Throwback Thursday: Nude Photos Forced Out Miss America 30 Years Ago
"It's easily the worst thing that's ever happened to me," Vanessa Williams said in 1984
This story first appeared in the Sept. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Three decades before Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton learned the dangers of nude photos, Vanessa Williams was having major problems with the same issue.
In 1983, the 20-year-old Syracuse University student was the first African-American to win Miss America. Her big pageant moment came when, as Miss New York, she sang "Happy Days Are Here Again," her gray-blue eyes glistening. But Williams' reign was interrupted when nude shots from the previous year surfaced.
She'd posed for the black-and-white pics with another woman while working as an assistant to photographer Tom Chiapel, who sold them to Penthouse. Williams was pressured into resigning and 1983 became the only year to have two Miss Americas: Williams for the first 10 months and then runner-up Suzette Charles. Williams was allowed to keep a $100,000 scholarship but lost about $2 million in endorsements.
"It's easily the worst thing that's ever happened to me," she said in 1984. "I just can't imagine anything worse." A $400 million lawsuit she filed against Penthouse and Chiapel was eventually dropped.
Penthouse's September 1984 issue with the photos achieved a single-issue sales record. (The centerfold was 16-year-old Traci Lords; since she was underage, it's now illegal to own a copy unless her photos have been removed.)
Williams' chance for a career could have faded away, but as she once remarked, "Success is the best revenge." She landed a part in 1987's The Pick-Up Artist; her 1988 album, The Right Stuff, earned her a Best New Artist Grammy nom; and follow-up The Comfort Zone sold 2.2 million copies in the U.S. Williams went on to receive three Emmy noms for her diva role on Ugly Betty. She's now in rehearsals for The Trip to Bountiful, which opens Sept. 17 at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre.