Never ever pose nude for anyone. —Helen Williams
The phone call from the New York Post reporter seemed like just another of the hundreds of interviews I’d done since becoming Miss America ten months earlier. They were all the same -— I could predict the questions: “How has your life changed?” “What’s it like being the first black Miss America?” “Do you feel you’ve made history?” “What’s next?”
I had the standard patter down: “It was an unexpected honor, with lots of pressure and great opportunity.”
But “unexpected” was actually an understatement -— I never had any desire to be a beauty queen, let alone Miss America. There had never been a black Miss America. Miss America was usually a blondhaired, blue-eyed girl (I do have blue eyes, though, just like my paternal grandfather, Milton Williams, Sr.). I, on the other hand, was the girl who smoked pot and inhaled, drank beer at cast keg parties, and had premarital sex with my boyfriend. I lived life! Or at least I was living a twenty-one-year-old’s version of life as a college junior.
My friends found the very idea of it hysterical. As we sipped our Rolling Rock beers at our theater parties before I won the crown, it became a punch line to a joke only we understood. “Vanessa as Miss America? They have no idea who you are.”
When Gary Collins, the host of the pageant, announced my name as Miss America, my first thought was, Damn! There goes my semester abroad studying theater in London. Gotta tell Diane to get another roommate. No scones and clotted cream; no greasy fish and chips in newspaper. My second thought was, What am I in for? What happens after I walk down the runway of the Convention Center and head back to the fake hugs from the other contestants whose dreams had just been crushed by a pageant first-timer from New York State? Then what? Yikes!
And now my year was almost finished. It was Friday, July 13, 1984 (yes, Friday the 13th), and I had just six weeks left in my reign. I was in yet another hotel room on the road, the Ramada in Watertown, New York. The tiny town near the Thousand Islands, one of New York’s natural wonders, was home to the New York State pageant, which I’d won last year. I was there to crown my successor.
It had been a typical day so far. Midge Stevenson, my bubbly, fit, blond chaperone and a pageant pro, had given me my itinerary in the morning. There was breakfast, pageant rehearsals, and some interviews, including this one with the New York Post reporter. I sat on the edge of the bed discussing Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s running mate in the upcoming presidential election and the first woman vice presidential candidate.
A first commenting on another first.
“I think it’s fantastic. She’ll do a wonderful job. It’s a great thing for our country.”
That about wrapped up the usual fifteen-minute question and answer, but before I could hang up, the reporter said, “Oh, by the way, I heard from a very reliable source that there are nude photos of you coming out in September’s Penthouse. Is it true?”
My heart froze. Nude pictures? Impossible.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. What reliable source?”
“Well, we heard it from a very reliable source -— but if you don’t know about it, then I won’t print it.”
I hung up the phone and could not breathe.
This has got to be a mistake. Reporters always get facts wrong, right?
Plus I never signed a release for those pictures.
But that thought didn’t calm me -— instead my heart felt like it was about to explode. Is this really happening? How could I be so stupid to even get into this kind of situation?
I had to do something. My parents were on their way and I’d have to let them in on my monstrous secret. How disappointed they would be! That’s the worst. The “D” word coming from the lips of your parents.
I decided to call Dennis Dowdell, a neighbor from Millwood and a corporate lawyer at American Can Company. He’d become my counsel, handling the offers that were rolling in.
I told Dennis about the reporter’s question. I then confessed to the stupid summer of my nineteenth year.
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