Thirty-two years ago, Vanessa Williams made history by becoming the nation’s first black Miss America. Within a year of her reign, she made history again when nude photographs of her flashed across the pages of Penthouse magazine.
Those artsy photos—taken well before she had become famous and never intended to be seen publicly—appeared about 10 months after she was crowned in Atlantic City and forced her to resign as Miss America.
Last Sunday, all that acrimony was finally put to rest.
In what could be seen as both a testament to Williams’s enduring talent and changed sexual attitudes, officials with the Miss America pageant invited her to serve as a judge in this year’s beauty show and, before a stunned television audience, begged forgiveness for humiliating her back in 1984.
“Though none of us currently in the organization were involved then, on behalf of today’s organization, I want to apologize to you and to your mother, Miss Helen Williams,” Miss America CEO Sam Haskell said during an emotional moment in the pageant’s telecast. “I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less than the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be.”
Williams’s rise to celebrity, her fall from public favor, and her triumphant return to the limelight represents a particularly American saga. It’s the Horatio Alger story, only this version stars an African American woman and is set against the complex and changing mores of the late 20th century.
Indeed, Williams’s selection as Miss America welcomed the tentative recognition in our pop culture of black women as worthy of nationwide praise for their beauty. Yes, let’s be clear and honest, for all the promoters’ talk of talent and scholarship, the Miss America pageant remains in the minds of most Americans a parade of pulchritude. Until Williams’s selection in 1983, the model of American beauty was a white—typically blonde, blue-eyed, and Barbie-shaped—woman.
Williams’s crowning more than three decades ago changed more than the complexion of Miss America. “I didn’t realize how big it would be,” Williams told ABC News’ Robin Roberts in an interview prior to Sunday’s broadcast. “Older black women thought they’d never see it in their lifetime. And some people would cry.”
Set against the racial and sexual norms of that time, the scandalous photos plunged Williams from being a darling to a devil. Instead of creating her career—as a far-more explicit sex tape did in 2007 for Kim Kardashian and for a host of other less talented folks since—Williams’s naked pictures threatened to destroy her then-promising career as a singer, dancer, and actress. The revelations forced her into a four-year public exile as she sought to rebuild her good name, before returning to perform publicly.
By today’s standards—when no-talent, wannabe entertainers leak naked pictures of themselves to grab attention—Williams’s three-decade old and unintended transgression and out-of-sight penitence rings quaint.
The publication of Williams’s nude and sexually charged photos heralded an era of sexy career building. Williams never wanted her photos to be seen. It’s easy to imagine her amazement as she has witnessed less talented entertainers use sexually explicit photos and videos to build name recognition and celebrity. “That’s crazy, to think that you can look at a scandal and think that that would be good for your career, where for me, it took every ounce of credibility that I had … and wiped it out,” Williams said in her interview with Roberts.
Nowadays, I’m willing to wager, that most of those who know of Williams’s work are more likely to mention her appearances as Wilhelmina Slater on “Ugly Betty” or as Renee Perry in “Desperate Housewives” than to recall her being Miss America. Or even know that she was forced to resign.
Which raises the question, at least in my mind: what is the value of the pageant’s apology? Does it really change anything that could affect Williams’s life to have this 30-plus-year-old kerfuffle so publicly resolved? Or could it be an attention-grabbing stunt to breathe new life into the faded glory of an outdated Miss America spectacle?
Clearly, the apology isn’t of great importance to Williams’s fans like me. We know that she survived the humiliation of the scandal to have a very productive and entertaining career—one built on art, talent, and hard work and not exclusively because she briefly wore a rhinestone crown.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.