Vanessa Williams and Her Mom Get Candid

Singer-actress Vanessa Williams and her mom, Helen, talk to The Root about their intimate memoir.

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And an interesting life story it is. The book illustrates Vanessa Williams’ willingness to take risks and her fearlessness. Her parents ran a tight ship and had strict rules that she and her younger brother, Chris, were expected to follow while living under their roof, yet somehow the future pageant queen found a way to break a few of them. Her friends admired her ability not to back down from a challenge.

“Some people get stuck in fear and don’t want to make a mistake and would rather be comforted by staying where they are, and I always look for, ‘OK, what’s next?’ And so I think that’s a part of my personality that really comes across on the pages,” Vanessa Williams shared.

Helen Williams agreed with her daughter’s self-assessment, adding, “Vanessa is a very trusting person. She also has been one willing to try a challenge.”

Sometimes this willingness caused her parents, particularly her mother — and even Vanessa Williams herself — to suffer the consequences. Like the time Vanessa posed nude for photos for a guy for whom she worked as a receptionist when she was 19 and on summer break. Little did she know those provocative photos would surface in Penthouse two years later, in 1983 when she was the reigning Miss America. Within 72 hours of finding out the photos had been released, Vanessa relinquished her crown — something her mother didn’t want her to do.

“My husband never saw the photos. I looked at them. I was just curious to see what all of the hoopla was about and [I wanted to know] how bad were they,” Helen Williams said, adding that that period was tough for her husband and for her, who returned to teach in the fall, and their son, who was still in high school.

But there were also incidents that Vanessa Williams recounts in the book about which her mother was previously in the dark. Ten-year-old Vanessa was molested by the 18-year-old daughter of friends of the family’s friends while vacationing in Southern California. The woman woke Vanessa and performed oral sex on her. Helen Williams didn’t know about that until she read it in the book. She also didn’t know that Vanessa had an abortion when she was a senior in high school.