Vanessa Williams On Scandals, TV And Her Mom

Award-winning actress and singer Vanessa Williams stars on ABC's Desperate Housewives. She's come a long way since a 1983 Miss America scandal forced her to give up her crown. Host Michel Martin talks with Williams about co-writing the memoir You Have No Idea with her mother, who she says inspired her. Please be warned this conversation may not be comfortable for some listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. By now, you surely know actress and singer Vanessa Williams. She's been nominated for several Grammys for her best-selling albums. She currently stars as Renee Perry on ABC's "Desperate Housewives," and you cannot have missed her iconic role as the cutthroat fashion magazine editor Wilhelmina Slater, on ABC's "Ugly Betty." Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UGLY BETTY")

AMERICA FERRERA: (as Betty Suarez) I'm trying to figure out who my real father is.

VANESSA WILLIAMS: (as Wilhelmina Slater) Even if I wanted to express sympathy, I physically can't.

MARTIN: But what you might not know is that the inspiration for Willie's no-nonsense attitude came from Vanessa's mother, Helen. And that iron will and attitude is what helped Vanessa recover from the scandal that ironically launched her career - when she was forced to give up her crown as the first African-American to hold the title of Miss America.

And now, the two of them have teamed up to tell it all in their new book, "You Have No Idea." And Vanessa Williams is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

WILLIAMS: Hey, thanks a lot. I had no idea what clip - I was like, what am I about to say?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I think we should start with the most embarrassing thing in the book, which is the French horn. Really? Your mom made you play the French horn?

WILLIAMS: No. She didn't make me. I chose that. I...

MARTIN: You chose the French horn?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah. I love the French horn. Hey, all French horn players unite. It's a cool instrument. Brass players are the coolest people out of the whole orchestra, so...

MARTIN: I do love the chapters in the book - the alternating chapters, with your mom. And you do reveal that Wilhelmina's stare - the stare - you got from her.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

MARTIN: Unfortunately, we are in different cities, so I can't see the stare.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, my mom taught public school music for almost 40 years. And she's about 5 feet - and very mighty. And she would control her kids a lot by giving them the eye, or the stare. And so that was one of the nuances I added to Wilhelmina very shortly after I started playing her. And a lot of my mom's friends said, oh boy, Helen, Vanessa's got you down.

MARTIN: The reason I bring that up is that one of the things that you recount is that you and your brother had a very strict - kind of regimen, and that you had intended to be kind of - a singer, actress; go to Broadway. And this whole Miss America thing was really not part of your game plan at all. And in fact, it was your first pageant.

WILLIAMS: I was scouted up on campus after I was performing - time and time again - to be in the local Miss Greater Syracuse pageant. And I'd gotten scholarships every year. And my mother said well, how much money are you going to make? I said well, I don't know. She said well, go for it - and won the pageant in April.

MARTIN: I think it was $500. In the book...

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...it was $500.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Won the pageant - Greater Syracuse - in April. In July, won state; and won Miss America in September. So no intention at all - major, major detour in my life, for sure.

MARTIN: One of the funny things about the book, though - and again, going back to the title - is that apparently, this was kind of an inside joke within your circle of friends when you won. You started on the pageant road and won the first title - because your friends and family were saying, you have no idea who you just picked, because you have - clearly, you have tremendous discipline, a tremendous work ethic. But you're also kind of a little bit of a hellraiser.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Well, I try to describe in the book the spirited nature that I had - and I have - and I wanted to illustrate that when I did become Miss America, I was not the conventional Miss America that most people assumed. Again, you have no idea. When I was at Syracuse and won the Miss Syracuse pageant, one of my friends played piano. I sang a song that I had done in performance class because I didn't want to dance, because that would have been too much effort.

And when I won, we were back at my apartment, you know, drinking Rolling Rock beers. I'm holding my silver platter with Miss Greater Syracuse 1983 on it. And my friends are saying, they have no idea who they just chose. And it was because I was a normal kid who, you know, I'd had a boyfriend; you know, I'd had premarital sex. You know, these are things that were not symbolic to what Miss America's symbol was about.

MARTIN: But talk a little bit, if you would, about what that was like - serving as Miss America but also, the first African-American to serve in that role. I mean, tell me when it dawned on you that hey, this was a big deal.

WILLIAMS: Well, it was one of those unusual years where there were more minority contestants than ever. There were five of us, including one Hispanic. And so there were, you know, four black girls. Deneen Graham - who I talk about in the book - who was Miss North Carolina, who was a beautiful ballet dancer who was studying at North Carolina School of the Arts, had already had a cross burned on her front yard because she was the first black Miss North Carolina.

So we knew the odds were in our favor. But the fact that, you know, I won - and Suzette Charles was the first runner-up, and she was biracial. But when the press started, when I would go out on the - on the tour and do my appearances, and people would come up and say they never thought they'd see the day that it would happen; when people would want to shake my hand, and you'd see tears in their eyes, and they'd say, I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime - that's when, you know, it was definitely a very special honor.

But also, as I mentioned before, when you've got sharpshooters on buildings because they don't want tell you, but there's been some credible threats on your life; when they say OK, don't answer the door for anybody, even if they knock and tell you they're from room service, you check with me first; you know that - you know, there is some serious danger there.

You know, when people tell you that they're going to throw acid on your face and kill you because of who you are - and because that's what their intention is - it's terrifying as a 20-year-old.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with the award-winning singer, actress, Vanessa Williams. She along with her mother, Helen, have written a memoir called "You Have No Idea."

