Williams Interviews Vanessa Williams
Well-Rounded & Multi-Talented
Grew Up in a Great Environment.
And Then Came Love
Born in the Bronx on
March 18, 1963, Vanessa Lynn Williams and her brother,
Chris (the actor), were raised in Millwood, a suburb of
New York City located in Westchester. Her parents,
Milton and Helen, both music teachers, are also each
half-white and half-black. And they must have had a
premonition, because Vanessaís birth announcement read:
ďHere she is: Miss America!Ē
As a child, she studied
both piano and French horn, though she showed the most
interest in developing her sultry singing voice. Vanessa
settled theater arts as her major at Syracuse
University, but she was too impatient to enter show
business to stay there very long.
On September 17, 1983,
she made history and proved her parents to be
clairvoyant when she won the Miss America Pageant,
becoming the first black woman to hold the title in the
process. Regrettably, Vanessa decided to surrender her
crown after some nude photos of her surfaced in
But that temporary
setback couldnít prevent such a multi-talented performer
from continuing to pursue her dream, and she went on to
flourish not only as a recording artist, but also on TV
and the stage, and on film, winning a trio of NAACP
Image Awards, while landing 14 Grammy nominations
(winning once), a Screen Actors Guild nomination and a
Currently, Vanessa is
enjoying a recurring role on Ugly Betty, not as the
title character, obviously, but as Wilhemina Slater. The
bi-coastal beauty commutes back and forth between L.A.
and her hometown where she is raising her four kids,
Melanie, Jillian, Devin and Sasha.
Here, she talks about
her life and her latest outing as LíTisha Morton in My
Brother, where she exhibits an emotional range unseen in
any of her previous work as the mother of two adolescent
boys, one of whom has Down Syndrome.
* * *
Hey, Vanessa, thanks so much for the time. I really
appreciate it, since Iíve enjoyed your career from the
Thank you, no problem.
In fact, since my last name was Williams and I was also
from New York, I have to admit that when you won Miss
America, I used to claim that you were my cousin.
[Chuckles] Oh, where in New York are you from?
Saint Albans. I know you were born in The Bronx, but
then where were you raised?
I grew up in Millwood, which is in northern Westchester.
My Dadís from Oyster Bay, and my Momís from Buffalo.
Gee, my family used to go out to places like Oyster Bay
and Sag Harbor during the summer. Congratulations on
recently winning another NAACP Image Award. Iím on the
Oh, okay, thank you! It was my third. The first one I
got was for a recording, my album
The Right Stuff
back in 1988. The second one was ten years later for
Soul Food, which was a film. So this is great,
because itís my first one for television.
So, how are you enjoying having a hit show and playing
Wilhemina Slater on Ugly Betty?
[Laughs] I love it! I love our cast. I love our writers.
I love the producers. I love our set. Itís just a really
enjoyable experience. Iím just so happy that I have the
opportunity to play such a fun role.
Are you at all like Wilhemina in real life?
Vanessa Williams: Playing a diva like Wilhemina, most people assume that things are usually
taken care of for you, and that you donít have a lot of
domestic skills. And many actresses donít, because of
the nature of the business that weíre in. But the
greatest thing about being a mother so young, I had my
first child at 24, is that I cook, I clean, I love to be
independent and kind of hate to be waited on and hate to
be taken care of. So, I guess that demonstrates my
fiercely independent nature which is kind of anti what I
portray on a weekly basis.
Well, you certainly come across as surprisingly grounded
and real. I guess part of thatís from being a mother,
and part of that is from not living in Hollywood.
And Iíd guess that youíre not the type to travel with a
big entourage either?
I donít draw attention to myself or have security
pushing people away.
Thatís admirable. How do your children like being able
to see you on TV every week like that?
My kids are so busy that they donít even get a chance to
catch it every Thursday night. Given their schedules,
theyíre not even home. My six year-old manages to see
it, but all the other kids have class or some other
extracurricular activity, so thank God for TiVo.
