Vanessa Williams has experienced lasting success as both an actress and singer for more than two decades, leaving far behind any lingering controversy surrounding her abbreviated reign as Miss America in the early 1980s.
She is the daughter of two music teachers, and studied piano and French horn in high school. She majored in musical theater at Syracuse University and began competing in beauty pageants, winning the Miss New York pageant in 1983.
In 1984, she was the first African American winner of the Miss America pageant, but was forced to relinquish her crown after old nude photographs of her were published in Penthouse magazine (after being turned down by Playboy). Williams is still listed officially by the pageant as the winner that year.
Four years later, Williams reemerged as a singer of contemporary dance R&B and had a genuine hit with “The Right Stuff,” the title song to her debut album. She received three Grammy nominations for the album, including best new artist (losing to Tracy Chapman in 1989). Her second album was 1991's platinum-selling “The Comfort Zone,” and included the hit ballad “Save the Best for Last.”
By the late 1980s, Williams was pursuing an acting career, appearing in live theater and in guest roles on such prominent network TV shows as “T.J. Hooker,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Ally McBeal.” In 1994, she won a role in the Broadway production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and in 1997 was featured in the film “Soul Food,” playing a lawyer struggling through personal relationships.
Williams remained busy as an actress and recording artist in the years since. She appeared as a central character in 85 episodes of ABC's “Ugly Betty,” which also had occasional appearances by her brother, actor-comic Chris Williams. In 2010, she joined “Desperate Housewives” for its seventh season, and was back on Broadway in the musical “Sondheim on Sondheim.”