Twenty four years ago today, Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America was forced to give up her crown. After nude photos of her in sexual positions with a woman were sold to Penthouse and she was continuously bashed by the media, the New York State native resigned at a frenzied press conference on July 23rd, 1984.
Vanessa Williams was 20 years-old when she was crowned Miss America, which started in 1921, in September of 1983. For the first 30 years of Miss America, black women were not allowed to compete. Vanessa Williams would be the first black woman to win in 63 years.
Contrary to popular belief, Vanessa Williams is not “biracial”. There was a bit of a controversy in the black community when this light-skinned, green-eyed girl was the first black Miss America, some argued she wasn't "black enough." In less than a year the black community would soon realize that she was black enough for the media.
Even with black folks wondering if she was "black enough", the public didn't know the night before winning the title she received numerous death threats—the first time in Miss America history that a contestant received any hate mail.
There is some speculation that the media was out to get Vanessa Williams, regardless of her skin tone, regardless of her being from a middle class family (she was often asked if she was from the projects); some say Williams was a media target. Ten months after making history she received an anonymous phone call saying nude photos that stimulated lesbianism was sold to Penthouse.
All Jim Crow hell broke lose! We were in the Regan era, the liberalism of the seventies was shunned upon, HIV/AIDS hit, sex was naughty again, and Williams was going to pay for it. If you think Janet Jackson had it bad during "nipplegate", "pageantgate" was epic.
The media ripped Williams to shreds. They, and the America public, deemed her immoral, Un-American, a disgrace and insisted she be dethroned immediately. The last straw, advertisers threatened to walk on the upcoming pageant—well, money talks and Vanessa had to walk.
In a 1992 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Williams described her reaction to the ordeal as "frightened, overwhelmed, and in shock", but she also said, "I didn't grieve—it wasn't like a death in the family. I was more surprised than anything." She stressed, "I was 21 years old, and I couldn't believe that the nation was making a big deal over me. When you see Dan Rather talking about you, it's pretty amazing. They did public-opinion polls on me!"
The crown was given to the runner up, Suzette Charles, who was also black (and Italian). Charles is known as the second black woman to be crowned Miss America.
Nonetheless, Williams had the last laugh. Who remembers Suzette Charles? Who remembers any Miss America? Who remembers the Miss America from last year? Vanessa Williams losing her crown was probably the greatest thing to her career.
Ironically, the community who were skeptical of Williams in the beginning, the black community, were the first to embrace her. In 1988 she released her legendary '80's R&B album The Right Stuff, which spawned four R&B hits, including the #1 R&B hit "Dreamin'" (#8 on the Billboard Hot 100). The album was certified Gold and in 1989 she received an NAACP Award for Outstanding New Artist.
In 1991 she released The Comfort Zone, which went 3x Platinum, the album garnered endless hits like "Running Back To You" (#1 US R&B), the title track (#2 US R&B), and the classic "Save The Best For Last", which hit #1 on the R&B and Billboard Hot 100 charts. Williams said in the 1992 Entertainment Weekly interview, "I'm always sensitive about where I had my first support and that was black radio. They were great. Pop radio stations were the ones who would take potshots at me. Disrespect me. Try to make me into a novelty. I couldn't say anything, but I'd walk out the door thinking, 'That guy is a you know, never again.' You remember those things. They're little knives."
Twenty-four years after Williams' worldwide scandal she is a Grammy, Tony, and Emmy nominee, household name, queen bee of ABC's Ugly Betty—and as far as being a beauty queen, at 45 she can sit down any of these young girls!
Check out this interview with Vanessa Williams after she won Miss America. She was incredibly classy, intelligent, poised, and even threw a little shade to President Ronald Reagen.