Tragic Details About Vanessa Williams

The following references sexual abuse and body image issues.

Vanessa Williams stepped into the limelight at just 20 years old. In 1983, the then-college student wowed the audience and judges of Miss America with her beauty, grace, and maturity. After earning her crown, Williams quickly proved that she was more than just a stunningly pretty face. In the late '80s, she showed off her singing chops with a successful music career and later entered the field of acting. With iconic tunes and roles in television, movies, and theater, Williams has proven she's a force to be reckoned with.

Alongside her Miss America crown, she has Grammy and Tony nominations to her name. But behind all of Williams' success and achievements, there have been a number of hardships. From a humiliating scandal that took her crown to rocky marriages, the acclaimed actor has weathered many storms. Through it all, Williams has kept her dazzling smile on her face and delivered performances on screen that audiences love. She's proven that despite personal struggles, you can always bounce back. "The dust always settles," she told ABC News in 2015. "And once the dust settles, it hasn't changed who you are. You're still the same." 

Let's take a look at a few tragic moments Vanessa Williams has bounced back from.

As a child, Vanessa Williams was sexually abused

As an actor, Vanessa Williams has always portrayed fictional characters and brought their stories to life. In 2012, the "Ugly Betty," star went public with her own personal life story. Alongside her mother, Helen Williams, Vanessa penned a memoir titled "You Have No Idea." In it, Vanessa recounted a particularly devastating moment from her childhood.

When she was just 10 years old, she was sexually abused by an older female family friend during a trip. A young Vanessa didn't fully comprehend what occurred and wasn't able to confide in her parents at the time. In fact, she kept the secret from her mother until the two co-authored the memoir together. "[I] had no idea that, that had happened," Helen told ABC News. "But in retrospect, it kind of put into place some of her reactions during her pre-teen years." 

Vanessa acknowledged that the abuse impacted her life during her most susceptible years. "I think had that not happened in my life, and I had an opportunity to have a normal courtship with a boyfriend at 16... there wouldn't have been that shame that was always haunting me," she explained on Oprah's Master Class. "I think it made me more sexually promiscuous and more curious at a young age than I should've."

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Vanessa Williams had a secret abortion in high school

High school is supposed to be a time to be young and free. Vanessa Williams' final year of high school consisted of carrying a huge secret from her mother. In her 2012 memoir, "You Have No Idea," the actor revealed that she had an abortion while she was in 12th grade. Williams was dating her boyfriend at the time when she discovered she was pregnant. The teens made an appointment with Planned Parenthood to terminate the pregnancy. 

"It was all so scary to me," Williams wrote. If we had been brave, we would have gotten married and had the child. But we weren't even brave enough to tell my parents. The tragic twist was that we had always talked about marriage and kids. But not in high school!" Looking back on this formative moment in a 2012 interview with "Nightline," Williams called pregnancy "frightening" — especially for a teen. "I knew in high school that's something that I was not prepared to do, or fight, or struggle with," she said.

Williams kept her abortion from her mother for years. "Until I read these pages, I didn't know this had happened. I always had my suspicions and I always thought it may have happened, but I didn't know for sure until now," her mother wrote in "You Have No Idea." The emotional experience helped shape Williams' pro-choice stance while competing in Miss America.

Vanessa Williams received death threats after winning Miss America

In 1983, the history of the Miss America pageant changed forever. That year, the very first Black woman was crowned the winner, and it was none other than Vanessa Williams. The 20-year-old looked ecstatic as she was handed her crown and sash, but the joy would soon be overshadowed by hate. Following her significant win, there was racist backlash across the country, with many outraged that the color barriers of the pageant had been broken. In addition to being subjected to scrutiny in the media, Williams received serious threats and racist hate mail. 

The threats were so vicious that the FBI offered her protection. "I had sharpshooters on the top of the buildings when I had my first parade," she recounted to ABC News. "In one of the parades down South ... usually they have Miss America in a convertible. I had to be inside." However, not all reactions were negative. The star recalled meeting people who were overjoyed for her win. "Older black women thought they'd never see it in their lifetime. And some people would cry," explained Williams. 

The crown and the wave of hate weighed heavy on the young beauty queen, but fortunately, her family stood beside her. "My parents were not only the ones receiving the death threats and having a dialogue with the FBI, but trying to allow me to have some kind of safe haven so I wouldn't be terrified," she told Extra in 2020.

