Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Clips (00:00):

You were the first black woman to be Miss America.




Yeah. Was there a downside to being first?


Of course, the downside is you get the brunt of all the anger.

Jessica Bennett (00:12):

Most people know Vanessa Williams, the Grammy-nominated singer, or Vanessa Williams, the Emmy and Tony-nominated actress. But in September of 1983, a twenty-year-old Vanessa Williams became the first-ever black woman to be crowned Miss America.

Clips (00:26):

And our New Miss America is Vanessa Williams, Miss New York.

Jessica Bennett (00:31):

To see a black woman take that perch to represent, as the song claimed, the beauty ideal, the dreams of a million girls. For some, it felt as big as when Jackie Robinson desegregated Major League baseball. But Williams’ historic victory would be short-lived. Before she could complete her term, she was dethroned in a nude photo scandal and one that raised all sorts of questions about race, gender, and what it really means to make progress in America. I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (01:05):

And I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (01:07):

This is In Retrospect, where, each week, we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Susie Banikarim (01:12):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Jessica Bennett (01:14):

Today, we’re talking about Vanessa Williams, who made history as the first Black Miss America but whose win was overshadowed by a scandal that stripped her of her crown. We’re also talking about Miss America, the beauty pageant that, for more than a century, sent a particular message about what womanhood was supposed to look like, young, thin, unmarried, and white.

Susie Banikarim (01:37):

So, Jess, I’m very excited to talk about Vanessa Williams and Miss America today. I feel like I know a little bit about both topics, but you’re going to teach me so much. Why did you pick this topic?

Jessica Bennett (01:49):

I was a big Vanessa Williams fan in the, I guess, early 90s, but it was only years later that I learned she’d actually been Miss America. And then it was years after that that I learned she was the first Black Miss America. And then it was only a few years ago, as I was actually doing some research around Miss America, that I learned she’d, in fact, been stripped of her crown.

Susie Banikarim (02:11):

Yeah, I didn’t actually know the Miss America thing either. I obviously knew who Vanessa Williams was. She was a singer. And I liked her music. And then she was on that show, Ugly Betty, but I had no idea that this was part of her history. Why was she dethroned?

Jessica Bennett (02:27):

Yeah. I mean, I guess dethrone may not be the technical term for it, but she was given 72 hours to resign from Miss America and hand back her crown. And this came after a series of nude photos of her that she had taken with another woman were leaked. These were modeling shots. She was super young. She never thought they would see the light of day. She did not consent to them being released, and they were sold to Penthouse Magazine and made public.

Susie Banikarim (02:53):

Oh, wow.

Jessica Bennett (02:53):

So, there’s many layers to this story, and we’ll talk about a lot of them, but it’s also one of those cases where racism, and sexism, and homophobia all coalesced around her story and created this perfect scandal.

Susie Banikarim (03:06):

Okay. And why Miss America? Because you don’t seem to me like someone who’d be super interested in beauty pageants.

Jessica Bennett (03:12):

I don’t strike you as a Miss American fan? What?

Susie Banikarim (03:15):

Well, that’s not my natural inclination.

Jessica Bennett (03:17):

Yeah. Actually, I’m trying to think. No, I did not grow up watching Miss America. That was certainly not something my parents would’ve condoned as we, I think, have talked about at length. Seattle, no cable television, really not into anything perpetuating that kind of thing. Did you watch it?

Susie Banikarim (03:32):

I did. Yeah. I mean, I just assumed that every kid in America or every girl certainly, at some point, watched Miss America. Right?

Jessica Bennett (03:40):

Not in crunchy Seattle, we didn’t.

Susie Banikarim (03:42):

Not in crunchy Seattle. I mean, I think, as I’ve mentioned, also did not have a TV for a couple of years, but in the years that we did have TV, it turned me into an absolute addict. They had taken away a drug, and I was jonesing for more. And I think also, as an immigrant, Miss America feels very much like a thing that helps you understand the culture you’ve entered. Right?

Jessica Bennett (04:01):

Yeah. Sort of like Baywatch-esque in that way.

