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Vanessa Williams on pageants, Hollywood and Mom

Cover of book by Helen Williams, mother of actress Vanessa Williams, and photo of Helen Williams

     Actress Vanessa Williams has made her mother proud.

     No, not the time mom walked in on the teen having sex. Or found pot in her bedroom. Or when Vanessa resigned as Miss America: Penthouse published nude photos of her, the first African-American woman to win the pageant.

     One could argue Helen Williams suffered more than most moms during her daughter's rebellious youth.

     She stood by her, though, and comes through about her own and her daughter's mistakes in their memoir, "You Have No Idea."

     Vanessa Williams, 49 and the mother of four, calls it the "quintessential mother-daughter relationship" book.

     Her mom says, "You can't go back and relive your life." So you survive setbacks and move on, they both say.

     The pair will be in St. Louis on Thursday to discuss their memories, a real-life example of what happens when a gal does win a tiara, tarnishes it, then goes on to fame anyway. They talked by phone from Los Angeles last week, where Vanessa Williams had just attended a wrap party for the final episode of her TV show, "Desperate Housewives."

     Compared with the shenanigans on that prime-time soap opera, Vanessa Williams' suburban childhood in Millwood, N.Y., was peaceful: Both parents were teachers and never fought in front of their kids. Vanessa sang, played the French horn and piano, and acted in school plays. Her brother Chris also played instruments and signed up for sports. Few African-Americans lived nearby, but Vanessa had friends and boyfriends, white and black.

     Her mom knew she had talent and, as a way to earn college money, urged her to enter a pageant. The inexperienced Vanessa won Miss Greater Syracuse in 1983, then went on to win Miss New York. Her stunning performance of "Happy Days Are Here Again" at that year's Miss America contest won her the talent division. (She took the swimsuit contest, too.)

     But she wasn't a "pageant product," she says.

     "I was a kid who had smoked pot, I was a kid who had an abortion," Williams says. "I was a kid who had lived life."

     Four years after resigning toward the end of her 1984 reign, Williams released her first album. Since then, she's appeared in movies (including "Soul Food" and "Hannah Montana") and on stage ("Into the Woods," "Kiss of the Spider Woman"). For the past six years, she has starred on the ABC shows "Ugly Betty" and "Desperate Housewives." She just shot a pilot for a supernatural drama, "666 Park Avenue," is recording a new CD and promoting "You Have No Idea."

     Asked whether there is something else she'd like to do, she says "originate a character on Broadway" and make a movie musical.

     Williams says TV audiences know little of her past, and she wanted to explain the adversity she faced (including a case of molestation and those embarrassing photos taken by predatory photographers), and how she kept working. There is probably no former Miss America who has been as successful — or as notorious.

     Most of her audience knows little about her "multifaceted career," Williams says.

     "Some people are controlled by fear," she says. "Others are risk-takers."

     Everything in the book was written to debunk assumptions and 'show how I made decisions in my life," she says.

     Along the way she had dinner with presidents, sang at the Grammys and was nominated for awards in diverse fields. She worked through pregnancies and breakups and raised her children in the town where she grew up, far from Hollywood.

     Vanessa Williams may be used to the rigors of celebrity promotion, but the book tour has left Helen Williams tired.

     "I want a nap," she says. "I know now why I was an educator."

     In the memoir, Vanessa Williams remembers Helen Williams as rarely displaying affection, and her mom divulges some of her own troubled and abusive childhood. She worried when her daughter received death threats during her reign as Miss America and when she married (and divorced) two husbands.

     Vanessa Williams says her children aren't entirely protected from racism. While Williams was staying near Nashville in 2008 to shoot the Hannah Montana movie, children at her hotel pool whispered and got out every time Williams' youngest daughter, Sasha, got in.

     "She said to me, 'Mom, it felt like that scene in "Hairspray." They didn't want to be in the pool with me.'"

     Helen Williams praises her daughter as a very caring mother, and Vanessa credits her mom for supporting her dreams to be an actor.

     As a grandmother, Helen Williams gets to spend less time on discipline and more time having fun. She recommends that mothers "be firm, but fair. And there is light at the end of the tunnel."

SOURCE:, 5/5/2012


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