Vanessa Williams puts the “pageant queen” stereotype to shame.
The former Miss America-turned-actress-and-singer is personable, intellectual and relatable, and is someone every teen should strive to emulate.
Williams recently spoke at Leadership Niagara’s annual awards luncheon at the Niagara Falls Conference and Events Center. Before the program, she spoke with NeXt to share advice with teens.
Growing up, Williams never would have imagined being a leader and role model for kids and teens.
“Leadership is watching and learning by example, and when you are truly affected by great leaders, whether they are great teachers or great artists, and take you on a path and teach you something, that always sticks with you,” she said. “That is my definition of what a true leader is.”
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Williams is a superb example of a 21st century role model not only for teens, but for her four children. When fans tell Williams that they live their lives modeled after her, she is touched, and believes that everyone and anyone can be a leader.
“Leaders inspire other people, and they are so respectable,” she said.
Pushing through obstacles
Williams relates her success to working to her full potential and pushing through life’s impediments that happen along the way.
“I hope to show that through obstacles and adversity, there are triumphs in the hills and the valleys and there is plenty to learn and your true essence will always shine through,” she said. “No matter how dark the days are, no matter how weary the travel is, it can never change who you are, and you always have to remember that.”
To illustrate this, Williams discussed her life, which has involved both trials and tribulations.
In 1984, Williams was crowned Miss America, becoming the first African-American woman to win the crown. After winning the title, Williams’ world came crashing down when Penthouse magazine released nude pictures of her. Williams not only lost her crown, but she also lost some dignity and respect.
Success demands patience
Williams grew up knowing that she wanted to perform, but she never expected to be able to hear herself on the radio.
“When I was younger, I would be rocking out to Chaka Khan, Earth Wind and Fire, and then to actually hear myself on the radio? I never thought that would be in the landscape. That’s the biggest surprise out of everything,” said Williams, who became a recording artist and produced the hit song, “Save the Best for Last.”
Her first serious theater job came 10 years after the Miss America scandal, when she starred on Broadway in “Kiss of the Spiderwoman.”
As she recalls, “that was my first real slap in the face, and it took 10 years to get back to where I wanted to be.”
When asked if she ever wanted to give up, Williams was quick to respond that she hadn’t.
“I don’t know whether it’s the fire in the belly that I talk about,” she said. “You feel it, you know it, you can’t deny it, and I think you’re born with it, and if you know that you’ve got something that you have to do in your life, that you have to show, that never goes away.”
Advice for teens
A major problem in today’s society is self-esteem and image. Williams’ position on this issue is especially candid and direct.
“I’ve had three girls go through those ‘teenage years’ that are really tough,” she said. “Middle school is terrible, high school ain’t any easier! ... No matter how much you want to protect your child, it’s tough.”
It may come as a shock to some, but Williams confessed to having self-esteem issues growing up. As she starkly put it, having “big lips and a big butt” in high school caused Williams to feel different from other girls.
Luckily, she learned to embrace her features and love herself for who she is, which she encourages other girls to do.
“You have to learn as a child, or as an adult, what you bring naturally and not to be afraid to be yourself,” she said.
Williams considers today’s teens lucky to have so many diverse examples of beautiful, intellectual role models.
“With the multimedia, you have the power to see someone who looks exactly like you,” she said. When Williams was growing up, there were no famous people that looked like her; there was not even a black Barbie doll. When the first African-American Barbie came out, Williams was overjoyed.
“It was the first representation of me as a doll ... Much has changed. Your generation has many more images and so many more representations ... there will always be someone you can feel a kinship to,” she said.
At the conclusion of the interview, Williams was escorted out to the stage, but not before she took the time to shake everyone’s hand and pose for pictures.
Then, with a brilliant smile, she was off.
Amanda McNulty is a junior at Mount St. Mary Academy.