Vanessa Williams

Miss America 1984a

Born March 18, 1963

Paradise Pisces Pitcher

The "a" appended to the 1984 under Vanessa Williams' name does not stand for the fact that she was the first African-American to be crowned Miss America. Symbolically it functions more like Hawthorn's scarlet letter. It is an icon of dishonor. The "a" is used to indicate that she was the first of two Miss Americas for 1984.

Vanessa Williams, Miss New York, was crowned the 56th Miss America on September 17, 1983 after winning the talent and bathing suit contests. Eleven months later on July 23, 1984 Williams was forced to resign her title. She did so at a nationally televised press conference. In spite of her forced resignation, she kept the rhodium-plated Miss America crown. The tiara, decorated with 650 rhinestones and weighing 6.7 ounces was estimated to be worth about $1000.

The apparent cause of Williams' resignation was the imminent public appearance of photographs she had made in 1982 with photographer Tom Chapiel. A series of photographs were taken during two sessions. In the first session Williams posed alone. In the second session she posed with another professional model, Ami Geier. In addition to these two sessions with Chapiel, Williams also had a 1982 solo session with photographer Gregg Whitman. The Whitman photographs surfaced a month after Williams was forced to resign as Miss America.

As the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams was already controversial. A light-skinned African-American she grew up in the mostly white, suburban neighborhood of Millwood not far from New York City in the Empire State. Her success in the Miss America contest evoked a variety of reactions. African-American leaders questioned her commitment to the black community. Williams claimed she was first an individual not beholden to any race, gender or class. When the scandal erupted, race, class and gender became factors. And as is usual in such scandals, hypocrisy ruled the day. (The beauty pageant bureaucracy had dealt with these issues before. The first black woman to compete in a Miss America pageant was Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa 1970. That was 49 years after the inception of the contest.) The Miss America organization was, like the culture it reflected dominated by the ideology of the white middle-aged and middle-classed.

Williams herself was caught between a community's need for a role model and her own middle-class, suburban-bred form of individuality. It was the "duality" part of her identity crisis that got splashed in the popular media. From all accounts she seemed to always want to be an entertainer. Her adorning of the Miss America crown was a first and significant step in the realization of her personal dream to be a celebrity, a star.

If you were in the figurative Hollywood of the 1980s, outfitted with a metaphorical telescope, you could have seen the "me generation" nebula. It was in conjunction with Reagan Americana. (Not incidentally, President Reagan called Williams in September 1983 to congratulate her on winning the Miss America title. Reagan told her, "Your selection is not only a wonderful thing for you, it's a wonderful thing for our nation." ) Into this universe stepped Miss Vanessa Williams, anxious for the skies. Ten years later she would tell a magazine writer,

Growing up in a predominantly white environment, I thought I was just like everyone else...When I won Miss America, that's when reality set in. I got hate mail from white-supremacist groups and also from blacks who didn't feel I was black enough. I didn't know who I was: she's black, she's not black enough, she's not white so we hate her

As Miss America, Williams was candid. She told the Boston Globe daily newspaper in February 1984 that, "Race and religion have never been issues with me. " But certainly race was, as it still is, an issue in the putative e pluribus Unum called America. And Miss Williams, theoretically symbolic of the nation's beauty, would soon be made to understand that underneath the folksy maxim "beauty is only skin deep" lies a deeper more sordid truth. Miss America the Beautiful was about to get buried.

Suzette Charles
Miss America, 1984b
The scandal broke into the public's consciousness on July 19, 1984. The Miss America pageant powers-that-be clearly could not avoid the shock-wave caused by the scandal. While some reports suggested that the directors of the pageant considered riding out the storm without having to sacrifice Williams, that sentiment, if even true, was short-lived after Federal Express delivered copies of the photographs during a meeting of the beauty pageant's directors. Williams had to go and she had to go quickly, if not quietly. On July 20, 1983, the Miss America leaders, led by their chairman Albert Marks, gave Williams 72 hours to turn in her resignation. Three days later, Williams was out and Miss America 1984b, Suzette Charles from New Jersey and the first runner-up in the contest was in. (Incidentally, Charles was also African-American. She did however have to wait for a replacement crown to be fashioned because, as mentioned above, Williams kept the original.)

