In Conversation with Vanessa Williams

In Conversation with Vanessa Williams
Gilles Toucas
If there is one word that best characterizes the entertainment career of award-winning singer and actress Vanessa Williams, it’s versatile.

Back in 1983, she became the first African-American winner of the Miss America Pageant. And in the 30-plus years since, Williams has honed a career on the silver and television screen, Broadway stage and concert hall circuit. She has gained the most acclaim for a catalog of work that shows depth, relevancy, staying power and versatility.

She has her own clothing line, simply called V, and has lent her voice to portraying Miss Brown on the M&M TV commercials, because, well, that's just how she rolls.

You may know her for her Emmy-nominated role of Wilhelmina Slater on Ugly Betty, Renee Perry in Desperate Housewives, Terri Joseph in the comedy-dramatic film Soul Food, or her Tony-nominated portrayal of The Witch from the 2002 revival of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.

Then, there are her recognizable and versatile pop, jazz, and R&B vocal abilities.

Williams' 1988 album, The Right Stuff, along with “Running Back to You” and “Dreamin’” all led to her 1991 No. 1 hit signature song “Save the Best for Last” from her sophomore release Comfort Zone. Her cover of “Colors of the Wind” from the Disney's Pocahontas won an Academy Award in 1995.

But she's endured painful life lessons, too. Like when she was forced to relinquish her Miss America crown after unauthorized nude photos of her emerged in Penthouse magazine in 1984.

Her ability to rise above scandal, fame, and the trappings of success by relying on her multi-talented background has sustained her. And it was a vital seed planted early in Williams' life.

Raised by music teacher parents, Helen Tinch and the late Milton Augustine Williams Jr. in Chappaqua, New York, the teen prodigy was trained by her folks in singing, piano, and dance before attending Syracuse University.

Jump ahead a few decades, and Williams has done it all, including raising four children.

Williams is scheduled to appear on Saturday, April 7, at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. She also will be the keynote speaker at the Women United Luncheon at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel on May 18.

Phoenix New Times recently spoke with Williams, who talked about: what she signed up for, rising above racial inequality, new studio work, the James Lipton approach to performing live, and memories of horseback riding with her kids in Tucson. (This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.)
New Times: So how do you find time for everything?
Vanessa Williams: I am in an airport right now. We just had a gig last night in Kansas City. We’re heading to Tokyo, and then switching planes and ending up in Jakarta for the Java Jazz Festival. It’s been non-stop always. It varies. Sometimes I am on the road more, sometimes at home. It’s what I signed up for.

Music was an integral part of growing up in the Williams’ house. What are your recollections of that time, and what music was the more dominantly played?
My dad was the one who most certainly played everything, from latin jazz to classical to the Beatles to gospel. We were kind of exposed to a lot of stuff. Not only did we play music at home, but I was forced to listen to all their concerts, as music teachers in both of their schools. And, my parents taught at the house; I would hear piano lessons downstairs, and clarinet lessons upstairs. There was no way of getting away from music in that household.

Your special relationship with your mother transcended the dedicated support of a parent, when the two of you co-wrote, You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other) in 2012. How much did you cherish being able to do that with your mother?
We did in on two different coasts. I was out in L.A. shooting Desperate Housewives at the time, and she was in New York, so we were both writing separately. I was very proud of it, it was well done and well-received.

You are performing in Scottsdale with Broadway pianist and philanthropist Seth Rodetsky, whom you have toured with before. What is in store for fans on this tour stop?
Seth has an incredible fan base on Sirius, but I have known him for years. For people who have never seen Seth’s concert, it’s kind of like James Lipton['s Actor’s Studio] where he has an actor, you talk about your career in big wingback chairs, you think about something, and you jump over to the piano and sing a song. So, it’s a great evening. You get to tell stories and sing.

It has been nine years since your eighth and most recent studio album. Have you been working on anything new?
I have been in the studio, and hopefully it will be out in the fall. It’s kind of a combination of what I do in my show; I do pop tunes, I do R&B, I do stuff that I have recorded. I do some Broadway things, and this is a kind of extension of my Broadway music, and has inspired me through the years that I have performed.

Despite the dry, hot climate that is Arizona, which can affect voice performance, you have been here many times before. What are your favorite memories of Arizona?
I did [the national anthem at] Super Bowl '96, the Cowboys against the Steelers. That was incredible. We’ve been in Scottsdale twice. I think the first time [in Phoenix] I was on tour with Luther Vandross. Maybe it was before that. It was Tucson. I did a couple of scenes in a movie with Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson called Harley Davidson and The Marlboro Man, and then I brought the kids to Tucson to Tanque Verde Ranch to ride horses. So it’s you know, gorgeous, and I like seeing things on horseback. You can really see the terrain.

You have had quite successful ride on so many different entertainment stages. If you had to limit yours to just one, which one would you choose?
The one that combines everything probably is musicals on Broadway. I get the chance to sing and dance and act, and play a role, and do it in front of a live audience. But I like being able to do my own music, in front of an audience that knows my radio songs ... go on the set and create a character. Variety is the spice of life.

Vanessa Williams is scheduled to perform at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, April 7. Tickets are $59 to $89 through the Center's website.

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Mark C. Horn
Contact: Mark C. Horn