By Allison Kugel
Vanessa Williams is a creature unlike any other. It’s as though she came here to impart the ins and outs of living life on one’s own terms. From unwitting societal lightning rod during the 1980s to multi-platinum selling recording artist; and Broadway, film and television star, Vanessa Williams slayed the male-dominated Hollywood dragon long before the #MeToo movement happened. You can tell from talking to her that, both, the scars of past judgment she endured, and the fruits of her sweet success have made their impact. Both created indelible imprints.
In more recent years, Williams stunned audiences with sultry scene-stealing characters on hit series like Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty. Her recent film starring Orange is the New Black‘s Uzo Aduba, Miss Virginia, tackles the socio-economic and educational inequities that urban students of color endure, showcasing a more socially conscious film portrayal.
Vanessa Williams’ exotic beauty strikes you dead on arrival, but Williams does not lead with her looks. She prefers to enter a conversation with intellect, boldness and strength.
Williams is now preparing to take her Broadway-honed stage skills across the pond to London’s West End, where she will be starring in a production of City of Angels, opening at the Garrick Theatre in 2020. She’s also added fashion designer to her packed resume, launching the sexy and sophisticated Vanessa Williams collection for HSN, and fresh on the heels of a multi-album deal with BMG, Williams is working on new music to reflect a collection of musical genres she is currently passionate about.
A renaissance woman for the ages, Vanessa Williams’ life is nothing if not purposeful.
Allison Kugel: Something told me to read your 2012 memoir, You Have No Idea, which I read cover to cover yesterday. I’m so glad I read your book, because it was the missing piece to really understanding you. The one constant theme throughout your life, it seems, is that you are a natural born rebel!
Vanessa Williams: (Laughs) Yeah.
Allison Kugel: That quality plays out in one way when we’re young, but changes as we get older. How do you express that side of yourself now?
Vanessa Williams: It’s now about being unafraid to take chances. In terms of my career, I just signed on to do City of Angels on the West End [of London]. It’s not a lot of money, but it is an opportunity to work on the West End. It’s always been a dream of mine to live overseas, and to study in London. I’ll be working at the Garrick Theatre. We start rehearsals in January, we open in March, and the show will be running until the end of July. There are no guarantees, in terms of leaving my life in the states behind, but it’s something that excites me. At this stage of my life it’s all about asking myself what I want to do that I’ve never done. The challenge of it excites me, and doing the same thing bores me.
Allison Kugel: When nude photos of you surfaced during your 1984 reign as Miss America and you were forced to relinquish your crown ten and a half months into your year-long reign, you were counted out there for a while in your twenties. Do you ever pat yourself on the back these days and say, “I did it!”? Broadway, films, television, platinum-selling recording artist and on and on… do you feel vindicated?
Vanessa Williams: No, I really don’t. I don’t think that, because there’s always that next goal, like, “but I want to originate a role on Broadway;” “but I want to do a movie musical.” There is always something yet to be done. It’s not that I’m never satisfied, but there is always another goal on the horizon. When you’re an actor, it’s like being a gypsy. You jump into another circle of players, and it’s great. Then when it’s over, it’s heartbreaking, but then you’re ready to move on to the next circle. That’s what excites me and that’s what will always propel me to say, “Ok, what’s next?”
Allison Kugel: Clearly, you value adventure over routine.
Vanessa Williams: Well, I look at some people who have been on the same show for eleven or twelve seasons, and it’s a great cash cow. It’s great to have that kind of consistent salary where you can budget and put money away. God bless everyone who has had a series on the air for ten years, but there is an energy that keeps you kind of hungry when you are always looking for the next thing and you don’t know what that next thing is.
Allison Kugel: I want to go back a bit and talk about the beginning. I think people may forget because it was so long ago, but you broke through a pretty significant glass ceiling in your twenties by being crowned the first African American Miss America. You became this societal lightning rod at the time. In 2008, when President Obama was elected as our first African American president, did you feel a connection or kind of kinship with him, since he broke a barrier in a similar way?
Vanessa Williams: Oh, absolutely, in terms of his safety, and his presence was worldwide. But there is an expectation that comes with that honor of breaking barriers. It’s also a tremendous fear, not only for yourself, but for family members; because there is such division, which doesn’t seem to leave us. I thought it was over in the 1980s and it wasn’t; I thought it was over in the 2000s and it wasn’t; and, obviously, it’s still apparent now. So, there is a specific fear and uncertainty that you have, but you have to be brave and you have to continue to do what you were chosen to do, and the job that is before you.
Allison Kugel: Had you ever had that conversation with President Obama about that?
Vanessa Williams: I met him right before he began his run for president. I’ve been on the Special Olympics international board for years, and I was on Capitol Hill with the Special Olympics meeting people and trying to raise money for our group. I met him right off the heels of that wonderful speech he’d given at the Democratic National Convention, and word was out that he was someone to watch. I gave my little spiel about how we needed more funding for the Special Olympics. I could see the appeal, and then he announced. When he announced that he was going to run for president, I was definitely in his corner. My mother was coming from the perspective of having lived through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being assassinated, and Kennedy being assassinated, and she was fearful for his life. That’s the generation that she grew up in. I felt that it could happen, and she also, of course, had some issues with it. It just showed the fear that was due to where my mother’s generation had come from.
Allison Kugel: What have you learned about love? What’s been your greatest love lesson?
