With—or without—an Emmy, Vanessa Williams is a champion.
Vanessa Williams made history 26 years ago this month [September 2009] when she became the first black woman to win the title of Miss America. Toward the end of her reign, some scandalous photos surfaced, and she resigned. The photos were offered to Playboy, but Hugh Hefner declined to publish them, saying, “Vanessa Williams is a beautiful woman. There was never any question of our interest in the photos. But they clearly weren’t authorized, and because they would be the source of considerable embarrassment to her, we decided not to publish them. We were also mindful that she was the first black Miss America.” However, Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse, had no such qualms and published the photos. Rather than pursue a lawsuit, Williams chose to go forward with her life, which was apparently a wise decision.
Within a few years, she released her debut album, The Right Stuff, and received three Grammy nominations. She would go on to receive 13 more nominations and sell millions of albums. Of her most recent album, The Real Thing, Williams says, “After playing a power-hungry character like Wilhelmina Slater on Ugly Betty on a soundstage for three seaons, it was a pleasure to step back into the recording studio and be myself behind the microphone.”
In 1994 Williams debuted on Broadway in Kiss of the Spider Woman, and in 2002 she was nominated for Tony and Drama Desk awards for her performance in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
During this period, she appeared in numerous feature films, including Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, Eraser, Soul Food (for which she won an NAACP Image Award), Shaft, and the recent Hannah Montana: The Movie.
Since 1984, Williams has appeared in numerous television shows and television movies and miniseries. Her Ebenezer Scrooge character in 2001’s A Diva’s Christmas Carol apparently paved the way for her Scrooge-like character, Wilhelmina Slater, in Ugly Betty. Her role in the gay-tinged TV series has brought her three Emmy nominations, the third one being this year; one nomination and two Image Award wins; a Screen Actors Guild nomination; and others too numerous to mention.
In 2008, the gay-friendly star received the “Ally for Equality” award from the Human Rights Campaign. Accepting the award, she said, “This award from the Human Rights Campaign makes me feel like Miss America all over again, because I have championed what I sought out to for the past 25 years…. I will always be by your side, because the world you’re creating is the kind of world I want to raise my children in.”
Which brings us to the present. Williams is now working on the fourth season of Ugly Betty and is again nominated for an Emmy Award for her role as the cunning, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-of Wilhelmina Slater.
Blase DiStefano: First of all, congratulations on your Emmy nomination. They say the third time is the charm, so let’s hope…
Vanessa Williams: Yes, let’s hope. Thank you.
Are you in New York?
Yes, we went back to work last week [this interview took place in mid-July, 2009].
You’re not on the set right now, are you?
No, I have today off.
So, you’re having to do this on your day off. Sorry about that.
[Laughs] That’s okay.
Are your kids with you?
No. Actually one’s in L.A., one’s in France, one’s in Philadelphia, and one’s in the city.
What about Enzo and Willa [her dogs]?
Enzo and Willa are right at my feet. They’re my constants.
I don’t guess Willa was named after Wilhelmina?
No, my oldest daughter actually named her. She’s certainly not a Wilhelmina at all, but she’s gorgeous and statuesque and a cutie.
This interview is for our arts and entertainment issue, so you’re obviously an appropriate celebrity for the cover, being a singer and an actress who has appeared in movies, on television, and on Broadway. If you had to choose one, which would it be?
I would say Broadway is probably the culmination of all my talents together—singing, acting, dancing, and being in front of a live audience. The whole shebang.
What was it like working with Stephen Sondheim [in Into the Woods]?
It was fantastic. It wasn’t a day-to-day thing, but he definitely was there for our run-throughs and opening night, and he was always a phone call away. I ended up singing for him before we started production. And since then I sang for his 75th birthday party out in L.A. at the Hollywood Bowl. He’s a phenomenal talent, and I’m so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him.
And to top it off you were nominated for a Tony Award. You’ve been nominated for a variety of awards.
Yes, it’s great. I’ve always wanted to do it all, to be able to do theater and movies and television and music. It all comes from the same source, which is my stage background, so it’s great that the acknowledgment has come.
I guess while working on Ugly Betty, you don’t really have much time to do Broadway.
We only get two months off. Our last day of season three was May 1, and we went back last week. I had my first fitting maybe July 9, and we started shooting July 13. We do 24 shows, and it takes about 10 days per episode to shoot, so it’s quite extensive.
It shows, because it’s one of the most beautiful shows on TV.
Yes, it’s like a mini movie. That’s why it takes a while.
So your work on the upcoming season will go on until May?
Yep. We shoot for the last week in April, and we always end up going, Oh well. April 26 … oh well. April 29 … oh well. April 30 … oh well. And our last night was May 1 … oh well. [Both laugh]
I read that you attended The Temperamentals, starring Michael Urie [her costar in Ugly Betty].
Yes, yes. It was fantastic. I hope that it gets a chance to have a life in a bigger theater, but I think it would be perfect for film. A small intimate film version would be amazing. I had no idea about the nature of the story, and, of course, Michael is brilliant in it, and the entire cast is really talented. It’s definitely a must see. He’s only going to be in it through August, so there’s only … I guess this interview comes out in September, but they’re talking about filming it as a movie, so your readers could see it then. [The play takes its title from the 1950s code word for homosexual, and tells the story of communist Harry Hay and young Viennese refugee and designer Rudi Gernreich, founders of the pre-Stonewall gay rights organization, The Mattachine Society.]
If he’s working with you all day on Ugly Betty, does he do this at night?
