The point of shaming someone partly is to make them understand why they're being shamed, which is part of why people hate cats so much, because you can't discipline them at all.
Welcome to You're Wrong about where we learn about the life history of that lady who you saw in commercials in the 90s and who always thought she was a nice lady, but the adults acted like she had a complicated back story for some reason.
The nice save the best for last lady.
Well, I know that's your memory of her, but I remember Vanessa Williams from a bunch of RadioShack ads that she did.
I am Michael Hobbs.
I'm Sarah Marshall. And if you want to support the show, we're on Patreon at Patrón Dotcom. You're wrong about and you can find Sarah on why our dads and you can find me on maintenance phase.
And today we are talking about Vanessa Williams again with a special guest, Cassie DaCosta.
Hello. Hi, Cassie. Hi, Cassie.
Cassie is a reporter for Vanity Fair and she also did a excellent podcast episode of one of our favorite shows. You must remember this about the rise and fall and rise again of Vanessa Williams. So we thought that we would have her on to tell us the rest of the story. Yes, that's right.
So, Cassie, last time we talked about sort of the initial rise of Vanessa Williams and how she grew up and how she won the Miss America pageant, but could you just sort of bring us up to speed on where she is when we're picking up her story in this episode?
Yeah. So Vanessa Williams, she grew up in kind of small town white suburban New York. She you know, she always had a love of music and of musical theater, her family's musical, her parents, her music teachers, you know, about what musicals she liked or like what kind of like the kind of performer that she did want to be.
I know that she talked a lot about when she finally got to work with Sondheim. That was a huge influence for her. And I think probably most people, both with that classical music training background and a love of musical theater, that would be who you would look up to.
She went to college sort of in the midst of a very independent, rebellious phase from particularly the way that her mother had shaped her understanding of things she needed to be.
While she was on a summer break from college, she interned for a man named Tom Chappell and he convinced her to take nude photos.
She also took photos with a different photographer who kind of scattered her off the street, the first experience with Tom Chappell, who she was working for, and basically his model registry, which she called an agency, but basically he just making money off of models.
He he was a became a friend to her. She said that she met his wife and children and would have dinner at his house. And so she trusted this person. She didn't see it as someone who was preying on her. And her mother later said, you know, you're like your dad.
You know, you really just trust people.
Also, I feel like if I'm going to let anyone take nude photos of me, it's someone who's a wife and family. I have spent time with it. Yes. Use me as a real human being.
Yeah, exactly. And who says that he's not going to publish them, too? I feel like there's a weird thing where she ends up getting sort of blamed for taking these photos of like, well, she should have known or whatever.
It's actually OK to trust people and to think that, like, well, this guy says he's not going to publish them and you can't see my face anyway. So, like, I'm not going to really be all that paranoid about it.
No, it's actually not, Mike, because women aren't supposed to trust anyone ever actually supposed to, like, dash across parking lots because they're full of serial killers all the time.
And that's exactly what I was thinking when I was researching this again, which is whenever whether it's murder or just being taken advantage of in some way, we have this way of saying, oh, we have to be so protective of ourselves and if we're not protective of ourselves and this is going to happen to us.
But, you know, Vanessa Williams was she was doing maybe not what her mother wanted her to do, but, you know, becoming herself.
Yeah. She was exploring and forming connections with people. And, you know, the trust exists that her dad embodied as a child help them.
But at the same time, you know, she took a risk in her life that I actually think really informed who she was. And I think maybe perhaps gave her some of the strength, the knowledge to eventually pursue a huge career in music and an industry that can be extremely cutthroat towards women.
But there's also an interesting thing to wear when you inject fame into these situations, it completely changes the dynamics between people, because when Tom Chappell took those photos not to defend the guy, but it's like she's just a random 19 year old at that point, as Cyndi Lauper said, make money changes everything that he might have actually meant.
Every single thing that he said at the time, like, I'm never going to publish these because they're worthless or they could have been worth a few hundred dollars to like so we or something.
But he's like, I love you more than a few hundred dollars, but. Right. Who loves anyone more than certain life changing amounts of money when you got down to it.
But it's just like it's you're injecting these massive financial incentives into what? Was just like a pretty casual, random afternoon activity that they had done. Don't do that. You don't create a weird market photos to us.
And we should also mention that at the time that she becomes Miss America, she's dating this dude, Bruce. Right. Right, Frou-Frou.
Hot, hot, hot mustache. Oh, hot Bruce.
She's kind of been trying to get rid of and move on from in a way. But is he too hot to get rid of or what? It seems like, you know, and I think this is a kind of a common theme.
You know, you have a young relationship and you think that's it. And then things happen to you and you grow up and it stops being the end all for you, even though I think she always had that ambition. So it wasn't necessarily going to be like she was just going to marry Bruce and kind of just have kids and live her life.
Yeah, lots of and lots of relationships are meant to be short, which like we never see reflected in teen movies.
I mean, there was something interesting reading her memoir when she meets this guy Bruce, who, you know, like walks up to her and kisses her on New Year's Eve party, which is like not a great move.
And he's older than her. And it seems like they get way too into each other way too fast.
And I was like, oh, no, like this guy, like so many other men in her life, is going to turn out to be this exploitative asshole.
But Bruce struck me as like an OK, dude, are we are you putting a big, like, pageant sash around him and says, OK, yeah, by the standard of these stories, I'll take it.
I do wonder I mean, one thing is I keep thinking about, yeah, this is a book that Venus Williams wrote with her mother. And I think that she's very candid, though.
I also, you know, I catch wind that in a lot of these young relationships, she kind of got swept into them.
There's always something that's left out which is like, OK, how did you guys really get together or what? What gets you to date this guy? It seems like it's always just like, oh, this guy paid a lot of attention to me and I saw a relationship between that at least. And, you know, the Tom Chappell relationship, which is that she's a beautiful woman. She has a lot of talent and all she has to do is receive.
So I think with the Miss America, the events around Miss America were kind of the first time in her life where simply receiving was not going to be enough. She had to counteract something and she had to be she had to say no or this is like her first maybe her first Game of Thrones.
Yeah. Also, one thing I found palpable from her memoir is it doesn't seem like she thought all that much about what it would be like to be the first black Miss America. Like one of the things that came up in some of the old clips that I saw were that the night that she wins, Ronald Reagan calls her and he had never done that for another winner of Miss America.
