Ebony (April 1990)
Success is the best Revenge
By Lynn Norment
On this beautiful California day, Vanessa Williams is awakened early by baby daughter Jillian, who is ready to be fed, and 2-year-old Melanie, who is ready to watch cartoon movies. Both are oblivious to the fact that their mother, the recording artist, has just returned from a European promotional tour and would love to get just one more hour of sleep. But such a leisurely lifestyle is not Vanessa's. With hugs, kisses and loving patience, she feeds, bathes and dresses both girls--and herself--for another active day.
Whether she is breast-feeding Jillian, romping in the backyard with Melanie, or tidying up her new home in Playa Del Rey, Vanessa presents the classic picture of the loving, dutiful mother and wife. What is so unusual about this tranquil domestic scene, however, is that during her two prenancies in the past two-and-a-half years, she also has recorded and released a gold album, traveled extensively across the country to promote it, performed on numerous television shows, and even managed a couple of trips to Europe.
In the prime of her life, Vanessa is full of vim and vigor, talent and optimism, delighted that her first album is a success, thankful and proud to have two healthy daughters, and still newlywed-happy in her marriage to manager/publicist Ramon Hervey II.
The former Miss America says there were many people who thought--even hoped--that she would be a flop, who felt that her being the first Black woman to be crowned Miss America in 1983 was due to luck and not real talent. Vanessa recalls that there were those who were nasty and mean when the beauty title was stripped from her the following year after nude photographs were published in Penthouse magazine without her permission.
"I'm not dwelling on that now," she says, gently rocking Jillian to sleep. "I'm just moving on, for there is nothing I can do to change that, so I just have to deal with it and move on. If situations arose where I could get revenge, I absolutely would. But at this point, success is the best revenge."
Success--as in her gold LP The Right Stuff, and the four hit singles and videos it spawned. Success--as in the NAACP's Best New Artist Award and three Grammy nominations. Success--as in her having "survived" under extreme public and personal pressure, under circumstances that would have crushed many women of age 20.
Vanessa is by no means gloating, for she is much too busy and practical for such exercises in egotism. Instead, she wants to prove to Polygram Records Executive Vice President Ed Eckstine that having two babies will not throw off the production schedule of her new album. So she's back in the studio, working hard to achieve that just-right combination of funky dance tunes and mellow ballads, such as "Darlin' I" and "Dreaming." She also hopes to play keyboards on the alboum.
"The next phase is making sure you are taken seriously as a recording artist, that it is not just, as a lot of people say, 'Oh, she had success with her first album, but you know that was just luck,'" shey says, mimicking a gossip. "You have to prove that you are in it for the long haul, that you hope it is going to get better.
"The new one will be a much stronger record, just because I'll be much more confident," she says.
Her confidence in mothering is increasing as well, and like other Black parents, she is concerned about racism, drugs, crime, child abuse, and quality education. She already knows that she must be physically and mentally prepared for the rigors of raising two daughters while continuing to advance her career. Nevertheless, her children and family are top priority. "If my career was too stressful, or if it was really ruining their lives or if I saw that it couldn't be done, I could definitely give it up," she says with a maturity that surpasses her 27 years. "I have my responsibilities. I brought these two kids into the world, and now I have to do the best job I can."
That means excelling in her marriage as well. "I'm not very religious, but when I decided to get married, I knew I wanted to get married only once, and I wanted it to last forever," she says, adding that her views on marriage are greatly influenced by her parents, Milton and Helen Williams, who have been married 29 years. "They are a great example," she says. "They get along well, and they are still friends. And they are great grandparents."
As a youngster growing up in Millwood, N.Y., Vanessa dreamed of being a wife and mother just as she dreamed of being an actress and recording artist. The former Syracuse University musical theater major has always said that she only participated in beauty pageants to advance her career. It turned out that the Miss America Pageant also led to her meeting her husband, who was hired to help her deal with the Penthouse photos crisis.
"I've always wanted kids," she says. "I baby-sat almost my whole adolescent life, and I always knew that I wanted to be a mom--to be pregnant, to have that maternal instinct."