In this age of the soccer mom, where youíre constantly
shuttling children around, how is it for you balancing
your career and your kids? I know how long the days are
and what grueling work it is shooting a TV series. Itís
It is extremely time-consuming. And we shoot film, so
itís not a half-hour comedy. Weíre doing an hour comedy
every week, so itís like doing a film every eight days.
Luckily, my days per episode are usually three to four.
So, Iím, not shooting every day of the week, which
allows me to fly home to be with my kids for the
weekends. Thatís how I keep it moving.
I didnít realize that. So, whereís Ugly Betty
shot? And where do you live?
I live in New York, and itís shot in L.A.
Whoa! So, do you live in Manhattan?
No, I live in my hometown in Westchester. My kids go to
the same schools I went to.
Thatís very interesting. Why did you choose to do that?
Boy, I moved back to New York in í92, when my oldest was
5, and about to start kindergarten. I wanted her to go
to start school back East. When we were looking for a
home, we found one in my hometown that was perfect. So,
we didnít intentionally move back there, but thatís how
it happened. My eldest is already in college at F.I.T
[The Fashion Institute of Technology] in the City. My 17
year-old is a senior at the high school that I went to,
and my son is in eighth grade at the junior high where I
was class president in the same grade. And my little one
is in first grade at Montessori.
Does your 17 year-old know where sheís going next year
Sheís been accepted by four schools and sheís waiting to
hear from four more. So weíll know in a matter of weeks.
Good luck. My sonís a senior, too, and was admitted to
Princeton . . . which means heíll be close to home,
which is great.
Fantastic. My oldest went to a boarding school which was
about a half-hour away from Princeton.
Do you have a place in L.A? I donít mean to pry but a
friend of mine out there, Jimmy Bayan, needs to know.
Iím renting in Beverly Hills.
So, what interested you in making this film,
Well, the script and the whole theme of the movie
interested me. Anthony Lover, who wrote it, came after
me and said heíd written this part particularly for me,
because he knew that as a mother I would have the
sensibility needed to bring it to life. And when I read
the script, and saw the nature of it, I signed on and
met the rest of the cast. And when we started
rehearsals, I just knew that it was going to be a very
I agree, I loved it, and I think that it also afforded
you an opportunity to exhibit an emotional range and a
certain gravitas that we havenít had a chance to see
from you before.
Yeah, well itís nice to have material like that. Thatís
another reason why you do independent films, because it
allows you to do roles that you donít have to worry
about whether or not theyíre bankable, or if people are
going to come see them, or with satisfying a committee
thatís funding it. Of course, independent films need
distribution and money, but they also have a lot more
freedom in terms of what the artist can truly do as the
I also found it interesting that this is the first
full-length film to feature an African-American with an
actual developmental disability in a lead role. In fact,
two, because both Donovan Jennings who plays James as a
child and Christopher Scott who plays him as an adult
have Down Syndrome.
Yeah, I didnít think about it like that. They did a
nationwide search for actors, and I think they did a
fantastic job with Donovan and Christopher. For
first-time out actors, in general, theyíve done a
wonderful job. We rehearsed for maybe about two weeks
before we started shooting. And Anthony, when he was
directing, was very supportive and very paternal with
everyone, particularly them. In working with them, his
process was to kind of keep the camera rolling, and to
talk us through the scene, so it was almost one constant
take, as opposed to doing a series of takes, scene after
scene, sequentially. I think that allowed everyone to
feel really comfortable, and to get some extremely good
What would you say is the movieís message?
I think itís a story about the human condition, and
love, whether itís between a mother and a son, or the
love of two brothers. Itís about responsibility and
becoming men, and applying the lessons that were learned
by their mother and bringing them to their adulthood.
Itís not a pity party, although there are some strong
images and a lot of obstacles that you see in the movie.
