Interview: Vanessa Williams
He knew that as a mother I would have the sensibility needed to bring it to life. And when I read the script, and saw the nature of it, I signed on and met the rest of the cast. And when we started rehearsals, I just knew that it was going to be a very special movie.
Born in the Bronx on March 18, 1963, Vanessa Lynn Williams and her brother, Chris, the actor, were raised in Millwood, a suburb of New York City located in Westchester.
Her parents, Milton and Helen, both music teachers, are also each half-white and half-Black. They must have had a premonition, because Vanessa’s birth announcement read: “Here she is: Miss America!” As a child, she studied both piano and French horn, though she showed the most interest in developing her sultry singing voice. Vanessa settled in theater arts as her major at Syracuse University, but she was too impatient to enter show business to stay there very long.
On September 17, 1983, she made history and proved her parents to be clairvoyant when she won the Miss America Pageant, becoming the first Black woman to hold the title in the process. Regrettably, Vanessa decided to surrender her crown after some nude photos of her surfaced in Penthouse Magazine.
But that temporary setback couldn’t prevent such a multi-talented performer from continuing to pursue her dream, and she went on to flourish not only as a recording artist, but also on TV and the stage, and on film, winning a trio of NAACP Image Awards, while landing 14 Grammy nominations (winning once), a Screen Actors Guild nomination and a Tony nomination.
Currently, Vanessa is enjoying a recurring role on Ugly Betty, not as the title character, obviously, but as Wilhemina Slater. The bi-coastal beauty commutes back and forth between L.A. and her hometown where she is raising her four children, Melanie, Jillian, Devin and Sasha.
Here, she talks to The Black Star News about her life and her latest outing as L’Tisha Morton in My Brother, where she exhibits an emotional range unseen in any of her previous work as the mother of two adolescent boys, one of whom has Down Syndrome.
BSN: Hey, Vanessa, thanks so much for the time. I really appreciate it, since I’ve enjoyed your career from the beginning.
VW: Thank you, no problem.
BSN: In fact, since my last name was Williams and I was also from New York, I have to admit that when you won Miss America, I used to claim that you were my cousin.
VW: Oh, where in New York are you from?
BSN: Saint Albans. I know you were born in The Bronx, but then where were you raised?
VW: I grew up in Millwood, which is in northern Westchester. My Dad’s from Oyster Bay, and my Mom’s from Buffalo.
BSN: Gee, my family used to go out to places like Oyster Bay and Sag Harbor during the summer. Congratulations on recently winning another NAACP Image Award. I’m on the nominating committee.
VW: Oh, okay, thank you! It was my third. The first one I got was for a recording, my album The Right Stuff back in 1988. The second one was 10 years later for Soul Food, which was film. So this is great, because it’s my first one for television.
BSN: So, how are you enjoying having a hit show and playing Wilhemina Slater on Ugly Betty?
VW: I love it! I love our cast. I love our writers. I love the producers. I love our set. It’s just a really enjoyable experience. I’m just so happy that I have the opportunity to play such a fun role.
BSN: Are you at all like Wilhemina in real life?
VW: Playing a diva like Wilhemina, most people assume that things are usually taken care of for you, and that you don’t have a lot of domestic skills. And many actresses don’t, because of the nature of the business that we’re in. But the greatest thing about being a mother so young, I had my first child at 24, is that I cook, I clean, I love to be independent and kind of hate to be waited on and hate to be taken care of. So, I guess that demonstrates my fiercely independent nature which is kind of anti what I portray on a weekly basis.
BSN: Well, you certainly come across as surprisingly grounded and real. I guess part of that’s from being a mother, and part of that is from not living in Hollywood.
BSN: And I’d guess that you’re not the type to travel with a big entourage either?
VW: I don’t draw attention to myself or have security pushing people away.
BSN: That’s admirable. How do your children like being able to see you on TV every week like that?
VW: My kids are so busy that they don’t even get a chance to catch it every Thursday night. Given they’re schedules, they’re not even home. My six year-old manages to see it, but all the other kids have class or some other extracurricular activity, so thank God for TiVo.
BSN: In this age of the Soccer mom, where you’re constantly shuttling children around, how is for you balancing your career and your kids? I know how long the days are and what grueling work it is shooting a TV series. It’s totally time-consuming.
VW: It is extremely time-consuming. And we shoot film, so it’s not a half-hour comedy. We’re doing an hour comedy every week, so it’s like doing a film every eight days. Luckily, my days per episode are usually three to four. So, I’m, not shooting every day of the week, which allows me to fly home to be with my kids for the weekends. That’s how I keep it moving.
BSN: I didn’t realize that. So, where’s Ugly Betty shot? And where do you live?
VW: I live in New York, and it’s shot in L.A.
