Vanessa Williams easily could have written a memoir at several points over the past 30 years.
In 1984, when she became the first African-American woman crowned Miss America; when nude photos surfaced, leading her to resign six weeks before her reign ended; when she reinvented herself four years later as a successful R&B singer; and later, an actress. And so on and so on.
Instead, Williams, starring on the final season of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” opted to wait until now. Not only has she finally written a tell-all memoir, she co-wrote it with her mom, Helen Williams. The result, “You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other)” (Gotham Books, $28), hit stores in April.
“I find it surprising that so many people are questioning the timing of (the book),” said Williams. “I’ve got a 30-year career to look back on, and I have succeeded in a career where many thought I wouldn’t have one.”
Writing the book with her mother, she said, offers a more compelling look at her life.
After an initial meeting to discuss what they planned to cover, mother and daughter went their separate ways to write. There were things they learned about each other from being writing partners. Helen Williams, for example, learned that her daughter had an abortion as a senior in high school, something she suspected, she said, but could never be sure. Vanessa Williams said she gained insight into her mother’s personality by reading about the feelings her mother had as a child, when she felt unloved and mistreated. “We were both surprised by different aspects,” the daughter said.
In this revealing memoir, Vanessa Williams details her many youthful transgressions, such as exactly what happened that summer when she posed for photos that would lead to her losing the Miss America title. Helen Williams sounds off about the challenges she and her husband had raising their strong-willed daughter. They presented a united front throughout the troubled Miss America years, but Helen Williams admits her misgivings when her daughter announced her marriage to Ramon Hervey, the publicist who led Williams out of the drama and into a new career. Vanessa Williams, now a twice-divorced mother of four (her second marriage was to athlete-turned-actor Rick Fox), also reveals her reflections on love and marriage.
She is grateful, she said, that her wild-child history hasn’t come back to haunt her among her own brood. “The more she tried to restrict me, the more I tried to push back and be free, and it was a recipe for disaster over and over again,” Williams said of her relationship with her mother. “I am grateful my kids haven’t put me through the shenanigans that I put my parents through.”
There has been a shift, she said, in the way parents and children relate to one another.
“Among my generation, the kids call the parents and parents’ friends by their first names. Everyone is trying to be really open and friendly with their kids. Growing up, I never thought my mother was a friend, for sure,” she said.
Williams has shared much more about her life with her children than her mother shared with her and has even sometimes used episodes from her own life as cautionary tales. She writes about an incident in which she was molested, an event she later used to inform her own children, three of whom are girls. “I told them my story early on,” Williams said. “They knew what was appropriate and what to look for and to not be afraid to tell me anything.”
With the difficult years behind them, Williams, whose father died in 2006, is pleased to have the opportunity to work with her mother. Her dad, she said, would have been pleased that she was keeping his wife busy.
“She is a great public speaker and very opinionated,” Williams said. “This gives her a forum to say what she wants with no apologies.”