Vanessa Williams: I’m lucky to have four children, and there is nothing like that love; a love like that never ends. Once they’re out of the house, you’re still, as a mom, always available. You’re still always worried (laughs) and concerned. And you’re still always extremely proud, no matter their age or what they are doing.
Allison Kugel: How do you take care of your body, mind and spirit; and what’s your feel-good routine?
Vanessa Williams: My feel good is waking up with a good cup of coffee and doing a crossword puzzle in the sun. That starts my day off perfectly. And when I get a chance to explore and travel, I love to horseback ride, wherever I am, and go to the stables and find a horse and go on an adventure and explore the terrain on horseback. Spending time at home is also a joy for me. I’m on the road traveling so much, so my happy place is kicking off my shoes and hanging out at home.
Allison Kugel: You’re a practicing Catholic and you attend Church regularly, but in your most quiet and intimate moments, whom or what do you pray to, and what do you pray for?
Vanessa Williams: Hmm… it depends on what it is. I pray to God and my ancestors and my guides, and everyone who has been with me along my journey. As far as what I pray for, it depends on what I want or need at that particular moment; whether it’s guidance, whether it’s “show me the way,” or whether it’s protection for one of my children. It depends on what my particular need is at that moment.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you are here in this life as Vanessa Williams to learn, and what do you think you are here to teach?
Vanessa Williams: I absolutely love to teach, in the literal sense, and I’ve done it for three years in a row at NYU (New York University). I’ve taught Master Classes at Syracuse University, where I went for musical theatre. I also teach women’s groups. It’s teaching strength and to be aware, because you never know when and where something is going to happen for you. Whether that’s your talent, whether it’s an opportunity… just be open to who comes into your life and what they can bring.
Allison Kugel: And you’re here to learn?
Vanessa Williams: That as women, for sure, we are a community, and to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or for help. Look for a mentor. I’ve learned that there are many people that are willing to be teachers and to help you along in your life, so don’t be afraid to ask because there will always be somebody there to offer help. I think I’m here to learn to keep moving ahead. On this earth we have setbacks, struggles and obstacles. You have to be able to say, “What is this teaching me?” so you can move through it and move ahead in your life. Avoiding something or trying to deny it won’t get you anywhere.
Allison Kugel: Speaking of giving advice to other women, back in 2011 and 2012 you worked on Tyler Perry’s film Temptation with Kim Kardashian while she was going through the separation from her ex-husband, Kris Humphries. The two of you spent some time together during filming. Did she seek your advice about weathering scandal and a media firestorm?
Vanessa Williams: She’d just broken up with Kris [Humphries] and the press was all over the place, so Tyler made it very easy for her to hide from the press on set. Basically, it worked on the set, keeping the press away. Then we flew back to LA together. I just needed to be the sounding board for her at that point. Sometimes you don’t need to talk. You just have to let them talk, and you have to listen. She talked about all the stuff that was happening and her fear of being judged, but that it was something she felt she needed to do. My advice to her was that you go through the storm, but the dust will settle, and you’ll get an opportunity to see clearly, and it will be a different day; and you’ll feel better and you can move on.
Allison Kugel: Do you consider yourself a trailblazer for women?
Vanessa Williams: I think my history has made me a trailblazer, unknowingly. I’ve always just been myself and that’s how it played itself out.
Allison Kugel: What makes you feel most beautiful?
Vanessa Williams: The sun and the warmth makes me feel beautiful. Every time I land someplace that’s warm, it makes me feel like I’m connected to nature. And that’s without hair and makeup and wardrobe, and all that stuff. It’s just the breeze, the water, and heat that makes me feel like my most natural self. And then being around children. Whether it’s my children who are all grown up… there’s a connection that I have with kids. Maybe because both of my parents were elementary school music teachers, but there is a connection that me and my kids have with young kids that I absolutely love. My connection with children makes me feel so alive.
Allison Kugel: You recently launched your own clothing line, Vanessa Williams, which is available through HSN. The collection is versatile, imaginative and sexy, yet understated. And I love how you incorporate animal prints and patterns with different looks.
Vanessa Williams: Thank you. It’s another opportunity to be creative and I’ve got a great manufacturer, so the quality is fantastic. It’s an extension of what I love, which is putting my stamp on things. I love fashion, and I’ve been fortunate to work on amazing shows, both on television and on Broadway, where I’ve worked with incredible costume designers and been exposed to fantastic fashion through stylists. And I’ve settled into what my own personal style is, along with what resonates with other people. When I design, I keep my eighty-year-old mother in mind, and then my children; my girls are from age 19 to 32. Everyone’s got their own sensibility, and there’s one piece for everyone to enjoy.
Allison Kugel: When will you be recording your next album?
Vanessa Williams: Now! I just finished recording a children’s album, which will be out next spring. And I’m working on a new album for BMG that will be out next year. We’re leaning towards mood and tropical music for this next album, and there will be more projects to come.
Allison Kugel: Let’s circle back to your upcoming show on London’s West End, City of Angels. You’re a Broadway veteran, but this will be your West End debut!
Vanessa Williams: This will be my “junior year abroad” that I never got the chance to do! In college, I was supposed to go to London and then I became famous that September. So, it’s my delayed junior year abroad, thirty-six years later (laughs). And it’s getting a chance to show my stage talent on another respected stage. My children are not at home, so it’s an opportunity to tick another thing off the bucket list.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, author of the memoir, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record, and owner of communications firm, Full Scale Media. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
Photo Credits: Rod Spicer, Mike Ruiz, Gilles Toucas