In 1984, Vanessa Williams gave up her Miss America title after nude photos of her surfaced in a Penthouse Magazine spread. The full story behind the scandal is now set to be told in an upcoming limited TV series.
“This project is incredibly personal to me,” Williams told Deadline. “There are so many inaccurate and untrue accounts of the events surrounding this period in my life, and as a mother, and as a Black woman, it is important to me that my truth be told.
“This is not just a story about racy photos, said the Grammy nominated singer and three-time Emmy nominee who made history in 1983 as the first Black woman to be crowned Miss America. It is about misogyny and racism and I want to shine a light on that for future generations.”
Williams who was subject to death threats after the incident has previously recalled that some of her harshest critics were “my own people.”
Williams posed for the pictures while working as a photographer’s assistant after being told that the photos were merely silhouettes in which she would be unidentifiable and that the pics would never see the light of day. But when she was crowned Miss America, Penthouse made the photographer an offer he couldn’t refuse for the pics.
Playboy has turned the pictures down citing the decision to publish them as “improper” given that Williams had not consented to their publication and they did not want to harm her career,” adding, “The photos that ran, we would not have run. We’re too conservative. We just don’t do the two-ladies-together thing.”
The pics surfaced ten months into her rein and on July 23, 1984, Williams gave up her Miss America title after she was asked to do so by directors of the pageant.
“We have today asked Miss Williams to relinquish her crown and the title of Miss America 1984,” a press statement said. “We will give her 72 hours to give that request consideration.”
“I am a fighter,” Williams, 21, told reporters at a subsequent news conference. “The potential harm to the pageant and the deep division that a fight may cause has convinced me that I must relinquish my title as Miss America.”
“It is one thing to face up to a mistake that one makes in youth,” she continued, “but it is almost totally devastating to have to share it with the American public and the world at large.”
In 2015, 32 years after the scandal, Williams received a formal and very public apology from the Miss America pageant.
“Though none of us currently in the organization were involved then, on behalf of today’s organization, I want to apologize to you and to your mother, Miss Helen Williams,” pageant CEO Sam Haskell told 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 always will be.”
Producers say the limited TV series will highlight how Williams—faced with such adversity— was able to overcome the scandal and become an award-winning actor and singer in one of entertainment industry’s most remarkable comeback stories.
“Vanessa Williams is an extraordinary artist, and a great inspiration for women and girls to dream their own dreams … and live them,” said Kathy Ireland, one of the co-producers. “Vanessa morphed from a vulnerable, genius young talent to become one of the world’s most beloved pop culture icons and successful multi-hyphenates in acting, music, dance, and production. Vanessa brings courage to Broadway stages, films, recordings and television in her endless fight against bigotry of all sorts. Vanessa is bold, brave and brilliant.”
No word as yet on a timeline for the series.