You know, the interesting thing about this is that even though you are recounting events that happened a long time ago, relatively speaking, a lot of them still resonate today.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Like, the whole business with the - well, a couple, some really painful things you talk about in the book. But I did want to just briefly talk about the nude pictures. You know, we're living in a time when parents are trying to warn their kids about camera phone pictures, and what they put on Facebook and YouTube. I'm thinking that that - this episode with the nude pictures surfacing during - really, toward the close of your reign, was kind of like the first time the idea of something, you know, pictures like that - that you don't really think about very much, as a teen - kind of coming back to haunt you, might have kind of come into the consciousness. I don't know. That's just my take on it. I just wanted to ask...

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think what happened to me - and the betrayal, and the humiliation, that happened to me on a grand scale can happen so much quicker to kids that are young now, unfortunately. I mean, we got a chance to fail, and we would fail or make our mistake within our family, or the community might know. But very rarely would it be worldwide. And now, a kid messes up and immediately, it hits the Internet. And there's a camera crew already, with the story. And all of a sudden, you're worldwide - you know, have worldwide attention.

MARTIN: But one of the things I wanted to talk about is - how you talk about in the book - is how somebody as strong-willed as you, as bright as you, somebody with family support - you know what I mean; you weren't out there on your own - could get kind of caught up in something like that - could get talked into something like that, even though - as you talk about in the book - you knew right away it was a mistake but somehow, you couldn't get out of it. And I just wondered if you could just briefly - just talk about that, because I think that's something that will resonate with others.

WILLIAMS: Well, I show in the - I try to illustrate in the book the - my mother kept saying: You're just like your father; you're too trusting. And there's a part of me that, I do give people the benefit of the doubt. I do value friendships. And when people give me their word, I listen to them. And it's also being free. I try to illustrate - you know, we start the first chapter - it's called "Thrill Rides," and it's about me - I like being free. When you say no, I say well, you know what? I'm going to do it anyway.

And that's how - that was the mode I was in at that particular time, when I took those racy pictures, because I was already in college so you can't tell me what to do. So - I wasn't actually in high school - so my mentality was what - I'm living my own life; I'm a spirited, young woman; I can handle this; I can handle anything. And at 19, you think you rule the world, and you can control things. And a lot of times, you don't.

And again, when - you know - everything happened with this scandal, you know, I had not signed a release. So I had trusted the person that I was - had taken the photos, that I had worked for, that there was nothing, legally, that he could actually do.

MARTIN: Did you ever sue him?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. We had a lawsuit against Penthouse that my parents were paying for - and both of them are music teachers, so they weren't making a tremendous amount of money. And one of the stories I tell was that when, after going through a few rounds of deposition and them just being as brutal as possible to me, my lawyer said listen, was there any time you were ever with another woman sexually - because, you know, these pictures have you with another woman, and they're going to ask you. And I said well, the only time I was ever with another woman was when I was 10, and I was molested by an 18-year-old. And he said well, you know, they're going to bring it up on the stand. So when we get to trial, I just want you to be aware of that. And I hadn't told my parents, and I hadn't revealed this to anyone. And I said, you know what? I'm done. I don't want to go through this anymore.

MARTIN: Sure.

WILLIAMS: I want a new start - and move on with my life. So I illus - I tell that story just to tell people that that's why I dropped the lawsuit.

MARTIN: Sure.

WILLIAMS: My parents never really found out until my mom - just recently, after we finished writing the book. My little one is 11 years old now, and I could not imagine what I would've done had I known that somebody had tried to do the same thing to her at age 10 - 'cause I know how young that is, and how inappropriate and inexcusable it is. And had my mother - and parents found out that that had happened, I'm sure there'd be major consequences for the perpetrator.

MARTIN: You talk about that. You talk about an abortion you had when you were with your first - the first love of your life.

WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Your first boyfriend, Bruce. You also talk about the two marriages that you have had - one to, you know, the very well-known publicist who worked with you through the crisis; and then, of course, the basketball player Rick Fox. Now that you've put it out there, how do you feel?

WILLIAMS: Well, I feel good because it's not a tell-all. It's not a sordid tale to capitalize on any misery. And that's one of the reasons why I didn't want to write a memoir, you know, back in the day, right on the heels of a scandal - because that's all I would've been able to talk about, is the scandal. And, you know, people - it would have validated people's point: Well, you know, winning Miss America and being dethroned is the best thing that ever could have happened to her. No, it's not.

MARTIN: What do you want people to draw from this book that you just co-wrote with your mom? What would you hope they'd take away from it?

WILLIAMS: I hope that they see the force of nature that my mom is, and that has rubbed off on me; that I was really blessed to have two parents who gave me a foundation; and I was always lucky to have parents that were willing to forgive, and accept me for who I was. Through every catastrophe that happened in my life, they never said, I told you so, or, you're stupid; what are you doing? You're ruining your life. They said OK, well, we're here for you. We love you, and we'll get through this together.

MARTIN: Vanessa Williams is a multiple Grammy-nominated and Emmy-nominated actress and singer. The woman who helped her get there is her mother, Helen Williams. Together, they co-wrote "You Have No Idea," a memoir about their triumph through life's twists and turns. And Vanessa Williams was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Vanessa Williams, thank you so much. Congratulations on everything, and happy Mother's Day to you and your mom.

WILLIAMS: Thank you so much.

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