Vanessa Williams: Don’t Look Back
Vanessa Williams never really became a movie star, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Considering her background as a disgraced Miss America, the fact that she made it as far as she did is nothing short of amazing. As Joshua Mooney found out when he interviewed her for the June ’96 issue of Movieline, the secret to Williams’ success was her extraordinary confidence and also some talent.
Quick: How many Miss Americas can you name who became movie stars? Exactly. There aren’t any. (No, Mary Ann Mobley and Lee Meriwether weren’t stars.) Show business may be the goal of many a beauty contestant, but few even make it to the “Action News” anchor desk, where artificial smiles and the ability to enunciate are what pass for talent. The freeze-dried wholesomeness that typifies your traditional pageant winner is precisely what movie stars are not made of. And neither is Vanessa Williams, which is why she’s the first Miss America with a genuine shot at making it in Hollywood. Of course, it is also why Williams is the only Miss America ever forced to resign due to scandal. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself already.
If you recognize the name Vanessa Williams, it’s for reasons that have nothing to do with movies. She’s not someone who is poised for screen stardom thanks to a series of creditable performances in increasingly successful films. She does have a substantial place in the public imagination, but so far it’s had little to do with Hollywood. Williams became instantly famous in 1983 as the first black Miss America. That fame was quickly surpassed by grand-scale notoriety when nude photos of her, published in Penthouse magazine, forced her to give up the Miss America crown.
These days she’s known to fans of Top 40 radio as the soulful, mellow crooner of adult contemporary R&B tunes–since 1988, she’s acquired a couple platinum albums and a string of hit singles, and her rendering of “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas helped win that song an Oscar. And Broadway buffs are familiar with her successful 1994 run in the title role of Kiss of the Spider Woman. TV movie junkies saw her in last year’s remake of Bye Bye Birdie and the career gal saga Sidney Sheldon’s Nothing Lasts Forever. None of this suggests a career on the big screen, but make no doubt about it: in 1996, that’s just what Vanessa Williams is aiming for. “Feature films are the highest echelon of the entertainment industry,” she tells me when we meet at Warner Bros. Burbank studios. Her tone is matter-of-fact, like she’s just found the actor’s mark she knows she has to hit. And her presence as Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s copilot in this summer’s big action vehicle Eraser is proof that she stands a decent chance.
Miss Americas may not translate well to the screen, but there is a history of pop singers making the jump, from Streisand (a hard act to follow) to Midler (proof of the pitfalls) to Madonna (enough to scare a girl back into the recording studio) to, most recently, Whitney Houston (who, from Williams’s perspective, must seem either to be opening new doors or taking up precious space). But look at those names again: they aren’t just singers who decided to act a little–they’re some of the biggest success stories in recent entertainment history, winning combinations all of talent, calculation, ambition and confidence. After a short time in her presence, I’m ready to declare that Williams is not deficient in that last category: she’s the most confident woman I’ve met in Hollywood–and I’ve met Nicole Kidman.
Everything about Eraser is big: big Arnold, big budget, big explosions, and big expectations for a potential summer blockbuster. Sounds like a guarantee, I say, that Williams’s first major feature film role is a trial by fire. “I’m not really intimidated by it,” she quickly tells me. “I embraced the idea of this movie.” When I ask her what specifically she’s thrown her arms around, she shows me she has her priorities straight: “The best cinematographer and the best sound people in the business.” And after this triumph in sight and sound? Williams is already thinking ahead. “It would be nice if I got a big studio picture to follow this up. A romantic comedy or another action film. I got a lot of positive reinforcement from the producers and director of Eraser. They said, ‘You really look good holding a gun.'” Williams is positively beaming as she says this, although at the moment, she is the picture of businesslike elegance in a cream-colored Plein Sud suit.
Superhero attributes are exactly what she’s going to need to accomplish her ambitious career plan, which she deftly lays out: “Put out a hit record every two years or so and keep the features coming in, and do interesting television projects and Broadway probably every five years or so– I could handle that.” When I suggest that trying to cover all those bases seems destined to be a frightening, frustrating undertaking, she says, simply, “It’s not intimidating. It’s reality for me.”
