It’s been 38 years since Vanessa Williams made history by becoming the first African American woman to be crowned Miss America, and she’s now saying that winning the coveted title made her “grow up overnight.”
“I really wasn’t prepared [to handle how the country took my win] because I’d never been a part of the system before, so I didn’t know what was the next step,” Williams, 58, told Entertainment Tonight. “It was a tremendous history-making moment for me at 20 years old. And I look at my kids at 20 and I said, ‘Oh my god, how did I handle all of that at such a young age?’ Because I was a baby!”
She went on to admit that being crowned Miss America 1984 was “tons of responsibility,” adding that it also came with some heavy and scary situations.
“Lots of assumptions, death threats” she said. “I was in a bubble. I grew up in New York, I had a multicultural community around me. So to see the division in our country and the hate of me representing America and having the hate just because of my skin color was alarming. When you have sharpshooters in your homecoming town parade because you’re getting death threats at 20 years old, that was startling. So it made me grow up overnight.”
Thankfully, Williams said that her parents “sheltered” her from the threats that were going on, but what hurt even more than the death threats were comments that she wasn’t “Black enough.””One of the most heartbreaking [things] was some people said I wasn’t Black enough and I really didn’t represent the Black culture and the Black community because I was not Black enough,” she explained. “And that almost hurt more than the death threats because, like, when is it going to be enough? I mean isn’t this a step forward? So that was really kind of another struggle.”
That being said, Williams is grateful for all of the opportunities she got from Miss America, even if she was forced to resign in July 1984, after Penthouse magazine published unauthorized nude photographs of her. It took 32 years before Miss America CEO Sam Haskell gave her a public apology for having to relinquish her crown.
“The legacy of that moment in 1983 was that, yes, you can be smart enough, talented enough and be able to represent the American world,” Williams said. “And as a result, I have been able to have wonderful opportunities to delve into my history and my family and stuff.”
Williams is also currently celebrating the anniversary of her GRAMMY-nominated hit “Save the Best for Last,” which came out in 1991.
“I remember getting the demo probably on cassette…It came out in ’91, but we’re talking late ’80s,” she continued. “I said, ‘Well you know, I don’t know if it’s going to be a hit, but I love the melody. I can’t get it out of my head. And it was very simple. The demo was just Wendy Waldman singing with a piano. And it was sweet but memorable. I had no idea it was going to be on the charts for weeks at a time and be my signature tune.”