Williams was born in Tarrytown, New York, the daughter of music teachers Helen and Milton Augustine Williams Jr. Williams and her younger brother Chris, who is also an actor, grew up in the predominantly white middle-class suburban area of Millwood, New York. Prophetically, her parents put "Here she is: Miss America" on her birth announcement.
Williams studied piano and French horn growing up, but was most interested in singing. She received a scholarship and attended Syracuse University as a Theatre Arts major from 1981 to 1983. She discontinued her education at Syracuse during her sophomore year to fulfill her duties as Miss America, and then subsequently left the university to focus on her entertainment career. Twenty-five years later she graduated from Syracuse by earning her remaining college credits through her life experience with two long running Broadway shows and a Tony Award nomination under her belt. Williams delivered the convocation address on May 10, 2008, with 480 other students in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. She stated:
It's been 25 years since I was a student here. It just brought home what my message was, which is cherish the moment; these days are irreplaceable and are the beginning of the rest of your life.
Williams began competing in beauty pageants in the early 1980s. Williams won Miss New York in 1983, and went to the Miss America national pageant in Atlantic City. She was crowned Miss America 1984 on September 17, 1983 making her the first-ever African American Miss America. Prior to the final night of competition, Williams won both the Preliminary Talent and Swimsuit Competitions from earlier in the week. Williams' reign as Miss America was not without its challenges and controversies. For the first time in pageant history, a reigning Miss America was the target of death threats and angry racist hate mail.
Ten months into her reign as Miss America, she received an anonymous phone call stating that nude photos of her taken by a photographer prior to her pageant days had surfaced. Williams believed the photographs were private and had been destroyed; she claims she never signed a release permitting the photos to be used.
The genesis of the photos dated back to 1982, when she worked as an assistant and makeup artist for Mount Kisco, New York photographer Tom Chiapel. According to Williams, Chiapel advised her that he wanted to try a "new concept of silhouettes with two models." He photographed Williams and another woman in several nude poses, including simulated lesbian sex.
Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy, was initially offered the photos, but turned them down. Later Hefner would explain why in People Weekly, "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." Days later, Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse, announced that his magazine would publish the photos in their September 1984 issue, and paid Chiapel for the rights to them without Williams' consent. According to the PBS documentary Miss America, Williams' issue of Penthouse would ultimately bring Guccione a $14 million windfall.
After days of media frenzy and sponsors threatening to pull out of the upcoming 1985 pageant, Williams felt pressured by Miss America Pageant officials to resign, and did so in a press conference on July 23, 1984. The title subsequently went to first-runner up, African-American Suzette Charles. In early September 1984, Williams filed a $500 million lawsuit against Chiapel and Guccione. According to a Williams family representative, she eventually dropped the suit to avoid further legal battles choosing to move on with her life. Williams is quoted as saying "the best revenge is success."
Although she resigned from fulfilling the duties of a current Miss America, she was allowed to keep the bejeweled crown and scholarship money and is officially recognized by the Miss America Organization today as "Miss America 1984" and Suzette Charles as "Miss America 1984b."
Williams' controversial reign as Miss America is referenced in the musical Smile, which chronicles the fictitious Young American Miss pageant of 1985.
After time out of the spotlight, Williams secured a record deal, and released her debut album, The Right Stuff in 1988. The first single, "The Right Stuff", found major success on the R&B chart while the second single "He's Got the Look" found similar success on the R&B charts. The third single, "Dreamin'", was a pop hit becoming Williams' first top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #8, and her first number one single on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. The album reached gold status in the U.S. and earned her three Grammy Award nominations, including one for Best New Artist.
Her second album The Comfort Zone became the biggest success in her music career. The lead single Running Back to You reached top twenty on the Hot 100, and the top position of Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart on October 5, 1991. Other singles included "The Comfort Zone" (#2 R&B), "Just for Tonight" (#26 Pop), a cover of The Isley Brothers' "Work to Do" (#3 R&B), and the club-only hit "Freedom Dance (Get Free!)". The most successful single from the album, as well as her biggest hit to date is "Save the Best for Last". The song was #1 in the United States for five weeks, as well as #1 in Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada and was in the top 5 in Japan, Ireland and the United Kingdom. The album sold 2.2 million copies in the U.S. at its time of release and has since been certified triple platinum in the United States by the RIAA, gold in Canada by the CRIA, and platinum in the United Kingdom by the BPI. The Comfort Zone earned Williams five Grammy Award nominations.
The Sweetest Days, her third album, was released in 1994 to rave reviews. The album saw Williams branch out and sample other styles of music that included jazz, hip hop, rock, and Latin-themed recordings such as "Betcha Never" and "You Can't Run", both written and produced by Babyface. Other singles from the album included the adult contemporary and dance hit "The Way That You Love" and the title track "The Sweetest Days". The album was certified platinum in the U.S. by the RIAA and earned her two Grammy Award nominations.
Other albums include two Christmas albums, Star Bright, released in 1996, and Silver & Gold in 2004; Next in 1997, and Everlasting Love in 2005, along with a greatest hits compilation released in 1998 and a host of other compilations released over the years.
Notable chart performances from subsequent albums, motion picture and television soundtracks have included the songs "Love Is", "Colors of the Wind", "Where Do We Go From Here", and "Oh How the Years Go By". In total, Williams has sold more than six million records and has received 15 Grammy Award nominations.
In May 2009, she performed two highly successful concerts at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City to sold out crowds.
On June 2nd, 2009, she released her 8th studio album on Concord Records, titled The Real Thing. It features songs written and/or produced by Babyface, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Bebel Gilberto, and Rex Rideout. The album is " a hybrid of samba, bossa nova, some salsa and also some pop and R&B" says Williams.