Those words “not intimidating” are a veritable buzz phrase with Williams. “Struggle” and “dream” are buzz words of hers, too. Of course, sheer will–which Williams shows every sign of possessing–and a simple, basic idea will take you far in this land of opportunity. No wonder she and Schwarzenegger proved to be soul mates, of a kind, while making Eraser, “[When I met him], Arnold basically said to me, ‘I know that it’s hard to fight and re-create yourself when everyone doubts your ability.’ He started out as a bodybuilder and no one ever thought he’d be a movie star. I think he immediately felt some kind of connection with the struggle that we both had. The struggle to say, ‘This is the dream and people will some day get it.”‘
Williams has a cool, focused, detached way of saying these things. And the only time she looks away during our whole interview is when she glances around for an assistant who’s supposed to bring her tea. Her eyes are hauntingly clear, a rather astounding light blue-green, and in them, her eagerness–even an impatience–to get on with the program is quite palpable. Williams is, after all, a 33-year-old mother of three–that’s just a year younger than the late-blooming Sharon Stone was when she broke wide with Basic Instinct. Unlike Sharon Stone, though, Williams hasn’t been in town for over a decade earning stripes. Has acting, I ask her, been her primary concern all along? “Um, uh– a concern?” she says. “Let’s say ‘goal.’ I think acting was always the goal, yeah. Singing was–I don’t want to say a sideline. Uh, singing was a nice–but–”
“It was how you were going to get where you wanted to go,” I suggest.
“Yeah, right. It certainly opened the doors for me to get the roles that I, uh, love…”
Good roles have only very recently begun to come her way. As in the last 18 months. Her Broadway Spider Woman eclipsed everyone’s expectations, commercially and critically, when she took over the role from musical powerhouse Chita Rivera. She made the absolute most of her two 1995 made-for-TV movies: she was generally thought to be the best thing about the ratings-bomb Bye Bye Birdie, and in Sidney Sheldon’s Nothing Lasts Forever, a glossy prime-time soap opera that was a ratings hit, she played a tough, workaholic doctor (referred to on screen, as Williams was referred to offscreen during production, as “Black Ice”) with notable conviction. As far as feature films go, there’s been nothing of note. Her pre-Eraser work consists of very small roles in negligible films like The Pick-up Artist, Harley Davidson & the Marlboro Man and Another You. It hasn’t been through lack of trying. To understand why Williams is still waiting for a Whitney Houston-sized Bodyguard-like breakthrough (and to gain further insight into her buzz words) you have to go back to Williams’s first dramatic entrance into the spotlight.
I have to ask, seeing as I have a genuine former Miss America in front of me, if the pageant isn’t, in fact, a pretty corny event. Williams laughs, then says, tactfully, “The bottom line is that it’s a small-town, hometown operation.” Still, all those toothy, blinding smiles the poor girls flash every two seconds, Vaseline smeared on their teeth so their lips won’t stick! Interestingly, the footage I’ve seen of Williams as Miss America shows not one of those “small-town” Stepford smiles, but a perfectly genuine one. ‘That’s probably why I won,” she says, “I’d never done [the pageant circuit] before and I was natural. Besides also being talented.” Well, of course. By all accounts her rendition of “Happy Days Are Here Again” was a showstopper. But more impressive to me is the fact that Williams, who was a theater arts major at Syracuse University at the time, won the whole enchilada only six months after entering her first pageant. The whole thing, she has said, was “kind of a lark.”
There were, however, certain harsh realities that went along with being the first black Miss America, things Williams’s fairly idyllic youth as the child of two music teachers in the genteel, rolling plains of Westchester County didn’t prepare her for. “I was getting hate mail and death threats from the Aryan Nation and having black people think I wasn’t–I don’t know–black enough.” she says. All of which became much more difficult once the nude photos of her in suggestive poses with another woman came out in Penthouse. Williams had posed for them over a year earlier at the request of a home-town photographer she’d worked for.
In the post-publication firestorm, she was attacked from all sides: by bigots, by self-proclaimed arbiters of American morality and, most painfully of all, by those in the black community who called her a disgrace. “Miss America was as far from me as those pictures were,” she says. “I had won this, and I had done that, but I was, you know, a human being in the middle whom nobody really knew.” The whole thing was, she would later say, “like a death in the family.” She tells me now, “I will never have to go through the heat that I did when I was 21. Unless I kill somebody or there’s some other major thing in my life, which I don’t think will happen. I’ll never have that much attention.”
