontas; the song later earned an Academy Award.
As Williams continued to record and perform music in to the coming decade, her acting career up heated. She made her big-screen debut with a little role in 1987’s The Pick-Up Artist, featuring Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr., and in addition appeared in the 1991 Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder vehicle Another You. She then shifted to co-starring roles in 1996’s Eraser, with Arnold Schwarzenegger; 1997’s Soul Food, whose ensemble cast included Nia Long, Vivica A. Fox and Mekhi Pfifer; the 2000 remake of Shaft, directed by John Singleton and featuring Samuel L. Jackson; and 2004’s Johnson Family Vacation, with Cedric the Entertainer. Williams also racked up credits on the small-screen, including roles on the short-lived series Boomtown and South Beach. Since 2006, she’s co-starred on the hit ABC sitcom Ugly Betty. Williams has received two Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series on her behalf role because the scheming former supermodel Wilhelmina Slater.
Williams in addition has appeared on Broadway, where she made her debut in 1994 with a starring role in The Kiss of the Spider Woman. She earned a Tony Award nomination on her behalf appearance in the 2002 revival of Into the Woods.