Here's How Vanessa Williams Has Changed Through The Years

Whether you know Vanessa Williams from her Grammy-nominated songs or her Emmy-nominated TV roles, chances are you know her. But a decision she made as a teen almost stopped her star from rising before fans could experience the massive talent she had to give. When she made history as the first Black Miss America in 1983 at just 20 years old, unlike many contestants, the crown had never been her lifelong dream. Visually, she didn't relate to the stereotypically "blond-haired, blue-eyed" beauty queens, while she described herself in her memoir as a "girl who smoked pot and inhaled, drank beer at cast keg parties, and had premarital sex."

"My friends found the very idea hysterical," she divulged. "As we sipped our Rolling Rock beers at our theater parties before I won the crown, it became a punch line to a joke only we understood. 'Vanessa as Miss America? They have no idea who you are!'" But despite what many considered a career-ending scandal that stole her crown, Williams surprised everyone once again by coming back in full force. She spent her energy nabbing starring roles and making music, and her tenacity sealed her as an icon in music and film. "It always makes me happy when success is the best revenge," Williams told "The Morning Show."

Her parents made an auspicious prediction at her time of birth

Born in 1963 in the Bronx, New York, baby Vanessa Williams was welcomed into the world with a wildly prophetic birth announcement (per Lifetime) with the words: "Here She Is – Miss America!" Though she would go on to achieve that title 20 years later, Williams' early days were filled with music, not pageants. "Some people have comfort foods," she wrote in her memoir, "You Have No Idea." "I have comfort sounds." 

Williams' parents were public school music teachers in suburban New York. After hearing students practice at her house all day, it was time for her own lessons. She played French horn and piano, which she wasn't always wild about. "Once I ran away from home to escape practicing piano," she wrote. "I'd had enough." Williams' musical childhood wasn't intended to set her up for the pageant life, but it didn't hurt. While competing for the Miss America title, her talent was singing, and she won that category with her rendition of "Happy Days Are Here Again" as her parents watched on, per the New York Daily News.

Vanessa Williams was abused as a child

While visiting family friends in California at age 10, Vanessa Williams was abused by a teenager who had befriended her on the trip. She recounted the assault in her memoir, "You Have No Idea," for the first time publicly, noting that the older girl had groomed her by taking her out on adventures to Disneyland and Hollywood while encouraging her to rebel with puffs from her cigarette. "I think I was highly sexualized because I was in fifth grade and I had this experience," Williams said on "Nightline," via ABC News. "Because it feels good, you're like, okay, well this is supposed to be normal. That's not normal for a 10-year-old to be seduced."

When Williams returned home, she discovered a beloved uncle had died, and ultimately decided not to tell her parents about the abuse as they all dealt with the grief of their loss. Decades later, her mother Helen said she "had no idea" it happened and only learned during the writing of their joint memoir. "But in retrospect, it kind of put into place some of her reactions during her preteen years," her mother said on "Nightline." For Williams, the abuse was life-changing. "After that trip, I felt something change in me," she wrote.

She had an abortion as a teenager

Another bombshell Vanessa Williams dropped in her memoir, "You Have No Idea," was the unplanned pregnancy she ultimately decided to terminate as a teen. In high school, Williams shone in musical theater and academics, but at home, she was in a constant war with her parents over breaking house rules, smoking pot, and sneaking out ( p115). Things escalated when she began dating her college-aged boyfriend, Bruce. "My parents couldn't stand us together," she wrote. "I was impulsive and Bruce was ready for anything, which was a dangerous combination."

During her senior year in high school, Williams discovered she was pregnant after missing a period. Knowing she was not ready to become a mother, she opted to get an abortion. Without telling her parents, she and her boyfriend found a doctor and ended the pregnancy. "Being pregnant is the most frightening thing that happens in your life," she told "Nightline" (via ABC News). "I knew in high school that's something that I was not prepared to do, or fight, or struggle with." Williams, who is Catholic, is still fervently pro-choice, and believes "every woman has the right to choose what she wants to do with her body," as she wrote in her memoir.

She became the first Black Miss America in 1983

Despite pageants not being a particular passion for Vanessa Williams, she managed to nab the Miss America title in 1983 (per History). But her momentous victory, in which she was crowned the first-ever Black winner in the contest's 63-year history, was marred by overt racism. 

Williams' unconventional start to pageants began when she was scouted during college, where she studied musical theater, per her memoir "You Have No Idea." While her fellow contestants were in the pageant circuit since girlhood, Williams was learning as she went. "Even as I would glide down the runway in high heels and a swimsuit, I would think: 'How did I get here?'" she wrote.

With little formal training, Williams went on to win Miss Syracuse and Miss New York, and shocked herself as much as the nation by taking home the top prize in Atlantic City in front of millions of viewers. While her prize included a $25,000 scholarship and lucrative sponsorship opportunities, the blowback to becoming the first Black Miss America was acute. Williams received death threats and hate mail, and couldn't travel in a convertible in Alabama, where armed guards were stationed outside her hotel room, as she detailed in her memoir. Though Williams persevered through these horrors, she didn't know some of the worst treatment she would face as Miss America was yet to come.

Vanessa's biggest regret cost her the crown

"My biggest regret is posing nude as a teenager," Vanessa Williams candidly disclosed in an Us Weekly roundup. Though she could never have known it at the time, the flash decision to strip down for a trusted photographer at 19 would have major consequences down the line. 

Williams revealed how she ended up posing for the now-famous photos in the first place in her memoir, "You Have No Idea." During college, she worked many odd jobs, and found one as a receptionist and makeup artist at a small modeling photo business where she became friendly with the owner, Tom Chiapel. "I'd met his wife and kids. He paid me on time and was respectful," she wrote. "Why shouldn't I trust him?" So when he asked her to fill in at an artful nude shoot with a model around her age, she decided to help out a friend while bucking years of warnings from her mother.

Fast forward to 1984, when Williams was traveling the country for her duties as Miss America. Just weeks before her reign was to end, a story broke that Penthouse had provocative photos of the beauty queen and planned to publish them. Williams was crushed when she learned that Chiapel had sold her out despite the fact that she never signed a release for the photos. Miss America's chairman publicly requested Williams' resignation, which she tendered within days, leaving her crown to Suzette Charles.

She forged ahead in music and films

Despite being the center of a scandal that was the punch line on every late-night talk show, Vanessa Williams wasn't going to let a few pictures define her. After her resignation speech, she took the backlash on the chin while already planning her next moves. "I silently thought, 'You have no idea who I am and what I can do,'" she wrote in her memoir, "You Have No Idea." "One day the dust will settle and you'll see what I'm made of."

She and Ramon Hervey, the publicist who helped manage her through the Miss America scandal (and who she would later marry), began devising her next steps. She landed several television roles and a part in the film "The Pick-up Artist" (per IMDb) while launching her music career. Her first album, "The Right Stuff," debuted in 1988 and achieved gold-level record sales, as Pop Matters reported. By 1989, The Chicago Tribune announced that Vanessa Williams had officially rebounded, redefining herself as a force in film and music.

Vanessa has struggled with her body image

Vanessa Williams' parents always promoted accomplishment over appearance, and she was over the moon to be voted best actress in her yearbook over best looking, per her memoir, "You Have No Idea." But Hollywood's obsession with thinness began to warp Williams' self-image. "As a singer, it's a matter of how well you sing, not if I can fit into the outfit," she told "The Talk" (per ET Canada). "I wasn't used to being judged by how skinny I was." In the '90s, a producer pressured Williams, who'd recently had her third child, to lose weight in order to be considered for the action film "Eraser" alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger. "I considered lipo, just to be able to be on screen," she said.

During that same period, Williams' first marriage was on the rocks, and the stress manifested in unhealthy eating and exercise habits. "I'd get on the treadmill and do an hour. When I get nervous, I can't eat," the singer told Ebony magazine. "People kept telling me how great I looked. But your clothes are falling off, and you can't face another day. So I was looking my best when I was most miserable." Time has helped heal her perspective, and now she claims there's "nothing you could say to me about my weight that would cause me to extreme diet," adding, "to quote the great Tyra Banks, if you say anything you can kiss my fat a**!"

She went on to make Grammy-nominated music

After launching her debut album in 1988, Vanessa Williams continued making music that found a wide fan base and garnered 11 Grammy nominatons (but unfortunately no wins). Her most successful Grammy nod, "Save the Best for Last," was a song that singers like Bette Midler and Barbara Streisand passed on, but Williams had the sense to grab. "Back in the day we had cassettes, so that came across my [desk]," she told WTop. "I said, 'Wow, that's a beautiful melody. I'm surprised nobody snatched this up.' ... It was one of those one-take songs where you just feel it and tell a story." Along with industry recognition, the song was a commercial hit, staying at No. 1 on the charts for five weeks (per Billboard).

In Disney's blockbuster animation era, Williams was offered a song for the film "Pocahontas," which also got a Grammy nod and became another one of her most well-known songs. "Ballads were my big thing," she said, adding that at the time, Disney songs were sure to "stand the test of time" (per WTop). Williams went on to release new music through 2009, with a total of eight studio albums.

Vanessa Williams has had three marriages

Vanessa Williams has had her fair share of love stories. She walked down the aisle with Ramon Hervey II, the publicist who helped reshape her career after the Miss America scandal, when she was just 23 years old (per They had three children together, then divorced in 1997. She next married NBA player Rick Fox in 1999, but cited their bi-coastal lifestyle as a major issue in their mostly long-distance relationship. Williams was also anxious about their six-year age gap. "At the time I worried about being too old, even though I was still very young," she wrote in an essay for Glamour. The couple had one child before splitting in 2004.