Ramon Hervey, a Los Angeles publicist 12 years Williams’s senior, was hired to help Williams draft her Miss America resignation speech. Within a few years, Hervey would become her husband and manager, but initially the two set out to craft her an entertainment career. In the first few years, her efforts at acting were largely futile. “I auditioned to be Twiggy’s replacement in My One and Only, to star with Tommy Tune. Then Lee Gershwin, Ira’s widow, nixed that because she thought it would not be the appropriate image for the theater at the time.” In fact, the Widow Gershwin said Williams would bring “the wrong type of audience” into the theater. On some auditions, Williams says, it was obvious that “some people were just taking meetings in order to tell their buddies they met Vanessa Williams, because I was hot in every exploitative magazine and tabloid at the time.”
With no concrete career success to bolster her confidence. Williams still sought to assert herself. She declared she wouldn’t be a guest on the late-night talk show circuit. “That was my angry, resentful period. I was 21, living in Manhattan and there was a point where I couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing some comic like Joan Rivers or Letterman doing something on me. So I said I’d never talk to them, never do their shows. There came a time, obviously, when I had no more issues. I did Letterman last year. He said hi and gave me a kiss. It was great.”
A chance to play the lead in a feature film–Spike Lee’s 1987 School Daze, about racial tensions on a black college campus–ended with Variety reporting “creative differences” between Lee and Williams. Big differences, Williams says. “I read the script and, being a woman who’s considered light-skinned, I was offended that all the light-skinned characters were just concerned about themselves and all the dark-skinned students had integrity. I said to Spike. ‘I don’t know who you’ve been burned by, but I know a lot of sisters who have the same tone as me, and we’re intelligent. We aren’t narcissists.'”
That same year, Williams became pregnant with her first child. Before she turned 30, she had two more kids. “Not to get it out of the way, but to have kids and be able to do what I wanted to in my 30s.” Carefully planned for efficiency or not, Williams’s first baby was good timing. The next year, she released her first album. The move to music was one Hervey had long recommended as a way of gaining some control over her career. Her debut album The Right Stuff went gold and led to three Grammy nominations. The two albums that followed, The Comfort Zone and The Sweetest Days, went platinum, establishing Williams as a major force in adult contemporary R&.B music.
Acting triumphs, however, remained elusive as the ’90s began. Harley Davidson & the Marlboro Manwas probably a bomb from the get-go. “I remember Mickey Rourke sucking limes before each of his takes to get rid of his saliva or–I don’t know. And I remember him saying he wanted to work with me again.” Truly, these are memories that shouldn’t have to last anyone a lifetime. Another You, that same year, was an even grimmer affair. It was Richard Pryor’s last film, and Williams, who played his girlfriend, recalls having to lead the MS-ravaged comic out of shots “because he was shaking so bad. It was really sad.” I ask her about roles during this period that she was up for and didn’t get–parts that might have swerved her acting career into a faster lane. She thinks for a few seconds and says, “I tested for Boomerang –Robin Givens got that. I was down to the last wire on Coming to America –Shari Headley got that. Those are the only two that didn’t end up working out.”
In 1994, Williams auditioned for a new Broadway production of Showboat for producer Garth Drabinsky, who asked her to consider instead taking over the lead in the Tony-winning Kiss of the Spider Woman. When she did, it became an even bigger hit– ticket sales went up 20 percent–and she won raves. In Newsweek, Spider Woman director Harold Prince called her “a director’s dream … she’s got that combination of innocence and sly innuendo that Mary Martin had.” Being compared to the Great White Way’s quintessential Peter Pan was definitely a heady new brand of publicity for Williams. The positive notices continued with Sidney Sheldon’s Nothing Lasts Forever and Bye Bye Birdie.
So here Williams sits, on the edge of a new phase. But when I ask her if she isn’t nervous and/or insecure about suddenly appearing in thousands of theaters in the summer blockbuster sweepstakes, she says. “I’m insecure in terms of my looks — more so on this film, because I realize it’s not going straight to video. I’m always freaked out about my skin, and I lost 14 pounds after I got the role.” She says this without sounding freaked out at all. Does she feel any pressure to prove that she can really act? “It’s not that kind of film,” she says. “You’re lucky to have motivation in some scenes that are verbal. There are a couple tender moments, but it’s a lot of explosions and running. This will not be the role to review my acting. But I think what will show is that I’m experienced and comfortable.” Not to mention this fact: Eraser will stand or fall on Arnold’s shoulders, not hers. Not that she’s worried. “Arnold’s such a marketing machine. Even Last Action Hero–for him that’s a failure monetarily, but it would have been a tremendous hit for any other film.”
