I turned 4 the year Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America. I don’t actually remember the pageant or even the subsequent drama when she was asked to resign 10 months later. I just heard a lot about it growing up.
I got the gist: Williams was a black first and that was a big deal. From what I gathered from the elders around me, the way “they”—meaning the Miss America Organization—did her—forcing her to resign her crown—“was racist.”
“That magazine”—meaning Penthouse—“never should have done that to that girl and published those pictures,” meaning the nude photos of Williams taken before she became Miss America. Williams’ Penthouse issue went on to become the magazine’s highest-selling single issue of all time. Williams did not authorize the publication of the photos.
Over the weekend, I saw a random story on TMZ about some behind-the-scenes fuss at the 2016 Miss America Pageant, which Vanessa Williams was going to attend. There was allegedly some question about whether she would apologize to the Miss America Organization for embarrassing the organization or if the organization would instead apologize to Williams for asking her to resign 32 years ago. The organization ultimately apologized.
During last night’s pageant broadcast, Miss America CEO Sam Haskell III invited Williams to the stage and apologized to her and her mother, saying, “You have lived your life with grace and dignity. … I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less than the Miss America you are and the Miss America you will always be.”
Knowing that I will likely be reamed for saying this, because Williams is a talented actress, singer and a beloved celebrity—especially in the black community—I’m saying it anyway: She deserved to be forced to resign, and the Miss America organization didn’t owe her an apology.
The organization’s reaction to Williams’ pictures wasn’t overblown in the ’80s, and those images should garner about a similar reaction today. The organization’s reaction also was not racist. (The fact that Williams’ replacement, Suzette Charles, was also black kinda kills that argument.)
How did I reach this baffling conclusion? I’m glad you asked.
Honestly, I hadn’t thought about Williams’ Miss America scandal in over a decade. Despite her resignation, Williams is often referred to as the first black Miss America, but a long list of additional and greater professional achievements—including multiple Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award nods and several NAACP Awards—has overshadowed the best and worst of her 10-month reign. When I think of Williams, I don’t think “scandal!” I think of her hit single “Saved the Best for Last,” or her acting roles in Soul Food and Ugly Betty. Perhaps that’s a generational thing.
Anyway, with news of Miss America’s potential apology still on the horizon, I finally looked up the images that had caused such a big fuss all those years ago. I was expecting the typical artsy nudes, a vanilla celebration of the female form that is often called art when white women express it but considered vulgar when black women try the same. It was the ’80s; Reagan was in office. People overreacted to everything.
Given all we’ve seen by now, I didn’t expect to raise an eyebrow. So I Googled and I found what I was looking for. And those images flipped the whole narrative that I had in my head about Williams’ resignation.
Despite the massive Penthouse sales, I don’t think most people have seen Williams’ images. They weren’t readily available in the ’80s. It’s not as if they were shown on the nightly news; nor could you pull them up on your mobile phone. You had to get a copy of the magazine, which a lot of people did and even more people did not. Even now, I’ve found a lot of people who have no idea what the photos actually depict.
I started talking about this on social media Saturday, and lots of people confessed that they had no idea what the images looked like. You should look them up and decide for yourself if Miss America is, as many folks said on social media last night, 30 years overdue with an apology.
Not all of Williams pictures are extra, but of the ones that are, I’ll say this: The images ran in Penthouse, not Playboy, and with good reason. Williams’ photos aren’t your standard T&A. There’s full-frontal and dominatrix action. There are images simulating oral sex. Madonna’s book Sex was probably less titillating.
To be clear: I take no issue with sex between consenting adults—including LGBT; expressions of sexuality between consenting adults; or even private photos of said sexuality between consenting adults. But when you’re the of-any-color face of a family-friendly organization such as Miss America and those racy photos that you took become public, your image is no longer in line with the mission of the organization. Her image didn’t fit the position she held. Images matter. Ask anyone on Instagram.
Yes, Williams was barely legal when those pictures were taken. I read in a 1984 article in People magazine that she naively believed that the images would be in silhouette and her face would not be shown. Williams was a young girl who made a series of bad decisions. (She did two nude photo shoots, not one.) And the cost was being asked to step down as Miss America. It was a hard way to learn a necessary lesson about actions and consequences. There was no need for the Miss America organization to apologize for teaching it to her.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter.