After 32 years, the Miss America pageant has apologized to Vanessa Williams. Williams was serving as head judge for the Miss America 2016 pageant when the unexpected apology came.
The 52-year-old star made history in 1983 when she became the first Black woman to be crowned Miss America. Her achievement was praised nationwide, but it would be short-lived. Just 10 months into her reign, the pageant forced Williams to resign after explicit photos that she had taken a year earlier were published in Penthouse magazine. Though the photos were published without her consent, Williams was pressured to leave, becoming the only Miss America in history to step down.
During Sunday’s national broadcast of the Miss America pageant, Sam Haskell, the executive chairman of the pageant, apologized to Williams and her mother for the way his predecessors handled the controversy.
“I want to apologize for anything that was said or done during the photo scandal. You have lived your life in grace and dignity and never was it more evident than during the events of 1984 when you resigned. Though none of us currently in the organization were involved then, on behalf of today’s organization, I want to apologize to you and to your mother, Miss Helen Williams,” he said on stage. “I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less than the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be.”
Controversy arose from Williams’ Miss America win even before the photo scandal. The Ugly Betty star became the target of hate mail and death threats–another first in the pageant’s history. The negative response to her victory clearly correlated to her skin color. Her achievement as the first Black woman to hold the title made any scandal all the more important, as Williams faced pressure not only to succeed as Miss America but to also be perfect.
This fact wasn’t lost on Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner, when he turned down the photos of Williams that ultimately ended up in the pages of rival publication, Penthouse magazine.
“There was never any question of our interest in the photos. But because they clearly weren’t authorized and because they would be the source of considerable embarrassment to her, we decided not to publish them. We were also mindful that she was the first black Miss America,” Hefner told People magazine at the time of the scandal.
Following her resignation from Miss America 1984, Williams went on to launch a successful career as a singer and actress. She has sold more than 7 million records worldwide an received Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award nominations for her work through the years. After a long ride on the hit series, Ugly Betty, Williams joined the cast of Desperate Housewives before its series finale in 2012. She also co-authored a book with her mother titled, You Have No Idea, that was published the same year.
After the pageant on Sunday, Williams spoke to journalists and expressed her gratitude for the support she has received over the years.
“I want to thank everyone who has come up to me over the past 32 years and said, ‘You’ll always be my Miss America.’ I got a chance to be on the stage and represent what I represented back in 1984. Thank you so much for being so welcoming to me.”