BSN: Whoa! So, do you live in Manhattan?
VW: No, I live in my hometown in Westchester. My kids go to the same schools I went to.
BSN: That’s very interesting. Why did you choose to do that?
VW: Boy, I moved back to New York in ’92, when my oldest was five, and about to start kindergarten. I wanted her to go to start school back East. When we were looking for a home, we found one in my hometown that was perfect. So, we didn’t intentionally move back there, but that’s how it happened. My eldest is already in college at F.I.T [The Fashion Institute of Technology] in the City. My 17 year-old is a senior at the high school that I went to, and my son is in eighth grade at the junior high where I was class president in the same grade. And my little one is in first grade at Montessori.
BSN: Does your 17 year-old know where she’s going next year yet?
VW: She’s been accepted by four schools and she’s waiting to hear from four more. So we’ll know in a matter of weeks.
BSN: Good luck. My son’s a senior, too, and was admitted to Princeton earlier decision, which means he’ll be close to home, which is great.
VW: Fantastic. My oldest went to a boarding school which was about a half-hour away from Princeton.
BSN: So, what interested you in making this film, My Brother?
VW: Well, the script and the whole theme of the movie interested me. Anthony Lover, who wrote it, came after me and said he’d written this part particularly for me, because he knew that as a mother I would have the sensibility needed to bring it to life. And when I read the script, and saw the nature of it, I signed on and met the rest of the cast. And when we started rehearsals, I just knew that it was going to be a very special movie.
BSN: I agree, I loved it, and I think that it also afforded you an opportunity to exhibit an emotional range and a certain gravitas that we haven’t had a chance to see from you before.
VW: Yeah, well it’s nice to have material like that. That’s another reason why you do independent films, because it allows you to do roles that you don’t have to worry about whether or not they’re bankable, or if people are going to come see them, or with satisfying a committee that’s funding it. Of course, independent films need distribution and money, but they also have a lot more freedom in terms of what the artist can truly do as the filmmaker.
BSN: I also found it interesting that this is the first full-length film to feature an African-American with an actual developmental disability in a lead role. In fact, two, because both Donovan Jennings who plays James as a child and Christopher Scott who plays him as an adult have Down Syndrome.
VW: Yeah, I didn’t think about it like that. They did a nationwide search for actors, and I think they did a fantastic job with Donovan and Christopher. For first-time out actors, in general, they’ve done a wonderful job. We rehearsed for maybe about two weeks before we started shooting. And Anthony, when he was directing, was very supportive and very paternal with everyone, particularly them. In working with them, his process was to kind of keep the camera rolling, and to talk us through the scene, so it was almost one constant take, as opposed to doing a series of takes, scene after scene, sequentially. I think that allowed everyone to feel really comfortable, and to get some extremely good performances.
BSN: What would you say is the movie’s message?
VW: I think it’s a story about the human condition, and love, whether it’s between a mother and a son, or the love of two brothers. It’s about responsibility and becoming men, and applying the lessons that were learned by their mother and bringing them to their adulthood. It’s not a pity party, although there are some strong images and a lot of obstacles that you see in the movie. It’s a story about love, and it’s uplifting. I don’t want people to feel sorry for Donovan and Christopher and the condition that they’re in. It’s definitely not that at all.
BSN: What do you have on the horizon in your career?
VW: I have another independent film called And Then Came Love, which comes out in June. That’s a story about a female journalist who has a child through artificial insemination which explores the theme of women raising kids by themselves.
BSN: Isn’t Eartha Kitt in that?
VW: Right, she plays my Mom.
BSN: How do you feel about Donald Trump pardoning Miss USA, rather than stripping her of her title?
VW: I really don’t have any feelings about it. I didn’t do the Miss USA system which is way more big business and corporate-based than Miss America. And that was 23 years ago.
BSN: What advice would you have for anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
VW: Number one, find out what you true desire and talent is. And get practical experience. The more you do, the more you’ll be prepared when opportunities present themselves to you. So keep working at it, be professional, show up on time, be prepared, know your stuff, be pleasant, treat people kindly, and don’t forget to take chances.
BSN: Your being very gifted and blessed with beauty and a variety of talents has served you very well: singing, acting, dancing. And your being well-spoken also enabled you to be a successful spokesperson in commercials. But do you recommend that an aspiring entertainer focus on one skill rather than several at once?
VW: I think it’s up to the individual. I was lucky to have two parents who were music teachers. They exposed me and my brother to so many things: the ballet, Broadway, marching bands, every kind of educational tool and entertainment. So, the fact that we’re well-rounded and kind of multi-talented was definitely a function of what we were exposed to and what we got training in. I was lucky that I had parents who could provide me with dance classes. And I had a great acting teacher in my high school which is unusual. I grew up in a great environment.
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