Vanessa Williams Writes Her First Book–With Her Mom

This photo is on the back cover and was taken by Mike Ruiz.

This is a paid review of You Have No Idea, by Vanessa Williams and Helen Williams, with Irene Zutell for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are all mine.

Confession: I have gone out of my way to avoid learning about Vanessa Williams since I became a fan, ten years ago. I was seventeen the first time I visited New York City, and Into the Woods, starring Williams as The Witch, was the first Broadway show I saw. Ever. At the time, I thought I would be an actress on Broadway when I grew up. My sister took me to the city, and she waited with me outside the stage door after the show to see if Ms. Williams would come out. I didn’t know you could even do that! And guess what. Not only did she come out in her street clothes before too long, but I was one of the lucky few who got my Playbook signed. My sister kind of pushed me forward–I felt shy, and who wouldn’t?–and this amazing actress who has just given me the thrill of my life in a knockout performance looked me in the eyes and smiled right at me. She gave me her autograph right before she got into the car that took her away. As she signed my Playbook, someone in the crowd yelled something about “Rick.” She rolled her eyes a little but answered politely.

I couldn’t believe it. This woman had just performed one of the most difficult roles in musical theater. We had just watched her sing some of the trickiest songs Stephen Sondheim has written. We watched her turn from an ugly, bent, angry old witch into a stunningly beautiful, fierce young witch and mother to a teenage girl (Rapunzel). We watched her take heartless revenge on an innocent couple for the previous generation’s sins, and we watched her sing her heart out in love and, finally, in grief, as she tries to hang on to her daughter. This actress had just run the emotional and physical and vocal gamut. And some jerk asked about her marriage?

I decided right then that I would not be that fan. I would not know who was married to whom. I would know which shows were good and who was worth paying hard-earned money to see. I heard something about Williams’s marriage to Rick Fox, who I had seen playing for the Lakers. I heard it had ended. I was surprised to hear that she had been Miss America, believe it or not, and about the scandal that ended her reign. (I was born in 1984, ok?) But I went out of my way to avoid learning any details.

Until now.

I am so excited to be participating in the BlogHer Book Club this month, because it means that I get to tell you that Vanessa Williams’s first book, the first time she has told her own story in print is a good book full of great stories. Williams demonstrates humility and a sense of humor about herself when she hands the book over to her mother so that we can hear Mom’s side of the story. The two women make no effort to hide that they have had some serious conflicts, but that their family has always emphasized love for one another.

One of my favorite parts of things about this book is that the chapter about the nude photos that lead the Miss America folks to ask for their crown back, which is also Chapter 1, beings with this quote:

“Never pose nude for anyone.” –Helen Williams

Clearly, these are women who have no problem admitting when they have made mistakes.

Here’s what I learned reading this lovely book that I would never have learned reading any second-hand account:

  • Vanessa Williams takes her career very seriously, but she takes her family life just as seriously. Her candid words about parenting, and her mothers, are full of humility and love.
  • Vanessa Williams may have become famous for being a beauty queen and then, again, for recording best-selling albums. (I always knew the woman could really sing–she’s one of the few “pop” stars my picky musician father respects.) But did you know that her life’s dream was to be a dancer, singer and actor on Broadway? Me neither! I can tell you that she belongs on that stage. That role in Into the Woods? It was originally done by Bernadette Peters. The fact that Williams made it her own and knocked it out of the park is darn impressive.
  • Vanessa Williams was raised in the kind of home I wish I’d had. She had stability. Her parents always presented a united front. Lying was not tolerated (not that that stopped a teenage Williams from lying and sneaking out with her boyfriend!) and love was the family focus. Her parents were teachers and musicians who respect and cherish children.
  • Helen Williams overcame an incredibly difficult childhood to become a remarkable woman and excellent mother. Imagine being raised by grandparents who beat you and scared you and never knowing why you were not allowed to see or even speak to the mother you loved who lived just up the street! And this woman grew up to trust and love and marry a man who sounds like one of the best guys ever. (Milton Williams has passed away. I bet his chapters of this book, if he had been able to write some, would have been fantastic.)
  • If Helen Williams is your mother, you get away with nothing.

And I learned a whole lot more. I also spent quite a bit of time just staring at the many beautiful photos. Vanessa Williams does not seem to be able to take a bad photo. She is stunningly beautiful in a million different ways. I restrained myself, but I’ll say it once:

I had no idea!

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