He didn't call Barbara Leave and Voorhies, Miss Frasca name. I totally made it up right now.
I just don't think anybody expected this to be such a big deal. And for her to be so famous overnight.
Yeah, I mean, and I think that there's a lot of important context around why she was so surprised.
She she kind of how she was brought up in a little bit of a naive way. And I think that part of that is because of her phenotype, is because she's very light skinned, the blue eyed black woman who outside of the U.S., a lot of people might not readers black.
Of course, she had these incredibly racist experiences in school growing up, but there was less of having to be constantly daily aware, have this unavoidably around her race in the same way if she was very dark skinned.
And that in a way that's great because it allowed her to feel freer in her body and to kind of do things with a certain kind of confidence without feeling weighed down by the sort of historical importance of it.
But, yeah, she's she's really surprised by how much people care about this.
If she had known beforehand, she might have thought, hmm, maybe I might have some skeletons in my closet here that I don't want to come out here.
Some cute little skeletons that skeletons, skeletons, silhouette, probably skeletons that are skeletons in the eighties.
You know, that wouldn't be now necessarily. Yeah.
I mean, like, how many people don't have nudes of themselves? Like, seriously. Oh my God. I mean. Oh my God.
But I also wonder if life was this controversial within the pageant world. Like what was this like?
Well, there were quite a few mixed race or black contestants that year, actually.
So there was more of, let's say, an exploration of of, OK, we're going to have these black contestants and maybe one could win.
You know, they do it with every kind of reality show. And I think of the Miss America pageant as a reality show.
Yeah, I guess it's our first reality show. Yeah. Yeah. Were they suffering at all as an organization?
Like, was there a sense of them needing better ratings or were they comfortable with with things? I mean, I assume you worked there in the early eighties.
So we assume you were in charge of the pageant when all of this happened. The. Why we brought you on? Yeah, I represent the corporate wing of the Miss America or A..
Well, I think it's only actually very recent that the Miss America pageant has become less of a thing. Yeah, I think one thing that I realize is that this was like concurrent with so many different black women becoming stars at that time.
So you also had, like Tina Turner's come back germinating in the 80s and, you know, oh, my God, a middle aged black woman could be like the biggest rock n roll star in the country and in the world.
And so there was just more of the sense of possibility around black women being kind of representative of American talent and also of these kind of corporate entities taking advantage of that and saying, we want a piece of this and we want to be relevant.
And also, like any black person who didn't focus on race at the time, would have been really marketable. So someone who, like Vanessa Williams, would like Tina Turner, who wasn't bringing up their race a lot.
They would have been especially like assets as assets to an organization like the Miss America organization.
So what was the media reaction to Vanessa Williams winning Miss America?
Well, on one side, you have, you know, this huge celebration of her by, you know, black media like Essence.
And then also you have a lot of white columnists who are questioning whether, oh, it was just affirmative action.
Does she really deserve that? Is she really a pageant queen?
It's so funny because I feel like people talk about this role as if she has, like, powers, right? She's not this is not a political role. Right.
Does she have what power did she have in this position?
I know she's going to implement her agenda. Unfortunately, all the policies she wants passed.
It's the Green New Deal. She has the power to put that in place now.
Yeah, it's a lot of you know, no one was questioning these decisions, this granularity before a black woman one.
And I think also when it kind of came out that she wasn't a pageant queen who had been competing her whole life.
She was just she was a Syracuse student who loved musical theater. Right. People were like, oh, that's not fair. She didn't want it enough. Exactly.
It's a little bit like when Nadia, the first Muslim contestant, won the Great British Bake Off and all of a sudden people came out of the woodwork and they're like, isn't it pretty arbitrary to just judge these people's dishes based on nothing?
And it's like, oh, this has been the whole show.
The Great British Bake Off is only relevant to my life when I'm upset about who's winning is exactly.
This reminds me of a very weird art song, my song called Sweet Movie, which is like very weird, very gross. But it opens with a spectacular sequence where women from around the world are being judged in a beauty contest. And it's just like you get on a table and a doctor looks at your vagina and then the most beautiful vagina wins. And that makes more sense than this.
At least it's honest because they're easier to compare to each other. They don't have to do a talent, you know.
Anyway, I also thought it was interesting that alongside the sort of conservative reaction to Vanessa winning, there's also like the liberal reaction to Vanessa winning, which was more like, see, racism doesn't exist.
Yeah, it's the Obama reaction. You know, the world is fixed and this person is a perfect representative of all of us.
All black people in this country and the world was fixed under Reagan, no less.
It was convenient for also the Reagan administration. You know, he called her because in Reagan's America, a black woman becomes Miss America for the first time. Liberals have to shut up and get on board with him. Right. So. Right. And kind of allow them to form this kind of, quote unquote, bipartisanship of, OK, we're moving in the right direction culturally in some way right now.
So it's like she's a political superconductor. Yeah. And it's it's easier because she is representative of something that is so trivial to us.
But it's such a symbol. Right. It's something that the US as an entity can grab onto as a thing.
Miss America, who do we choose and what woman represents us?
So much can happen in that imaginative space, even if you know materially it means very little.
There's also something so interesting, because I remember this during the Obama years that like Rush Limbaugh and other super right wing radio hosts, when something like Trayvon Martin happens, they say, well, I don't understand why liberals are complaining about racism in America. We have a black president. I thought you guys said that racism was over. Yeah, they also use these symbols to throw it in your face when you talk about broader systemic issues that actually aren't addressed by having a black Miss America.
No, she's solving it. She's the economy czar. She's going. Over the new welfare numbers, like, yeah, is crankin, and that's another thing that I think is so important to bring up about Vanessa Williams, is that even if you're looking at her like as a progressive symbol or something, she herself she grew up in, you know, a middle class family.
She grew up around a lot of white people. She had a series of opportunities in her life that were not typical. If you're looking at the, you know, the average black person in America, we're not that wasn't typical for them. So she wasn't exactly like representing the core of the black population in the U.S. if you're going to kind of sum it up in that way.
She she was very much Causby, family, Hillman, grad level of respectability.
