The Former Miss America Who Had To Give Her Title Back

Having first debuted in 1921 in Atlantic City (via The Atlantic City Experience), the Miss America pageant — which includes some sketchy things that everyone just ignores — has become one of the most recognizable competitions in the world. However, it took quite a long time until the first Black woman would take home the crown. Six decades after the first competition, Vanessa Williams finally broke the mold and became Miss America in 1984 (via The Washington Post).

Today's generation will probably be more familiar with Williams for her work on-screen as an actress, notably as supermodel Wilhelmina Slater on "Ugly Betty" and Renee Perry in "Desperate Housewives" (via IMDB). She's also well known for her work on Broadway, especially as The Witch in the "Into The Woods" revival (via YouTube). Williams made headlines following her Miss America win, though, but not the good kind of headlines. It reportedly became so bad that Williams had to give her title to the competition's runner up, Suzette Charles (via UPI). So, what caused Williams to relinquish her Miss America crown?

Vanessa Williams had to give back her Miss America title because of a photoshoot

A year after Vanessa Williams was given the title of Miss America, she was forced to give the crown back after photographs of her emerged in Penthouse magazine (via Biography). While Williams was a freshman in college, she worked for local photographer, Tom Chiapel, who regularly arranged these risqué photoshoots. He asked Williams if she would sit for a couple of sessions without her clothes on, to which she agreed. However, following the third session with another photographer, she wasn't happy with the shoot and asked for the negatives to be destroyed.

These images were published without her permission in Penthouse, a moment which Williams later said in her memoir felt "like I had been raped" (via Esquire). When Chiapel decided to sell the photos, he first sought out Hugh Hefner, who declined to feature the pictures in "Playboy." Hefner stated "they clearly weren't authorized" by Williams and he declined "because they would be the source of considerable embarrassment to her," (per Esquire). After the images were published, Williams had to relinquish her title as Miss America a year after earning it. 

In 1989, the New York native filed a lawsuit against the magazine and Chiapel, but had to drop the suits after it was discovered she'd signed a "model release form," according to The History Channel.

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 quickly became a Grammy-nominated singer

Reflecting on the controversy in 2000 to the Toronto Sun (via Google Books), Vanessa Williams said that the photos "definitely hindered" the jobs she wanted. "Not only was I a former beauty queen, which is a hard image to overcome, but I was a dethroned, scandalous beauty queen." Four years after the Miss America controversy, though, she released her debut album "The Right Stuff". The record earned her three Grammy nominations, followed by another five for her 1991 record "The Comfort Zone."

By 1994, she'd recorded a song for the Disney animated movie "Pocahontas" and made her Broadway debut in the musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Her career only continued to climb, proving that the controversy had nothing on her talents. A decade after her Miss America title, Williams had learned — and grown — a lot since taking the crown. "For better or worse, Miss America will always part of me," Williams once wrote (via The Washington Post). "It doesn't define me, but it will always be part of my story."

When appearing as a celebrity judge at the 2015 Miss America pageant, Williams was finally given an apology by the former chief executive of the competition, Sam Haskell. The beauty queen said the apology was "unexpected but so beautiful" (via BBC News).