Williams parlayed her ascendant music career into a theatrical role when she was cast in the Broadway production of Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1994. She was also featured in the Tony-nominated and Drama Desk Award nominated performance as the Witch in Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods in a revival of the show in 2002, which included songs revised for her.
Other notable theatrical roles include her performances in Carmen Jones at the Kennedy Center, the off-Broadway productions of One Man Band and Checkmates, and the New York City Center's Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert, St. Louis Woman.
Williams has appeared in several feature films. Her most prominent role was in the 1997 film Soul Food, for which she won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture. Williams appeared in the 1991 cult classic film Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. She also co-starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Eraser and opposite Chayanne in Dance with Me.
In 2007, Williams returned to the big screen starring in two independent motion pictures. The first being My Brother, for which she won Best Actress honors at the Harlem International Film Festival, the African-American Women in Cinema Film Festival and at the Santa Barbara African Heritage Film Festival, and the second being And Then Came Love. In 2009, she starred alongside Miley Cyrus in Hannah Montana: The Movie.
Williams' first television appearance was on a 1984 episode of The Love Boat, playing herself. She subsequently made guest appearances on a number of shows, including T.J. Hooker, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Saturday Night Live, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, LateLine, MADtv, Ally McBeal and Boomtown.
She has had many appearances in television movies and miniseries, including Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer and The Jacksons: An American Dream. She played the nymph Calypso in the 1997 Hallmark Entertainment miniseries The Odyssey, starring Armand Assante. She appeared as the Ebenezer Scrooge character in an update of Charles Dickens' story A Christmas Carol called A Diva's Christmas Carol. In 2001, Williams starred in the Lifetime cable movie about the life of Henriette DeLille, The Courage to Love. In early 2006 she starred in the short lived UPN drama South Beach.
In 2007, Williams received considerable media attention for her comic/villainess role as former magazine creative director turned editor-in-chief Wilhelmina Slater in the ABC comedy series Ugly Betty, produced by Salma Hayek. Her performance on the series resulted in a nomination for outstanding supporting actress at the 59th Primetime Emmy Awards. She also provides the voice for the main character in the PBS Kids version of Mama Mirabelle's Home Movies. In 2008 & 2009, she was again nominated for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for Ugly Betty.
Williams has appeared in advertisements for RadioShack. She is a spokesmodel for Proactiv Solution, and was the first African American spokesmodel for L'Oréal cosmetics in the late 1990s. Her other media appearances include endorsing Crest Rejuvenating Effects Toothpaste, appearing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in 2000 as a contestant, endorsing Disneyland and Universal Studios in a VisitCalifornia advert for the UK and Ireland 2008, and hosting the 6th Annual 2008 TV Land Awards show.
Vanessa L. Williams is most often referenced and publicly recognized simply as "Vanessa Williams". There is, however, occasional confusion with similarly named actress Vanessa A. Williams, who first came to national notice in 1992, when she appeared in the first season of Melrose Place. Both are African-American.
It is reported that Williams (VLW) first became aware of Vanessa A. Williams (VAW) in the 1980s when her New York University registrar told her that another, similarly aged girl with the same name and from the same state had applied. When VLW appeared as Miss America in a Macy's Day Parade, VAW accidentally received her check for the appearance (which she returned).
In the area of acting, the two ran into name conflict when Screen Actors Guild rules prohibited duplicate stage naming. VAW had registered the name "Vanessa Williams" first, so as a compromise, VLW was occasionally credited as "Vanessa L. Williams" in acting credits. To compound the confusion, both actresses starred in versions of the drama Soul Food (VLW in the film version, and VAW in its TV series adaptation). The Screen Actors Guild eventually took the issue to arbitration and decided that both actresses could use the professional name "Vanessa Williams". Today the stage name "Vanessa Williams" has widely come to be solely attributable to VLW. She is credited as such in the American television series Ugly Betty, and as owner of the internet domain name vanessawilliams.com. To differentiate, VAW is most often publicly and professionally referenced as "Vanessa A. Williams".
In a 1997 interview with Playboy magazine, VLW claims VAW made a "catty remark" about her when VAW appeared in a Broadway play. A year later, VLW told Canoe.ca: "(The other Vanessa Williams) registered the name first, but I made the name famous so I have more claim to it these days".
There is also another singer named Vanessa Williams, a gospel vocalist.
Williams is Roman Catholic. She has been married twice. Her first marriage, to her then-manager Ramon Hervey II, was from 1987 to 1997. They have three children: Melanie (born 1987), Jillian (born 1989), and Devin (born 1993).
Her second marriage was to former NBA basketball player Rick Fox. They married in September 1999 and have a daughter, Sasha Gabriella (born May 2000). After The National Enquirer published pictures of Fox kissing and hugging another woman in mid-2004, Fox's representative announced that the couple had been "headed toward divorce" for over a year. A few months later in August 2004, Fox filed for divorce. During some press interviews, Williams cast some doubt on the divorce status. While visiting the Howard Stern radio show in March 2005, however, she said that while she and Fox were intimate with each other briefly during the 2004 holidays, a reconciliation was unlikely.
In early 2006, Williams dated actor Rob Mack, whom she met on the set of her show South Beach. She is currently single and resides in Chappaqua, New York.
During an interview with Barbara Walters which aired on February 24, 2008, Williams not only admitted to using Botox but also called it "a miracle drug, no cutting, nothing, and I love it. But I also want to act so I don't do it to freeze my face."