Monday, October 12, 2015

Arts Insider interview with Vanessa Williams: Saved the Best for Now

 Prophetically, Vanessa Williams’ parents put on her birth announcement: "Here she is: Miss America” // Photo by Mike Ruiz
At the top of this year’s Miss America’s televised competition Miss America CEO Sam Haskell declared to the beautiful singer/actress Vanessa Williams on camera that just because some Miss America officials were furious in 1984 after Penthouse bought and published nude photos of Williams (without her consent), that had been shot two years before- and given the then 21-year-old 72 hours to either resign her title *ten months into her being the reigning Miss America, or be stripped of her title, doesn’t mean that Williams should have been made to feel “any less than the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be”.

That night, a long overdue apology was publicly given to and graciously accepted by Ms. Williams on stage, and by her mother, Helen Williams, who was shown sitting in the audience.

Coincidentally, as well as alarmingly, something considered a (career-ending) outed scandal in 1984, in 2015 has actually launched unknown everyday people to overnight careers in today’s pop and reality cultures- even to instant stardom (although not to the ‘A-list’ category). And that fact is not lost on Williams, who has been quoted as commenting: “That’s crazy to think that (you) can look at a scandal and think that that would be good for your career, where for me, it took every ounce of credibility (that) I had and wiped it out”.

With her resignation, overnight, Williams had gone from being America's darling to a national disgrace.  Williams herself notes in her 2012 New York Times Best Selling memoir, “You Have No Idea”(Penguin Publishing Group) co-written with her mother, that for her, "it seemed like an eternity in which I was the punch line to every late-night monologue”. Thirty years later, after her multiple successes in music, film, television and theatrical roles Amanda Marcotte suggested in The Daily Beast that "we owe a lot to Vanessa Williams for being a pioneer when it comes to showing the world how to recover when you’ve been unjustly shamed for being sexual. Williams could have slunk off into the shadows in shame, which no doubt many people at the time expected her to do.

Williams picked herself up and kept fighting for a career as an entertainer, first by becoming a successful singer and then becoming a well-known comic actress ... Sleazy people tried to drag Vanessa Williams down with accusations of being sexual 30 years ago, but she moved on, showing she had nothing to be ashamed of”.

And moved on Williams did indeed within two years of her resignation, when, with fierce determination she began the step-by-step process of rebuilding a career in show business, until she’d achieved what’s arguably one of the greatest comebacks in entertainment history. To date it includes: making her Broadway debut in 1994 by replacing Chita Rivera in “Kiss of the Spider Woman”, cast as the witch in the 2002 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” for which she received a Tony©Award nomination, becoming an Emmy© Award nominated actress, and (11 time) Grammy© Award-nominated singer, selling more than 7 million albums-with hit songs i.e. “Saved the Best For Last”, “Dreamin’”, and “Colors of the Wind” -(from the Disney film “Pocahontas”). Williams also earned an NAACP Image Award, starred in television shows like “Ugly Betty” and “Desperate Housewives,” and co-starred in the 1996 action feature film “Eraser” with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The child of music teachers Helen and (the late) Milton Williams, Vanessa Williams and her brother Christopher grew up in Millwood, NY (a suburb of NYC) where she studied classical and jazz dance, french horn, piano, and violin. Although one of 12 students to receive the Presidential Scholarship for Drama to attend Carnegie Mellon University, she decided instead to attend Syracuse University on a different scholarship-in 1981, joining Syracuse's College of Visual and Performing Arts, Department of Drama as a musical theater major. Williams stayed through her sophomore year, until crowned Miss America 1984 in September 1983.

This past weekend, Vanessa Williams, a much-in-demand concert artist, was the Louisville Orchestra’s Pop Series guest artist. The following is from her phone interview with Today’s Woman.

By Gioia Patton

Today’s Woman: At what point after your resignation did it become apparent (that) your show business career was ‘allowed’ to move on by the powers that be in the acting and recording industry?

