32 Years Later, Vanessa Williams Returns to the Miss America Pageant

Letting bygones be bygones, she does them a real solid with her appearance. Maybe now they’ll get some interest… and some ratings.

UPDATE September 13, 2015 — Former Miss America Vanessa Williams received an onstage apology from Miss America CEO Sam Haskell.

“You have lived your life in grace and dignity and never was it more evident than during the events of 1984 when you resigned. 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,” said Haskell.

She was very gracious while accepting the apology and said that she “did the best could” at that time. And as usual, she looked and sounded great. Williams preceded the apology with a song.

A couple of days ago, there was speculation that pageant officials wanted Williams to apologize to them. Let’s face it: this was a just gimmick to get some interest and some ratings for this show that hasn’t had either in years and had been kicked down to minor cable channels during the last couple of years.  At this point, this pageant needs her more than she needs it. Next year when Williams doesn’t return to judge, this show will go back to being its usual irrelevant, ignored, no-ratings self.


Former Miss America Vanessa Williams is the personification of that old adage “living well is the best revenge.” This weekend, she will be a judge on the Miss America pageant… yes, the same Miss America  that dumped her so unceremoniously, so cowardly, and so publicly back in the ’80s after nude photographs of her were published in Penthouse magazine.

Recently,  she spoke with Robin Roberts on “Good Morning America”  where she was gracious about her return invitation and said she was delighted to be asked back to the stage where she made her mark so many years ago.

Vanessa Williams & Robin Roberts. (Getty Images)

Vanessa Williams & Robin Roberts. (Getty Images)

The best part of her story is that she’s still around and very successful whereas her two adversaries, Penthouse magazine and the Miss America pageant, both fell on hard times. Penthouse, the porn magazine that published her nude photos and got her kicked out from under her crown, went under years ago. The September 1984 issue, which mired her in scandal, was their most successful issue ever but never replicated that success with subsequent issues. The Miss America pageant has lost viewers year after year with 2014 being the worst: their viewership declined 25 percent.

Vanessa William's crown from her 1983 Miss America win. (Vanessa Williams/WhoSay)

Vanessa William’s crown from her 1983 Miss America win. She was allowed to keep it after her resignation. (Vanessa Williams/WhoSay)

Screaming Back at the Screen remembers the first time we saw her in that pageant back in 1983. We used to regularly watch this summer ritual, sometimes wondering why there were no black women as contestants. Then, lo and behold, Vanessa Williams sashayed around that stage, winning the whole thing and walking away with the crown.

Vanessa Williams as Miss America 1984. (Getty Images)

Vanessa Williams as Miss America 1984. (Getty Images)

Even though it is more than 20 years later, SBATS still remembers seeing her and remarking how much Vanessa reminded us of one of our very own groovy older wannabe-psychedelic siblings. Sibling Marguerite bears some of the same physical features that Williams has: light complexion, light eyes and kinky hair. “Hmmm… is that really a black woman in this contest? She looks like Marguerite,” we wondered. Yes, SBATS, you were correct and, sure enough, she took home the big prize and became an overnight celebrity with that historic win.

For the following 10 months, she made appearances around the country, met with presidents and celebrities, and championed whatever cause she chose (all the contestants have mandated causes of one sort or another so they don’t look like they’re only in it for the cash and prizes).

Bob Guiccione, then publisher of Penthouse, purchased and published the nude photos of Williams after being offered them by the small-time, upstate New York photographer who created them. Hugh Hefner, publisher of Playboy and commentator on social issues,  declined to purchase the photos, saying at the time that publication of the photos was “improper” and “immoral,” keeping in mind the significance of the first black woman to win the title.

Once that infamous issue of Penthouse hit the newsstands, a press conference was held where she announced her resignation, one of two choices given to her. The other was essentially to be fired and stripped of her crown (which happened anyway). The remaining two months were fulfilled by another black Miss America, Suzette Charles.

In 1988, Williams returned to celebrity status with a new singing career after lying low and  letting the taint of the scandal diffuse. And when she came back, she CAME BACK. She ultimately starred on Broadway and in major televisions shows in long running roles, picking up Tony, Grammy, and Emmy award nominations along the way.

In the midst of her lawsuit against Penthouse magazine, she said: “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.” While Penthouse’s demise may not have been slow (it is an online-only entity these days), it was probably painful. Once publicly traded on NASDAQ, they declared bankruptcy in September 2013 and was delisted after its share price dropped to less than $1 per share. Fun fact: as of today’s close, Penthouse’s current stock price was $ 0.0009. That’s a painful yet juicy revenge.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s