Yes. Obviously he’s got a stand-in if he can’t make it, but he doesn’t want to have that happen, and it’s been crazy. When we were shooting toward the end of season three, we were shooting some horrible hours, and he would run and do a show and come back in the next day. He was running on fumes toward the end there. But he’s an amazing guy, and theater is really his forte. He can do anything.
Like you. So what are the hours like? Are they that extensive?
Yes, it depends on what we’re shooting. For instance, if we block-shoot three of my scenes in an office, that’s all day in the office, and it’s a lot of coverage, but it’s pretty easy. But if you are doing a walk-and-talk, and we’ve got to go from my office all the way to the elevator, and then we’ve got a big scene with everybody on the Mode staff in the conference room, it could go 14 hours sometime. The worst day I had was when I had a 5:30 call and I finished at 1 a.m. That was the worst that it ever got.
Well, at least you would be dressed up in those gorgeous clothes. Would you like to take a few of those home?
I’ve taken a couple of pretty, simple dresses and bought them in a different color to wear for a press event or something. But a lot of Wilhelmina’s suits are vintage Thierry Mugler, so they have been tailor-made or custom-altered to fit me. Some of them have original shoulder pads, as you can tell, which gives it the entire power-suit look. But it definitely gives Wilhelmina a memorable and notable silhouette.
Pat Field and her whole design team are fantastic. She’s really incredible, a creative genius. Even though it’s the same team, our characters don’t look like Sex and the City. And they don’t look like anything else that she does. She’s fantastic.
You were the first guest on The Wendy Williams Show a few weeks ago, and your mother was in the audience. Are you pretty close with your family?
Oh yes. My mom lives about four miles from me, and I live in my hometown [Millwood, New York].
But you had moved to California…
I lived in L.A. from 1985 to 1992 and then moved back here. At that time I only had two girls. Since I’ve been back here, I had my son and Sasha, who’s nine. Definitely part of the move was to come back to the East Coast, so my parents could be part of raising my kids, since my career was active and I wanted to make sure that they had a great home base. Also I knew the schools here since I’ve gone to them, so there was no guessing game. They are great public schools. I think it was the right choice.
You attended Logo’s New Now Next Awards this year and the GLAAD Awards last year and this year, and I know you’re a supporter of gay rights. What was your first memory of meeting someone gay?
I think my mom knew a couple that were—one was a teacher … both my parents are teachers—one was a teacher and his partner was a hairdresser. I would say that was the first memory. Also we had a great family friend who was a lawyer who was always single and had fabulous apartments and bought a Porsche—didn’t know how to drive it but loved the way it looked [both laugh]—and my dad taught him how to drive a stick shift. He was just a lovely, lovely guy. My parents would co-host a pig roast yearly with him. He bought me my first bottle of Opium perfume … always fabulous grown-up gifts that made me feel like a mature woman, when I was only in high school.
Apparently your parents were pretty open.
Oh absolutely. Gay men love my mother. She’s witty and way more biting than I am—she’s Wilhelmina without any stress. Watch out for her and her quips. She’s way more hardcore than I am. My dad was one of those great open, loving men that accepted people for who they were. He was the greatest example of being secure and honest and completely open and accepting.
Sounds like a great family.
Yes, I was lucky. Also, growing up as a dancer and in the theater, I don’t remember a time that I didn’t have gay friends. Even when they’re not out—you look back [to] the male friends that would hang around the group of girls, and they were all doing fabulously well, and nobody was out, but you just knew that they were cool and got along with us.
So I guess gay marriage to you is like, Oh, bring it on.
One of my dear friends—I wear his clothing all the time—Carmen Marc Valvo and his partner Christian have been together for 32 years now. I’ve got another couple that’s raising two sons outside of Syracuse that I went to Syracuse University with, and Dave and Al have been together for 26 years already. These are people that are in successful, committed relationships and did a hell of a lot better than I did in both of my marriages. [Both laugh] Hats off!
How did it feel to be the first black Miss America? Did it even matter to you?
It mattered once I realized what an impact it was going to make. I didn’t set out to make history, but when you see that it had an incredible effect on people that never thought they’d see it in their lifetime, that’s when you say, “Wow, this is major.”
I know that you received hate mail and death threats. What was that like for the family?
My parents were fantastic. My mom’s a rock. They made me aware but sheltered me as much as they could. This was back in 1983, so a lot has changed, thank God, but then again you look at the news and you say, “Wow, nothing has changed either.” It is what it is, and you just live your life and do the best that you can.
I know that our time is running out, so I decided to save the best for last.
Tell me about your recent CD.
It’s the first on Concord Jazz, which is a great label. They allowed me to basically do what I wanted to and not have to worry about, “Oh, do you have a single for the radio?” It’s kind of a Latin jazz sensual take on some classics. There’s one song that’s an old Lena Horne song called “Come on Strong” that just reminded me of what Wilhelmina would be singing at this point in her life. [Both laugh] And then the others are kind of reflective. It’s a mature-sounding record—I’m 46 years old—for where I am at this point in my life.
Do you have time for one more question?
Do you have any idea who you are sandwiched between on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?
Ooh, gosh, I don’t know.
Then who would you like to be sandwiched between?
[Laughs] I know I’m in a prime position in front of the door of the Roosevelt Hotel, so I get a lot of traffic. I don’t know whether Lena Horne has a star. Eartha Kitt, Diahann Carroll—those are all women that have paved the way for me, that are beautiful, talented, and strong and have persevered, and those are the women that I love and admire.
The fourth season of Ugly Betty starts with a two-hour premiere at 7 p.m. on Friday, October 9, on ABC.