Vanessa Williams - the multi-talented singer, actress, beauty queen – previously starred in movies such as Eraser (1996), Soul Food (1997), and Johnson Family Vacation (2004). She’s found success as a regular on ABC’s Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty and has an upcoming role in Tyler Perry’s The Marriage Counselor (2013). Yet, her most recent accomplishment happened off screen. With the help of her mother Helen Williams, Vanessa Williams published a memoir entitled: You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other).
Williams also sat down with British journalist and CNN host Piers Morgan to discuss the book. Though the only video clips of the interview surfacing online are limited to Williams’ discussing being molested at age 10 and her idea of the ‘perfect man’ – fortunately there’s a web transcript to fill in some of what happened in between – such the dialogue about Williams being the first black woman to be crowned Miss America in 1983, her working on Broadway, and her admiration for her father.
From the Piers Morgan Show interview…
MORGAN: You mentioned your father. He clearly was a hugely influential figure in your life. I mean, so much so that your mother believes that this pedestal that you put him on made it very difficult, I think, for other men because no one ever lived up to your dad, who was clearly this strong, independent-minded, proud, you know, great, great man.
WILLIAMS: Talented, smart, could do anything. Yes.
MORGAN: A hard act to follow.
WILLIAMS: It’s a hard act to follow. And – but you know, I did marry lovely men, so I don’t want to say that everyone paled in comparison. But my dad could do practically everything.
I mean, he was a musician. He could take an engine apart and put it back together again. He could build a deck, put on a roof. He could garden and grow anything. He knew current events. He could play Trivial Pursuit with you and sing a song. I mean, he was so skilled that – and it was always there.
MORGAN: Of all the things that you did, what made him the proudest, do you think?
WILLIAMS: Oh, I would say Broadway because he knew that that was my dream. And I had always sang and danced and acted and put on shows whenever we could, after any dinner me and my cousins or me.
And my brother would sing songs and perform. So I think opening night on Broadway was his – was the best for us.
MORGAN: What did he say to you afterwards?
WILLIAMS: We had a reception at my parents’ house, and he just said that he was very proud and he knew that I accomplished a dream.
And he was very proud of me and I worked really hard and he was just proud that night.
MORGAN: Amazing moment, to watch your daughter play on Broadway, I think.
WILLIAMS: Yes. Live a dream.
MORGAN: I always think Broadway, if you’re an actress and you do television, movies, whatever, when you go on Broadway, it’s the ultimate test, isn’t it? Because there’s no escaping, is there?
WILLIAMS: No escaping. You have a star quality or not. You can captivate the stage or not. And the role that I was in as Aurora in “Kiss of the Spiderwoman,” the Spiderwoman, you can’t fake your dancing, you can’t fake the singing. You can’t fake the appeal.
And I got laughs where there hadn’t gotten laughs before, and I wore these fantastic outfits. And also, besides having my family there, I had all my musical theater majors who’d gone to Syracuse with me who had shared the stage with me, you know, when we were in college. And I got a chance to live the dream for all of us.
MORGAN: You are looking fabulous. So great cover. But I love the introduction because – talking of sales pitches for a book, “Throughout my life mum’s lessons have helped me survive it all – scandal, love, marriages, divorces, disappointments, children, death, failure, success.”
MORGAN: We’ve got a lot to talk about.
WILLIAMS: We have a lot to talk about. But “You Have No Idea” – it came from when I had won Miss Greater Syracuse as a sophomore, my sophomore year at Syracuse.
And when they crowned me all my friends who were watching and in the audience cheering me on, I said, “They have no idea who they just chose.” Because I was a normal kid.
You know, I was not this archetypal beauty queen who had been groomed her whole life. I was a New York chick who was in my sophomore year studying musical theater, and I had lived my life. And it’s in the book.
MORGAN: You certainly had lived your life. And we’ll come to some of that. Let’s get back to September 1983, when you’re crowned the first ever black Miss America.
MORGAN: Did you have any concept in that moment of just what was going to happen with your life, your career? Because it went crazy after that.
WILLIAMS: No idea. I was 20 years old, about to start my junior year abroad, actually, in London. Syracuse, their musical theater department has a junior year abroad option.
