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Vanessa Williams

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Every Miss America is an overnight sensation in the way that Hollywood stars seldom are. But no Miss America until the current one, Vanessa Williams, 20, has had quite so brutal a morning after.

The feature-page press corps has a yellowed sheaf of ready questions for new beauty queens: What’s your definition of the perfect man? What’s your favorite color? But for the first black Miss America, out came the buzz saw quiz. Don’t you think American society is racist? Would you consider becoming Jesse Jackson’s running mate? Somewhat stunned, she answered, and felt the heat. Yes, she supported a woman’s right to have an abortion. Down came the Moral Majority. No, she did not feel discriminated against. Down came her fellow blacks. Taking a breather at home in suburban Millwood, N.Y. four weeks after the pageant, she recalls thinking, ” ‘How can I win?’ I never imagined I’d be that depressed about being Miss America. If I hadn’t been home at the time, if my parents hadn’t said, ‘You made this commitment and you have to go on….’ Well, I never would have given it up, but I was hitting rock bottom.”

In fact, Vanessa Williams was perceived not simply as Miss America but as an emblem of social change—not Miss America at all, in that sense, but Miss New America, embodiment of a kind of collective national redemption. Wisely, she objected. “People are reading too much into it,” she says. Her symbolism, however, has cut both ways. One letter writer in California threatened to throw acid in her face because she is black. Armed guards accompanied her when she appeared on TV’s Hour Magazine, and during that visit to Los Angeles she was virtually confined to her room.

Every Miss America’s life is a frantic tear through hotels and airports to a blur of shopping malls, and except for a pageant-appointed companion she is alone on the road. But Vanessa, despite the added burden of being a symbol and a target, has gone about her appointed rounds (She’ll cover 20,000 miles and visit 200 cities, from San Juan to Anchorage) as gamely as any of her predecessors—overbooked, chronically exhausted, with every eyelash and smile line in place. She has been obliged to sing to taped music in the aisles of Higbee’s department store in Cleveland and to help demonstrate corsage making at a Corpus Christi grocery store, but she has refrained from coming unglued, at least in public. “There’s no way to explain the year,” she says. “Even if you say to people how hectic it is, how tiring, they can’t comprehend it unless they’ve actually lived it.”

The job isn’t quite as dismal as it sounds. She will earn an estimated $130,000 for her appearances, and her special celebrity has brought her more than the usual number of offers for recording contracts, Broadway shows and movies. For the woman whose biggest role pre-Miss America was Miss Turnstiles in a high school production of On the Town, it is a heady prospect. “I think about how all the things I wanted to do in life will happen later,” she says. “My life is basically on hold for this year.”

In the course of what must pass for her life until next September, she has rubbed shoulders with President Reagan, former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, designers Halston and Calvin Klein and the cast of Happy Days. Says Vanessa: “It’s still hard for me to think that Henry Winkler is excited to meet me and wants my autograph.” Of course, alas for her, the Fonz is far from alone. When Vanessa tried on a dress at Macy’s in Fresno, one woman tried to get a glimpse of her by peeping through the slats of the dressing room door. “You can’t sneak her into anywhere,” said Midge Stevenson, one of Williams’ ever-present traveling companions. “She’s always recognized.”

But then come the moments—increasingly rare, increasingly precious—when Vanessa Williams becomes merely human again. “Aren’t you Miss Universe?” asked a woman who spotted Vanessa at a Los Angeles restaurant. “No,” she replied, not stopping to explain. Watching the woman walk away with that perplexed but-I’m-sure-l-know-you look on her face, Miss America, a redeeming sense of humor still somehow intact, broke into a laugh.