The controversial pictures of Williams were first published in the September 1984 issue of Penthouse magazine. The issue actually appeared on the news stands at the end of July. The Whitman photographs were published in the January 1985 issue of Penthouse. Albert Marks' reaction to the photographs was quoted in the August 24 issue of People magazine.

As a man, a father, a grandfather, as a human being, I have never seen anything like these photographs. Ugh. I can't even show them to my wife.

One supposes that Mr. Miss America sparked a lot of imaginations with these prissy comments. The photographs that included Williams with another woman exposed another social controversy that simmered around discussions of sexual morality. Discussions that had had yet to be influenced by the AIDS phenomenon. The reaction to the lesbian theme of some of the photographs, suggested that America the Beautiful, despite the sexual revolution, was just as homophobic as ever.

Squeezed between the image of the wholesome Miss America ideal and its antithesis was Vanessa Williams who said in the September 10, 1984 issue of People Magazine:

I am not a lesbian and I am not a slut, and somehow I am going to make people believe me.

It was clear that like Mr. Miss America, Miss Williams had her own reservations about lesbians and sluts. America the Beautiful steeped in puritanical hypocrisy? That's hardly news.

Venus Ramey
Miss America, 1944
Venus Ramey, Miss America 1944, called Williams a "slut." (Years later, Ramey would again make news when she wrote an open letter to Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998. Ramey was explicitly critical of Shindle's support of condom distribution in the nation's schools. In that letter Ramey described herself as an "old bathing-suit bimbo." Ramey went on to write to Shindle that in Ramey's day there was "a name for girls who hand out condoms, and it wasn't Miss America." What was that name? Slut, bimbo, Aldonza?) In Ramey's worldview, Williams was a "slut" because she was photographed without her clothes on. (What in the eyes of the puritans distinguishes a slut from a bimbo...a bimbo from the girl next door...the girl next door from Miss America?) Vanessa Williams saw herself as an entertainment artist. Her parents were music teachers. In 1981 she had won a Presidential Scholarship in Drama. She studied theater at Syracuse University. Undeniably she wanted to be a celebrity, a star, famous.

Miss America
Perhaps because of Vanessa William's "enlightened" self-interest the rest of her story, after the resignation, is more positive. She went on to establish herself as a popular R & B singer with several successful albums and a couple of hit songs, including her hit single "Save the Best for Last" whiched topped the R&B charts for five weeks in 1991. She has undertaken a film and television career with some success. The NAACP has given her two "Image" awards (1988, 1998) and in 1996 she sang the national anthem at the beginning of the Super Bowl. More recently her name surfaced in gossip columns linked to something romantic with the retired and married basketball superstar Michael Jordan. But that's gossip and she denies the's just trash talk that comes with celebrity.

In America the Beautiful maybe we miss the point: superficial beauty can only influence us. The beauty found underneath and unfettered by hypocrisy and prejudice...only that kind of beauty can inspire us. But it's hard to dress that kind of beauty in a bathing suit. Maybe it is best viewed naked and unadorned.


Vanessa Williams @ iMusic

Biography @ Walt Disney Records

Biography @ All Music Guide

Vanessa Williams @ KJAZ

Vanessa Williams Picture Page

Vanessa Williams Article at The Black Collegian

"Horrendous Hoopla: Vanessa Williams, Race, and Pornography" by Ben Denckla

Miss America 1984b- Suzette Charles

Official Miss America Website

Vaness Williams Interview @ Mr. Showbiz

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Vanessa Williams 1999 Cosmic Player Plate
Published: September 9, 1999
Copyright © 1999 by the Cosmic Baseball Association