First Black Miss America Survives Beauty Queen Scandal
Vanessa Williams made headlines as well as history when she was crowned the first African-American Miss America in 1983. Fans cheered that racial barriers in beauty pageants seemed to finally be torn down. But Williams’ triumph was short lived. Unfortunately for the newly crowned Miss America, an unscrupulous photographer who had snapped photographs of the comely Williams in the nude decided to cash in on her newfound notoriety. He sold photographs he had taken of Williams while she was earning money as a photographer’s assistant to one of the leading men’s magazines of the day, Penthouse.
The July 23, 1984 issue of Penthouse, featuring a fully clothed Vanessa Williams hugging actor George Burns on the cover, screamed out the scandalous headline: “Miss America, Oh God, She’s Nude”, not only referring to Burns’ portrayal of the Creator in a John Denver movie, but also to the nude pictorial spread inside that magazine’s issue that showed America’s new Miss America in the buff. Since a scandal of this type had never confronted Miss America sponsors or officials before, they didn’t hesitate to take swift action. They demanded that Williams relinquish her crown and she made additional history by giving up her Miss America honors, along with its lucrative endorsement deals. First runner-up Suzette Charles, Miss New Jersey, became the replacement Miss America.
But Vanessa Williams wasn’t about to crawl back into obscurity. She had tasted the limelight and liked it. She managed to rebound from her beauty queen scandal to pursue a career in entertainment not only as an accomplished singer but also very busy actress. She was able to springboard her notoriety as a deposed Miss America into a very lucrative singing and acting career, winning her not only Emmy and Grammy nominations, but also a coveted Tony Award nomination.
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