She was forced to give up her Miss America crown

In 1984, Vanessa Williams' reign as Miss America came to a shocking end. A year after her historic win as Miss America, a scandal erupted when nude photos of the beauty queen were published in Penthouse without her consent. Williams posed for these photos when she was 19 years old. At the time, she worked at a photography studio where a photographer invited her to pose nude with another model. "I was reluctant, but since he assured me that I would be the only one to see them and I would not be identifiable in the photographs, I agreed," she said in People the year the scandal broke. 

The photographer didn't hold up his end of the deal. After Williams became a household name following her Miss America win, he cashed in on her newfound fame by selling the photos to the racy magazine. Williams was told she had three days to give back her Miss America title. She was the first winner in history to be asked to hand back her crown. 

The organization found her photos were not a good representative of the wholesome Miss America brand. "For 10 months Vanessa Williams has served the pageant and the title of Miss America well," their statement read, per The Washington Post, " but we must make it clear that we cannot and do not condone her actions."

The Miss America scandal hurt her career and finances

The Miss America scandal didn't just end with Vanessa Williams losing her crown and title. The beauty queen's career and reputation took a major hit. In her 2012 memoir, "You Have No Idea," she recalled the public bashing she experienced from high-profile comedians like Joan Rivers. "Just when I figured she'd exhausted every possible Vanessa Williams joke, she'd have a new slew of them. I had to learn not to take the attacks so personally," she wrote. However, she soon grew frustrated by the hurtful jabs and misogynistic barbs. She even recalled confronting comedian Chris Rock over bits from an HBO comedy special. "There were Vanessa Williams jokes that went viral before there was such a thing as going viral," she wrote. 

Unfortunately, the stand-up jokes and late night monologues weren't all she had to suffer through. Following the Penthouse incident, Williams lost lucrative endorsement deals with companies like Gillette and Kellogg's. Additionally, turning her acting dreams into reality became difficult. Auditions were hard to land because directors no longer took her seriously. In an interview with Yahoo! Entertainment, the actor recalled crushing an auditioning for a Broadway production only to lose out on the role because of the scandal.

"All in all, I lost about two million dollars in endorsements and countless other offers that would have come my way when I finished my reign," Williams wrote in her memoir.

Vanessa Williams suffered from body image issues

Outside of singing and acting, Vanessa Williams is known for her jaw-dropping beauty. However, given her time in pageants and working in front of the camera, it's perhaps not shocking to hear that she's dealt with body image issues and pressure to look a certain way. In 2019, the actor recalled a meeting she had for the 1996 action film "Eraser" starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Williams had just given birth to her third child when she got the role. 

"As a singer, it's a matter of how well you sing, not if I can fit into the outfit. So I wasn't used to being judged by how skinny I was," she explained on a 2019 episode of "The Talk" (via Entertainment Tonight). "I remember being asked by the producer, 'Well, we'd like you to lose some weight.' I literally went on a diet. I considered lipo, just to be able to be on screen. I lost a lot of weight." She noted that she hasn't been that thin since.

The pressure to land roles isn't all that has driven her to try to lose a significant amount of weight. In 1997, the Grammy nominee detailed the breakdown of her marriage to Ramon Hervey II and how it impacted her physically. "When I get nervous I can't eat. People kept telling me how great I looked. But your clothes are falling off, and you can't face another day," she told Ebony. "So I was looking my best when I was the most miserable."

Vanessa Williams was 'miserable' in her first marriage

In 1987, Vanessa Williams married her manager Ramon Hervey II after two years of dating. Hervey was a public relations mastermind who was instrumental in getting her career back on track. Together they launched her successful singing and acting career. The couple had three children together and were a picture-perfect family. Fans were happy to see Williams settle into a happy life after having her world torn apart after the Miss America mess. Behind the scenes, their 10-year marriage was tumultuous. 

In 1997, Williams opened up about the relationship in an interview with Ebony magazine. She revealed her estranged ex-husband entertained multiple women during their marriage, resulting in them seeking the help of a counselor. "It's one thing to forgive once, but when a pattern of behavior that is dangerous for my health, embarrassing and humiliating for me and my family, and I'm working my a** off, it's intolerable," she explained. As Williams bounced back from the damaging scandal, the dynamics of their marriage changed. Williams noted that things weren't the same after she gained more money and fame. "I think men marry who the woman is at that moment—they don't feel like she will ever change and can't handle it when she evolves," she explained to Glamour in 2019. 

