Vanessa Williams made history becoming the first African American woman to be crowned Miss America, but the road ahead for her was not an easy one. Thirty-eight years later, Williams, 58, says winning the title made her “grow up overnight.”
“I really wasn’t prepared [to handle how the country took my win] because I’d never been a part of the system before, so I didn’t know what was the next step,” Williams told ET’s Kevin Frazier. “It was a tremendous history-making moment for me at 20 years old. And I look at my kids at 20 and I said, ‘Oh my god, how did I handle all of that at such a young age?’ Because I was a baby!”
Williams admitted that being crowned Miss America 1984 was “tons of responsibility,” adding that it also came with some heavy and scary situations.
“Lots of assumptions, death threats” she shared. “I was in a bubble. I grew up in New York, I had a multicultural community around me. So to see the division in our country and the hate of me representing America and having the hate just because of my skin color was alarming. When you have sharpshooters in your homecoming town parade because you’re getting death threats at 20 years old, that was startling. So it made me grow up overnight.”
Luckily, she said, her parents “sheltered” her from the threats that were going on. However, what hurt more than the death threats were comments that she wasn’t “Black enough.”
“One of the most heartbreaking [things] was some people said I wasn’t Black enough and I really didn’t represent the Black culture and the Black community because I was not Black enough,” she recalled. “And that almost hurt more than the death threats because, like, when is it going to be enough? I mean isn’t this a step forward? So that was really kind of another struggle.”
However, she couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunities being crowned Miss America gave her — even if she was forced to resign in July 1984, after Penthouse magazine published unauthorized nude photographs of her. It wasn’t until 32 years later that Miss America CEO Sam Haskell gave her a public apology for having her give back her crown.
“The legacy of that moment in 1983 was that, yes, you can be smart enough, talented enough and be able to represent the American world,” she acknowledged. “And as a result, I have been able to have wonderful opportunities to delve into my history and my family and stuff.”
It’s those life experiences that inspired Williams’ latest call to action. She’s a founding member of Black Theater United, a coalition empowering Black artists in the theater industry. She gave ET a behind the scenes look at the making of their new music video, “Stand for Change,” which dropped on Friday. Thirteen acclaimed and award-winning veterans of the Broadway stage including Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Norm Lewis lent their voices to the single, in partnership with the Republic Records Action Committee (R2AC) and HunterPark Productions.
“We’re talking about mentorship, getting people into the theater,” she explained. “Not only being an actor, but all the other jobs…So we want to see diversity on every level.”
Co-written by Phil Galdston and Dave Schroeder, Williams described the song as her “We Are the World.”
“We are coming together to talk about the change we’re making now, the change that we hope to see that will last forever, and it gets a chance to highlight what we do best,” she explained. “It’s wonderful to be together. That was the first time we actually walked into the room and hugged each other because we started virtually. We all got on Zoom every week and talked about what our agendas were going to be.”
“But when we got a chance to shoot the video — we did it at NJPAC, New Jersey Performing Arts Center — we all walked out elegantly in our gowns and our tuxes and got a chance to be and hold each and sing together,” she continued. “And that was what we were missing.”
Created as the theme song for BTU, 100 percent of net proceeds from the sale of the record will support the ongoing social justice efforts of the organization.
The mom-of-four is also celebrating another milestone, the anniversary of her GRAMMY-nominated hit “Save the Best for Last,” which came out in 1991.
“I remember getting the demo probably on cassette…It came out in ’91, but we’re talking late ’80s,” she said. “I said, ‘Well you know, I don’t know if it’s going to be a hit, but I love the melody. I can’t get it out of my head. And it was very simple. The demo was just Wendy Waldman singing with a piano. And it was sweet but memorable. I had no idea it was going to be on the charts for weeks at a time and be my signature tune.”