Does Williams realize just how difficult it is to cross over from singer to actress? Actually, no, “I’m not aware of it,” she claims. “Although it’s been pointed out to me that a lot of people don’t succeed.” Williams says she likes to ‘”visualize success.” and does so by concentrating on the winners: folks like Sinatra, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand. There’s one name that doesn’t come up–indeed hasn’t come up once in our conversation, though you’d think it might have: Whitney Houston.
Houston and Williams are the same age, both beautiful, successful singers, both African-American. Have they ever, I ask, been up for the same role? “No. You mean like me getting Whitney’s rejects or something?” she says, and laughs. “No–my agent hasn’t said ‘Whitney’s turned this down and now you’re second banana and they want you.’ We’re both metropolitan East Coast girls, born in the same year, successful and very powerful in our careers and choices. [But] she came from a gospel church background in terms of her vocal style, and I came from a classical theater background. Different strengths, different styles.”
But there is this additional similarity–an important one: both actresses have had success in roles not specifically intended for black women. Houston in The Bodyguard. Williams in Birdie (in which she played a Latin-American secretary) and in Sidney Sheldon’s Nothing Lasts Forever, which, like The Bodyguard, involved an interracial romance that was not treated as an issue. “I’ll take roles that are appealing to me and that I think I can do.” Williams says. “This role [in Eraser] wasn’t cast black or white–they chose me because the chemistry between me and Arnold during our screen test was strong.I crossed that line where color didn’t mean anything.” Williams says she didn’t even realize there was a racial/ethnic angle to consider in Birdie until she met with the producers. “They were saying, ‘Well, are we gonna get a lot of mail because she’s not Latin? Will Hispanics be upset?’ They were talking about maybe making it a black role. I said, ‘You know what? I don’t think you have to go to that much effort. Rosie Perez is as brown as I am–and she’s Puerto Rican. I think people will buy it.'”
Williams continues, “People in their 30s are execs and producers now, and they’ve grown up in schools and with friends of all different ethnic backgrounds. The business is getting more expansive. Every year it gets better for black actresses. Whoopi certainly paved the way in terms of getting tremendous dollars. Halle Berry is constantly starring or co-starring in features.”
Of course, Williams’s image today has its roots not so much in race, but in a different kind of surface issue: she was the Miss America who had to resign. Frankly, I’m surprised at the longevity of the whole scandal. Last fall, during the network airing of Sidney Sheldon’s Nothing Lasts Forever, the local news ran leering promotional teasers for a post miniseries “special report”: “Vanessa Revealed–From Scandal to Stardom.” Pictures at 11? You bet. Those pictures. More than 10 years after the fact, it was time to reveal Vanessa again. But hasn’t the scandal lessened in impact, just a little, especially in view of the tabloid takes on people like Madonna and Sharon Stone and, yes, Whitney Houston. Or am I wrong? “Yeah, I certainly think you are,” she says. “You’re always labeled as what people first perceive you as. First, I was Miss America, so I had that obstacle in being considered an actress. Then I was a dethroned Miss America–a defrocked beauty queen, [Eraser costar] Jimmy Caan tells this story of how he always had the fantasy of back-handing a Miss America and now in Eraser] he has the chance to. I’m still a former Miss America to him.” Williams laughs, and then says, “To [Eraser producer] Arnold Kopelson, I was a scandalous beauty queen who had made hit records but wasn’t considered a feature film actress. So I had to prove myself.”
“Success is the best revenge” has been the title of more than one media report chronicling Williams’s steady upward climb. That suggests, I say, that there’s some force or foe she’s been battling all along. “Or, like, bitterness or resentment that I’m harboring?” she says, “I think that’s a neat little journalistic title to interest the reader, but that is not my thing. Once you release the negative stuff and move on, that’s when the good things happen, I’ve been over it for a while.”
What if the next good thing that happens is movie stardom? Is she ready for the harsh glare of fame and publicity she already knows more than enough about? “Been there, done that,” she says dismissively of celebrity hassles. “I don’t anticipate anything getting out of control. If you lead a boring life, nobody has anything to say. ‘She rides horses with her daughters, she flies home to New York on the weekends’– what else is there? There are tremendously famous people who live life without making too many waves.” If that is what Williams aspires to, it’s a goal that dwarfs her other ambitions.
Joshua Mooney interviewed John Badham for the November ’95 issue of Movieline.