And so that's also convenient in a different way because it means that you're representative. They're not bringing forth any of the ugly underbelly of what it means to be to experience racism in the country, because part of being a part of that respectable group. And Margo Jefferson writes about this in her book negroland. She talks about growing up in this kind of wealthier black family where respectability and appearance is shaped.
Everything you look down on people who didn't fit in to your version of blackness. So it's something that's kind of unspoken around Vanessa Williams is when is that in particular, it was a win for this idea that if you presented the right vision of blackness, if you presented a respectable vision of blackness that had the power to change the perception of who black people were.
And this is a this is an idea that people across the socio economic spectrum might have had.
Black people might have had to to fix the representation of black people. We need to put the respectable black person forward, the middle class, the upper middle class black person who's gone to college, who speaks well, who does X, Y, Z, who hasn't had a sordid past. And so that's what had been kind of created around her on every side.
Right. And who can exude beauty without sexuality, which seems like one of the key Mesoamerica things.
Yeah. That mix of kind of beauty versus sexuality.
I mean, on one hand, yes, you're supposed to do it without sexuality, but that sexuality or sexuality is supposed to be the undertone. Right. Just enough for men to choose you.
Just enough for people to want to listen to what you have to say. But not threatening, not intimidating, not too confident, almost like you're not aware of it.
And obviously, Vanessa Williams was aware of her sexual sensual power at that point. She was very good at coming off like she wasn't right, like playing the role of someone who didn't have that knowledge.
You can kind of see with Miss America whether trying to shape is this national representative who is essentially kind of an empty vessel. The whole point is to evacuate yourself and make yourself usable for this organization.
I mean, you look at who Vanessa Williams was as a as a young woman, as a child, that wasn't necessarily going to happen. She can perform it. She had this incredible acting ability and poise.
But you could see something was grating at her. She was just trying to get through that year of pain, injury and then live. The rest of her life is there.
So it seems like being first lady, like, I guess you're supposed to be a space for people to project onto.
The funny thing about when she wins Miss America, usually Miss America winners, they go on their tours, they make their appearances, that kind of provincial American events and parade the festival of because she was the first and everyone was really keenly aware of this, it was something that even people who don't watch pageants understood the historical weight of.
She really had to be everywhere. She felt this obligation to show up at everything that she was asked to be out there is this incredible gratefulness that black people who would approach her that just went beyond like, oh, this is Miss America, that's so cool.
It was like, this is a black woman who these judges have chosen as a representative of America. This has never happened before. And we didn't think this would happen. So she really puts in the work. She does her duty, she shows up, even though it's kind of the last thing she wanted to be doing at that point.
Yeah, it sounds like an absolutely grueling schedule because you're basically just like showing up to stuff. She's not necessarily like singing at. These things are doing performances. A lot of it is just like being at places and talking to people. Yeah, exactly. It's not like it's not her.
What she imagined when she was doing musical theater in college and in high school, like what she thought you'd be doing as an adult. It's not performance in that way, and now she has to kind of basically cash in and do her duties as a pageant winner, which involves spending a year, 12 months basically touring the country and accepting appearances at various events like parades and local festivals.
They're pretty local things where you kind of you miss America to show up.
Yeah. And also, it's one of those things where if you show up at one of these signings and it goes totally normal, you make charming small talk with people. You sign photos for four hours, nobody notices you.
Right. Like there's no headline. Whereas if you have, like, one awkward conversation or you're snippy with somebody or it goes wrong in some way, then it's news.
So it's like Vanessa has like an entire year of having these very high stakes but like very superficial interactions with people. And just as an introvert, it just sounds like a nightmare to me. Yeah.
And that's how America works, right? We don't know who any of these women are who've won unless they watch that year.
And it's very possible, very likely Vanessa Williams would have become famous anyway because she's exceptional person.
But it's also possible that if this nothing had happened to kind of put her into the spotlight, people might have not been watching her career as closely.
So it's an interesting thing because, you know, that was a controversial thing where in the aftermath, people who criticized Vanessa Williams, Suzette Charles, for one, saying if this scandal never had happened, she wouldn't have such a huge career and the scandal made her career. And that's incredibly reductive. But there is something to be said for when you're supposed to be invisible, when you're supposed to be usable and you're supposed to be a corporate entity. What happens when you deny that corporate entity, the ability to use you?
It's it was tragic for her for what it meant, the aftermath and the consequences. But it also meant that she could break free from this association.
So, yeah, Cassie, walk us through the sort of downfall, like how do these photos finally come out? Yeah.
So in July of 1984, when Vanessa was 10 months into her reign as Miss America, two months away from being finished and on with the rest of her life, news of a series of nude photos was leaked to the press.
Vanessa Williams finds out about this.
She's horrified because it's so big and also because she, as we know, she has other secrets from her life and from her past. And so I kind of think of this as a moment where it's the first time she really has to deal with something coming out that she doesn't have control of and what her parents are going to experience.
And her mother takes this incredibly hard because this is a woman who has grown up in an even more racist America than her daughter has grown up in.
And she knows what can happen. And she fears for her daughter and she also fears for the perception of her as a mother. She has that kind of belief in respectability and hard work and how you present yourself to the world.
And I think a part of it is that she really believes in it because it's worked for her, it's worked for her and her life.
But she also sees it as a form of self-protection.
And that's really what she's trying to impart to her daughter. Protect yourself.
Don't put yourself in a position that you don't need to be in. It's less about Helen's anger at Vanessa for doing it.
It's about, oh, why did you do this?
Feels like journalists and ikarus. It's like, no, your wings are melting. Yeah. And and it just really personally affects her. I think everything maybe that she had feared in her own life was suddenly happening.
And so in the wake of that news leaking, the Miss America organization decides to give Vanessa Williams 72 hours to resign. Get this.
I thought this was so weird. They give her seventy. They're like, you must resign within 72 hours, but they don't say or else what?
And after that, we will start killing one person. And God damn it, no, you do not turn yourself in as the bad man.
I think it's really emblematic of how the Miss America organization, if they have a kind of veneer of importance and power, but they really don't know what they're doing necessarily.
It's a group of like PR people hired in the corporate world.
And I think the idea was that, you know, they didn't want to seem like they were abandoning her otherwise, then, yes, they they might have to denounce her publicly. But first, it would just be easier if she steps down and accepts culpability and shame and assumes she you know, a lot of people were sending her different kinds of messages like, no, you better stand up to these people and you don't owe them anything and you should fight.
And her parents also didn't want her to give up her crown, but she decides that she is going to resign.
She was twenty. I'm. I'm thinking about when I was 20 years old and if something this crazy happened to me, I would definitely just want to like want it to go away and to just leave with situation dealing with all of that conflict. And I'm going to keep my crown. What is that worth to you? And this wasn't your dream your whole life anyway. Yeah.
There's also the second set of photos out there, too. Yeah. There were those other photos. And there's also, you know, these photos were first offered to Hugh Hefner at Playboy.
His his narrative about why he turned down the photos for him.
It's twofold. It's that he didn't want to do this kind of sexualized Sapphic display when, you know, it was to him a question of taste.
And then it was also if Vanessa Williams hasn't said, I'm releasing these photos, he didn't want Playboy to be involved in a scandal because it was really for Hugh Hefner, there's a fight for legitimacy for this magazine to be seen as legitimate and for the work that goes into the magazine to be awarded. So if he's seen as somebody who's just going to find illicit photos of various famous women and publish them, why would anyone want to give him access there?
No real standard. That penthouse, in fact, in the same in the centerfold of the same issue in which Vanessa Williams is photos are published.
There's photos of a minor named Traci Lords, which is a parable on the importance of editorial standards and having everyone social.
He also I mean, he set up Penthouse explicitly as a response to Playboy being too prudish. He saw how much money Playboy was making. And he's like, they don't even show girl on girl action. I'm going to start a dirtier magazine.
They don't show girl on any one action. It's really interesting. It's like Hugh Hefner is a simple man. He just wants a world where women are constantly naked, constantly horny and kind of looking at him from a distance.
Yeah. And that's another huge aspect of, you know, the shame for Vanessa Williams was that she said to people, you know, I'm going to make sure, you know, I'm not a lesbian and I'm not a slut. And somehow I'm going to make people, believe me, that was her kind of rallying cry after this.
And the reason why she didn't she she prepared a 500 million dollar lawsuit against Penthouse and Bob Jaconi, but she didn't go forward with it.
She dropped it and later told Oprah several years later that she wanted to be able to remake her image without these events defining her. She felt that pursuing him on these charges would distract from her career and that the best revenge would be to be successful.
You mentioned this on the podcast episode, right?
Was this the Oprah interview where she talked about being afraid that, like the lawyers or whoever, we're going to ask her if she'd ever had sexual experiences with a woman and she would have to talk about the molestation. Yes.
So I think it's important to contextualize the level of vitriol coming at Vanessa Williams was so extreme, she was treated horrifically from pretty much all sides.
There were definitely people who defended her. But even amongst black people who are following this at the time, there is a lot of shame projected onto her.
And you failed us. And those were the messages that hurt her the most when she got hate mail from black people. Also, the fear around someone, somehow the news about her molestation coming out, because logically, you would think, OK, she didn't tell anybody. And why would the person who committed this act kill anybody? Right.
But maybe journalists were sleuthing around, trying to figure out about their her life. And so there was just it wasn't paranoia, but like a rational concern for her own life and her own privacy.
And she would never want anything like that to come out with her without her own control, her own ability to tell her story and to at least tell her parents first. The lesbian thing could have been a reaction to that.
But it also was a reaction to the time and how if you were a woman and you were sexual, the only thing that you could be that was worth with a lesbian. Right.
Because lesbians are just straight up murderers, according to mainstream American media at the time.
I feel like I mean, one thing that really stuck out to me from the reading that I did on this chapter of the story was the sort of the need to make her at fault.
Somehow, one of the former Miss Americas was like one of the main critics of Vanessa Williams.
And she would show up on Nightline and stuff and she would say these things are like, well, you know, if this is how she wants to start her career and if this is how she wants to be famous, I guess she can do that. But I think it's wrong. And it's like, do you realize that this was all done without her knowledge or consent? Like this is someone else who sold the photos. This is someone else who's publishing the photos with, like, pretty dodgy signed release.
Everyone wanted to give her agency over this whole process as if she went to the penthouse offices one day and was like, hello there. I would like to pose for you. Yeah, it's like that. Just. Actually is not what went on, right, and it's a the conspiracy theory language that easily shoots into the mainstream.
Of course, she had to get to know these were going to come out. And, of course, she planned it like this. And we couldn't even see it today all the time.
When there's like a sex tape, it's like the first thought is that that was released on purpose. That becomes the main operative in people's mind when they think of the person.
There's also I found an abysmal William Safire column from around this time where he doesn't blame her for the photos coming out, but he does blame her for this absurd thing that before you become Miss America, you have to sign like an eligibility form, like, yes, I'm American, various, like logistical things. And one of the clauses on there is that I have not committed any acts of moral turpitude. She signs this declaration. And so because people don't want to seem like prudes and be like she's a slut for posing nude, nobody wants to say that publicly.
So what they say is, well, I just think that, you know, she shouldn't have lied on the form.
I just think it's a really shameful act that she lied.
Not to say that this is a context that's necessary for anyone else posing for nude, but for her, she felt like this is modeling, this is art.
It's not for salacious reasons. So I wouldn't see it in terms of a moral framework of whether it was right or wrong. I just did this thing that I'm not going to tell my parents about because maybe they think it's too much, but I don't think there's anything wrong with this. Yeah.
And I think there's just no space for that viewpoint. And the idea that, like, nudes would get released of you and that, you know, you could do anything other than like flagellate yourself. It's like a test to see whether you agree with the prevailing moral standard, too, I feel like. Yeah.
And that was like I mean, this was on late night shows like Joan Rivers Love talking about Vanessa Williams, Joan Rivers through every other woman under the bus because she was like, there's only room for one woman and all of comedy. And I at and I have to kill the rest of the jokes, though I thought there was something so counterfeit.
Two of one of the only people to sort of unreservedly defend Vanessa Williams was Bob Guccione, who said that he would pay for her legal fees if she sued the pageant.
But he's also the one who published photos of her without her consent.
And also, she says, the pageant. And then it becomes this bleak House type situation where she's stuck in generating more news for him, probably.
