Vanessa Williams: From Miss America to "Ugly Betty"

September 18th, 2006

Vanessa Williams' career could have ended 22 years ago, and no one knows that better than the stunning-and successful-43-year-old actress herself. Call Williams “a survivor,” and she gives a knowing smile.

“I don't like to wallow in sadness too long,” she says. “So I feel the pain and then move on. That's my process.”

Back in 1983, Williams became the first black Miss America–a milestone that elicited cheers from some but horror (even threatening hate mail) from others. Though she sometimes feared for her family's safety, Williams refused to quit. But then, in a devastating twist, she was forced to relinquish her crown after nude photos of her were published. Those infamous pictures are tucked away in her past-a youthful mistake.

“Some wounds never totally heal,” she admits. “But I've lived a lot of life since then. I always knew I would bounce back. I heard all of the bad stuff, but I just kept thinking it's a matter of time and persistence. I also thought, Those people don't know how I've trained. They don't know me. When the dust settles, there's a sense of clarity, and people can see who you are.”

She pauses, then adds, “You have to have fire. You have to have a dream and some kind of drive and vision to propel you on.”

Williams is a well-tested optimist and an enormously hard worker. By plugging away like a pro, she has earned success and respect.

“I've never been willing to put aside my dream,” she says. “It's all step after step in a slow climb.”

Four years after the Miss America debacle, Williams released an album that produced four Top 10 singles. More hit records followed, and then her career really took off. By 1996, she was starring with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Eraser, performing at the Super Bowl and singing “Colors of the Wind”-her hit single from the film Pocahontas–to millions at the Academy Awards. This fall, she stars in “Ugly Betty,” a new comedy on ABC, playing the Botox-filled and clothes-addicted Wilhelmina, who is horribly mean to the unstylish title character, played by America Ferrera.

“I get cast all the time as the solid lawyer, the solid cop, so it's a pleasure to evoke my dark side…especially when it's for fun.”

Talking with me at her rented home in the hills of L.A., Williams is relaxed but speaks with intensity. Her hair is damp and pulled back, “just out of the shower,” she explains. Her kids pop in and out of the room, sitting next to her on the couch and listening to our conversation or doing their own thing nearby. Williams dotes on them–an involved mom who's not worried about her glamorous image.

Williams has faced as many challenges in her personal life as she has in her career. She's been married and divorced twice: first to Ramon Hervey, the father of her oldest three children–college freshman Melanie, high school senior Jillian and eighth-grade son Devin. More recently, she divorced ex-L.A. Lakers player Rick Fox, the dad of her youngest daughter, Sasha, who's about to start first grade. Both marriages ended amid embarrassing rumors about her husbands' infidelity.

“I was shocked both times it happened to me,” she says. “It hurt equally with each man. But I think eventually it helped me to feel more OK with myself and not to take things personally. It made me realize that you can't control someone else's dreams or lack of dreams.

“I thought in those down times, OK, I've been tested. When does the fun begin? But I think every experience and every risk you take allows you to grow. If I hadn't had those people in my life, I wouldn't have my kids and the life I've made with them.”

Williams credits her parents, both music teachers in upstate New York, with giving her strength and determination. “My mom and dad were the foundation for what I am today,” she says. “They made me proud to be an achiever. They were very positive thinkers. No matter what, the door was always open for me.”

Williams' father recently died after a long illness, so the look back is touched with sadness. “My father was a great teacher. He taught me to be clear about goals. I was lucky–very lucky. I had a very safe and secure life, so it was a great springboard to 'go for it all' and to handle hard knocks.”

She changes the mood: “Oh, please. Who's always up? I feel things, and I feel them deeply, but one of my major things is moving on.”

Now ex-husbands Hervey and Fox are an important part of her family life. “We go to church together. We have holidays together. There's no, 'Oh, my God, Mom and Dad are in the same room.' I never wanted that to happen.”

Williams laughs about the unexpected mix of kids and exes. “There were times when I was emotionally not as progressive as I am now. I viewed divorce as a death. It is a death of all the things you planned together. It's one of the hardest things to go through in life. My parents were married for 45 years, so I didn't know how to deal with the grief of that kind of separation and the splitting of households. But I've been through the pain, I've been through hills and valleys. At this point in my life, I feel settled.”

Of course, “settled” has a different meaning for Williams, one that involves world travel for concert appearances and time split between filming in L.A. and visiting her kids at school in New York.

“It's the adventurer in me. Something different is next? Tell me what it is, and I'll probably say, 'Sure'!”

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