Itís a story about love, and itís uplifting. I donít
want people to feel sorry for Donovan and Christopher
and the condition that theyíre in. Itís definitely not
that at all.
KW: What do you have on
the horizon in your career?
I have another independent film called And Then Came
Love, which comes out in June. Thatís a story about
a female journalist who has a child through artificial
insemination which explores the theme of women raising
kids by themselves.
Isnít Eartha Kitt in that?
Right, she plays my Mom.
How do you feel about Donald Trump pardoning Miss USA,
rather than stripping her of her title?
I really donít have any feelings about it. I didnít do
the Miss USA system which is way more big business and
corporate-based than Miss America. And that was 23 years
What advice would you have for anyone wanting to follow
in your footsteps?
Number one, find out what you true desire and talent is.
And get practical experience. The more you do, the more
youíll be prepared when opportunities present themselves
to you. So keep working at it, be professional, show up
on time, be prepared, know your stuff, be pleasant,
treat people kindly, and donít forget to take chances.
Your being very gifted and blessed with beauty and a
variety of talents has served you very well: singingÖ
actingÖ dancingÖ.. And your being well-spoken also
enabled you to be a successful spokesperson in
commercials. But do you recommend that an aspiring
entertainer focus on one skill rather than several at
I think itís up to the individual. I was lucky to have
two parents who were music teachers. They exposed me and
my brother to so many things: the ballet . . . Broadway
. . . marching bands . . . every kind of educational
tool and entertainment. So, the fact that weíre
well-rounded and kind of multi-talented was definitely a
function of what we were exposed to and what we got
training in. I was lucky that I had parents who could
provide me with dance classes. And I had a great acting
teacher in my high school which is unusual. I grew up in
a great environment.
Well, thanks for the time and continued success in your
assorted endeavors. And let me say again that I was
extremely impressed by your performance in My Brother,
and by the picture overall. So, I hope to see you in a
lot more roles which call for such emotional depth.
Thank you very much.
posted 16 March
* * *
* * * * *
It's The Middle Class Stupid!
By James Carville
and Stan Greenberg
Itís the Middle Class, Stupid!
confirms what we have all suspected:
Washington and Wall Street have really
screwed things up for the average
American. Work has been devalued.
Education costs are out of sight. Effort
and ambition have never been so scantily
rewarded. Political guru James Carville
and pollster extraordinaire Stan
Greenberg argue that our political
parties must admit their failures and
the electorate must reclaim its voice,
because taking on the wealthy and the
privileged is not class warfareóit is a
matter of survival. Told in the
alternating voices of these two top
Itís the Middle Class, Stupid!
provides eye-opening and provocative
arguments on where our
governmentóincluding the White Houseóhas
gone wrong, and what voters can do about
Controversial and outspoken,
authoritative and shrewd,
Itís the Middle Class, Stupid!
is destined to make waves during the
2012 presidential campaign, and will set
the agenda for legislative battles and
political dust-ups during the next
* * *
By William Faulker
is Faulkner's great novel of the rise and fall of the
Sutpen dynasty and a great allegory of
the rise and fall of the Old South. The
book told through three interconnected
narratives tells the life story of
Thomas Sutpen. The narratives are not
straight forward and present a constant
challenge to the reader. But if the
reader does not close the book in
despair the rewards are great indeed.