Well, that's the thing. It's like he does this thing that he knows is going to ruin her career. Right. Releasing news. He knows exactly what the outcome of that is.
And then he does this sort of playing dumb act where he's like, well, I just don't know why the pageant would do that. And isn't the real villain here, the pageant. And and it's like, you know, the world that we live in. Right? Like, I can't just plant coke in, like, my next door neighbor's house and then call the cops and be like, the real issue here is the war on drugs.
It's like, you know, what's going to happen to somebody if nudes come out, right?
Yeah, it was it was a publicity stunt for him. And like, that's how his career started. That's how it started. It's like he sent inappropriate photos to a bunch of nuns and priests because he used to be in seminary and he sent it to the wrong list of people. And then it became a huge story and you could start Penhallow. And I think he had a taste for scandal.
And oops, I didn't know that this was going to cause this uproar.
Yeah. Oh, wow. I made fourteen million dollars. And I think Vanessa Williams was smarter than that. She knew this man.
I think by that point her naivete had worn off him and why. And she was like, OK, this man is trying to make his money and I need to go out and even make mine. I even make my name for myself.
There was also something weird in that it seemed also at the time, like the feminist movement at the time, couldn't really defend Vanessa Williams because at the time they were campaigning to ban porn. If they sort of defended her and said, no, it's OK for her to pose for nudes, they couldn't really do that because then in some way they're defending the decision of a woman to pose naked.
What about the women who posed for Leonard Nimoy? What about that?
I mean, I know I'm realizing that this is why the 90s were so weird, because I guess I remember like becoming conscious of culture in this moment of like, yeah, women can do anything.
We can pose nude and we can be rocket scientists. Why not do it all? Do it now.
And I was like, I don't necessarily want to pose nude while being a rocket scientist, but realizing that you weren't allowed to do either thing in the previous decade, it suddenly makes sense.
One thing that's interesting, too, about the feminist movement position around this is it's like here is like an example of why the position they had taken at the time was very short sighted and just wrong.
And rather than thinking, she chose to pose for these photos.
But the circumstances under which they've been released to the public are shady and clearly used to kind of malign her career. And actually, that's what we should be standing for, is like agency autonomy when you make a choice. To not have it used against you in a malicious way, you know, like what they would call it revenge porn now. Yeah, at this time that movement was not equipped to even respond.
Yeah. People just couldn't wrap their heads around how any of this happened and why. And so it was just easier to blame Vanessa Williams and think she's either manipulative or she's crazy or she's just a slut.
And it feels like it's like, you know, don't change society, change your behaviors and expectations story again, which is like it's never have a naked photo taken of you ever under any context. And then you'll be fine. And it's like. Right, which I think was a more tenable position when it wasn't so easy to take photos of everyone and everything.
I also think that there's a thing I think that America is very prudish, especially in its institutions, but also a lot of people aren't even with all of this like toxicity in the media.
I think a lot of Americans really did look at this and they were like, it's not that big of a deal.
Yeah, the problem with people who look at a major media event and think, who cares is that, like they're not going to turn that into a contribution to the conversation. And they when you couldn't just go tweet like, who cares? Does anyone care? The whole category of tweet now. And it's a lot at the time. Yeah.
So what was happening with her and Bruce at this point? Yeah. So she already had a period of kind of thinking, oh, you know, Bruce and I aren't going to stay together.
And so I think this whole thing becomes the excuse for that relationship to end.
And I think it also because it places her in this position of I'm now a single woman who's image who's been defamed. Essentially, I kind of see it as like almost like a Phoenix rising moment for her. She's a dramatic person. She loves musical theater.
So I think she's kind of thinking of this is OK, my life is totally fucked, but here's my opportunity.
You know, everything my parents have, right. I'm going to go for it and I'm going to become a Broadway star. And I think that necessitated not dating Bruce, not being with Bruce, not continuing on with this kind of with his fantasy of their life together.
And also, she's 20 now and they've spent the last year when she was Miss America, basically a part all the time. So much of this is just like the way that you drift apart from people over the course of a long distance relationship, especially at that age. Yeah.
And when something extreme happens to you in life, you have to be almost you take stock of everything and you're like, OK, this is how I want to live.
Yeah. And I think for her she realized I have to become myself now, so.
Yeah. Kathy, how does the Phoenix rising stuff happen. Yeah.
So what important experience that happens to her?
The wife of the late IRA Gershwin, Leonore Gershwin, she was casting for the play My One and Only, and she wouldn't see Vanessa Williams because, you know, she called her a whore, basically saying, you know, I don't want to have anything to do with this woman.
Jesus. And this was in the mid 80s. So in the direct aftermath, she wasn't necessarily going to be able to have a career in Broadway.
Must be so weird to be like randomly insulted by the widow of, like a legendary talent who you might have never imagined your life intersecting with. It was the crushing moment for her.
And I think she kind of had to regroup and figure out where do I go from here? And luckily, you know, her instrument is her voice. She's she's a great singer.
And the music industry is a bit more accepting of scandal and more accepting of black sensuality, even though that's not the image she's planning to project.
So she begins going out and kind of auditioning herself for a music career, basically getting in touch with producers and record companies.
And by 1988, she has her first album, The Right Stuff, and it ends up being a huge hit, gets her three Grammy nominations, including one for Best New Artist.
This is a pretty short time span from that 1984. Yeah, Penhallow issue. People are I think this is the time when people are kind of they're loving women, kind of vocal stars. And again, you know, I mentioned Tina Turner, a redemption narrative where the when when the album came out and there were some hits and there were some great songs and wow, this woman can really sing.
People were ready to receive it.
So I feels like that empowers the audience in a way that works, you know, where they're like. Yes. Like you are trying to succeed again and you're an underdog. And I am part of it.
And like I mean, the funny thing is my sister Vanessa is named after Vanessa Williams. Oh, yeah.
And I asked my mom, like, did you ever think about this scandal and all this kind of stuff?
And she you know, for her, it was not important. At the time, my mom, Zambian, and she was living in the UK with my dad, so, you know, they're not American, she had a kind of global importance to people and image.
So I think that, you know, her global fame helped her a lot as well, because she was so beloved around the world and people truly didn't care outside of America.
I mean, one of the stories that really stuck out to me from her memoir was in this period, sort of before she starts to make it as a singer, she gets contacted by Robert De Niro, who's like, hey, I'm working on a musical.
