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Leadership, success is a gritty pursuit for Vanessa Williams

NIAGARA FALLS — When Vanessa Williams arrived here straight off a plane from New York City, she was suited for success, down to her crisp white jacket and knee-length black skirt — both items from her new V. by Vanessa clothing line.

Success is the reason Williams was booked as the speaker for Leadership Niagara’s April 27 awards luncheon. (That and her ties to Western New York: Williams’ mother grew up in Buffalo and her husband Jim Skrip is from Depew.) She's an entertainer at the highest levels – Broadway, big box-office films and network television – and with the creation of her fashion label, she's an entrepreneur now too.

She's graceful, and deservedly adored. At the sold-out luncheon in the Conference & Event Center Niagara Falls, organizers deferentially addressed her as "Miss Williams." But her path to success has been gritty. Like that V.-designed outfit she wore, there are shades of dark and light. It's Williams' yin-yang story, one with truths that are shared by so many, which is why she's willing – eager, even — to talk about it.

"I want to be candid," Williams said. "I want to be honest, and I want people to know what happened to me and what makes me who I am."

At the request of Williams, whose July wedding I wrote about for The News, I hosted a half-hour, onstage conversation with her after the awards program.  Our interview, tied to the leadership focus of the luncheon, was wide-ranging. We talked about growing up as the child of two teachers (playing an instrument was a requirement), the impact of fame in moments of both success and scandal (“You don’t always know when you’re leading; you don’t know when people are watching you,” Williams said) and lessons she’s gleaned from performing for – and with – the powerful.

That includes several presidents, and a certain co-star who went on to become the governor of California.

“He’s a massive guy,” Williams of Arnold Schwarzenegger, her co-star in the 1996 film “Eraser.” “Not only his stature, but his presence. When you are in his presence, you are ready to work. If you do something he compliments, he makes sure that everyone knows. He says ‘Very niiice!’” – imagine here Williams, with her smooth anchor-like voice, imitating a thick Austrian accent – “and you feel your chest broaden and you feel like you’ve conquered the world because he makes you feel important.”

Fair point. But Williams, to her credit, didn’t ignore the Arnold-size elephant in the ballroom. Five years ago, Schwarzenegger’s marriage to the journalist Maria Shriver publicly unraveled as his affair with a housekeeper was revealed to the world. Williams, who sang at Schwarzenegger’s 2003 inauguration, didn’t specifically cite the former governor’s marital issues. Instead, she said, “He obviously has gone through many ups and downs in his life recently, and I know Maria very well, but again—”

Williams interrupted herself. She leaned forward in her butterscotch leather chair and pointed to a table in front of the stage. John Percy, the CEO of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp., was sitting there. Minutes before Williams took the stage, Percy had been honored as Leadership Niagara's Leader of the Year. In his remarks at the podium, he talked about his approach to handling mistakes: ‘fessing up when you mess up. As Percy spoke, Williams was sitting next to me at a front-row table, Caesar salad untouched, listening intently.

Now, when it was her turn on the stage, she repeated Percy's words.

“When you mess up, fess up?” she said to Percy, repeating his words. Percy nodded.

“I think that after everything (that) has happened recently, that’s what (Schwarzenegger) did,” Williams said. “When you admire somebody for their integrity and honesty despite what happens, you do have to give them some respect.”

The recurring lesson in Williams’ remarks: To unlock success, you have to handle setbacks with acute patience and steeliness. “When it gets so foggy and so distorted, once the time comes back to the calm, you’ll get back to who you really are,” Williams said. “And that never really changes.”

In 1983, at age 20, Williams became in the first black woman to be crowned Miss America. But when Penthouse published nude photos shot before she competed (images that Williams never consented to release), she was stripped of her crown.

“I became a scandalized beauty queen, and that negated everything, just wiped out any kind of credibility,” said Williams, who till then had been known as a star drama student in high school and at Syracuse University.

Shortly after the Miss America scandal, Williams was invited by the director Mike Nichols to try out for the Broadway show “My One and Only.” She nailed the audition, which was to replace Twiggy opposite Tommy Tune. But Lee Gershwin, whose famous husband Ira died the year prior, called Nichols and said, “Over my dead body will that whore be in my show.”

“That’s when I knew I had a long road ahead,” said Williams, who spent the next 10 years systematically building her resume and rebuilding her credibility. She did television. She did movies. She started a recording career that included the hit “Save the Best for Last.” Each job was another tug at unsticking that label of "scandalized beauty queen."

“Each project was just ticking away at the time that I would be able to be seen as me,” said Williams, who ultimately reconnected with Miss America, too, when the organization officially apologized and welcomed her back last year as a judge.

For a business audience like the one before us in Niagara Falls, the Miss America fallout resonated broadly: A crowning achievement torn by a P.R. crisis followed by a painstaking rebranding process.

“I never gave up knowing that I would eventually get a chance to – once the dust settled – show people what I can really do," Williams said.

It wasn't the only time she talked about dust settling.

Williams, a mother of four, had her personal life scrutinized by the media in very public divorces with entertainment manager Ramon Hervey and NBA player Rick Fox. She acknowledged those in Niagara Falls and wrote about them in her 2013 book, "You Have No Idea," co-authored with her mother, Helen Tinch Williams. In the book, she revealed a truth that, despite her long career and considerable fame, had gone previously unknown to the public: At age 10, while on vacation, Williams was molested by an 18-year-old woman.

Williams is unflinchingly candid. I asked her why.

"No matter what happens in your life, it doesn’t change who you are," she said. "Every time I talk to young women, or people that are going through struggles, I knew in my mind that once the dust settles, they’ll see me. That is true for any instance that you go through, any relationship issue.

"When it gets so foggy and so distorted, once the time comes back to the calm, you’ll get back to who you really are. And that never really changes."

The crowd erupted in applause.

Email Tim O'Shei at toshei@Buffnews.com

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