Long past that Miss A scandal, Vanessa Williams is happy she - and pageant - are back in Atlantic City

Posted: February 11, 2014

I WAS watching 30 years ago when Vanessa Williams made history by becoming the first black Miss America.

Her crowning was one of those unforgettable TV images that have stayed with me all these years - seeing her, dressed in that lilac gown with the big pouf on her shoulder, accomplishing what no African-American had done before. No doubt, that historic moment will be in the back of Williams' mind when she returns to Atlantic City Friday night for a concert at Caesars.

AC must hold bittersweet memories. After all, it's where Williams professional career began - and also where it stumbled, after pageant officials learned that Penthouse magazine had nude photos of her.

But time has a way of mellowing old hurts. The pageant has changed. Williams - a hit-making songstress and popular actress who has had the most successful entertainment career of any Miss America - has moved on. This prodigal daughter has been back to perform in AC, and she's as thrilled as anyone about the pageant's 2013 return to the Boardwalk.

"I think it's fantastic," Williams said last week during a phone interview. "I think it really helps to revitalize the pageant."

Shortly after being crowned last September, the reigning Miss America visited Williams backstage in New York City, where Williams was co-starring in "The Trip to Bountiful."

Nina Davuluri, a former Miss New York, like Williams, is the first Indian-American Miss America. She and Williams compared notes and took cellphone selfies as the past caught up with the present. From the photos of them smiling together, you'd never think that there was a time when Williams was all but a Miss America pariah.

"Vanessa the undressa"

After she was forced to resign as Miss America, Williams' career and reputation tanked. Overnight, she went from being America's darling to a national disgrace.

"For me, it seemed like an eternity in which I was the punch line to every late-night monologue," she wrote in her 2012 book, You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother and How they Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other). "Joan Rivers, whom I adored and met on 'The Tonight Show' during my reign, was particularly relentless. Just when I figured she'd exhausted every possible Vanessa Williams joke, she'd have a whole new slew of them."

After the pageant, Williams moved out of her parents' home in upstate New York - where local kids would ride by and yell out, "Vanessa is a lesbian" - and into an apartment in New York City. At 23, she married Ramon Hervey, the handsome publicist who'd been hired to resuscitate her image.

In 1988, Williams' first album, "The Right Stuff" did well with the cut "Dreamin,' " which made it to No. 1 on R&B charts. Her sophomore effort in 1991, "The Comfort Zone," spawned a hit song that's become a wedding classic, "Save the Best for Last."

By 1994, she was on Broadway, replacing Chita Rivera in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," and making good on a lifelong goal to perform on the Great White Way.

The following year, Williams sang the soul-stirring, Oscar-winning "Colors of the Wind," from the Disney film, "Pocahontas."

In 1996, she made her big-screen debut, co-starring with Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Eraser." She quickly followed up with her memorable role in "Soul Food."

Hers was the mother of all career comebacks, all right.

Since then, Williams has made an even bigger splash with TV roles on "Ugly Betty" and "Desperate Housewives," along with numerous other stage and screen credits.

Her 2012 memoir includes revelations that she smoked marijuana in high school and had an abortion during her senior year. She revealed that she'd been molested by an 18-year-old female family friend when she was just 10.

Now she's 50, and her three oldest kids are grown and living on their own. Her youngest, Sasha, whom she had with husband No. 2, Rick Fox, is 13. Williams has reached that sweet stage where she's old enough to relish looking back at her many accomplishments but still young enough to have an ambitious bucket list.

"I'd love to do a movie musical," she told me. "I'd love to originate a role on Broadway."

Then she added, "I know it will happen."

Saved the best for last

When Williams takes to the stage Friday at 9 p.m. at Caesars' Circus Maximus Theater, she'll surely belt out her hits for everyone's enjoyment. But maybe she'll be singing just a little bit more to a certain mystery man who'll be out there watching.

"He's a guy I met a year and a half ago when I was on vacation with my daughter in Egypt," Williams said. "You go across the world to find somebody who's six hours away."

She declined to share more details about her new boo, other than to say, "He was in real estate and, back in the day, he was an accountant."

Online reports have ID'ed her man-of-the-moment as Buffalo-native Jim Skrip.

Without fully naming him, Williams told the Buffalo News that her beau is "just a nice, regular, gorgeous guy." And, yes, during our conversation she referred to him as her "valentine."

The night will still be young once Williams finishes singing.

Does she have big plans for afterward?

"I guess it's up to my guy," Williams said. "After I perform, my job is done for the night."

Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

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