Why don't you come, like, have a meeting about it? I think you'd be perfect for this role. And then she goes over to his house. He has a meeting at like eight or 10 p.m. or something. And then as soon as they start talking about it, it's really obvious that there is no musical. And he only did that as a ploy to get her over to his house. Yeah. At one point she's getting calls from Jack Nicholson as well, like a lot.
And to me, that was like such a such a glimpse of like what it is like to have this kind of fame.
She's a famous enough to be sexually harassed by Oscar winners. Yes. You don't have to be famous for that.
It's just that less famous people do that to you. Yes, exactly. Like this is the basis of these photos existing, right. They just like random men are just like, hey, I want a piece of that. Right. And just invent imaginary jobs. Yeah, right. I just feel like it was also like so like I think people still believe this, but I feel like it was so pervasive in a mainstream way at the time that, like, if you're a woman and someone asks you to talk, if a man asks you to talk to them about anything, you should just expect for there to be consequences.
And like, that's such a horrible world to have to believe in and operate as if that's the case all the time.
Like, I feel like it's something, you know, there's like there's self-preservation. But also there's the kind of radical worldview of, like, I am not going to live my life expecting that everyone is trying to kill me or at least to fuck me all of the time. Yeah.
And I mean, we talk about the need to move men and, you know, the casting couch.
But again, like the fact that she had already had this scandal and people could make assumptions about her and why she wanted to be in the industry, she had a lot to protect herself from.
And this is my sense of when her relationship with her mother kind of gets closer, because a lot of what her mother had drilled into her when she was younger becomes useful here.
You know, you look at these album covers and it's a very clean, confident, strong image right there.
Very little sense of, you know, I'm going to be bad this time, you know, as you kind of leave that energy behind. And it's like, well, I need to put forth a strong kind of commanding image.
And that, I think really reflects kind of the position a lot of black women are put in.
In general, even if you're just speaking socially, it's like, OK, if I don't want to be in a position to be exploited, I really have to put forth this image of strength and like, I can't be fucked with total invulnerability.
The way to not make that seem harsh or to make that seem unapproachable is then to just kind of radiate talent and perfection. Right.
And you see that in Houston had to do in a lot of her career. And then you look at Beyonce and someone who's had to radiate perfection and a lot. And obviously in all of these careers, there's points where that image is kind of turned on its head or you find out things about what's going on behind the scenes and you think, oh, you know, perfection has a lot to cover up.
But really, it's because those images are created as protection against the world. Who's going to judge you harshly anyway? Right. And so I think Vanessa Williams, she was she was lucky because she's in her 20s and she already has a sense of what she has to do and and what the consequences are going to be if she doesn't find a way to fashion kind of an airtight image around herself.
And also, she knows that the slightest mistake is going to be punished for her much more than it would be for other people.
I mean, so much of this comes down to like the sort of the sense of surveillance of anything you do wrong because you're being judged by a completely different standard.
Exactly. And this is these are the lessons her parents, especially her mother, tried to impart to her so much. You know, the classic, you know, you have to do be twice as good to get half as far and for so many black women's careers, the ones who became really successful, really big.
You look like at a time like, you know, Cicely Tyson who recently passed away and how perfect they had to seem in their public lives.
I think of like someone like Dakota Johnson and like if there's a black woman who had that kind of chaotic energy who lied about her.
That kind of silliness or goofiness or organise black women in the public eye, I think have felt I can't embody that because. People are going to make assumptions that I'm dumber, there's some stereotype, no matter what it is, it's going to apply to you.
So you have to create this image infections of look at a figure like Nina Thurman, who was much more eccentric publicly, especially towards the end of her life. People saw her as this tragic figure. And this happened to Whitney Houston as well. She wasn't given the space to be like, OK, well, people have hard times in their lives and she's been through a lot.
Or maybe like the difficult genius is a trope that we're fine with when it's white men and like, less fine with when it's women and even less fine with when it's women of color.
Yes, exactly. Obviously, people understand that there are all these double standards. But I think the degree to which it would have affected somebody like Vanessa Williams in her every move and step through life, she couldn't just move through the world carefree and have her career.
And this is fun.
She also had to maintain this constant awareness that people were going to interpret things about her that she had no control over.
And all that she could do is just try to write, give that well crafted image.
It's also like not remotely inevitable that she was going to have this sort of rise from the Ashes career. I mean, there's there's a sort of sense of like, well, obviously she was so talented that, of course, she was going to have this second act of her career. But like, these kinds of things do, in fact, ruin people's careers and they are never really heard from again.
Also, it's remarkable that she wasn't destroyed psychologically. And I feel like that relates to, you know, I guess her relationship with her family and whatever strength and security she had when that came along into her life. Because I feel like these big media scandals where you guys get roasted nationally for several weeks, like if you don't go to prison, you do tend to kind of get fucked by it. And that's the kind of thing that comes like a comet into your life.
And like you, you'd better be pretty stable. Yeah. And that starts because otherwise I don't know how get through that.
There's also another thing that, like Vanessa Williams has been famous for as long as I've been alive, but like she's never really been like a tabloid famous person. She's ever been a target of the paparazzi. I don't understand why the tabloids decide to fixate on some people and not other people. Some people get out of cars. Weird.
But like, she's somehow managed to not be like that kind of celebrity somehow, which also takes a tremendous amount of discipline.
Yeah, it's interesting. I think she she also kind of got married, had kids, moved back to her hometown. So there were some things that she chose to do that made it less likely that she was going to be chased by paparazzi as long as there is no, like, obvious scandal.
Right. You could see this in her music career. She was really smart about who she chose to work with and what kind of record she chose to make. I mean, it would have been easy for her to have come out with a terrible album, even with her talent.
So what else does her career involve, aside from the commercials? I remember so fondly from my childhood, yeah.
So she has an album come out in 1994 called The Sweetest Days. She she got some more Grammy nominations. And then that same year, she replaces Chiquita Rivera in a Broadway production of Kiss of the Spider Woman.
And this is her first Broadway role. And she in 1996, she got to perform the national anthem at the Super Bowl. You have to be seen as kind of a national treasure to get to that point from there.
