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.
After a week, Chiapel asked her to pose again, this time with another model. He claimed it was for silhouettes. “The light would be behind the models. I was reluctant, but since he assured me that I would be the only one to see them and I would not be identifiable in the photographs, I agreed. He had also gotten another model to agree to this.”
She said, “The shots were posed. There was no activity throughout the whole session between me and the other model. The session lasted maybe an hour. That was the extent of it. When I saw the printed negatives on the contact sheet, they were in silhouette form. There was no way that either of us could be identified. That’s the bottom line.”
She never signed anything to release the photos. “I trusted him not to do anything with the photographs. That was my error,” Williams wrote. “I did not give my consent to him or Penthouse to ever have them published, used in any magazine or in any way. Nothing. I signed an application giving my height, weight, color of hair and my talents.
She left the studio on good terms, not knowing what would happen two years later. She never told anyone about the pictures until the rumors started to come up, and then she felt completely betrayed. “I feel as if I were just a sacrificial lamb. The past just came up and kicked me,” she wrote. “I felt betrayed and violated, like I had been raped.”
Williams revealed that it was “the worst thing that has happened in my life,” but she wasn’t going to give up. “I can’t go any place but up. I’ve hit rock bottom.” She was pressured by the Miss America Organization to step down as the reigning Miss America. She only had two months left to go before a new winner would be crowned, but they didn’t want their name tarnished.
Shortly after the scandal broke, Williams launched a lawsuit against the photographer who sold the images of her. The $400 million lawsuit was filed against both Penthouse magazine and Tom Chiaped, but only a year later Williams ended up dropping the suit. “It was a no-win situation,” says Williams,. “Besides, I didn’t feel like reliving all this stuff again, five years down the line. I just wanted to get on with my life. So many people have gotten burned by those people that I think they’ll eventually get it in the end and die a slow, painful death.”
After the scandal, she decided that she wasn’t going to let it stop her from continuing on in her career. She released a successful album and she started acting. You might remember her from the shows Ugly Betty or Desperate Housewives, or from the 2000 remake of Shaft with Samuel L. Jackson.
Recently, the Miss America Organization actually took it upon themselves to apologize to Williams for forcing her to step down. During the 2016 pageant, executive chairman, Sam Haskell, made a public apology to the former winner. “You have lived your life in grace and dignity and never was it more evident than during the events of 1984 when you resigned,” Haskell said. “Though none of us currently in the organization were involved then, on behalf of today’s organization, I want to apologize to you and to your mother, Miss Helen Williams. 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 always will be."
It took the organization over 30 years to forgive Williams for something she had no control of at the time. Luckily Williams has been able to move on with her life and come out stronger than before. “Obviously I’m more seasoned and less trusting, and—I don’t want to say bitter, but a little harder,” she said.