The gay community has a reputation for championing underdogs, out of a sense of solidarity, perhaps. For those ostracized or humiliated for challenging society’s established sexual mores and willing to stand up to their tormentors, iconic status nearly in-evitably arrives. Such is the case with Vanessa Williams, the singer and actress.
The details of Williams’ introduction as an American household name involved allegations of lesbianism and sexual impropriety. After becoming the first African-American Miss America, in 1983, Williams was buffeted by scandal when a racy girl-on-girl spread in Penthouse magazine surfaced. In the end, she lost her crown. But rather than hang her head, Williams went on to star in movies including “Shaft,” and “Soul Food,” to reprise Chita Rivera’s role in the Broadway hit “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and to record numerous albums, garnering nine Grammy nominations.
Now a 41-year-old Westchester mother of four, Williams is still a stunningly attractive woman and continues to churn out hit recordings, most recently a collection of Motown classics, “Everlasting Love,” now out on Lava Records.
Williams gave Gay City News her final New York interview last week while on her way to the airport on a promotional tour for her CD. She talked about everything from watching TV with her kids to success.
“I definitely think I share a common bond with any kind of people who are judged, and judged unfairly,” said Williams of her gay cult status. “There is something that anyone who is out of the box, who is not considered the same, goes through. And also being a fighter and a survivor is what my kinship with the gay and lesbian community is about, because you have to fight adversity unfortunately your entire life.”
She also spoke about her several successful turns on Broadway, an arena permeated by gay sensibility.
“The theater background lends itself to a particular type of talent that the gay audience expects and enjoys, because you can’t fake it up there; you’ve either got it or don’t, and when you earn it, that’s when you get your diva crown,” said Williams.
It was June of 1994, she recalled, when she was asked to fill in for Rivera in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” for a three-month stint, which earned her accolades as well as an extension.
“I had such a great time, and got such great attention that I didn’t want to leave, and the show didn’t want me to leave,” she said, explaining how she came to run for nine months in the role. “It was nice to be needed and wanted, and it was a great show for me because I got a chance to do everything—be dramatic, be sexy, be strong and sensuous, sing, dance, act, have an accent But it was also very scary, and a perfect showcase for me.”
“My opening night, Chita gave me a note on her stationary that had a spider web on the corner, and it said, ‘Welcome to the web.’ I definitely felt supported by her. She is a living legend, and I was glad to be able to revive two roles by her—I also did ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ for TV in ‘95. She got all the great roles.”
In her 2002 appearance in the revival of Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine hit, “Into the Woods,” for which she earned a Tony nomination, Williams transformed herself into an ugly witch, quite convincingly.
“The fun was getting into the role and fooling everybody,” Williams said. “I heard numerous accounts of people in the audience saying Vanessa Williams was going to be in this and they didn’t recognize me at all. My makeup, my voice, my stature, the lumps, the saggy boobs, the nose, the chin, the hair the job was well done. Obviously if they lasted through the first set, they knew I made this transformation [into a beautiful woman]. But it was no treat taking the prosthetics off eight times a week, because they were all glued to my face.”
In addition to her new CD, Williams has been working on a portrayal of a working-class Harlem mother with tuberculosis and a son who has Down Syndrome in the film, “My Brother,” due to be released in November.
“It is a heartbreaking, courageous story, and I am doing a lot of crying and coughing throughout the story, but when I see everyone’s eyes well up after a take, I think, wow, I’m getting the job done, and it’s rewarding,” said Williams. “If you know you’re affecting people, that’s what makes me happy.”
With “Everlasting Love,” Williams draws on a collection of Motown hits that she renders beautifully in her smooth-as-butter voice. Among the albums highlights is a cover of Al Wilson’s “Show and Tell.”
“That’s one of my favorites to perform, since ‘Show and Tell’ gets the audience rockin’ within the first four bars,” Williams said. “I have favorites for different reasons. ‘The First Time Ever I Saw your Face’ reminds me of my mother, because she was a big Roberta Flack fan. ‘Midnight Blue’ reminds me of being 15 again. It was great to have George Benson on the project, because his ‘Breezin’ album was the soundtrack of the ‘60s, and he is such a brilliant musician.”
Williams won an Oscar for her rendition of “Colors of the Wind” for the animated movie “Pocahontas.” And, as the mother of two teens and two younger children, she is no stranger to Saturday morning cartoons. When asked about flap over SpongeBob SquarePants being gay, Williams laughed, and turned her attention to same-sex marriage.
“The two longest relationships I know are both gay male marriages, over 20 years both, and they have outlasted any straight marriage I know of my peers, excluding my parents,” she said. “It just goes to show you that longevity and commitment are thriving and well. As for SpongeBob, the only thing is I remember is in one episode Patrick and SpongeBob wanted to adopt a little critter, and my friends were very excited about that because they thought it was an innuendo of same-sex marriage. But that was in 2002. Besides that, who cares? It is funny, smart writing and is entertaining for kids and adults.”
Williams has demonstrated a commitment to help children through her role on the board of directors for the Special Olympics, as well as her work with Green Chimneys, a New York organization that provides housing for at-risk queer youth. Asked whether she sees herself as a role model for young black lesbians, Williams noted that she was “the only black person, let alone black female” on the board of the 2005 World Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
“It’s great to be taken seriously and have an impact,” she said, discussing her work on the Special Olympics. “We are involved in these press conferences and youth summits, talking to other countries about new perspectives and attitudes. Changing attitudes will change lives. Fear and ignorance are what perpetuates misunderstanding. If you don’t take time to have an experience with someone different from you, you always will judge them. And that’s the most dangerous thing, whether it’s with regard to race, sex, homosexuality, or religion.”