By SHIRLEY PULAWSKI
OBSERVER Staff Writer
"What makes you an interesting person are your experiences in life," said superstar Vanessa Williams as she and her mother, Helen Tinch Williams, shared their life experiences and stories at a book signing event at SUNY Fredonia in Diers Hall on Saturday.
OBSERVER Photos by Justin Goetz
Helen Tinch Williams and Vanessa Williams shared the stage in Diers Hall at SUNY Fredonia on Saturday.
"You Have No Idea" is the title of the book the two co-wrote. Vanessa said she had been asked for years to write a book about her life, but in the 1980s when asked, she was still in her 20s and said, "I knew I still had a life to live."
Helen, a Buffalo native, is a 1960 graduate of SUNY Fredonia, then known as Fredonia State Teachers' College. It was there she met her husband and Vanessa's father, Milton Williams, while they were both studying to become teachers.
After graduating at age 20, Helen went on to teach in Ossining, first as a substitute teacher, after her husband secured a job teaching in Westchester County. Once a full-time teacher, Helen said she set her mind to be a strong figure in the classroom. "I looked as young as some of my students, but I was determined to be in charge," she said, and credited one of her mentors present in the crowd, Dr. Richard Sheils, for helping her find her "teacher's voice."
The two were married for 45 years before his death in 2006. Vanessa grew up going to school in Chappequa.
On visiting Fredonia, Vanessa said, "Being here for me is like memory lane. This is where my parents met, where my father worked," she explained, and said her father worked many jobs in the area, including at Welch's, to pay for college.
"My mother is a character," Vanessa told the audience with a smile. The two wrote sections of the book separately. "I didn't read the book until a month before it was published," Helen said. "I learned some things about my daughter I suspected were true, and some other things I kind of thought," she said.
Vanessa told the audience part of her reason to write the book was to "set the record straight" about misconceptions she was groomed for the pageant circuit before her win as Miss America in 1983. She was asked to compete in the pageant while attending Syracuse University, and only considered entering because she needed money for upcoming travel abroad in London for college. She won the pageant as well as the next competition in New York, then ultimately, the Miss America title. "I was never a 'Little Miss' anything. I was not groomed to be a beauty queen."
The result was overwhelming. "In six months, I became a figure creating history. ... Overnight, I was a symbol. I had to deal with who I was," in ways she hadn't before, she explained. "People assumed I was from the inner city because of my color," she said of her race, which she said played a minimal role in her life until that point.
"I grew up in a bubble - a bubble of support and self-worth, to then being judged as a beauty queen, as if that was all that was important. People made so many assumptions, or thought my talent was manufactured for these (pageants)," she explained, and added, "I was only 20 years old."
Near the end of her year as Miss America, Williams said she resigned after unauthorized nude photos were published in Penthouse magazine. "They didn't care that what they were doing was illegal. They knew they were going to make money," she said, and explained her family had very little money to pay for litigation.
Despite the setback and controversy, Williams went on to a successful career as an actress on-screen and in theater, and as a recording artist. She has released eight studio albums which have brought her over 20 Grammy Award nominations.
When asked, Vanessa said she did not feel race played any part in the loss of her title or the surrounding controversy. "I didn't feel like there was any kind of conspiracy," she said. Race, she explained, has had little influence on her career. "I don't think there is a single role I've played that was written solely for a black woman," she said and relayed a list of characters she has played over the years. "When they called me for Desperate Housewives, the part was for a strong woman ... and they knew i could do what they wanted for that role," she stated.
Vanessa credits her ability to overcome difficulties and her lifelong success to her upbringing. "We (Vanessa and brother Chris) were expected to achieve. We were encouraged, but we were expected to do big things," she explained.
Helen said she encouraged her children but also had rules. "In our household, they had to pick an instrument in fourth grade. They had their say in the choice of the instrument, but they had to stick with it through high school. That was the rule," she said. Vanessa selected French horn, which she eventually played in the school orchestra, in addition to acting in plays, singing in chorus and taking dance lessons.
"I was very fortunate that when I said I wanted to go to school for musical theater, my parents supported me. I didn't have the kind of family that thought it was crazy. ... I know professionals - working professionals, people you would recognize - who, to this day, are still bitter because they didn't have that kind of support and encouragement growing up, and they're always trying to prove something."
At a college with strong theater and music programs, it was not surprising Helen was asked how to deal with having a child who wants to pursue musical theater in college. Helen said "You must encourage them. ... They must be confident, but they must also be prepared. But she has to understand there is a lot of rejection. She has to be strong within herself," Helen replied. "If they have that passion, they will probably do it anyway, so you might as well sit back and enjoy the ride," she mused.
Vanessa added a career in musical theater can mean many lines of work. "It might mean waiting tables. ... I did telemarketing to make ends meet between jobs," she said. There are many opportunities to act. ... You never know who you will meet on a job, or where that will take you."
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