The mood of the storytelling alone is
worth the price of admission here. The
long flowing sentences are marvels and
testaments to Faulkner's skill as a
writer. The narrative drive makes
reading the book almost like reading
Greek tragedy. We gets views of Sutpens
life from several townspeople and also
across generations. This is the first
book that I've read in a long time that
made me feel like I had accomplished
something when I finished it. You don't
so much read this novel as you become
lost in it. Jump in get your feet wet
and prepare for some of the most intense
Southern gothic that you are ever likely
to read. Amazon Reader
The Warmth of Other Suns
The Epic Story of America's Great Migration
By Isabel Wilkerson
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's
wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in
1937, after her cousin was falsely accused
of stealing a white man's turkeys and was
almost beaten to death. In 1945, George
Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled
Florida for Harlem after learning of the
grove owners' plans to give him a "necktie
party" (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing
Foster made his trek from Louisiana to
California in 1953, embittered by "the
absurdity that he was doing surgery for the
United States Army and couldn't operate in
his own home town." Anchored to these three
stories is Pulitzer PrizeĖwinning journalist
Wilkerson's magnificent, extensively
researched study of the "great migration,"
the exodus of six million black Southerners
out of the terror of Jim Crow to an
"uncertain existence" in the North and
Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological
and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling,
and Pershing settling in new lands, building
anew, and often finding that they have not
left racism behind. The drama, poignancy,
and romance of a classic immigrant saga
pervade this book, hold the reader in its
grasp, and resonate long after the reading
* * *
Becoming American Under Fire
Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship
During the Civil War Era
By Christian G. Samito
In Becoming American under Fire, Christian G. Samito provides a rich account of how African American and Irish American soldiers influenced the modern vision of national citizenship that developed during the Civil War era. By bearing arms for the Union, African Americans and Irish Americans exhibited their loyalty to the United States and their capacity to act as citizens; they strengthened their American identity in the process. . . . For African American soldiers, proving manhood in combat was only one aspect to their quest for acceptance as citizens. As Samito reveals, by participating in courts-martial and protesting against unequal treatment, African Americans gained access to legal and political processes from which they had previously been excluded. The experience of African Americans in the military helped shape a postwar political movement that successfully called for rights and protections regardless of race. For Love of Liberty
* * *
Incognegro: A Memoir of
Exile and Apartheid
B. Wilderson III
Wilderson, a professor,
writer and filmmaker from
presents a gripping account
of his role in the downfall
of South African apartheid
as one of only two black
Americans in the African
National Congress (ANC).
After marrying a South
African law student,
returns with her to South
Africa in the early 1990s,
where he teaches
Johannesburg and Soweto
students, and soon joins the
military wing of the ANC.
portrait of Nelson Mandela
as a petulant elder eager to
accommodate his white
countrymen will jolt readers
who've accepted the
usually accorded him. After
the assassination of
Mandela's rival, South
African Communist Party
leader Chris Hani, Mandela's
regime deems Wilderson's
public questions a threat to
national security; soon,
having lost his stomach for
the cause, he returns to
* * * * *
Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All
By Russell Simmons
Russell Simmons knows firsthand that
wealth is rooted in much more than the
market. True wealth has more to do with
what's in your heart than what's in your
wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons
became one of America's shrewdest
entrepreneurs, achieving a level of
success that most investors only dream
about. No matter how much material gain
he accumulated, he never stopped lending
a hand to those less fortunate. In
Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare
blend of spiritual savvy and
street-smart wisdom to offer a new
definition of wealth-and share timeless
principles for developing an unshakable
sense of self that can weather any
financial storm. As Simmons says, "Happy
can make you money, but money can't make
* * * * *
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of
By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the
rosy picture of race embodied in Barack
Obama's political success and Oprah
Winfrey's financial success, legal
scholar Alexander argues vigorously and
persuasively that [w]e have not ended
racial caste in America; we have merely
redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial
segregation has been replaced by mass
incarceration as a system of social
control (More African Americans are
under correctional control today... than
were enslaved in 1850). Alexander
reviews American racial history from the
colonies to the Clinton administration,
delineating its transformation into the
war on drugs. She offers an acute
analysis of the effect of this mass
incarceration upon former inmates who
will be discriminated against, legally,
for the rest of their lives, denied
employment, housing, education, and
Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action
may blur our vision of injustice: most
Americans know and don't know the truth
about mass incarcerationóbut her
carefully researched, deeply engaging,
and thoroughly readable book should
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Boisí
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 14 July 2012