When I was 13 years old, I felt ugly. I probably was fairly ugly—or, at least awkward looking. My two front teeth were bucked and my knees knocked. I had braces, but they were yet to be successful. I was rockin’ that bang-thing that many of us Black girls did where we placed one roller at the front of our hair all night and ended up with this ridiculous too-tight curl in the front of our head that would never fall. That and flavored Bonnie Bell lip gloss were the Black teenage girls’ badges of honor and I had both. I tried my best, but I don’t think anyone would have called me cute.
I was particularly a bit of an ugly duckling at the pool, where we kids spent much of our summer days. The neighborhood pool was directly across the street from my house. The white girls would dive in and their hair would be a sheet of silk behind them. Conversely, I would jump in and it would be more like watching cotton candy being made, the little strings of my hair whipping around, simultaneously getting larger and larger, until it ended in a big mass around my head. My 13-year-old self didn’t recognize the beauty — and rather was horribly embarrassed by the difference.
Then one night, in my family room, curled up with my mother on our ugly orange couch, I watched the Miss America Pageant and I felt that perhaps – just perhaps, I could be pretty one day because a Black woman, Vanessa Williams, won Miss America.
I immediately leapt from the couch and started screaming the minute they called her name! A Black woman was wearing a crown on her head! Black Women are beautiful!
Approximately 8 months later, my mom called me upstairs to her home office. “I want to show you something,” she said in her most serious of Southern Black mother tones.
Immediately my brain went into rewind mode. What in the heck have I done? Am I about to get busted? Bad grade? Letter to a boy? She pulled out a magazine and whispered as if someone else was in the house, “Now I’m about to show you something that I don’t know if I should even be showing you, but I think you need to know these things so you can learn how people will dog you in this world. You know, Vanessa Williams, Miss America? Well, she took some pictures before she became Miss America with some boy that she thought was her friend. They are nasty pictures. He has sold the pictures now to this magazine for money and she isn’t going to be Miss America anymore. She was just 18 when she took these pictures. I wouldn’t want to held accountable for everything I did at that age, but my point is to you—as a Black woman, you probably will. Be careful.” Then she actually showed me a couple of the pictures. That was my mother—wrong or right—you didn’t forget her lessons. I was only 14, but I have never forgotten that one.
I also never forgot Vanessa Williams. I “jammed” to Work to Do; slow dragged to Dreamin; and just a few years ago saw her on Broadway with some of my girlfriends in The Trip to Bountiful with Cicely Tyson. The way she has lived her life has taught me another lesson: Success is the greatest revenge. Don’t be mistaken, every former Miss America is envious of her post Miss America career.
With her success, I don’t know if an apology was even desired, but I guess the question from some has been was it required. I’m honestly split on this one. On one hand, I do understand that rules are rules and that the pageant probably had some stringent morality clause that one must sign to participate that states that you have not or will not do anything that will embarrass the institution.
On the other hand, Vanessa was a kid working for a photographer, who said he wanted to try an artistic concept and that the pictures would never be published. The pictures were taken prior to her ever participating in the Miss America circuit. Playboy actually rejected the pictures because there was no signature of release on Vanessa’s part. Penthouse wasn’t so ethical.
So overall, do I think that the photographer and Penthouse magazine took advantage of Vanessa Williams: absolutely. Do I think that the Miss America officials railroaded Vanessa Williams: absolutely. Do I think she provided them with a valid reason: absolutely. Would they have done the same thing had she been white? It doesn’t matter. Why speculate. She’s Black. I think that point was so important that it drove a Southern, nerdy, Christian woman – my mom – to buy a Penthouse magazine and show a bit of it to her teenage daughter. For her to boldly state, “there’s not a lot of understanding or second chances for us Black folks. Keep your nose clean and your panties on.”