Nina Davuluri didn’t have to wait for the postman to deliver the poison pen letters that spewed their hatred over being the first Indian-American woman to be crowned Miss America.
In the social media age, the reaction was instantaneous. Even as the reigning Miss America, Mallory Hagan, was placing the crown on her successor’s head, Twitter and Facebook were blowing up with racist comments over the judges’ choice, who just happened to be born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y. to parents who were immigrants from India.
Right: Vanessa Williams performs at Caesars Circus Maximus Theater on Feb. 14
(Photo by Lew Steiner)
The one person in Miss America’s past who could instantly identify with what Davuluri was about to endure was actress and singer Vanessa Williams, who underwent her own challenges 29 years ago to the day Davuluri was crowned. Williams was the first African-American woman to win the title.
The biggest difference? Williams was crowned in the pre-Internet days when snail mail was still the preferred way of delivering messages.
“I just got those seethingly disgusting letters sent directly to my house instead of online,” Williams remembers.
Then, as something of an afterthought, Williams adds rhetorically, “I guess that means nothing has changed, has it?”
About a week after Davuluri won the title, Miss America CEO Sam Haskell was showing his new queen the sites in Manhattan. One of their stops was the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, where Williams, Haskell’s friend and former William Morris Agency client, was starring in the Broadway play The Trip to Bountiful.
Haskell took Davuluri backstage to meet Williams. Though separated in age by 26 years — at 24, Davuluri is two years younger than Williams’ oldest daughter — the two women hit it off immediately.
“I got a chance to ... talk to her for a bit and just support her and remind her that she has had an amazing accomplishment and to enjoy her year,” Williams tells Atlantic City Weekly during a recent phone chat. “And she was in great shape anyway. She wasn’t frazzled, she didn’t take things personally and she knows that that’s part of being out there and being famous, and she was willing and able to take the heat. And I think she’s done an amazing job and she’s setting a great example.”
Before leaving the theater, Williams and Davuluri began following one another on the same social media sites that had initially been filled with such hurtful comments following her coronation.
Perhaps the only other person to wear the Miss America tiara who could identify with Davuluri and Williams is Bess Myerson, who in 1945 became the first and — to date — only Jewish woman to win the crown. Like Williams and Davuluri, Myerson had a common bond: all three represented the state of New York before winning the title.
“Well, there you go, all three New Yorkers,” Williams says with a wry laugh. “We’re the true melting pot of America, no doubt about that.”
In spite of the controversy that brought an abrupt end to Williams’ Miss America reign — a nude photo scandal that forced her to surrender the crown six weeks prematurely — Williams has arguably become the most successful Miss America in the entertainment world.
There are few aspects of the business that she’s hasn’t embraced and successfully conquered.
As an R&B recording artist, her albums and singles have hit the top of the charts and earned her 15 Grammy nominations. On television, roles in shows like Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives and 666 Park Avenue have earned her rave reviews and three Emmy nominations.
She’s a Tony Award nominee for her work on Broadway and has acted in several feature films that were box office gold.
She recently followed up her Broadway appearance in The Trip to Bountiful by filming a TV adaptation of the play which will air March 8 on Lifetime. And in September, she’ll reprise her stage role in the Los Angeles production of the Horton Foote play.
“It was such an extraordinary group, and having the incredible Cicely Tyson in the role of Mother Watts, it was one of those must-see productions,” she says, praising Tyson’s Tony Award-winning performance. “And I’m so happy that I not only got a chance to do my role twice, but now I’ll get a third chance to do it [in Los Angeles].”
Because of her ability to adapt to virtually every medium in the business, being unemployed doesn’t really worry Williams — at least not too much.
“I’m lucky to always be afforded an opportunity to keep growing and working, so I’m happy,” she says. “And whenever I get nervous about not being employed, something turns up, so I’m one happy person.”
Williams, who’ll haul out some romantic and Valentine’s Day-appropriate songs when she performs Friday, Feb. 14, at Caesars Atlantic City, credits her high school and college training in musical theater and her parents — both of whom were music teachers — with initially setting her on the right path in what’s usually a challenging way to make a living.
“You learn how to be adaptable, whether it’s Shakespeare, whether it’s a straight play or a comedy or a musical,” she explains. “I think all of my training and experiences have been an asset because I’ve been able to float comfortably between comedy and drama and television and stage. I also think it has to do with having two parents who were music teachers to expose me to the arts my entire life and so I appreciate each aspect [of the business] and feel comfortable being a musician and being able to move from genre to genre.”
Initially, Williams wanted to be a dancer after she began taking lessons when she was in kindergarten. But then she was introduced to music and studied both the piano and French horn.
“I really didn’t start singing until I began doing [high school] theater, and I thought, ‘Wow, singing and dancing and I get to act all at once? This is fun,” she says.
“And then when I found out I could major in musical theater in college, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Just as her parents never discouraged her from a career in the arts, Williams will encourage her own kids if they express an interest in following in their mom’s footsteps.
She has four children — three daughters and a son — ranging in age from 26 to 13. Her 24-year-old daughter Jillian is a singer and performs with the group Lion Babe, which was recently signed to a recording contract.
Her 13-year-old daughter Sasha, who’s in eighth grade, is already performing in school productions and also sings, plays guitar and has expressed an interest in a show business career.
However, Williams doesn’t sound like she’d be thrilled if her youngest wanted to get into the pageant world. There was a method behind Williams’ pageant madness 30 years ago.
“The only reason I did [pageants] was for the scholarship money,” Williams says candidly of the whirlwind that occurred between entering her first preliminary pageants and then winning the Miss America crown just six months later.
Friday, Feb. 14, 9pm
Caesars, Atlantic City
How Much: $65, $75, $90