Her movie career, she got some some film roles that kind of put her more firmly in the public eye, particularly if you're maybe a younger millennial, you'll start to recognize, oh, that that's Vanessa Williams.
So she was in Soul Food, the 1997 film by George Tillman, kind of playing the, quote unquote, tragic mulatto character, really tough role where she's just constantly cheated on and she's the light skinned one of the blue eyes.
And so she kind of goes through a series of abuses in the film.
And that was something that's happening in a lot of black film and media at the time and actually continues to happen.
There's always that role.
For years after that, she gets her role as Wilhelmina Slater in Ugly Betty, which I think is what everyone really kind of associate her with is her kind of big career move is playing this kind of Miranda Priestly but diva to the nth degree.
And what's interesting is I think, you know, at the same time, Whitney Houston was taking on roles in film and she was really taking on these very respectable wife roles and black women who are just so wise and good. And whereas Vanessa Williams was really taking on the diva role, she saw herself from the beginning as an actress.
So she would have been it made sense that she would have been very adventurous and how she would take on roles.
But I think also she wanted to be in a position of power in the role she played.
So whether she was lovable or not lovable, she wanted to be kind of in this this grounded position where she wasn't simply a love object or something that, you know, someone that something is really happening. Two, that makes her remember that the first thing I remember seeing Whitney Houston in when I was a kid was the preacher's wife, which now as you're saying, that I'm like that seems like such a savvy career move to be like, I'm grounded.
Don't worry about it. Like I'm playing a character who isn't proud and isn't glamorous. And I just happen to have this beautiful voice and I sing in church. But it's not a big deal. Yes.
I mean, that's such an iconic role because it's so charming, right? It's like, oh, she's just a preacher's wife. She's just a humble woman. And also learned to play piano behind her at the bar. Oh, Angel. Denzel Washington is the reason I put these two careers so parallel is because even though they were coming from different positions, at least Whitney Houston was a dark skinned black woman who came from a family of, again, also a musical family, but who came from less of a respectable upbringing.
She was more like a city girl. And she she actually her life outside of being a musical star through and through is pretty rebellious, actually.
And so she had to create this image in contrast to that, to kind of offset that and to live up to an ideal of herself.
Whereas I think for Vanessa Williams, because there had been the scandal, the idea was to compartmentalize that period and then to kind of take control and to come out as this, oh, I'm not just some beauty queen or some pageant girl who took nude photos. I am, you know, a powerful woman.
I am a talented singer. I'm a businesswoman. I'm an address, you know, and the Desperate Housewives role, you know, is a way of, again, kind of taking control of the narrative and playing a character who was supposed to be very obviously kind of shameless but still in control. So I just think it's interesting the kind of career choices that black women make strategically given like the limited roles that you may be offered, but also what they mean about kind of how the public persona that you're trying to build.
What do you mean? She was able to be messy in her film roles in a way that she wasn't in her life?
Yeah, messy, but in a controlled sense. Right. Like, there's never, I think, a lot about how Angela Bassett refused the Monster's Ball role that Halle Berry took on.
Oh, yeah. If they offer that to Vanessa Williams, I'm sure she would. She turned it down because on one hand, yes, you want to take on the messy roles, but you want to come out in a position of strength, right.
When it feels like Halle Berry's role was considered Oscar worthy, partly because, like the whole world of it was miserable, like everyone. Yeah, miserable. And they're dying. And, you know, I feel as if the idea that it is possible to aspire to excellence as a black woman, like not acting out pain feels like a concept that the Oscars aren't super familiar with. Maybe. Yeah.
In a certain kind of abject, hopeless pain. Yeah, kind of how a lot of black people, particularly black people in cities, were seen by the greater public. And so a lot of actresses said, I don't want to keep putting this image back in the world, particularly when it's not even being written in a very nuanced way.
And that partly comes from respectability, but it also comes from like the truth of what the representation was. Right. A lot of it was kind of just degraded.
Should we do a little Miss America pageant epilog? Yeah, because sure. There's an interesting crossing trajectories here that things have just gotten so much rosier for Vanessa since 1984 and things have gotten just darker for the Miss America pageant since then.
Yeah, it's it's it's almost like the Miss America pageant had an old rich lady with its car I or racing.
See, one of those statistics from Margo Mifflin's book, Looking for Miss America is that at the time when Vanessa won, roughly 80000 people participated in these various national pageants at various small levels.
And now it's down to four thousand and eighty thousand people are watching every glee and the ratings have tanked and the whole institution is just far smaller and less influential than it used to be.
Which like, why is that? Because Americans continue to love all kinds of stupid, sexist media. So why is this one actually, you know, a victim to a lesser demand?
I was going to ask you guys that pass. I mean, one reason is that it's young people because you have to be very young at being college. You have to be a very, very particular kind of person who is valuing the pageant itself. Right. And so that over the years dwindles and dwindled and dwindled.
And, you know, the the pageant has had to kind of very suddenly update itself, remove the bikini competition. And it's too little, too late. And the entire foundation of the institution, I don't think is. Particularly appealing to young women right now, you know, the pageant seems almost like this kind of passive mode versus I'm going to be a Billy Eilish, I'm going to create a beloved record and wear these outfits and be exactly who I am.
That's what the thing is these days. Everyone wants to be famous. People don't necessarily want to be beauty queens.
You know, one of the big draws for a long time is that you might be on TV like maybe even for a few minutes. And now it's like you got a bigger audience on Instagram, right? You just have to make up a rumor about Jeffrey Star.
Miss America kind of made a thing out of apologizing to Vanessa Williams in 2015, where the CEO, Sam Haskell, who had been a judge during the nineteen eighty four competition, apparently didn't they didn't say to Vanessa Williams it was going to happen.
They had kind of asked her to come on. She cut a deal saying you have to let me sing.
And Sam Haskell said, you know, I have been a close friend of this beautiful and talented lady for 32 years. You've lived your life and grace and dignity and never was it more evident than during the events of 1984 when you resigned.
And he said, though none of us currently in the organization were involved.
Then, of course, 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 will always be.
And her mother was in the audience with you. No tears in her eyes. This was important to her mother.
I mean, the thing about that statement that stands out to me, it really seems to be about positioning the Miss America organization as this progressive organization that is like in the present.
