July 23, 1984: Vanessa Williams resigns as Miss America

The following is from the History Channel:

On this day in 1984, 21-year-old Vanessa Williams gives up her Miss America title, the first resignation in the pageant’s history, after Penthouse magazine announces plans to publish nude photos of the beauty queen in its September issue. Williams originally made history on September 17, 1983, when she became the first black woman to win the Miss America crown. Miss New Jersey, Suzette Charles, the first runner-up and also an African American, assumed Williams’ tiara for the two months that remained of her reign.

Vanessa Lynn Williams was born March 18, 1963, in Millwood, New York, to music teacher parents. She attended Syracuse University and studied musical theater. In 1982, while working a summer job as a receptionist at a modeling agency in Mt. Kisco, New York, photographer Thomas Chiapel took the nude pictures of Williams, telling her they’d be shot in silhouette and that she wouldn’t be recognizable. After Williams became Miss America, the photographer sold the pictures to Penthouse without her knowledge. Williams later dropped lawsuits against the magazine and photographer after it was learned that she had signed a model release form at the time the photos were taken.

The Miss America pageant, which prides itself on projecting a wholesome, positive image of women, began in 1921 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as a stunt developed by local businessmen to extend the summer tourist season. In 1945, the Miss America Organization handed out its first scholarship. Today, it provides over $45 million each year in cash and tuition assistance to contestants on the national, state and local levels. In 1954, the competition was broadcast live for the first time. Beginning in the 1980s, contestants were required to have a social platform, such as drunk-driving prevention or AIDS awareness, and Miss America winners now travel an estimated 20,000 miles a month for speaking engagements and public appearances. In 2006, following a decline in TV ratings, the pageant moved from Atlantic City for the first time in its history and took place in Las Vegas, where a new Miss America was crowned in January instead of September.

Vanessa Williams rebounded from the Miss America scandal and went on to a successful entertainment career as an actress and recording artist, performing on Broadway as well as in movies and television and releasing a number of popular albums.


I don’t know about anybody else, but Vanessa Williams is the only Miss America that I can remember. It reminds me of the line from the Styx hit “Miss America”:

In your cage at the human zoo, they all stop to look at you
Next year, what will you do when you have been forgotten

But despite the scandal, Williams went on to a successful career. In 1988, she had success with the album and the song “The Right Stuff”:

As far as her music goes, her biggest success came in 1992 with the number 1 smash hit, “Save the Best for Last”:

I had actually bought that one on cassette single. Remember those? And more recently Williams had success on the hit show Ugly Betty, which just finished its last season.

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