When Vanessa Williams began her singing career, she was known chiefly as the Miss America pageant winner who'd been forced to renounce her title for posing in Penthouse magazine. Williams not only put the scandal behind her, she all but obliterated it, turning out a series of slick, sophisticated hits that made her one of the most popular adult contemporary R&B singers of her time. In addition to her broad crossover appeal, she established a parallel acting career in both film and television, and became a highly successful all-around entertainer.
Williams was born March 18, 1963, in the upstate New York town of Millwood to parents who were both music teachers. She loved performing musical theater as a teenager, and won a scholarship to study it at Syracuse University in 1981. In the meantime, she began entering beauty pageants, with considerable success; in 1983, she represented New York in the Miss America pageant and became the first African American woman ever to be crowned the winner. Unfortunately, her triumph was short-lived. Williams had posed for a series of nude photos for Penthouse prior to her historic victory, and when the magazine published them in 1984, the ensuing scandal forced her to resign as Miss America. Undaunted, Williams began to pursue her first love, singing; she backed George Clinton on his 1986 album R&B Skeletons in the Closet, including the single "Do Fries Go with That Shake?" Williams also returned to acting, making her feature film debut with a small role in The Pickup Artist in 1987; the same year, she married her manager, Ramon Harvey. All the renewed exposure eventually helped land her a record deal with Mercury/PolyGram subsidiary Wing.
Williams's debut album, The Right Stuff, was released in 1988, featuring a mix of urban dance-pop and adult contemporary balladry. The title track was a decent-sized hit, and the ballad "Dreamin'" became Williams' first Top Ten pop single, and went to number one on the R&B chart. The Right Stuff went gold, and Williams subsequently appeared in several TV movies. Her 1991 sophomore set The Comfort Zone was a star-maker; it spawned another R&B chart-topper in "Running Back to You," but the real story was the ballad "Save the Best for Last," a ubiquitous across-the-board smash that became Williams's first number one pop hit. The title track solidified Williams's growing reputation for smooth, sexy adult pop, and the album went on to sell over two million copies.
In 1993, Williams's duet with Brian McKnight, "Love Is," became another huge hit when it was featured on the soundtrack of Beverly Hills 90210. In 1994, Williams returned to her roots by accepting her first starring role on Broadway, taking over the lead in Kiss of the Spider Woman; she also appeared on a re-recorded version of the cast album. Late that year, she also released her third album, The Sweetest Days, which found her branching out into jazzy pop and torch songs in addition to her usual urban and adult contemporary fare. It also featured material by Babyface and Sting, and its upscale, sophisticated ambience gave Williams her second platinum certification. In 1995, Williams was tabbed to sing the commercial version of "Colors of the Wind," the theme to the Disney film Pocahontas; not only was it a huge hit, it also won an Academy Award. The year 1996 brought a divorce from manager Harvey and the holiday album Star Bright; most notably, Williams landed her biggest feature film role to date when she starred opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in that year's Eraser, and she followed it with an appearance in the ensemble drama Soul Food in 1997. That year also brought her fourth proper album, Next, which didn't attract quite as much attention as its predecessors. After the release of Greatest Hits: The First Ten Years in late 1998, Williams remained relatively quiet on the musical front, save for the occasional live performance event. She concentrated more on her acting career, and was prominently featured in Dance with Me (1998), Light It Up (1999), and the remake of Shaft (2000).
Williams had married professional basketball player Rick Fox in 1999, but they divorced in 2004, the year Williams released a Christmas album, Silver & Gold. A decade highlighted by her work in Ugly Betty—recognized with several awards and nominations—the 2000s also entailed a pair of refined studio albums, Everlasting Love (2005) and The Real Thing (2009). She continued to act, most notably through two seasons of Desperate Housewives, and in 2015 married again.