Though she always had a close relationship with her brother, Chris, a recent Georgetown University graduate, she regretted not having more siblings. She loved big family gatherings and enjoyed a "sisterly" relationship with three first cousins.
Vanessa and Ramon both emphasize the importance of a solid family structure to individual couples like themselves and to Black America in general. "I feel that we as Black people have let that responsibility get away from us," says Ramon, whose mother, Winnie Hervey, lives in the Los Angeles area and spends a lot of time with the children. "We can have more control over our destiny if we make the family infrastructure strong."
He also says that Vanessa is a "very dedicated" mother. "Her children are the most important things in her life, which is the way it should be. She has accepted total responsibility of being a mother, a working mother, a professional--life never slows her down."
Indeed, Vanessa seems to have worked out a sensible approach to commingling motherhood and her busy career. A typical day starts at about 6:30 a.m. and doesn't end until late evening. By then, she will have changed dozens of diapers, fixed an assortment of meals, and gone up and down the staircas more times than she'd care to remember. Three days a week, she takes Melanie to a "Mommy and Me" class, where they both join other tots and moms for gym, music and dance lessons.
In addition, there is the shopping ("I hate grocery shopping," she says.), the household errands, the gardening, the meals that must be prepared. However, she readily admits that though she has a few special dishes she has "mastered," Ramon is such a good cook that she was truly intimidated when she first met him. "He's into meal 'presentation,' his whole family is," she says. "So it's rubbing off on me."
Then there are her own classes and fitness sessions, in addition to the numerous auditions for acting roles, meetings with writers and producers concerning her new album, and then actually going into the studio.
Somehow, she manages to look fresh and vibrant despite it all.
"Black women have been doing this [working and rearing a family] forever," she says. "It is really not a question of how you can do it. It needs to be done, and you do it . . . There are so many single family households, and Black women have to be strong to keep their families together. Being a Black woman, I think that is one of the roles, the strengths you just acquire. I think we are a strong people."
When asked what she wants to instill in her children, she says it is something her parents instilled in her: "to believe in themselves, that they can do anything they really want to do," she says. "My parents really taught me that there are no limitations, that you can do anything you want.
"I recall my mother telling me that just because you are Black, you are going to have to work 100 percent more than everyone else just to be considered equal," recalls Vanessa. "That is unfair, but it is the reality of the situation." She adds that she doesn't think that the world will be any fairer to her daughters in terms of race relations.
At that moment, Melanie interrupts with a question for her mommy. She is indeed a vivacious little girl with a big voice and a tendency to dance whenever "The Right Stuff" video is on. "I'm glad that she is feisty," Vanessa says of Melanie. "She is so headstrong that I think she probably won't take a lot of crap from people. I definitely will tell her that she doesn't have to please everyone all the time. I'm one of those people who feel guilty when they say 'no,' who try to be nice all the time even when they don't want to be nice. I want to make sure that Melanie retains that quality where she says 'no' when she doesn't want to do something. I'm not going to raise her to be a brat, but I definitely want her to go with her gut instincts."
She also wants Melanie and Jillian to be prepared for the inevitable--the day when a playmate will tease them about their mother appearing in Penthouse magazine. "I hope that both of them will be secure enough not to even pay it any mind, strong enough to come up with the right answer," says Vanessa. "If they don't, I'll give them one. That won't be a problem."
Not for Vanessa Williams or her children. The entertainer has not let obstacles defer her dreams so far, and it is doubtful that they will encumber her in the future. She is now looking forward to releasing a new single, a second album, and then putting together a concert tour for the summer. She is also involved in several acting projects, including The Kid Who Loved Christmas, a TV movie being developed by Eddie Murphy Productions.
Already, she is pondering how to manage the extensive traveling and her children, and taking the two toddlers on the road with her is a possibility. Polygram Records is probably wondering if she'll surprise them with another pregnancy, though she and Ramon say it will be a few years before they can "afford" a third child. (They do add, however, that the first two were not planned.)
Somehow, she'll work it all out. "Vanessa places no limitations on herself, though sometimes I feel that she should," says Ramon. "She is a total optimist."