Ultimately, it was her views on divorce and fear of public humiliation that led her to stay in the marriage despite being unhappy. "I was very miserable," she confessed to Ebony.

An age gap and long distance led to Vanessa Williams' second divorce

After her divorce from Ramon Hervey II in 1997, Vanessa Williams wasn't ready to give up on love just yet. The singer soon sparked up a romance with NBA champion Rick Fox. Williams told The New York Times in 2001 that he instantly charmed her. ”He said that 'if I don't marry you, I am not going to marry anybody else,”' she recalled. ”That was very comforting.” The two married in 1999 and welcomed one child together. According to Williams, her marriage to the Los Angeles Laker wasn't as intense as her marriage to Hervey, but the couple still had their fair share of issues. 

For one, the age gap between the two was something that weighed heavily on Williams. Fox was six years younger than Williams and in the prime of his career. "When we got married, I was 36. At the time I worried about being too old, even though I was still very young. He was in the NBA, which is basically another kind of show business," Williams told Glamour. 

Another issue was the distance between the two, which led them to live separate lives. "He was on the road or out in Los Angeles, and after our daughter was born, I was on the East Coast, raising four children and flying across the country every two weeks," explained Williams. They divorced in 2004, and Williams went on to marry a businessman named Jim Skrip in 2015.

Vanessa Williams lost her father unexpectedly

In 2006, Vanessa Williams suffered a major loss in her personal life. Her father, Milton Augustine Williams Jr., died unexpectedly at the age of 70. The former music teacher was in the Bahamas with Helen Williams on a family trip when he suffered an acute pancreatic infection. In an interview with David Kessler, Vanessa recalled hearing the news of her father collapsing in the Bahamas and having him rushed back to the United States for further care. "By the time we got him back [to New York City] he passed away in three days," she explained. 

The devastating news of his passing left her shell-shocked, but in the midst of her grief, Vanessa found comfort in her father's accomplishments. In addition to being a beloved teacher, he was an accomplished saxophone player who taught Vanessa how to play the French horn and piano. "[His death] was devastating because it was such a shock. But out of all the shock and the sadness of it, what gave me the most satisfaction was that so many people were touched by his life," she explained. She revealed that his former students and peers frequently reach out to share fond memories of him.

Vanessa also credits her father for setting a high bar for the men in her life. "My father was my example of what I expected to find in a partner. And that's impossible for anyone to live up to," she said in Glamour. 

She waited years for an apology from Miss America

In 2015, the Miss America organization was ready to make things right with Vanessa Williams. Over three decades after she was forced to resign and return her crown, the organization extended an invitation to Williams to attend Miss America 2016. This was ostensibly an olive branch, but Williams was initially hesitant to accept. "I had to talk to my mom and I said, 'Listen they invited me back,' and she said, 'Well, I have a lot of issues.' And 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 explained to ABC News

Williams ultimately did go, and chief executive Sam Haskell offered her and her mother a heartfelt apology during the ceremony. "Though none of us currently in the organization were involved then, on behalf of today's organization, I want to apologize to you and to your mother, Miss Helen Williams," Haskell told her. "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' mother, who was in the audience, was visibly emotional during the speech. "So that was important to me and for my mother, it was important for her to have some kind of recognition," Williams told ABC. During her grand return to the pageant, she performed "Oh How the Years Go By" for the audience.

Vanessa Williams has lost loved ones to heart disease

In addition to balancing a family with having a huge career in show biz, Vanessa Williams makes time to shed light on an illness that has run in her family for generations. In 2018, Williams and her daughter Jillian Hervey partnered up with WomenHeart, a nonprofit organization for women with heart disease, and Burlington department stores. Together, they offered free health screenings for women of all ages. This cause was personal for Williams, who lost her grandparents to heart-related issues. "My paternal grandmother actually died at 28 of a heart attack. My other grandmother died at 64 of a heart attack. My grandfather died at 53 of a heart attack, and my other one at 80. Our heart health in my family is not good at all, so I was always hyper aware, particularly with my father since he lost both of his parents so early," she explained to Ebony in 2013. 

In addition to prioritizing living a healthy lifestyle and going in for regular health screenings, Vanessa Williams is also big on making sure her four children follow in her footsteps. "My parents started great habits for us that I showed to my children that they continue to practice," the actor told Burlington. "All my kids like staying active and staying healthy; they dance, swim, ride horses, ski and even teach Pilates."