Susie Banikarim (04:04):

Yeah. It helped me understand the concept of what it meant to be beautiful in America, for better or for worse. Right? [inaudible 00:04:11]

Jessica Bennett (04:10):

We’re going to get into all of that. It’s so disturbing. But so I ended up, when I was reporting at the Times, covering Miss America at length, and I’m trying to think of why I got first interested in it. I think it’s because, in 1968, there was this famous protest-

Clips (04:28):

Step right up. How much am I offered for this number one piece of prime American property?

Jessica Bennett (04:35):

… where feminists went, and they threw bras, and girdles, and false eyelashes, and anything else that represented unfair beauty standards into this trash can at the Miss America pageant.

Clips (04:52):

She’s going to be Miss America. She’s going to be Miss America.

Susie Banikarim (04:54):

I mean, that sounds amazing. Let’s go to that protest now.

Jessica Bennett (04:57):

It is amazing. It’s a famous protest. And actually, have you ever heard the term bra burning used to refer to feminists?

Susie Banikarim (05:04):

Oh, of course. Yeah. I mean, bra burning seems like it was like what everyone defined as the 70s feminist.

Jessica Bennett (05:10):

Right. First of all, bra burning is a myth. No one ever burned bras, but-

Susie Banikarim (05:13):

Oh, really?

Jessica Bennett (05:13):

… where it originated is actually at this pageant in the late 60s when the women, they planned to burn their bras in this trash can that they threw everything into, but they couldn’t get the right permits.

Susie Banikarim (05:25):

Oh, my God.

Jessica Bennett (05:25):

And so they didn’t. They just threw them into the trash can, and they called it a freedom trash can. And the press covered it, but one reporter was not able to make it to see that they didn’t really burn anything, but went with the bra burning headline, and thus bra burning was born.

Susie Banikarim (05:40):

Oh, wow. I didn’t realize that nobody burned bras. Did they eventually burn bras because they thought it was a thing?

Jessica Bennett (05:45):

No, nobody ever burned bras, I don’t think.

Susie Banikarim (05:47):


Jessica Bennett (05:48):

I mean, I don’t know, maybe in life, people have burned their bras, but no, it’s fully a myth that emerged out of the Miss America protest.

Susie Banikarim (05:55):

Wow, okay. That is a piece of history.

Jessica Bennett (06:01):

And then in 2018, the height of the Me Too movement, I learned and ended up reporting on that Miss America was trying to remodel itself to be woker and more inclusive, and less gross.

Susie Banikarim (06:19):

It seems like that ship sailed a long time ago.

Jessica Bennett (06:22):

Yeah. So, I ended up covering a lot of the changes to the pageant.

Susie Banikarim (06:26):

I see. And so, if I remember correctly, one of the changes was swimsuits, right? Because I remember that they used to have to do a section that was swimsuits.

Jessica Bennett (06:35):

Yeah, that’s what made Miss America, Miss America, right? The swimsuit competition.

Clips (06:38):

Now, ladies and gentlemen, in the swimsuit category, first, Miss Georgia.

Susie Banikarim (06:46):

And now they don’t do that anymore?

Jessica Bennett (06:48):

So, in 2018, they had a new president take over, and yes, they got rid of the swimsuit competition.

Susie Banikarim (06:55):

And then there was always the Q&A section, which I don’t want to insult beauty pageant girls, but occasionally, a clip would go viral where it just didn’t make any sense.

Clips (07:05):

I believe that our education, such as in South Africa and the Iraq, everywhere, such as, and-

Jessica Bennett (07:12):

Yes, and actually, this is maybe a good place to point out that Miss America is different from the Miss USA/Universe pageant. That’s the Donald Trump one.

Susie Banikarim (07:22):

Right, right.

Jessica Bennett (07:22):

But I think Miss America was, and maybe is, I don’t know, considered the more sophisticated of the two.

Susie Banikarim (07:27):

Right. It’s like the gold standard of pageants. It’s the classy one, for lack of a better way of distinguishing them.

Jessica Bennett (07:34):

Yeah, it’s been around the longest. Miss Congeniality was not made about the Miss USA pageant. It was made about Miss America.

Clips (07:40):

Describe your perfect date.


