Penthouse Retrospective

by Penthouse Staff Originally Published: April, 1993

Vanessa Williams

Quick — can anybody name our reigning Miss America?

Most Famous Miss America in History

Vanessa Williams in PenthousePhotographs by Tom Chiapel and Jonathan Aaron

How about any four out of the last dozen? If you are able to answer these questions, you’re probably in the minority. Because although most of the anointed hope to parlay their title into a showbusiness career, the runway is littered with the detritus of disappointments and dashed dreams. Sadly, the high point of a Miss America’s reign comes during her first week, a whirlwind of major-league talk-show appearances. But after schmoozing with Johnny, Jay, or David, it’s usually pretty much downhill over the years – a rubber chicken ride to Rotary Club oblivion. But there is one former Miss America whose champagne wishes and caviar dreams came true in a very big way.

And she’s the one they said was all washed up.

Born on March 18, 1963 Vanessa Williams was raised in Millwood, Westchester County, New York, by her public school music-teacher parents, Milton and Helen. According to Mainstream America magazine, Vanessa has to practice the piano daily, and at age seven, she showed her displeasure by packing her stuffed animals and hitting the road – only to return before nightfall. When she was ten, she defied her mother’s orders not to give anyone a ride on the back of her bicycle. A minor crack-up resulted, wherein our heroine chipped a tooth and permanently scarred one leg.

She became involved with theater in high school, winning a musical-theater scholarship to Syracuse University in 1981. After the funds ran out in 1983, Vanessa entered the Miss New York race in order to win more scholarship money. Then she went on to compete for the Miss America title in September 1983, becoming the first black woman to win the crown. Although she was certainly proud of her breakthrough status, it still rankled Vanessa when reporters emphasized her race above all else. Almost as widely reported was the fact that she was the first Miss America who did not cry during her inaugural walk.

For the next ten months, she faithfully discharged her duties as the nation’s first black, non-crying Miss America. But even then there was something else about Vanessa that set her apart. Looking back on that time eight years later, she told Entertainment Weekly, “Maybe it was to my advantage that I wasn’t as hungry as those other girls, the ones who were bred to do this. I was certainly one of those people who said it was a joke. I think of myself as a feminist and pretty liberal, and there are aspects [of the pageant] that are pretty exploitative. You realize it once you are on the circuit.”

In July 1984, her tour on the circuit came screeching to a halt.

When word got out that Penthouse’s 15th anniversary edition would reveal that the empress wore no clothes, Vanessa closeted herself in a conference with 71-year-old Albert A. Marks, Jr., the pageant’s non-salaried chairman. According to Marks, when Vanessa first told him about the photos, she made the session sound fairly innocuous – ”a little pearl here, a few drapes there,” he recalled. The board of directors was almost ready to exonerate her – until a Fed Ex package containing the pictures arrived during their meeting.

“As a man, a father, a grandfather, as a human being,” Marks fumed, “I have never seen anything like these photographs. Ugh. I can’t even show them to my wife.”

He suggested (on behalf of the organization) that she relinquish the title.

The day before her decision to abdicate, Vanessa’s father was telling reporters, “They’ll have to pull the crown off her head – my daughter is a feisty young woman.” Pageant attorney Leonard Horn conceded that there was “no specific language in the [Miss America] contract saying that she cannot pose in the nude.” He could only invoke the pageant’s “moral “ leverage.

In the Royal Ballroom at New York’s Sheraton Centre on July 23, Vanessa read from a statement: “I am not a person who gives up …. It has never been my desire to injure the Miss America Pageant. … I must relinquish my title.” The scepter would pass to first runner-up Suzette Charles. Once again, Vanessa did not cry.

It isn't difficult to imagine a world in which Vanessa Williams created a successful and diverse career without having artistic nudes of her published against her wishes. But that isn't our world.