Vanessa Williams (formerly credited as Vanessa L. Williams) is an American singer, former model and actress who, in 1983, made history when she became the first African-American woman to be crowned Miss America. Her reign as Miss America came to an early and abrupt end when she resigned her title in scandal.
However, she has since gone on to a successful entertainment career.
She is best known to television viewers for her roles as scheming, self-absorbed diva and former supermodel Wilhelmina Slater in the comedy series Ugly Betty, for which she received three Emmy Awards nominations; as spoiled rich woman Renee Perry in Desperate Housewives; and as Olivia Doran, the stylish, supportive, but enigmatic wife of Gavin Doran, the mysterious owner and landlord of The Drake (played by Terry O'Quinn), on the supernatural drama series 666 Park Avenue, from 2012-2013.
Williams is one of the most respected and multi-faceted performers in entertainment today, having conquered the musical charts, Broadway, music videos, television and motion pictures.
She has sold millions of albums worldwide and has achieved critical acclaim as an actress on stage, in film and on television.
Her albums The Right Stuff, The Comfort Zone and The Sweetest Days earned multiple Grammy nominations and have yielded such classic hits as "Save the Best for Last," "Dreamin," "Work to Do" and "Love Is," as well as the Academy Award-winning single, "Colors of the Wind," from Disney's Pocahontas.
Her recordings also include two holiday albums - Star Bright and Silver & Gold - Vanessa Williams Greatest Hits: The First Ten Years and Everlasting Love, a romantic collection of love songs from the 1970s.
Concord Records released her The Real Thing in June 2009, for which she received an NAACP nomination for "Outstanding Jazz Artist."
Williams began competing in beauty pageants in the early 1980s; she was interested in pursuing an entertainment career, as well as the scholarships pageants bestowed on winners.
Williams won Miss New York in 1983, and went to the Miss America national pageant in Atlantic City. She was crowned Miss America 1984 on September 17, 1983, making her the first ever African-American Miss America.
Prior to the final night of competition, Williams won both the Preliminary Talent and Swimsuit Competitions from earlier in the week.
Controversy erupted in the summer of 1984 when it was discovered that in 1982, she had posed nude for photographs — including scenes of graphic exposure and lesbian theme. The news came to light when adult magazine Penthouse announced that they would be publishing the photos in their September 1984 issue, without her consent.
After several days of media frenzy, Williams chose to resign her position on July 23, 1984. The crown was given to Suzette Charles (making her the second African-American Miss America), 54 days before the start of the pageant for Miss America 1985.
In 1994 Williams took Broadway by storm when she replaced Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman, winning the hearts of critics and becoming a box-office sensation. She garnered rave reviews and was nominated for a Tony Award for the 2002 revival of Into the Woods.
She also headlined a limited special engagement of the classic Carmen Jones at the Kennedy Center, and starred in the Encore! Series staged concert production of St. Louis Woman.
She was also seen in Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine's Sondheim on Sondheim, an original Broadway musical that ran in Spring of 2010 at The Roundabout Theatre.
Williams made her film debut in 1986 in Under the Gun. She has starred in such features as Eraser, Hoodlum, Soul Food, Dance with Me, Light It Up, Shaft and Johnson Family Vacation.
She starred in the independent features My Brother and Somebody Like You, and co-starred in Disney's feature film Hannah Montana: The Movie. She also plays in Tyler Perry's The Marriage Counselor.
On television Williams has starred in such movies and miniseries as Stompin' at the Savoy, The Boy Who Loved Christmas, The Jacksons: An American Dream, ABC's revival of Bye, Bye Birdie, Nothing Lasts Forever, The Odyssey, Don Quixote and Keep the Faith, Baby, and executive-produced and starred in Lifetime's The Courage to Love and the VH1 Original Movie, A Diva's Christmas Carol.
She starred in ABC's critically-acclaimed series Ugly Betty, earning three Emmy nominations as the deliciously wicked Wilhelmina Slater, in addition to numerous individual and ensemble awards and nominations, including SAG, Golden Globes and NAACP Image Awards.
In the Fall of 2010, Williams moved to Wisteria Lane as the newest resident on ABC's Desperate Housewives, where she stirred things up as Renee Perry, Lynette's former college friend and sorority sister.
In March 2011, she won the NAACP Image Award for this role and helped carry the show to the end of its eight-year run in May 2012.
In April 2012, Williams and her mother, Helen, landed on the NY Times Best Seller list after publishing the memoir You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other).
The book takes readers on a journey through Williams' life – told for the first time from her perspective and with the wisdom and frankness of her mother, the firecracker Miss Helen.
In 2007 Williams achieved a career pinnacle with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her accomplishments as a performer.
In December 2010, the International Foreign Press Academy made her the recipient of the 2010 Mary Pickford Award For Outstanding Artistic Contribution to the Entertainment Industry. The award honours her international achievements and success in film, television, stage and recording over the past 28 years.
Williams' charitable endeavours are many and varied, embracing and supporting such organizations as Special Olympics and many others.
Known for most of her career as Vanessa Williams, she ran into name conflict with actress Vanessa A. Williams who was already using the name as her stage name.
Screen Actors Guild rules prohibit duplicate naming, so this Williams generally appears as Vanessa L. Williams in acting credits, but is free to use Vanessa Williams in her music career.
In the 2000s, a gospel singer Vanessa R. Williams began recording under the name Vanessa Williams as well, making three contemporaneous and similarly aged African-American performers with the same name.
Since 2006, however, in the opening credits for Ugly Betty, she is listed once again as simply Vanessa Williams.