On this day in 1983, 20-year-old Vanessa Williams becomes the first African American to win the Miss America crown. Less than a year later, on July 23, 1984, Williams gave up her crown after nude photos of her surfaced. Despite the scandal, Williams later launched a successful singing and acting career, including a featured role on the hit television sitcom Ugly Betty.
Vanessa Lynn Williams was born on March 18, 1963, and raised by music-teacher parents in suburban New York City. She attended Syracuse University, where she majored in musical theater. After winning the Miss New York title, Williams went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to participate in the Miss America pageant. On September 17, 1983, Williams made history by becoming the first African-American woman in the pageant’s 63-year history to capture the Miss America title. (For the competition’s first 30 years, blacks weren’t even allowed to become contestants.) Scandal later erupted, however, when nude photos surfaced of Williams that had reportedly been shot when she worked for a photographer before her pageant days. She was forced to resign her Miss America title in July 1984. The photos later appeared (without Williams’ consent) in Penthouse magazine.
After some time away from the public eye, Williams re-emerged and embarked on a successful music career. In 1988, she released her debut album, The Right Stuff, a dance/pop/R&B collection that went gold and garnered her three Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist. Her second album, 1991’s The Comfort Zone, sold over two million copies and contained the chart-topping single “Save the Best for Last.” Williams’ third album, 1994’s The Sweetest Days, also went platinum. In 1995, she recorded “Colors of the Wind,” the theme song on the soundtrack for the animated feature Pocahontas; the song later earned an Academy Award.
As Williams continued to record and perform music into the coming decade, her acting career heated up. She made her big-screen debut with a small role in 1987’s The Pick-Up Artist, featuring Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr., and also appeared in the 1991 Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder vehicle Another You. She then moved on to co-starring roles in 1996’s Eraser, with Arnold Schwarzenegger; 1997’s Soul Food, whose ensemble cast included Nia Long, Vivica A. Fox and Mekhi Pfifer; the 2000 remake of Shaft, directed by John Singleton and featuring Samuel L. Jackson; and 2004’s Johnson Family Vacation, with Cedric the Entertainer. Williams also racked up credits on the small-screen, including roles on the short-lived series Boomtown and South Beach. Since 2006, she has co-starred on the hit ABC sitcom Ugly Betty. Williams has received two Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as the scheming former supermodel Wilhelmina Slater.
Williams has also appeared on Broadway, where she made her debut in 1994 with a starring role in The Kiss of the Spider Woman. She earned a Tony Award nomination for her appearance in the 2002 revival of Into the Woods.