Celebrities | Pop Culture | 80s

The Truth Behind The Scandalous Photos That Cost Vanessa Williams Her Miss America Crown

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In 1984 Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America, making her the first black woman to successfully win the title. She swept the preliminaries, beating out other women in the swimsuit competition as well as the talent portion by singing “Happy Days Are Here Again”.

Even though she won the contest fairly, she was criticized because of her skin color. She stated that “there were a lot of people that did not want me to be representative of the United States and Miss America.” It wasn’t only the white population who were upset with her win. “There were a lot of people who had issues. I was too light. My eyes were the wrong color. My hair wasn't the right texture and getting criticism for being who I was,” Williams said.

But the hateful attacks weren’t the only thing the young woman had to deal with. About two months before the end of her reign, Williams received word that nude photos of her were going to be published in Penthouse. She had no control over the photos, had given no consent to the magazine to run them, but apparently that wasn’t going to stop them.


Williams wrote an essay talking about everything that happened, and how these pictures even came to be. She revealed that it all started when she was looking for a summer job in between semesters at Syracuse University.

“I saw an advertisement in a local newspaper reading 'models wanted,' so I called up and talked to Tom Chiapel, who was the photographer and part-owner of TEC studios. He said to come down for an interview,” Williams wrote. “I went to the studio and he said that I would need a portfolio. I asked my parents and they agreed to put up the money. It was a little over $100. My dad gave me a check. When I returned later to pick up the proofs, Tom Chiapel indicated that he needed a makeup artist. He offered me an audition, so I came in and did a face. He decided to have me work for him as a makeup artist-receptionist.”

She worked for him full-time, and Chiapel asked her multiple times to pose nude for him. Williams was only 19 years old at the time. “He assured me that none of the photographs would ever leave the studio. He assured me. I did a photographic session by myself,” Williams wrote. “I felt uncomfortable and awkward when I saw the proofs. I didn’t bring them home because I didn’t want anyone to see them.”

But that wouldn't be the last time he would ask.

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