And I was really excited about starting my year. And I thought I would, you know, get some scholarship money and be able to go back. And I had no idea what would happen.
MORGAN: There you are. You’re the winner. And you immediately start getting attacked by almost everybody. You had racist whites who threaten to throw acid on you. You get messages –
WILLIAMS: Kill me, yes.
MORGAN: Yes. I mean, unbelievable. You also get the black community saying you’re too white. They used lighting to make you look whiter, that’s why you won.
You’re getting it from everybody. There you are, young, fresh-faced, beautiful young woman. You should be having the great moment of your life, and it’s like hell. What are you thinking when it all starts erupting like this?
WILLIAMS: Well, there was a large part that was fantastic and positive and overwhelming. And you know, at 20 years old, I mean, again, this wasn’t my dream, to be a beauty queen.
My dream was to finish school, go to Yale for graduate work, and be on Broadway. So the fact that I was sidetracked and became this symbol overnight, every comment that I made was going to be scrutinized and every comment that I made was going to be the symbol of an entire race. It was a lot of pressure.
MORGAN: Huge pressure.
WILLIAMS: Yes, yes. So that’s when I started getting my battle wounds. You know, when I wasn’t black enough, when I didn’t – people didn’t think I had the black experience. And it doesn’t mean we’re any less or more black than anybody else.
MORGAN: Nine months after you win, you’re engulfed in scandal.
MORGAN: I love that phrase.
MORGAN: And nude pictures published in “Penthouse” magazine. Let’s look at you resigning here.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: I must relinquish my title at Miss America. It had never been and it is not my desire to injure in any way the Miss America title or pageant.
I feel at this time I should expend my energies in launching what I hope will be a successful career in the entertainment business. I feel my new career will be the greatest challenge in my life.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MORGAN: A dramatic moment for you. Probably a pretty sad and awful moment in many ways. You write, “You have no idea who I am and what I can do.”
This is what you’re thinking at the time, “One day the dust will settle. You’ll see what I’m made of. You’ll accept me for who I really am.” Do you feel that’s happened? Do you feel you achieved that goal?
WILLIAMS: Yes, partly. I think it’s always a constant challenge to prove who you are. My whole career, you know, when I first got acclaim on Broadway – oh, I didn’t know she could sing and dance and act.
You know, when I first had a recording hit, “Oh, I didn’t know she could sing.” So I’ve always had to kind of prove myself. And right now, I’m in my six years I’ve been on television.
It’s been fantastic, and I’ve gotten three Emmy nominations. Oh, I didn’t know she could act. I didn’t know she was funny. So I’m used to it.
MORGAN: Do you feel like a little part of you has constantly been having to prove people wrong?
WILLIAMS: But there’s no pressure, you know, when you’re always underestimated –
MORGAN: Satisfying, too, isn’t it?
WILLIAMS: Exactly. I love it.
MORGAN: Your mother always said to you, whatever you do, darling – she calls you darling, my mother calls me darling – don’t pose for nude pictures.
WILLIAMS: Yes. That’s starts the chapter.
MORGAN: What happened? Why didn’t you listen to your mum?
WILLIAMS: Because I’m a rebel. You know, we start the book off, and it’s called “Thrill Rides.” And we start off the book talking about me as a nine-year-old getting on a bike and going as fast as I can with my cousin on the back.
And my mom said, “Don’t put your cousin on the back, hold on to the handlebars and be safe.” And of course, I put her on the back as soon as I rounded the corner where she couldn’t see me, and we raced down the hill as fast as we could.
And that’s who I am. And I drive a Maserati. I know you prefer fine cars as well. I love to ride fast horses. There’s part of me that loves – I mean, as a kid I would go on, you know, a roller coaster 13 times in a row just to see how many times we could do it.
MORGAN: What I loved about it is your schoolteachers clearly had no idea who they were teaching because they described you as a kid who obeyed rules and followed directions.
In fact, you smoked pot and inhaled, drank beer, had premarital sex, and posed for nude pictures. You weren’t quite what your teachers thought, were you?
WILLIAMS: You have no idea.