Entertainment

09.21.13

Vanessa Williams, the First Black Miss America, On Nina Davuluri and Racism

Thirty years ago, Vanessa Williams was crowned the first black Miss America. The pageant winner-cum-actress discusses Nina Davuluri’s historic Miss America win, the racism she faced, and more.

History was made on Sunday night when Nina Davuluri, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., became the first woman of Indian Descent to be crowned Miss America.

It was also, as it were, an incredible coincidence.

Thirty years ago, Vanessa Williams became the first black woman to be named Miss America. Like Davuluri, Williams was not only Miss New York, but had ties to the Syracuse area, having attended Syracuse University and competed in the Miss Syracuse beauty pageant. Wait, there’s more. Since 2006, the Miss America pageant—which was broadcast live on ABC—had been held in Las Vegas. But, thanks to a strong push by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the event was moved to Atlantic City, N.J., this year—the same place Williams was crowned.

On Wednesday evening, Duvuluri stopped by the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway to pay a visit to Williams, who is currently starring in the play The Trip to Bountiful. Williams posted a photo of the pair on Instagram.

“When I met her we were talking how coincidental it was,” Williams tells The Daily Beast. “It’s crazy. Same night, same locale, and same state. And unfortunately, same bashing as well. I had to deal with it at 20, and she’s dealing with the same issue at 24. I told her she was a trailblazer, and if she ever needed any advice to please call.”

The “bashing” Williams is referring to when it comes to Davuluri came via Twitter. Right after she was crowned Miss America, the idiots came out of the woodwork, making disgusting, racist remarks over the social network about how the beauty is “a terrorist,” disparaging her for being “a Muslim” (she’s not), the list goes on—just because of the color of her skin.

Williams, too, endured her fair share of misery after breaking the color barrier. She received loads of hate mail and even threats on her life. Everyone seemed to be out to get her. When Penthouse published nude modeling photos of her that were taken in 1982, back when she was serving as a photographer’s assistant—they were unauthorized, and stolen—Williams was forced to resign as Miss America.

“I wrote a book about everything that I went through, and I spent a lot of time talking about the death threats, the FBI, the sharpshooters,” she says. “It was a graver situation and more dangerous years ago—the change that was happening and the uproar because of the color of my skin. I don’t know all of the negativity [towards Nina], and I frankly could care less, but I heard some of the comments about whether she’s Muslim and what religion she is, which is ridiculous. She won fair and square and she’s doing an amazing job.”

Nina is a beautiful girl, but Miss America isn’t chosen just for beauty. She’s articulate, intelligent, and a great representative.

Davuluri labeled herself “Miss Diversity” in the early going, and was considered among the favorites to win the title. Williams didn’t have the same luxury thirty years ago to speak out about how she was a symbol for equality, and improving race relations in America.

“We didn’t have a platform,” she says, “just our seven-minute pre-interview. There were no single questions onstage, so that’s a new aspect.” She later adds, “The pageant was really the first reality show where a little girl could have her life change overnight. It’s what we’re used to all the time, now.”

Another interesting issue deals with certain cultures' perception of beauty. In India, for example, Davuluri would probably be considered too dark-skinned to win a beauty pageant, since Indian culture tends to favor light skin.

“That’s in every culture, and that’s something that’s historical—the island culture or back in the day in New Orleans when there where quadroons and Creoles,” says Williams. “Nina is a beautiful girl, but Miss America isn’t chosen just for beauty. She’s articulate, intelligent, and a great representative. And she’s talented. I think she’s gorgeous and everyone out there does as well.”

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Indeed, Davuluri is far more than a pretty face. She’s an aspiring physician who attended the University of Michigan, studying brain and cognitive science, and was named to the Dean’s List and received the Michigan Merit award, as well as the National Honor Society award. While certain circles have been critical of the Miss America pageant in recent years, claiming it objectifies women—most notably during the swimsuit competition portion—people forget that it is a “scholarship pageant.”

“Had I not won, I wouldn’t have been able to contribute to my junior year [of college],” says Williams. “It’s not money to buy a Corvette, it’s to further your education.” She adds, “When I did the two-piece swimsuit thing, I felt uncomfortable doing it, but I was in pretty good shape and won it, so it worked for me!”

According to Williams, Davuluri is in for a “wonderful year”—and a busy one. In addition to the standard Miss America duties, Davuluri will also, she says, have to pull “double-duty,” tending to duties within the Indian community as well. But the 50-year-old Williams, who’s arguably the most successful Miss America in history, remains proud of the pageant, as well as her home state.

“It’s interesting to be the first black in New York, and then see the first Indian,” she says. “New York is known for being a melting pot, and the quality of women are definitely symbiotic in terms of reaching for goals and thinking outside the box.”