Vanessa Williams Talks About Her Troubled Past in a New Book: 'I Try Not to Have Regrets'
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By Carrie Bell
Molestation, abortion, nude photos, a beauty pageant dethroning, death threats, an FBI file, meetings with presidents, and four children -- Vanessa Williams' eventful life reads like a whole season of "Desperate Housewives" in her first book, "You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other)." But as jam-packed and juicy as it is, the 49-year-old actress is quick to point out that this is not a "tell-all."
"It's more of a greatest hits than a complete memoir. Believe me, I kept a lot back," she teased during an interview with Wonderwall. "There could be a sequel someday. I have lived a very full life, and I'm not done yet."
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Not that "You Have No Idea," released this week from Gotham Books, reads as though Williams held anything back. She recounts the triumphs and tribulations of her life with equal, and sometimes brutal, honesty. "It's who I am and how I talk, so I wouldn't know how to write any differently. The beauty of writing your own book is that you aren't at the mercy of a writer interpreting what they thought you meant."
It also felt natural, because it's an extension of the way she has always been candid with her kids -- Melanie, 24, Jillian, 22, Devin, 19, and Sasha, 11 -- about her past in order to discuss hot-button topics. "It's very easy to talk to them. I use a lot of teachable moments. If there's an article I'm reading or something on television, I bring it up right then and there and we talk about it," she explained. "I remember one time I was cooking dinner, and on the news they were talking about how the hydroponic weed was like 10 times stronger than the stuff we were used to back in the '70s and '80s. I used that moment to say to my kids, 'I smoked pot. You might be tempted, but it can be dangerous. Let's talk about it.' My daughter was just disgusted. 'Oh my god, Mom. How could you? What did your friends think?' She was not curious at all. She had such disdain for my actions. But it was an opportunity to be honest with my kids and talk about an important issue and see if they had any questions. I try to do that with them all the time."
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She felt the timing for such a book was right, thanks to her recently revitalized small-screen career and her varied fan base, which she says includes everyone from teenage "Ugly Betty" fans, gay men and older women to celebrities like Maria Shriver, Kristin Chenoweth and Debbie Allen. (The last three even provided dust jacket blurbs.) She had long wanted to set the record straight about her more public battles, including the leaked-without-permission Penthouse photos, which led to her giving up her title as the first black Miss America, and her rocky marriage to professional basketball player Rick Fox, and to discuss how events like being molested by a girl at age 10 shaped who she is.
"I was constantly judged and underestimated. People have formed opinions about me, sometimes unfairly, my whole life. [Some] assume I must have done 'Toddlers & Tiaras'-type of things and that Miss America must have been the pinnacle of a lifelong dream. But I did it for the scholarship money. I was not a sheltered beauty queen whose life was changed overnight because she became a symbol of the country. It felt important to go through my career and get my thoughts out there."
But as she started to write, something was missing. "Every time I set down to write a recollection, I would consult my mother [Helen Williams]. I didn't remember a lot of stuff, because I was on the road. And when anything happens in my life, my friends always ask, 'Oh my God, what did Helen say about it? What does your mom think?' She's a strong force in my life."
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The book morphed into a tag team project with alternating chapters, where mother and daughter often detail the same events from opposing points of view. "It is more compelling and interesting to tell it this way. I wanted to show my mother's parallel life. [People] had no idea what we were going through behind the scenes or what my mother was shielding me from. There's an FBI file of people who want to kill me because I was black and made history. But she also had no idea what I was going through alone in order to avoid disappointing my parents another time. There were more 'I had no idea' moments for her than for me, but this brought us even closer."
Her mom was just as frank as she was, even when discussing how much of a pain Williams was as a teen. "She doesn't hold back, but it's fair. As strong as my mother was, I was just as strong and stubborn. If she pushed, I pushed back. I'm very fortunate that my kids did not give it to me the way I gave it to my parents. There were four of them, so to be paid back in kind would have probably killed me."
But as different as the two are and as much as they've butted heads over the years, Williams has always felt lucky to have her mom (and dad) in her corner and hopes that parents will see how invaluable that kind of support can be.
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"My parents told me I was talented and to go for it when I said I wanted to major in musical theater. So many people don't have that luxury. Their parents say, 'Get a real job. You're wasting your time. That's not realistic.' That kills part of their personality and their dreams. I want parents to read this and realize that with hard work, it can happen for their kids. I hope that people learn many lessons from our experiences. Most importantly, I think they can learn one of resilience, survival and fortitude."
Williams -- who recently finished a pilot for next fall, has been dabbling in the recording studio, and has a QVC anti-aging skincare line coming out in August -- didn't experience the common pangs of regret often associated with writing an autobiography. "I try not to have regrets. They aren't good for you. I did what I needed to do at the time to survive," she said. "If I went back, it'd all be different. But you can't go back. [The mistakes I made] or [having my children early] didn't take away any talent or drive. And looking back, I'm glad I got my kids out of the way so I'm not 49 and panicking because I'm not in a relationship and have never been pregnant. I know in my heart that even if I had not been Miss America or graduated from college and ended up in the city, I would be in the same place I am now -- successful in show business. I just love to work and create and stay busy."
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