When Vanessa Williams was growing up, she had a plan: She’d go to college and major in musical theater; afterward she’d get her MFA from the Yale School of Drama, and then she would embark on a successful career on Broadway. And to make sure she stayed on that path, her mother, Helen Williams, gave her a list of things that she should never— ever—do. Near the top of that list was “never ever pose nude for anyone.” So when Vanessa became the first African-American woman to win the title of Miss America in September 1983 (an accomplishment that she never planned for or desired), only to be forced to resign ten months later due to a nude photo scandal, the lives of both Vanessa and Helen took an unexpected turn. But Vanessa survived this setback, and many others to come, to enjoy a thirty-plus-year career as an award-winning singer and actress. Vanessa has been asked to write her memoir many times, but only now—with the help of her mother—is she ready to tell her story.
Vanessa grew up in Millwood, New York, part of one of the town’s only black families. As a teenager, Vanessa defied Helen, flirting with boys, drinking, and smoking pot. But despite their early conflicts, Helen has always ardently protected her daughter, staying in contact with the FBI about the multiple death threats Vanessa received after being crowned and being there for her during the dissolution of her two marriages.