“Miss America: Oh, God, She’s Nude!”
That was the headline of Penthouse magazine’s September 1984 issue which showed nude images of Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America who was compelled to give up her crown just ten months after winning it.
Though this was one of the lowest moments in her life, the scandal that cost her the crown did not stop her from success as it set her up for one of the greatest comebacks in entertainment history, according to TIME.
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When she was crowned as Miss America in September 1983, she gained wide acclaim for being the first African-American winner of the title but on July 23, 1984, few weeks before the end of her reign, she handed over her crown.
Then 21 years old, Williams was forced to resign her post after Penthouse announced that it would publish nude photos she had
The photographer had told her confidently at the time that those photos were just silhouettes and that they would never be out of the studio. But the exact opposite happened, as Penthouse bought and published the unauthorized nude photographs of Williams, some showing her in a compromising position with another nude woman.
In spite of comments from her supporters to fight for the crown, as she had excelled in her role, she had to resign following pressure from the pageant organisers. The title subsequently went to the first runner-up, Miss New Jersey Suzette Charles, who served out the final seven weeks of Williams’ reign.
According to TIME, Williams had always believed that she was more than those raunchy photos and more than Miss America. Being into musical theatre from the university, she had entered the pageant just to earn the scholarship money ($25,000) and to gain exposure.
She did not get the sort of exposure she had dreamed of but she bounced back to become a big name in the entertainment industry. Although the public shaming and ridicule delayed her career by about 10 years, she forged on to become one of the biggest recording artists, earning her multiple Grammy Award nominations.
As an actress, she earned hug roles Desperate Housewives and in comedy series – Ugly Betty, for which she was nominated three times for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
The singer and actress had earlier filed a lawsuit against Penthouse and the photographer in the wake of the scandal but she dropped it a year later, saying that she wanted to put the scandal behind her and move on her with career ambitions.
That has since paid off, and when, in September 2015, she finally returned to the Miss America stage as a judge, the pageant CEO apologized to her on stage for the way his outfit handled the scandal.
“I have been a close friend of this beautiful and talented lady for 32 years. You have lived your life in grace and dignity and never was it more evident than during the events of 1984, when you resigned. 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. I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be,” Sam Haskell finally said after 32 years.
For Williams who beat the odds to chalk successes in the entertainment world, this is what she said in 1989 about the scandal:
“So many people have gotten burned by those people that I think they’ll eventually get it in the end and die a slow, painful death.”