Vanessa Williams Reflects on Multi-Decade Career and Shares What’s Next

For the multi-skilled artist and performer Vanessa Williams, music was always the art form that fused and combined her multiple talents. But her creative journey began with her supportive parents, both of whom were music teachers, themselves. Her parents also sang together in the local Westchester Baroque Choir. There, they would bring baby Williams to rehearsals and set her up in a playpen. As the story goes, at one of those rehearsals, all the adults looked around at one another, thinking the organ key had stuck as a note continued to ring out. But they soon realized it was just the young Williams imitating what she’d heard with her voice. 

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As she got older, Williams would retreat to her bedroom while her parents practiced, and she’d watch Disney or Wild Kingdom. She later played piano and French horn and her brother played the oboe and baritone saxophone. The two weren’t allowed to quit playing instruments until, at least after they’d graduated high school. Until then, it was the orchestra and the marching band. But it’s this foundation that has helped to lead Williams to her extraordinary, diverse entertainment career—one that continues with her forthcoming string of shows at the 54 Below Diamond Series stage in New York City. For the performances, Williams will play six intimate concerts from December 13-18, including her many hits, her work on Broadway, and personal storytelling.

“I was lucky to have parents that not only made their living through the arts,” Williams tells American Songwriter. “But also believed in the arts. Music was a requirement in our household.”

As an adult, Williams, 59, who famously won the 1984 Miss America pageant (the first Black woman to do so), released popular songs in the ’80s and ’90s, from the emotional “Save The Best For Last” and “The Sweetest Days” to the Disney hit “The Colors Of The Wind” and more. She’s an accomplished actor, too, earning Tony and Emmy Award nominations for her work on stage (Into the Woods) and screen (Ugly Betty) along with Grammy nominations for her songs. She’s earned SAG nominations and NAACP Image awards, as well. But these were things she first believed she could begin to accomplish starting around high school age. She grew up dancing. In school, she earned lead roles in musicals. Her mind began to wonder then if she could study all this in college. 

“When I was a senior,” she says, “there were only a few colleges or universities that would offer an MFA in musical theater. So, I applied to all of them.”

She got in. So much was now possible. She was offered the Presidential Scholarship for Drama at Carnegie Mellon University, but she decided on the prestigious Syracuse University and a different scholarship. Today, she continues to realize the fruits of her work. Williams is backed by a band she’s been working with for 25 years. In fact, it’s the same group she had when she went on her first world tour with Luther Vandross. When Williams considers all that she’s done thus far, she’s grateful. She’s happy to have songs that have made a difference in people’s lives. It’s something she never thought to aspire to at a young age, but such is the journey of life. 

“It’s just astounding,” Williams says. “Where life brings you.” 

With her multi-decade career, Williams, a multi-platinum recording artist, who boasts eight LPs (the most recent, The Real Thing, in 2009), has seen a lot of things change in the industry. After her Miss America win, there was controversy around leaked nude photos of her. The images, which were released without her consent in Penthouse, caused pageant officials to take away her crown. In 2016, the pageant formally apologized for its egregious behavior. The events were traumatic. They are also now the subject of a new series on Sony TV. Similarly, Williams wonders, would some of the roles she was afforded in the 20th century be inappropriate for her today, like singing the lead single from the Disney animated movie, Pocahontas. A song so huge that it was on every radio station when the film released.

“It’s interesting,” she says, “the dialogue that is happening now. It wasn’t that loud and reactive back in the day.” 

From afar, it may be easy to look at Williams’ career and think she’s always had it made. Beautiful, multi-talented, successful. But no life is lived on the surface. Nuance abounds when you look for it even a little bit. For Williams, someone with stunning good looks and a former Miss America winner, it could be difficult at times for her to be taken seriously in creative fields. Almost like the offspring of a famous actor, some doors open, and others are shut because of it. But she’d won the pageant, in part, because of her singing ability.

“The beauty component,” Williams says, “yes, it opens doors in some ways. Also, it is extremely judged by others and dismissed. I don’t want to complain, but it can be a double-edged sword. It’s constant proving yourself and constantly busting through those judgments.” 

Directly ahead now for Williams, whose daughter is also an accomplished musician, is her December show with the 54 Below Diamond Series in the Big Apple. In a way, for her, they represent a homecoming. Growing up in Westchester, New York, Williams would take the train into the city for auditions. Now, the upcoming shows will be something of a retrospective of her decades as a performer. She says she will bring glamour along with music and stories to the performances. And in the new year, she says, she will continue to work on a number of projects, from new music to acting. roles. As she does so, Williams wonders what her fans might want from her these days. With her motivated lifestyle, naturally, come opportunities for rejection. So, what should be next? She considers figures like Tina Turner who came back into the public eye later in her career with a mini-skirt and new haircut, singing, “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”

“Powerful and pop,” Williams says. “That’s what you need… Not an imitation of what everybody else is doing.” 

Williams is grateful for all the opportunities in life, including a new one recently that gave her the chance to record narration for the story Peter and the Wolf. It’s a classic she adored as a child and now her grandson can enjoy her version of it. That’s priceless. But no matter how Williams will continue to put herself out there and in what style and amount of pizzaz, one thing remains true. Music will always be a part of her diverse life. Such has been the way of things since those early playpen days, taking over for the organ in her parents’ rehearsals. 

“I love the universal language of music,” Williams says. “Whether it’s sitting at the symphony in Vienna, having the same kind of feeling the orchestra does, [them] not knowing English at all—you’re listening to something that transcends language.” 

Photo by Abeiku Arthur / Courtesy Full Coverage Communications

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