Penthouse Retrospective

by Penthouse Staff Originally Published: April, 1993

Vanessa Williams

Vanessa first came to Chiapel’s studio in the summer of 1982 to have her portfolio done. She said she was an actress who wanted to model. At the time Chiapel was looking for a makeup artist and receptionist. Vanessa heard about the opening, and when she came back to pick up her photos, she cited her theater experience. Chiapel and his partner thought she was pretty and articulate; they knew she’d make a great they receptionist, agreed and to teach her more about makeup. Vanessa studied hard, Chiapel recalled, reading books on the subject. She did well.

Chiapel told Bob Guccione in a Penthouse interview that he and Vanessa became friends. He said she discussed her boyfriends with him, and even talked about her sexual fantasies. She enjoyed partying and dancing. He remembered the day when he was looking at pictures he had shot of two other female models. Vanessa came into the office and said she thought the photos were very, very sexy.

“I think it would really be sexy to pose with another woman,” she told him. “I think it would be an erotic experience.” Chiapel offered to get a model. He recalled that after the first shoot, Vanessa went  around with the pictures and showed them to several of her friends. “She was really proud of them,” he told Penthouse.

As for the photo release, Chiapel said that he gave her the “normal A.S.M.P {American Society of Magazine Photographers] release, which is standard of the industry.” She took it home and brought it back signed. (“one of the things that we told all of our models, Vanessa included, was, ‘Always read your releases.’”)

Vanessa worked for Chiapel for about three months, leaving to return to school in the fall. She had posed for the “lesbian” pictures a year before her Miss America bid, a mere eight months before entering the Miss Greater Syracuse pageant. Obviously, this was an experience she thought wise to omit from her pageant resume.

And it wasn’t the only one.

Unbeknownst to Chiapel,  approximately one month after she had posed for him, Vanessa sat for another series of nudes – this time for photographer Jonathan Aaron. For this particular portfolio, Vanessa tricked herself out in handcuffs, chains, and leather harnesses. The saucy, S & M-tinged series debuted in the January 1985 edition of Penthouse.

Wags quickly labeled the event an “aftershock.”

“Vanessa Williams has never been a victim,” observed photographer Aaron. “[She] had mastered the art of being looked at. She had a great sense of her own sexuality… . She was quite comfortable expressing herself as a sexual person.”

In Aaron’s opinion, she should have fought for her crown.

When it began to look as though Vanessa would lose her title, Guccione  contacted her lawyer with an offer. “I said that if she lost her job with the pageant, we would hire her to do precisely the same work for us that she was doing for them at twice the price, namely, $250,000 per annum. No more photographs, just traveling around the country promoting the magazine… I also offered, asuming she lost her crown, to fully finance any action she cared to bring against the pageant …. “ Her lawyers took it into consideration, but called back 24 hours later and rejected both offers. In November 1985 Vanessa brought $650 million worth of lawsuits again Penthouse and the two photographers, claiming the publication of photos had violated her civil rights and caused her public distress and lost opportunities. She claimed that she had never intended the photos to be published. (This in spite of the fact that she had willingly posed, signed a release, and told people at the time that she was pursuing a modeling career.)

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.