Vanessa Williams recalls 'hurtful' backlash from the Black community after her historic Miss America win

Ellie Spina
·3 min read

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Vanessa Williams recalls experiencing backlash after she was crowned the first Black Miss America in 1984. (Images via Getty Images)
Vanessa Williams recalls experiencing backlash after she was crowned the first Black Miss America in 1984. (Images via Getty Images)

While Vanessa Williams might be known for her acting and singing abilities (cue "Save The Best For Last"), she's also known for making history.

In 1984, Williams became the first-ever Black woman to be crowned Miss America. For many, at the time, this was considered a huge step in the right direction. For others, it became an issue of colourism.

In a recent interview on A&E’s "The Table Is Ours" podcast, Williams opened up about not feeling supported by the Black or white communities after her monumental pageant win. The now 57-year-old recalled receiving "hurtful" criticism from both sides.

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Crowned the new Miss America 1984, Miss New York, Vanessa L. Williams beams as she is applauded by runners-up Miss Virginia, Lisa Aliff (left), and Miss Ohio, Pamela Rigas (right). Williams is the first black woman to have won the crown in the pageant's 63-year history.
Williams was the first Black woman to be crowned Miss America in 1984 (Image via Getty Images)

“I was not seen as a 20-year-old, who is a junior in college,” she began. "I was seen as a symbol, but also seen as a Black woman, and I was also seen as someone who was supposed to represent the American beauty."

Williams explained that in the '80s, Black and brown-skinned women were not considered fitting representations of beauty in America by the white-owned contest, and because of that, had not superseded white contestants in Miss America beauty pageant history up until that point.

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"There [were] a lot of folks that did not believe that having brown skin and being a Black woman represented the Miss America ideal,” she said.

The "Ugly Betty" star revealed the controversy over her win reaching a boiling point when she began receiving violent threats that caused her to fear for her safety.

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“There were sharpshooters on the top of the roofs of my hometown, just because of the threats that were against me because of who I was," she continued. "I had death threats."

MISS AMERICA PAGEANT 1984 -- Pictured: Vanessa Williams  -- Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank
MISS AMERICA PAGEANT 1984 -- Pictured: Vanessa Williams -- Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank

Despite the racist protests and backlash she received from white people, Williams says that the worst criticism she got was from her "own people" who she felt diminished her achievement for being "too light-skinned."

“Not only was I getting attacked from White folks saying she doesn’t represent us, but some Black folks [said], ‘Oh they only picked her cause she’s light-skinned and has light eyes,’” she shared. “They kind of dismissed my talent, my intellect, and my achievement. So that was probably more hurtful.”

In hindsight, Williams admits that it was "tough to take that criticism” from the Black community. But says that nowadays, she's been able to ignore the negativity on social media.

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