Vanessa Williams, the product of a broader view of education
By Randall Kenneth Jones
Originally published in the Naples Daily News
Vanessa Williams doesn’t seem all that interested in discussing her—albeit, fascinating—past.
Though, according to her, she has “no problem expressing my feelings,” she also understands that we all have differing opinions about people, places and past events. As is often said, “It’s all relative.”
Vanessa Williams has sold 25 million records worldwide. She has achieved success on Broadway and in film. Williams has also become a television mainstay with, for example, high-profile roles on “Ugly Betty” and “Desperate Housewives.” Some would say there is nothing she can’t do.
Nonetheless, Williams also doesn’t seem to find it terribly exhilarating to talk about herself. Instead, her enthusiasm shines when discussing the joy of being surrounded by creativity and talent. “She feeds off of it,” suggests Carmen Ruby Floyd, Williams’s bandmate. “I am lucky to have had such a level of excellence come to me—the material and the teams,” says Williams.
That said, when she is discussing the irrefutable support of her family, Williams glows.
Born in 1963 and raised in Millwood, New York, Williams and her brother Chris were the product of a very special form of “higher education.” Simply put, their parents—music teachers Milton and Helen Williams—held their children to “higher” standards.
For most of us, childhood education is defined by the three “R’s”: reading, writing and arithmetic. In the highly musical Williams’ home, several more non-negotiable “R’s” were added to the scholarly mix: responsibility, reliability, resourcefulness, resilience and respect. Skills that complement any number of life’s lessons.
Ask almost any parent and they will likely share the hope to be a positive role model for their children.
With the 2012 publication of her bestselling autobiography, “You Have No Idea,” Vanessa Williams became the celebrity standard of unconditional parental support.
How? Williams used her substantial star power to shine the spotlight on her hero. She shared authorship—and the limelight—with her indefatigable mother, Helen Williams.
Once again, yet in a very literal way, for Vanessa Williams, it was all “relative.”
“We were firm, but fair—at home and in the classroom,” says Helen Williams.
Vanessa agrees: “Our house ran like clockwork. I got my work ethic from my parents. I love discipline. People know I will be on time and I will be prepared.”
Young Vanessa also added an additional “R” word, one that Helen Williams claims is not a direct result of life in the Williams household: risk-taking.
“Vanessa is much more adventurous than my husband and I,” laughs Helen. For her part, Vanessa defiantly credits her success to “always taking chances in my career and my life.”
In fact, Williams is overjoyed when those risks pay off and someone says to her, “’I had no idea you could do that.’”
Despite her multi-platform success, Williams admits: “I feel the most alive when I’m on stage.”
Of course, what is live theatre if not one of the most powerful experiential connections possible between product and consumer? From a business standpoint, what could be more “alive” or enviable?
Though Helen Williams credits her daughter with carving out her own success, when I happened to note: “You sound like Vanessa,” she cleverly corrected me: “No, Vanessa sounds like me.”
Vanessa Williams’s considerable body of work has grown exponentially over three decades. Whether part of an original master plan, she has also graciously embraced her immutable, parent-inspired role as an “educator,” a responsibility that naturally accompanies that of “role model.”
After all, Vanessa Williams is nothing if not the product of “education” and all its sometimes unexpected yet glorious underpinnings.
Can her success be summarized in a single melody? No. Nor would she want it to be. However, her influence is scattered throughout her extensive resume.
Just look at Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics from the 1996 Academy Award-winning song, “Colors of the Wind” from “Pocahontas”—words famously brought to life by Williams.
“You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.”
When it comes to art imitating life—or better yet, art stimulating life—these words epitomize why I write this column.
Other than the important cultural significance of Williams’s original breakthrough moment in 1983 as the very first black Miss America, one may still wonder if it is possible to write about her decades of extraordinary success without getting bogged down in a detailed description of the Sturm und Drang that followed her coronation.
Yes, it is. I just did it. The positive beats the negative every time.
Lastly, for those who feel at odds with Father Time—either personally or professionally—just remember it was Vanessa Williams who musically taught us to “Save the Best for Last.”
Sound advice. I am also quite sure Helen Williams would agree.
Marketer, publicist, business humorist, professional-courtesy advocate, branded-content writer, creative-development consultant, and entertaining motivational speaker Randall Kenneth Jones is the creator of RediscoverCourtesy.org and the president of MindZoo, a marketing communications firm in Naples, Florida.
Photos: TOP — Vanessa Williams photo by Rod Spicer, Photo 2 — Vanessa Williams photo by Gilles Toucas, Photo 3 — Helen and Vanessa Williams, submitted photo, Photo 4 — Vanessa Williams and Randall Kenneth Jones, BOTTOM — Randall Kenneth Jones.