The beautiful and multi-talented Vanessa Williams (pictured center) was stripped of her title of “Miss America” 29 years ago today because nude photos of the famed actress were published in “Penthouse Magazine.”
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The scandal rocked the pristine and, at least up until then, blemish-free Miss America organization. Williams, who was the first Black woman ever to be crowned, fell from grace soon after.
The genesis of the photos dated back to 1982, when she worked as an assistant and makeup artist for New York photographer Tom Chiapel. According to People Magazine, Williams posed nude with another woman in what was viewed as very provocative positions. The magazine also reports that she posed nude for photographer Gregg Whitman. even though Williams reportedly did not feel as comfortable with Whitman’s photos as she did with Chiapel’s. After several attempts, she convinced Whitman to hand over the negatives — or so she thought.
Time passed and Williams won the Miss Greater Syracuse competition, a preliminary round of the Miss America contest. She went on to win the Miss New York title and, on Sept. 17, 1983, she was crowned Miss America.
But, almost eight months later, she received a message that would rock her world.
On Friday, July 13, 1984, Williams got an anonymous phone call saying that nude photos of herself would appear in Penthouse Magazine.
“From that moment until the story broke was the worst week of my life,” she told People. “I had to keep smiling on the outside, but I was dying on the inside. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I had no idea what was out there. I assumed that the pictures would be Whitman’s. I never dreamed that Chiapel would betray me. Wrong again.”
Playboy’s Hugh Hefner was approached by the pusher of the photos but passed on them because he did not want to disgrace Williams publicly. However when Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse, was offered the opportunity to publish the photos, he jumped at the chance.
He paid Chiapel for the rights to the film without Williams’ consent, and in September 1984, they were published for the entire world to see.
WATCH Miss America 1984 Crowning Of Vanessa Williams
Penthouse sold a record 6 million copies, making Guccione a $14 million windfall at the newsstands, and Williams’ world crumbled before her eyes. She was painted as wanton, an oversexed Black woman, a sexual deviant, and someone who had disgraced her race.
Williams saw no other choice but to bow out of Miss America. On Monday, July 23, 1984, she announced at a news conference that she would give up her crown, “The potential harm to the pageant, and the deep division that a bitter fight may cause, has convinced me that I must relinquish my title,” she said.
Albert Marks, the pageant executive director at the time, told the media that Williams had “fulfilled all of the duties and responsibilities of her position in exemplary fashion.”
Next in line to receive the crown from Williams was Suzette Charles (pictured below), another Black woman who was the first runner-up in the pageant.
When Charles, who was in attendance at the conference, was asked to say a few words, she said the following:
“I’m excited. It’s unfortunate it had to be under these circumstances.” Then the next-in-line contestant punctuated her comments by stating, “We will move on and we will try to uplift the image of Miss America.”
Uplift the image?
Williams reportedly filed a $500 million lawsuit against Chiapel and Guccione but it was dropped a year later.
Even though “Vanessa the Undresser” as she was nicknamed back then, gave up her duties as the reigning Miss America of 1984, pageant officials did allow her to keep her bejeweled crown and the monies that she won.
And while Charles took over for Williams as American’s top beauty queen, there was truly only one Miss America 1984 and that title will forever be held in our eyes by Miss Vanessa Williams.