Vanessa Williams: Saving the Best for Niagara Falls
By David DeRocco
When you’re the daughter of two elementary school music teachers who announce your birth by proclaiming “Here she is: Miss America,” then you know the bar of expectation being set for you is going to be rather high. Looking back over her career now, it’s safe to say VANESSA WILLIAMS has exceeded those expectations.
Since entering the public eye in 1983 as the first African-American to be crowned Miss America, the Bronx-born Williams has successfully proven herself to be a triple-threat superstar, selling millions of albums worldwide, earning critical acclaim for her stage and screen roles, and authoring a New York Times best seller in collaboration with her mom. Her albums The Right Stuff, The Comfort Zone and The Sweetest Days earned her multiple Grammy nominations and have yielded such classic pop hits as “Save The Best For Last,” “Dreamin,” and the Academy Award winning single from Disney’s Pocahontas, “Colours of the Wind.” And while it may seem her career has simply followed the map laid out for her at birth, Williams is quick to acknowledge that having a no-fear approach to opportunity has been equally responsible for her career success.
“I’ve had a life full of wonderful opportunities,” said Williams, who takes the stage at Fallsview Casino’s Avalon Ballroom August 18th. “Obviously I was open for it and not afraid to take the chance.”
Being fearless is a mantra Williams shares whenever she’s speaking to women’s groups, students, or giving commencement speeches, like the one she recently gave to the graduating class of the Roundabout Theatre Company in the Bronx. That class received a full dose of the inspirational wisdom Williams has followed her entire career.
“I definitely say you never know where your life’s going to go. You can have a lot of dreams but you can’t be afraid to take chances. You just never know what’s going to happen, what’s going to be the result of something you take a chance on. It could change your life in a way you’d never expect. I’ve been lucky to be so open to opportunity. Sometimes it’s foolish, sometimes it’s too optimistic, but I think it’s served me well and certainly served me well in this business.”
The business wasn’t always kind to Williams, who in the mid-80s was just another former beauty queen looking for a career break in the music industry. Leaving her home state of New York after starring in an off-Broadway production, Williams moved to California and got her first taste of radio exposure singing back up on a George Clinton single, “Do Fries Go With That Shake.” That lead to a meeting with Prince, who offered the singer a couple songs that were supposed to wind up on an album that Clinton was to produce for her. According to Williams, that project got derailed by what she calls “record label shenanigans,” and she eventually signed with Mercury/Polygram. Her first solo album hit the charts in 1988, and Williams was on her way.
“It was definitely exciting and also every confusing. There was a lot of people who did not believe in me. But I had a great team that liked to work unknowns and underdogs that just wanted to prove we could do it together. That was a sense of comfort. The first time I heard my first solo stuff on the radio it was fantastic, but I had to learn about the business of record companies. Even though you might have a hit you don’t see that money for a long time. My life didn’t change much economically when I had my first hit. But I was definitely on the way to a whole new adventure.”
That adventure has included her enormous success as a stage and screen actress; television fans will recognize Williams for her roles as Wilhelmina Slater on Ugly Better (2016-2010) and Renee Perry on Desperate Housewives (2010-2012). Williams was twice nominated for an Emmy Award and received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007. However, if she had to pick one of her many careers for an epitaph – singer, stage actress, television star, author – Williams says the choice would be easy.
“In terms of having to do one thing I would say that Broadway allows me to do everything I love; sing, dance and act in front of a live audience each night. I get all my thrills in one evening, so that kind of ticks off all the boxes.”
When it comes to advice for rising stars dreaming of the same multi-faceted career she has enjoyed, Williams remains a strong advocate for continuing education.
“I think it all has to do with education,” said Williams. “Never stop learning. There is always a lesson somewhere. Always ask questions. Always seek out mentors. That’s probably the main gist. You can find knowledge and answers and paths when you ask and people are usually willing to give advice, to tell a story and to help you along the way. Just know that you’re not going at it alone and to use your community whoever it is as your guide and your aid.”
(Photo credits: Main Page Rod Spicer. Story photo Mike Ruiz)