Vanessa Williams: I think it was a different approach. I was never ‘allowed’, I had to fight from the very beginning of my career (post Miss America resignation). I immediately got an agent and started doing theater and *television appearances (*the first being in 1984 on “The Love Boat” as herself). I certainly was shut out of many things, and I talk about a lot of those opportunities that I had been shut out of pretty violently. But again I didn’t stop and take a breath and say ‘Ohhhh now what am I going to do?’  I continued to pursue what I wanted to and kind of had to be relentless. And even though I’d already gotten recording offers, initially the recording avenue came basically out of frustration of my not being taken seriously, of my not having the right (acting) roles that I knew I could be capable of doing. Ramon (Williams’ manager at the time, and future first husband), was the one who said ‘if you really want to control your image and control your career in some aspect-if you record your own music and get a deal as a solo artist and be able to control the music that you’re going to sing, then you can have the direct success, as opposed to trying to convince other people (in the music industry).’ And again, getting a recording contract was yet another struggle (sigh) ….to be considered if was I worthy….not a flash in the pan, or too Broadway (sounding). I’d done an off-Broadway show “One Man Band” in 1985, and after the show’s musical director moved to L.A. as I’d just done she mentioned (that) she was working as a background singer on a new solo album for ‘some guy named George Clinton’ (Clinton being the mastermind of the bands Parliament and Funkadelic during the 1970s and early 1980s, i.e. “Atomic Dog”), and wondered if I’d like to come work on the album with her. Thrilled to work with Clinton, I ended up singing background on two of his tracks. And upon the album’s release I got a chance to be signed to my first recording contract (in ’87 at age 24), my first album “The Right Stuff” released the following year.

The first single, "The Right Stuff", found success on the R&B chart, while the second single, "He's Got the Look", found similar success on the same chart. The third single, "Dreamin’" was a pop hit, becoming Williams' first top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #8, and her first number one single on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. The album reached gold status in the U.S. and earned her a NAACP Image Award and three Grammy© Award nominations, including one for Best New Artist.

TW:  What life lessons in particular did your parents teach you that you in turn instilled in your four children, (who include the youngest, 15-year-old daughter, Sasha Fox, and 26-year-old daughter, Jillian Hervey –a successful recording artist in London, and the lead singer of the band Lion Babe).

WILLIAMS: The appreciation for the arts was definitely one…I was surrounded by it. But I also realized that the arts are valuable-making you a well-rounded person, and the arts in itself makes you smarter and more knowledgeable. So I was lucky that when I wanted to major in musical theater that my parents supported me, instead of saying ‘get a real job’. I was lucky, because a lot of people don’t have that support and end up getting into the entertainment industry and being resentful, and end up using success as a revenge, and never really enjoying it, as opposed to always being kind of being in a battle with themselves and their past. I’m lucky that I can enjoy what I do for the pure pleasure of it and for the challenge that I love.

TW: What’s on the horizon for you, television career wise?

WILLIAMS: I just signed on to do a couple of episodes of the current season of “The Good Wife.” My character is named Courtney Paige, who’s originally from Houston. She’s accessing whether or not she should support Peter Florrick’s Democratic party campaign for the Presidency. Courtney is very bright and also has a lot of access to money and philanthropy. She’s like George (“Star Wars”) Lucas’ wife, Mellody Hobson, who’s a financial contributor to CBS in addition to serving as the chair of DreamWorks Animation and president of Chicago-based Ariel Investments.

TW: Any upcoming theatrical roles, since being in the 2014 acclaimed Broadway production of Horton Foote’s “The Trip Bountiful” with Cicely Tyson, who received a Tony Award for her performance?

WILLIAMS: I just did Kern & Hammerstein’s “Showboat” at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic (in the role of Julie), the semi-staged production airing on PBS October 16th.

TW: I’m surprised that you don’t have your own production company-as you seem to excel at everything you’ve done career-wise.

WILLIAMS: I’ve produced movies. I produced and starred in a TV movie in 2000 for Lifetime Network, called ‘’The Courage to Love”. It was about the first black order of nuns in New Orleans. I’ve had other offers to produce since, but (producing) a project has to be something that I’m passionate about, and has a great team that can deliver.

TW: In conclusion-would you share your philosophy about your life- of your past as well as the present.

WILLIAMS: Well, at 52-years-old I look back at my life and I’m happy for being alive, I’m happy for having my children who surround me, and having the opportunities (that) I’d have. And I know that my career will change, and opportunities will change, as life changes and (people) change as well. So I definitely do not beat myself up… I don’t rue the past, nor wish (that) I could do things over again, and I think that as (you) age that is the most healthy thing to do, because it can all be gone very quickly.

-Gioia Patton                        

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