Long before she flashed her manicured claws on Ugly Betty as ruthless fashion editor Wilhelmina Slater — a role that’s earned her two Emmy nominations — Vanessa Williams was snatching up Grammy nods for her gold- and platinum-certified records. Having cemented her gay icon status with star turns in such Broadway musicals as Kiss of the Spider Woman and Into the Woods, the equal rights activist and former Miss America releases her lucky 13th album, The Real Thing, on June 2. After revealing the inspiration behind her sexy blend of R&B, pop, classic jazz and Latin tunes, Williams weighs in on the gay marriage debate and Miss California controversy.
By Brandon Voss
With your busy Ugly Betty schedule, how’d you find time to record another album?
I originally wanted to make a Brazilian album, but we didn’t have a lot of time because of my shooting schedule in L.A., so we had to make the most efficient album we could with people I already knew. So I started calling my friends and getting material. Babyface, whom I’ve worked with before and known for years, wrote two songs. We started recording in L.A., worked on it in Nashville when I was shooting the Hannah Montana film last summer, and then finished up in New York after they moved Ugly Betty. So it took a couple of years to complete, but it sounds consistent and cohesive.
What does your selection of songs on The Real Thing say about your current feelings on love and relationships?
I tend to sing about love just because it’s a universal theme that everyone’s gone through — whether it’s wishing for love, longing for love, remembering love or wishing you’d never been in love in the first place. And I chose some of the songs for sentimental reasons: My dad loved Bill Withers and Sérgio Mendes — they were huge influences on me while I was growing up — so “Hello Like Before” and “The Real Thing” were definitely to pay tribute to my dad.
How has playing Wilhelmina influenced The Real Thing?
“Come On Strong” was a Lena Horne track, and those lyrics are definitely apropos for where I’m living as Wilhelmina on a weekly basis. I’m proud that Ugly Betty is a very musical show. Our producers always get some unusual music that just sounds different, especially in the end montages. That unique musical quality is another reason why people love our show.
When you accepted the Human Rights Campaign “Ally for Equality” award in 2008, you reintroduced “Colors of the Wind” as a gay equality anthem. Is there a song on the new album that may similarly resonate with your gay audience?
I’ve got a couple remixes in the works, so hopefully we can turn some of the songs into dance tracks. But it’s so hard to say what’s going to appeal to a gay audience, because gay people are individuals. One of my biggest fans was Kevyn Aucoin, a huge gay icon and masterful makeup artist we lost in 2002. He was always drawn to my ballads because they told a story, and I know that if he were alive, he would love “I Fell In,” a beautiful love song about not being in control written by Phil Galdston, who wrote “Save the Best for Last.”
The theater queen in me appreciates your rendition of “Lazy Afternoon,” originally from the 1954 Broadway musical The Golden Apple.
I did that show my sophomore year at Syracuse University. I played Mother Hare and Circe, so I didn’t sing that song, but I remember hearing it for the first time during rehearsals and just saying, “Oh, my God.” I performed it for a benefit years ago, but it’s always great to reinvent and take another stab at an arrangement. It’s a wonderful song to sing.
It also reminded me how long you’ve been absent from the Broadway stage. Now that you film Ugly Betty in New York, is it feasible for you to do another musical?
It’s not, just because I only have eight weeks off. There’s nothing I can really mount in that amount of time, unless I did another New York City Center Encores! production. But we are doing a musical episode on Ugly Betty this coming season, so at least I’ll be singing and dancing on a soundstage in New York, which is close enough.
So what do you make of the current controversy surrounding Miss California?
I didn’t watch the Miss USA Pageant, and I don’t know the girl’s name; all I know is that it’s a complete hot-button issue, and I’m surprised. This person is not a legislator or an elected official, so I don’t get what the big deal is or why we’re paying so much attention to her. It’s really fascinating.
Had you been in Miss California’s heels, how might you have handled Perez Hilton’s question about gay marriage?
Well, I won Miss America — not Miss USA, which is a completely different system and kind of a completely different breed of girl. But I just did it once and won it, so I’m no expert. [Laughs] Way back in 1983, our interview was like a seven-minute conversation, as opposed to a one-question game show where you can either sink or swim. I was able to speak freely; I was not sat down by a panel of people and told what I was supposed to say or believe in. I was asked about ERA, and I said I was pro-ERA and that everyone has the right to be equally employed. They asked if I was pro-choice, and I said that I was pro-choice and that my own beliefs should not prohibit a woman’s right to choose. I was never stifled, so I don’t know what that’s like. I’m glad that I’ve always had freedom of speech, because that’s what our country is all about.
Did you find her racy photos inappropriate?
Honestly, I couldn’t care less. I’d much rather talk about gay rights than her. I grew up in New York, and I’ve always had gay friends, including some couples that have been together for over 25 years — longer than both of my marriages combined. So I know the people behind the banner of gay rights, and that’s what it’s about: people, love, choice and acceptance.
By talking about them in your keynote address at last year’s HRC benefit, you made celebrities out of your mom’s longtime gay friends, partners Charlie and Alan. How are they, and what did they think of your shout-out?
[Laughs] They’re off living their lives — Charlie sells real estate and Alan’s still working in his salon — but I don’t know whether they even heard that speech or not. I should have my mom call and tell them to look at my speech on YouTube.
Gloss, June 2009; extended online version.