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SUMMER SNEAKS

Ms. Clean Slate

Vanessa Williams rewrote her own history very nicely after that Miss America thing. Now she has Schwarzenegger to help do it on the big screen in 'Eraser.'

May 12, 1996|Bronwen Hruska | Bronwen Hruska, based in New York, is an occasional contributor to Calendar

CHAPPAQUA, N.Y. — In her white stretch pants and oversize red sweater (coordinated flawlessly with red-and-white DKNY sneakers to match), you could almost mistake Vanessa Williams for any of the other suburban moms in this neighborhood pastry shop. Her dazzling green eyes are shielded today behind dark glasses, which do more to protect her from the strong sun at a sidewalk table than to discourage stargazers. If she were concerned with that sort of thing, she wouldn't be waving and chatting up her neighbors as they pass by on the quaint main street of this Westchester County suburb.

Anyone who still thinks of Williams, 33, as a scandalized beauty queen should get with the program. It may have been her aborted reign as the first African American Miss America and the Penthouse photos that made her a household name. But it's 12 years later and Williams has moved on. As a mother of three, owner of a Range Rover and proud keeper of a famous carrot cake recipe, Williams fits in with the suburban crowd remarkably well. After all, she's spent much of the last decade being a mom who just happens to have a chart-topping recording career rather than vice versa.

"I've always been kind of a homebody and always loved kids," Williams says in the clear, sweet voice that sang the Oscar-winning "Pocahontas" song "Colors of the Wind" at the Academy Awards this year. "My husband is 13 years older than me, so I wanted to start quickly while I was young and he was still young. Now I think this next chunk of time is devoted to getting on with my career."

If all goes according to plan, Williams, the hit-making recording artist ("Save the Best for Last" and "The Sweetest Days"), will soon become a motion picture star. After a critically acclaimed Broadway run in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" in 1994 and small-screen roles in "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Nothing Lasts Forever," Williams hits the big screen with the big guy next month, starring opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Eraser."

Acting was always Williams' goal. It just took a 12-year run as a singer to get her there. Her early celebrity at 21 didn't help her any. The scandal always preceded her.

"When I first became famous, nobody knew that I was talented," she says. "At auditions, they thought of me as a scandalized beauty queen who wants to act all of a sudden. It was hard to break out of the image."

Ramon Hervey, the man who handled the public relations mess surrounding Williams' dethroning (and later became her manager and husband; last month he handed off the managing duties), suggested a singing career.

"Ramon said if you record you can control what you sing, you can control your image, and use the success of that to open doors," she says.

The savvy business move (and a heavenly voice) spawned three hit albums, "The Right Stuff" (1988), "The Comfort Zone" (1991) and "The Sweetest Days" (1994), which have sold more than 4 million copies and garnered nine Grammy Award nominations.

"A music career is something I never even thought I would have," says Williams, whose real dream was to be on Broadway and in the movies. "Which is kind of funny because it's where I've had the most success. You never know."

She majored in musical theater during the two years she spent at Syracuse University, and before that she starred in musicals right here in her hometown at nearby Horace Greeley High School and the Saw Mill Theater.

Her music teacher parents, Helen and Milton Williams (who still live in the area), saw their daughter's potential early on.

"Vanessa was always very musical," Helen says. "She resisted practicing like most kids do, and we had discussions about practice time. We knew she had innate natural ability in music, but she never did very much with it at home. Then we saw her in a middle school production of 'Little Mary Sunshine' in seventh grade and she really stood out. Her father and I turned to each other and said, 'Hey, she can really sing.' "

Despite Williams' success as a recording artist, she's never toured, and she rarely performs live.

"I feel very uncomfortable being myself and singing my own songs," says Williams, who has kept her private life private throughout her career. "I used to really fight it. I like acting because you can hide behind--not hide but . . . I like to portray a clear character. I like being directed. Singing my own songs is the most vulnerable thing I could ever do."

Helen Williams says her daughter was not always so self-protective. "Vanessa was very trusting before the Miss America scandal," she says. So trusting, in fact, that at 18, Williams, who was working as a makeup artist and secretary for photographer Tom Chiapel, agreed to pose nude. After she became Miss America, he sold those photos to Penthouse, and the rest is history.

"The experience made her realize that everyone who pretends to be your friend is not," Helen Williams continues. "It was a lesson--not to be so trustful of people. Unfortunately she had to learn that at a very young age."

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