Singer, actress, musician, and model Vanessa Williams has not only confounded her critics over her 20+ year performing career, she has shown a rare fortitude, overcoming tremendous obstacles to fashion successful careers in music and movies.
Born to musician parents in New York in 1963, Williams began playing multiple instruments as a child and showed an early knack for performing. She later attended Syracuse University, where her striking beauty led to her entry in several beauty pageants. Her combination of looks and musical talent ultimately resulted in her selection as the first African American Miss America in 1983. Unfortunately, she became a lightning rod for controversy when some ill-advised nude photos of her were sold by a photographer to Penthouse magazine, ultimately forcing her to give up her Miss America crown.
It appeared that Williams would forever become a trivia question, but rather than remain a pariah, she, with the help of husband/manager Ramon Harvey, slowly and deliberately began to fashion both and acting and a singing career for herself. Her debut album, 1988's The Right Stuff, became a surprise smash on both Urban and Adult Contemporary radio, buoyed by the bouncy title cut and the smooth pop ballad "Dreamin'" (previously recorded by the family group Guinn). Even bigger was her 1991 follow-up, The Comfort Zone, and its irresistible, uber-popular hit ballad, "Save the Best For Last." Williams' slight but tonally beautiful voice was perfect for the song, and her standout performance made "Save the Best" one of the year's best and biggest singles. She followed up nicely a couple years later with her third album, The Sweetest Days. Williams' return from the Miss America embarrassment became complete in 1994 when she was chosen by Disney to sing the theme song, "Colors of the Wind," from the animated movie Pocahontas.
During the 90s Williams was also making her mark in acting, scoring a coup with her co-starring role in Arnold Schwarzenegger's Erasure and the popular Soul Food, and also landing a role on Broadway in Kiss of the Spider Woman.
After releasing the Christmas album Starbright, in 1997, Williams recorded Next, her first unsuccessful album, and her last recording for seven years. She used the break from recording to spend more time acting on stage and screen and also increased her work on commercials and product endorsements. Williams returned to recording in 2004 with Silver and Gold, her second Holiday album (her first, Starbright, was released in 1996). In 2005, Williams released Everlasting Love, an album of covers of some of her favorite songs from the 70s. The disc came and went from the charts without making an impact.
Williams' acting career received a boost as she joined the cast of television's Ugly Betty, introducing her to a new generation of fans. She signed with Concord Records and issued a disappointing album of remakes, The Real Thing, which featured the nice midtempo "Just Friends" but not much else.
By Chris Rizik