In 2012, while vacationing in Egypt, Williams met and began dating a fellow traveler, Jim Skrip, who she married three years later in 2015. The couple is still together as of 2022. Looking back, Williams has no ill will toward her exes, calling them all "good men." "I think everyone who has come into my life has arrived there with a purpose, and all the people I've had relationships with have brought me joy in different aspects," she said, per Glamour.

Balancing motherhood with her career was tricky

Vanessa Williams gave birth to her first child, Melanie, in 1987 when she was 24 years old. She soon after had two more children during her first marriage, just as her career was really taking off. But pregnancy and women in the workforce was something entirely different in the late '80s. "Now it's hip and sexy to be a mom or have a bump, but back then, you had to hide it, or at least not flaunt it," she wrote in her memoir, "You Have No Idea."

Williams also had to square being a bombshell with motherhood, two identities that didn't mix at the time. "As a singer, I was supposed to be sexy and alluring, not an exhausted mother and wife who wanted to stay home and breastfeed." But one of the most difficult issues was balancing her international singing and acting career with a normal home life. In her book, she talks about being persuaded to promote her album abroad when her second child was just 8 weeks old. 

Still, Williams never looked at motherhood as a "burden," writing in an essay for Glamour that it "strengthened my outlook on life and made me more ambitious in my career."

Her return to television solidified her as an icon

While Vanessa Williams had several key roles in film and television, her acting career really took off in 2006 when she strapped on the stilettos of Wilhelmina Slater in the sitcom "Ugly Betty." Slater was the cutthroat creative director of a fictional fashion magazine, a character Williams said was her "favorite role of a lifetime," per Entertainment Weekly. Critics adored her portrayal of Slater, and she was nominated for three supporting actress Emmys for the role.

The series lasted for four seasons, and though the cast has since reunited, Williams recently noted there are no plans for a reboot (per E! News). After "Ugly Betty," she went on to star in the blockbuster series "Desperate Housewives" as well as other projects, but her role as Slater would stay with her forever. 

"Our writers are brilliant. I never know what's going to come out of my mouth," she told Entertainment Weekly. "And the people I get to play with are amazing!"

In 2015, Vanessa Williams was asked to return to Miss America

Over three decades after Vanessa Williams was pressured to resign as Miss America, the organization wanted to make amends ... very publicly. Per ABC News, Williams said she was approached by the current chairman, Sam Haskell, about coming on 2015's televised pageant to receive the apology. Williams consulted her mother, who supported her through the whole scandal, before agreeing to attend. "We talked it out and I talked to them and said there was a lot of things that were not addressed and not said," Williams recalled. "And I wanted to make sure that I got a chance to sing my music."

Before crowning 2016's winner, Haskell stood onstage with Williams, who was also serving as a judge at the event. "On behalf of today's organization, I want to apologize to you and to your mother, Miss Helen Williams," he said (via CNN). "I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less than the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be." Williams described the moment as "emotional" and as if all the time between the 1984 scandal and then "hadn't even moved."

Vanessa Williams launched a fashion line

After a career dominating the music charts, Hollywood, and Broadway, what's left for a multi-hyphenate superstar to do? Launch a fashion empire, of course. In 2019, Williams created a line with HSN, People reports, after previously developing a brand, V by Vanessa Williams, through Evine (per But creating custom wardrobes wasn't all that new to the singer. "My mother sewed all of my dresses my whole life," Williams said, per People. "I remember going to the fabric store, picking out my McCall's patterns. It was a very creative household."

As for her design philosophy, Williams follows a simple rule when she's compiling her collections. "I want to be able to wear it, and I do wear my own stuff out on the street." Williams said she looks at her own closet to see what she needs, and also finds inspiration in the generations of her family, from her mother down to her kids. "I always kind of envision what they would like and have at least one piece [in the collection]," she explained.

She became a grandmother

In December 2021, Vanessa Williams' daughter Jillian Hervey gave birth to a baby boy, Sunny Rise Goodman. Sunny is 59-year-old Williams' first grandchild, but the family kept the pregnancy under wraps, only announcing it publicly a month after he was born. Per Essence, Hervey had been quietly dating her Lion Babe bandmate, Lucas Goodman, for years, and there was no simple way to announce the news to fans. "I think the longer I waited, the heavier it got for me," Hervey explained.

While the proud grandma enjoys spending time with Sunny, who calls her Mumsy, Williams is also delighted to watch her daughter grow into motherhood. "Jillian is very maternal," she said. "She's always been very caring and attentive. She's a great cook and baker, and she loves to entertain and host, so I knew she was going to be a great mother." 

Although she checks in with Hervey daily and visits in person weekly, Williams isn't trying to fill the overbearing grandma role. "I didn't want to be too heavy-handed, but I would definitely share my experience and, if there was any kind of stress, try to quell that anxiety," she said. "She knew that I was there for any questions and if she needed me to jump in for anything."