‘Not only was I getting attacked from white folks saying she doesn’t represent us, but some Black folks [said], ‘Oh they only picked her cause she’s light-skinned and has light eyes,’” Williams says
Vanessa Williams has had a career full of diversity and longevity, winning awards for both her chart-topping songs and albums, as well as her stellar acting on film, television and on Broadway.
Her success was kicked off in 1983 when she became the first Black woman ever to win the Miss America pageant. However, Williams recently disclosed that her historic win was met with an all-encompassing backlash.
During an interview on the A&E podcast, The Table is Ours, Williams said she was subjected to harsh criticism from “both sides;” the white community as well as the Black community. She was in her junior year at Syracuse University when she entered the competition and felt tremendous pressure.
“I was not seen as a 20-year-old, who is a junior in college,” she began. “I was seen as a symbol, but also seen as a Black woman, and I was also seen as someone who was supposed to represent the American beauty.”
As a result, she says many in the white community were not ready for a Black woman to take on such a mantle. She said she was receiving so many “death threats” at the time that there had to be “sharpshooters on the top of the roofs of my hometown” for her protection.
“There [were] a lot of folks that did not believe that having brown skin and being a Black woman represented the Miss America ideal,” Williams continued.
Unfortunately, Williams also stated that the criticism extended to her “own people” in the Black community, stemming from colorism.
“Not only was I getting attacked from white folks saying she doesn’t represent us, but some Black folks [said], ‘Oh they only picked her cause she’s light-skinned and has light eyes,’” Williams revealed. “They kind of dismissed my talent, my intellect, and my achievement. So that was probably more hurtful.”
What made matters worse was that any pride felt from Williams’ victory was short-lived. She was forced to give up the crown months later after Penthouse Magazine published nude photos of Williams.
Despite the controversy, Williams’ career prevailed, and she became a successful singer with hits like “Save The Best For Last,” “Love Is,” and the Oscar-winning “Colors of the Wind.” Her acting has garnered three Emmy nominations and a 2002 Tony Award nod for Into The Woods. In 2007, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 2015, over three decades after being stripped of her title, Miss America executive chairman Sam Haskell issued a public apology to Williams during that year’s pageant telecast, as reported by Global News.
“I want to apologize for anything that was said or done,” Haskell said. “Vanessa: Welcome back!”
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