Now, you know, it seemed to be really right for that, not really for Vanessa Williams and like on some level of play for ratings and to try to get some sort of spectacle to give people a reason to tune in. Yeah.
Like something happened in that one. I like the other ones. Exactly.
Did did you tear up at that, Kacey? I actually I know that I should know because it was such a bullshit moment, but I actually got really misty the first time I saw it.
I know it's good. It's good TV. Yeah. And they didn't tell her what was going to happen.
So she's genuinely surprised and they cut to her mom and her mom is like genuinely moved by this to, you know, that's good.
That's real. What's real is her mother's reaction and how much this actually means to her.
The Olympics treated Debi Thomas like garbage, but it still means a lot when they cut to her mom and the audience. That's good reality TV.
One thing that I think is really funny and kind of dark, don't you guys think part of the reason why the ratings went down is because they didn't lean in harder to the like?
Judging women on their looks contest aspect of things like part of it was that they wanted respectability. And so they started emphasizing more like the women's talent and their personalities when like I think Americans would actually tune in to a like who is hotter contest.
Oh, yeah. If it was if it was shameless and salacious, I think people would have was. Yeah.
That's like that describes a lot of MTV game shows that I watched in middle school. I think so, yeah. But I feel like the point of Miss America is that they're lying the whole time. Like that's really what they're selling is the lie that it's not about what you want it to be about.
They want to show you women in swimming suits and allow you to judge them on their appearance. But they also want to give you enough plausible deniability to not feel gross for doing that. Right. They leaned into the plausible deniability. And at a certain point, it's like I can just go and judge women on their looks elsewhere.
You can do it on a street. I don't know why they ever thought they had a monopoly on this, but like I mean, the whole like the photos coming out, you know, gets us out of the idea of like, if you want to look at women salaciously, just look at women I know Gisli. And better yet, find women who can pay a living wage to post salaciously. And then you have like potentially an ethical industry as opposed to like, let's pretend something is something else.
Let's right photos. Let's print them without people's consent. Like right when everyone is pretending that they're not what they are. This is when things get weird.
Yeah. Yes. There are reasonable arguments if you care about Miss America for getting rid of the bikini competition.
But I also, you know, yeah, I think about it in terms of women who are bodybuilders or they have to wear these Bikini Inns and kind of get spray tan and present themselves in a certain way to kind of show off their their muscular strength and, you know, their physiques that they spent time tailoring and the bikini competition, if you if you watch them, you know, wins is a woman who's like got a very toned physique, which means that barring like just like incredibly lucky genetics, you'd have to do a lot of work.
And it doesn't mean starving yourself. Yeah. Like you actually would have to eat to to have a body like that. One thing that I think, you know, the Miss America competition missed out on is making the work of it. Apparent to people, right, and I remember they used to say it was relevant because of athletics and it's like, what if you lean more toward that?
Yeah, that was always the justification they gave, was that a fit body means a right mind would just nonsense. But like, that's enough of a cover that most of the American public will be like. Yeah, that sounds about right. Exactly.
Like they could have done it in an interesting way for people.
Also, there's something interesting, too, about how sort of good looking women are not supposed to talk about how hard they work for it. Right. Like women are supposed to talk about, like I love pizza and I eat burgers all the time and I don't really do any exercise.
I'm not suffering. Don't worry about your complicity in this industry is not exactly causing me to have an eating disorder. Yeah, fine. Yeah.
To lean into the sort of the work that it takes to maintain American Beauty standards would get like pretty uncomfortable. Oh yeah.
Fast and also like I feel like if we addressed, if we can acknowledge the work of it like that would be so great because like people who dress for, you know, like Gallas or whatever or people who do beautiful makeup that's here are like you're wearing your art.
I realize I'm quoting The Devil Wears Prada, but I'm feeling it, OK? Yeah.
And like you are making yourself a work of art for the public to enjoy. And you are choosing very graciously to give people that. And like if we acknowledged the effort and the craft that goes into that, I think that we wouldn't have to diminish it or make fun of it.
The way that we also write when you obscure, like what it takes to become the image of one of these women, it's actually more harmful because people assume it's deprivation. People assume it's this horrible process. And it's it's a lot easier to get away with pressuring women to deprive themselves because you don't have to show it goes on. Right.
And also, men are allowed to talk about the difficult work in a way that women aren't like. How many stories have we had about like The Rock's daily diet? Right. And like, every time an actor loses weight for a role, we get like the men's health article with, like, his five day meal plan or whatever. But it's much more rare to actually talk about what it takes to have like the quote unquote, ideal female body.
Yeah, but also men don't talk about being miserable, which is interesting. Like, I remember when Zac Efron, they were like Zac Efron has a dad bod. And he was like, actually I was really unhealthy and dehydrated when I looked like that before and it sucked and now I'm healthy. So fuck off. Yeah.
What it takes to maintain ABS 24/7 is extreme. Like you could have the money on and be fine, but like. Yeah. Crazy.
Yeah, I love it. He was like, this is not healthy for me to get this cut all the time you guys. Yeah. Yeah.
I think it's great that it's more normalized for actors to talk about how utterly ridiculous it is to look that way. And like the only way to look like fucking Chris Evans is to like that's your job like eight hours a day. You are thinking about exercising and food and diet. And like without that amount of time and dedication, it's physically impossible. And I love that. Like, we're normalizing being like, nope, this is fake. And you can only do it for like a couple months at a time before you go literally bananas, which can we all agree?
That's like why we bother to pay people so much money and to spend so much money on these movies.
It's like we like Chris Evans to get that big so that we can all look at him and the beautiful spectacle. And then it's like, OK, Chris, eat a sandwich. I know you've done your service.
I want Chris to be sad and farting. This is this is just miserable and smelly.
OK, Mike, I hope you get your way.
And on that note, I know now that I've made it weird. Cassie, thank you so much for doing this. Thank you so much fun.
Where can people find your work if they want to experience more of you? Yeah, I'm Vanity Fair now so you can find my work in the Hollywood section of Vanity Fair. Yeah, you can listen to them. Make me over a podcast anywhere you can find podcasts. Yes.
Download Kasey's work. Listen to Kasey's episode.
Watch some Ugly Betty, hum some tunes from Kiss of the Spider Woman. And when you're done with all that, get to work cancelling Robert De Niro.