Call it a mother's instinct, but Helen Williams knew the marriage of her daughter, superstar Vanessa Williams, to then-Los Angeles Lakers star Rick Fox wouldn't last.
Although she liked Fox, the elder Williams felt that her now-ex-son-in-law — who's six years younger than Vanessa — was too immature and unable to handle being in a relationship with a celebrity of her daughter's status.
To further prove her intuition correct, Fox publicly announced he was filing for divorce before informing Vanessa Williams — a move that left Helen Williams so furious that she was unable to speak when the then-couple told her in person they were divorcing. So how did the retired schoolteacher handle the news? Like any old-school schoolteacher would: by whacking Fox on the back of the head. She got her point across.
"Vanessa has had two failed marriages. Rick is a very different personality. And he really pursued Vanessa. You have two celebrity mentalities and minds clashing at some point. So that did not surprise me," said Helen Williams to The Root, of her daughter's marriages to her first husband and former manager, Ramon Hervey II, and to Fox.
A petite, retired music teacher, Helen Williams isn't one to go around harming people. But the 72-year-old mother of singer, actress and first black Miss America Vanessa Williams definitely is no-nonsense. She also isn't one to mince her words, as illustrated in You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other), the candid memoir she co-authored with her daughter.
To call You Have No Idea candid could be a bit of an understatement. The mother-daughter book shares very revealing episodes surrounding Vanessa Williams' life, like the example of Helen Williams' encounter with Fox.
"It's my history. It's my life story. The reason why I wrote my life story is to tell my life story. If the reader is inspired or is informed or gets to see the real person despite what they have assumed, then I think it's been effective," Vanessa Williams told The Root.
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.
"At 49 years old, I've had a lot of stories and lots of experiences in life to tell. And when you review your life and when it's meaningful, it's not an easy thing to do," she said.
Vanessa said her older daughters, Melanie, 24, and Jillian, 22, read the book and were very appreciative of it, especially the parts in which she discusses her late father, Milton Williams.
"I'm very candid with my children. They've got a very real relationship with me. I believe in teachable moments, so I don't believe in sheltering your kids from the truth or trying to avoid reality when it comes up. And some parents tend not to do that. Kids are smart. Kids know when you're in denial, kids know when they're being hoodwinked," explained Williams, who also has a son, Devin, 19, who, like Melanie and Jillian, is from her first marriage. She has a daughter, Sasha, 12, from her union with Fox.
Vanessa Williams described her mother as "a tough lady," and said she believes she's a lot more approachable as a parent than her mother was with her and her brother. It's something that hasn't been lost on Helen Williams, who said that if given another opportunity, there is one thing that she would change about how she raised her children.
"I was not raised in an environment where you showed demonstrative affection at all," Helen said. "If I had the opportunity to do it over, I think I would try to be a little more demonstrative in showing affection to them, like hugging and kissing all the time — you know, that kind of thing, which I did do but not at times when I think they really, really would have welcomed it more."
Aisha I. Jefferson is a contributor to The Root.