I’d have to say April 25th because it’s not too hot, not too cold. All you need is a light jacket.

Susie Banikarim (07:53):

I mean, truly a great film, by the way.

Jessica Bennett (07:55):

It’s so good.

Susie Banikarim (07:56):

I mean, maybe film is pushing it. A very fun movie is what I’ll say about Ms. Congeniality. Okay. So, before we get into Vanessa Williams and her historic victory, is there anything more we need to know about the history of Miss America?

Jessica Bennett (08:09):

Yeah, I think there’s a few things. I mean, it does have a really fascinating history. So, it began in 1921 in Atlantic City. That’s always where it’s taken place, save for a few years when it moved to Vegas, but that’s really been its home. So, 1921, this is a year after women’s suffrage passes when women were granted the right to vote, and it was conceived of as a way to extend the summer tourist season past Labor Day. Atlantic City is a tourist destination.

Clips (08:36):

A beauty parade in the famous American watering place, Atlantic City. Who shall hold the title Miss America? Each state in the union has sent a representative to compete for the crown of girlhood beauty.

Jessica Bennett (08:46):

But one of the really interesting things, and I actually learned this in Rebecca Traister’s book, All the Single Ladies, is that the sashes, the iconic sashes that Miss Americas wear, we can all picture them-

Susie Banikarim (08:58):

Yeah, I can picture it. Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (08:58):

… were actually based on or modeled on the votes for women’s sashes that the suffragists wore.

Susie Banikarim (09:04):


Jessica Bennett (09:05):

Isn’t that a fun piece of history?

Susie Banikarim (09:06):

Yeah. That is actually shocking.

Jessica Bennett (09:09):

Another interesting thing is that, at this time, women were barred from wearing revealing swimwear in public or beachwear in public. So, the original Atlantic City event actually had to get a temporary suspension of this ban so that they could do the swimsuit competition.

Susie Banikarim (09:23):

Am I remembering correctly that they weren’t even allowed to wear bikinis for the swimsuit competition? It had to be one-pieces because it had to be dignified. Right?

Jessica Bennett (09:32):

Oh, that’s interesting. I’m not sure when the pageant allowed it or not, but they weren’t a thing back in the 1920s when it got started.

Susie Banikarim (09:39):

That makes sense.

Jessica Bennett (09:40):

So, the vintage images are all these very cute one-pieces with low-cut legs. Another interesting thing is that you hear the origins of Miss America, and you think like, “Okay, so which men decided to dream this thing up, get the ladies on the boardwalk, put them in some swimsuits, extend the tourist season?” And that was true in the beginning, but it was actually a woman, Lenora Slaughter, who becomes pretty famous, who really makes Miss America into what, I think, we remember it as. She introduces the talent portion-

Susie Banikarim (10:10):

Oh, wow.

Jessica Bennett (10:10):

… and she runs it for nearly three decades, starting in the 1930s.

Clips (10:12):

And it began with a briefing for all 52 contestants. Presiding, the pageant’s executive director, Lenora Slaughter.

Susie Banikarim (10:21):

Interesting. This is like the Barbie story. Right? People assume Barbie was a male invention, but it was a woman who invented it. Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (10:27):

And so what happens is, over the years, Miss America becomes this pretty major cultural event. At its height in the 1960s, three in four American households watched it. In an article that I was doing a few years ago, I actually interviewed a woman, an author, Alex Kate Shulman. She’s now in her 80s, and she was one of the organizers of that 1968 feminist protest.

Susie Banikarim (10:50):


Jessica Bennett (10:50):

And she said to me, “Everybody tuned into Miss America back then. It was like the Oscars.” And that was just so surprising to me as someone who hadn’t grown up in that era.

Susie Banikarim (10:58):

I mean, that’s not surprising to me. Obviously, I didn’t grow up in the 1960s, but even when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, I remember there just weren’t that many channels on television. So, if there was a big event, everybody watched. That was the vibe.

Jessica Bennett (11:12):

Right, right, appointment viewing. The other thing is that there’s long been this controversy about what Miss America does with scholarship money and how much of that money actually goes to contestants. But the organization itself has long touted itself as more than a beauty pageant, not just a pageant. They’re the largest provider, they say, of scholarship money to young women. And the women take part in community service. They try to at least frame it as more than just a pageant.

Clips (11:42):

Scholarships I received as Miss Minnesota of 1956 helped to pay my college expenses. I’m glad I chose a career that gives me the opportunity to help prepare these wonderful children for life in the 90s.


Thank you, Miss America.

Jessica Bennett (11:56):

Over the years, Miss America has been the subject of mockery and scorn. It’s been opposed by religious groups, and women’s rights activists love when those two groups come together.

Susie Banikarim (12:05):

Yeah, I love it when those two groups can come together on something.

Jessica Bennett (12:08):

And it’s also, I think, a reminder that we still live in a world today where women are judged on their bodies. John Oliver actually had a really funny segment on this a few years ago.

Clips (12:18):

Last Sunday was the Miss America Pageant. And through it all, the swimsuits, the dance numbers, the inexplicable ventriloquism, it was very difficult not to think how the f*** is this still happening?

Susie Banikarim (12:48):

This is this kind of arcane thing. What are the rules for Miss America? I remember that they’re very strict.

Jessica Bennett (12:56):

Yeah. Okay. How do you get to be a Miss America? Well, there are a lot of rules. And even today, the rules state that first, you must be a woman between 17 and 25 years of age. You cannot be married, previously married, or divorced. You must not have any children. You can’t have been previously pregnant. You can’t be the adoptive parent of any child.

Susie Banikarim (13:18):

Okay, wait, I have questions about this. How can they verify that you’ve never been pregnant? People have miscarriages and abortions. They’re not checking your health records. That’s a crazy rule.

Jessica Bennett (13:28):

Obviously, you can’t check. I guess they’re relying on the honor system.

Susie Banikarim (13:31):

Yeah, I’m sure a lot of Miss Americas have had that. Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (13:34):

You also can’t compete if you’ve ever been convicted of a criminal offense. I feel like that’s a little less shocking. But all of these things, to see them printed out on paper is pretty strange.

Susie Banikarim (13:45):

I can imagine. Are there any other crazy rules?

Jessica Bennett (13:47):

Yeah, so actually, the most infamous of these rules was known as rule number seven. And this rule stated in the early years, this was until about the 1940s, that contestants to Miss America had to be “of good health and of the white race.”

Susie Banikarim (14:04):

I’m sorry, what? I just made a comically shocked face.

Jessica Bennett (14:09):

Yeah, and it wasn’t enough that they just declared they were “of the white race.” Contestants actually had to provide a detailed accounting of their ancestry.

Susie Banikarim (14:18):

Oh, wow. So, not a great history all around.

Jessica Bennett (14:21):

So, not a great history. And the overt “of the white race” rule was dropped in the 1940s. And interestingly, in the 1960s, there was actually a separate Miss Black America contest that was also held in Atlantic City in direct protest of the pageant.

Susie Banikarim (14:37):

Oh, wow. Okay.

Jessica Bennett (14:38):

But it would be another decade before a black contestant would actually walk on the stage.

Clips (14:43):

Until this year, the Miss America pageant could have been called Miss White America.

Jessica Bennett (14:48):

But by 1983, which is Vanessa’s year, only about a dozen black women had ever walked the Miss America stage. So, history was really being made, not just in her, but in that there were four African-American contestants total, which was the most ever in a single year.

Susie Banikarim (15:04):

Okay. So, they’re making some progress. Set the scene for me. It’s 1983. Is there a lot of big hair? Are there shoulder pads? What’s Vanessa Williams’ year like?

Jessica Bennett (15:15):

Yeah, a lot of sequins, a lot of shoulder pads, big hair. And actually, we should probably note that while Miss America had reached its peak in the 60s, this is when three in four American households were watching, by the 80s, when Vanessa is there, it’s actually really struggling. It’s fallen out of step with the culture. I mean, you can imagine. It’s the 80s. It’s crazy that this thing is still going on.

Susie Banikarim (15:37):

Oh, that’s interesting because I associate it with the 80s when I watched it, but that’s interesting that it wasn’t actually such a cultural juggernaut at that point.

Jessica Bennett (15:45):


Susie Banikarim (15:45):

I know from Pageant Moms and Toddlers and Tiaras and Honey Boo Boo that many girls get started at a very young age. Was Vanessa a pageant girl?

Jessica Bennett (15:56):

Oh, that’s a good question because you’re right. So many of these pageant people do this their whole lives. They get started really young. The parents are really involved. They work their way up from locals to state to whatever. And Vanessa was actually pretty unique in that she wasn’t that, except for one thing that is hilarious and would come up later after she won. Her parents, when she was born, had put on her birth announcement, “Here she is, Miss America.”

Susie Banikarim (16:23):

Oh, my God, that’s so cute, actually.

Jessica Bennett (16:25):

Isn’t that funny? It’s pretty adorable. And I should, at this point, I should cite Margot Mifflin, the author of a really amazing book on Miss America that has so much of this great history. So, we have read through that and some of these references, I am taking from her.

Susie Banikarim (16:38):

Okay. So, they put this on her birth announcement, but she’s not like a pageant girl. She doesn’t compete in pageants when she’s a child.

Jessica Bennett (16:43):

No. From everything that I’ve read, including her memoir, she has a pretty normal upbringing. She’s born in 1963 in a pretty small town called Millwood, New York. It’s a suburb of New York City. Her parents were music teachers, which is pretty cool and gives you a sense of how she became so artistic. She became a singer, ultimately. She wanted to be an actress, and they were really supportive of that. So, she sang in her high school choir, and she played the French horn in her band, which I love.

Susie Banikarim (17:09):

So cute.

Jessica Bennett (17:10):

And then, she went on to be a musical theater major at Syracuse University. She writes in her memoir, which came out in 2012, she actually co-authored it with her mom, that she didn’t have any desire to be a beauty queen, let alone Miss America, but she wanted a scholarship. She could use a little money to help her fund her junior year semester abroad.

Susie Banikarim (17:33):

I mean, fair.

Jessica Bennett (17:34):

And so that’s how this whole thing had started.

Susie Banikarim (17:37):

I don’t know how I know this, but I think she was scouted. Right?

Jessica Bennett (17:38):


Susie Banikarim (17:39):

She was actually approached to enter.

Jessica Bennett (17:40):

You know so many facts about things. Yes, you’re right. So, she basically, she gets discovered singing in her college. She’s in the choir. Someone sees her, and this person encourages her to enter what was the Miss Greater Syracuse, which was a local competition that feeds into Miss New York, which then feeds into Miss America. So, she does. She enters it and she works her way up all in a matter of a few months. And of course, she starts getting noticed in the press, who begin asking her questions like:

Clips (18:10):

Now, you are a young black woman. Do you think the country is ready for a black Miss America?


Well, I certainly would be a first, and I wouldn’t mind that. I wouldn’t mind setting a trend, making waves.

Susie Banikarim (18:22):

It’s really a testament to her talent that it happened so quickly because there are girls who grow up trying to do this their whole lives. So, she does get to Miss America. What happens next?

Jessica Bennett (18:32):

Okay. So, it’s Miss America 1984, but it actually happens in 1983.

Clips (18:36):

Live from Convention Hall in Atlantic City, the Miss America Pageant,

Jessica Bennett (18:43):

And she gets there, and it’s like she’s a natural-born star. It’s clear that she’s meant to be on stage. She wows the judges. She’s gorgeous. She impresses them with how smart and confident she is.

Clips (18:58):

I think that it is important for education to be endowed with a good financial backing. I believe that-

Jessica Bennett (19:06):

She competes in this beautiful but very 80s pale pink sequined sparkly gown that has this gauzy bulb that looks like a shower puff. I don’t know how else to describe it, like a giant shower-

Susie Banikarim (19:18):

Yeah, that is a good way to describe it-

Jessica Bennett (19:18):

… that’s on the shoulder.

Susie Banikarim (19:19):

… as this lacy pouf on her shoulder.

Jessica Bennett (19:25):

Yes, yes, that she could hardly see over. Anyway, and her hair is very 80s, teased bangs. She actually writes in her memoir that she really only needed help from a coach for one of the questions, and that was why the pageant contestants had to compete in swimsuits because maybe she didn’t agree with that.

Susie Banikarim (19:44):

Yeah, what is the answer to that?

Clips (19:45):

Now, our Miss America finalists in swimsuit, Miss New York, Vanessa Williams.

Jessica Bennett (19:51):

She was told to say a fit body reflects a fit mind.

Susie Banikarim (19:55):

That’s very, very true.

Jessica Bennett (19:57):

And so this all leads to her victory. On September 17th, 1983, she is crowned Miss America,

Clips (20:05):

And our new Miss America is Vanessa Williams, Miss New York.

Susie Banikarim (20:10):

What’s crazy is that I know it’s ridiculous and it’s going to end badly for her, but I still feel a swell of pride for her when they make that announcement. It’s like Pavlovian on my part. What is wrong with my brain?

Jessica Bennett (20:21):

And that music is so evocative in a way. And watching the winning moment, she’s clearly excited. She’s beaming. She does the walk down the stage doing the iconic wave. She’s wearing her crown. She looks every bit the part. And notably, she says this at the First press conference after her win.

Clips (20:41):

I hope to do the best that I can to well represent America, to represent every person in America, no matter what race, or creed, or color they are.

Jessica Bennett (20:51):

So, what happens next? The coverage of the event is actually pretty interesting. For years, newspapers and magazines, I think, had sent multiple reporters to cover the Miss America pageant, and especially during the 60s protest years when there was big feminist uprisings.

Susie Banikarim (21:07):


Jessica Bennett (21:07):

Everyone was covering it. There was tons of coverage. But by this time, as we mentioned, it’s fallen out of favor.

Susie Banikarim (21:14):

I wonder, is that because of the women’s lib, working-girl vibe of the times?

Jessica Bennett (21:19):

I mean, maybe. I’m not sure the answer. But what ends up happening is that a lot of outlets, as a result, are really caught off guard in terms of just how historic this thing is.

Susie Banikarim (21:30):

Oh, that’s interesting.

Jessica Bennett (21:31):

So, the Washington Post, the year prior, has decided that nobody cares about Miss America anymore, and so they opted not to send a reporter. The New York Times doesn’t have anyone there either, and they run a wire story, which oddly doesn’t have a photo of Vanessa but only pictures her runner-up. That was a weird detail that I didn’t understand.

Susie Banikarim (21:48):

It’s very weird.

Jessica Bennett (21:49):

And then there’s other just funny details that give you a sense of how people covered these events. There’s this whole debate about whether or not she cried as she went on her inaugural walk to get her crown. The Chicago Tribune said she didn’t cry. The New York Times said she did cry. And anyway-

Susie Banikarim (22:06):

And God forbid.

Jessica Bennett (22:06):

Right? God forbid.

Susie Banikarim (22:06):

We love to police a woman’s crying.

Jessica Bennett (22:08):

The point is, it becomes clear pretty quickly that this is a big deal, and so the media is playing catch-up.

Susie Banikarim (22:28):

Okay. So, we have this historic victory, and reporters are scrambling to catch up. What is the impact of this? I imagine this becomes a huge news event.

Jessica Bennett (22:37):

Yeah, it does. I mean, it really does go down as one of the biggest news events of the year, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that she is the first. So, some liken her win to Jackie Robinson actually integrating baseball. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, weighs in. She says of the victory at the time, “Thank God I’ve lived long enough that this nation has been able to select the beautiful young woman of color to be Miss America.” And Vanessa actually talks about this too. Here she is in a press junket, post-victory.

Clips (23:07):

Being able to say that you are the first and being in history books and making so many people proud of something that never happened and probably they never thought they would see it in their lifetime and having it happen, I think, is a tremendous honor.

Susie Banikarim (23:19):

Yeah, I mean, you can see why this would feel really significant. Right? I mean, if you’re a young black girl in America, you’ve never seen yourself represented in this thing that’s held up as the epitome of what it means to be beautiful in America.

Jessica Bennett (23:32):

I think that’s, too, what made it feel so important, even though by that point, a lot of people dismissed Miss America. The other thing that was happening at the time is that this is occurring right around the same time that there’s this major backlash to affirmative action happening. So, this is when the Reagan administration was trying to roll back workforce diversity measures, and pundits were on the air talking about reverse discrimination.

Clips (23:55):

We’re all aware that recent opinion polls have indicated that while a very large majority of the American public support affirmative action, over 80% are also opposed to reverse discrimination.

Susie Banikarim (24:10):

I mean, that is wild because it feels like we’ve just come full circle, and everyone’s doing that … that same conversation is happening again right now. It’s wild.

Jessica Bennett (24:18):

I know. But so, it is coming amid this political moment too, and you can see this in what happens in the press coverage after, where she’s doing all of these interviews, and she keeps being asked things along the lines of, “So, are you a token? Was this affirmative action?”

Clips (24:34):

Don’t you consider yourself too, a de facto spokesman for black America now?


I think so, but that’s something that I knew that was going to happen, and I was prepared for it.

Jessica Bennett (24:46):

Her responses are actually so moving and telling because she really has to emphasize her qualifications. So, at a certain point, she says, “I was chosen because I was qualified for the position,” as if we’re talking about a job position. “The fact that I was black was not a factor. I’ve always had to try harder in my life to achieve things. So, this is regular.” At another point, she really emphasizes the importance of education and her character and hard work. She says quite bluntly, “I’m ambitious. I have a lot of drive, and I work hard to get somewhere.” And the thing that’s nice before this all comes crashing down is that the Miss America organization actually really backs her up. This guy, Albert Marx, who was the chairman of the board back then, says repeatedly, “I can assure you that this young lady got here on her merits.”

Susie Banikarim (25:38):

I mean, I believe that because did Miss America even care enough about inclusion for it to be affirmative action? I mean, it doesn’t seem like they were very worried about being inclusive. I mean, it’s interesting because when she says being black isn’t a factor, it is a factor. She had to work harder to get there.

Jessica Bennett (25:56):

Exactly, exactly.

Susie Banikarim (25:58):

It’s an interesting dichotomy. So, what’s it actually like for her to be Miss America? Being the first black Miss America must have been a really interesting experience.

Jessica Bennett (26:07):

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s pretty crazy. Miss Americas traditionally get to do things like ride on floats at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Clips (26:16):

I’m going to be singing New York, New York on the Big Apple float.

Jessica Bennett (26:19):

And they meet important people, and they act as ambassadors to their communities, but hers was really on a different level. She sits next to President Reagan at the White House at this state dinner for West Germany.

Clips (26:32):

I don’t think it’s a coincidence, for one thing, that you had a call of congratulations from President Reagan. He’s never called a winning Miss America before, that I’m aware of.

Jessica Bennett (26:40):

That year, there’s a Martin Luther King Jr. birthday rally in Atlanta, and she stands there and attends alongside Coretta Scott King and the first black astronaut. So, she’s standing with heroic figures.

Susie Banikarim (26:54):

It’s interesting because she’s taken something that’s genuinely pretty silly, and she’s imbued it with a kind of significance. Right? And there is-

Jessica Bennett (27:01):

Yeah, and a seriousness, I think.

Susie Banikarim (27:02):

… there is something interesting about that. Yeah, it’s like this thing can be silly but also meaningful, and she really proves that.

Jessica Bennett (27:08):

Yeah, and I think that, aside from that, I mean, she just had a huge number of fans. At one point in one of the articles about it, a reporter notes that people approached her with a frenzy once reserved for Mick Jagger and just departed with ecstatic smiles associated with religious experience. So, people really love her.

Susie Banikarim (27:26):

I mean, that makes sense. She really was so stunning. When you see the pictures and the videos of the time, you can see why she has this charisma that really draws people to her.

Jessica Bennett (27:35):

And yet, at the same time, though, it’s not all celebration. There are real racist undertones to a lot of what happens in the aftermath.

Susie Banikarim (27:42):

What does that look like? Is the backlash immediate?

Jessica Bennett (27:45):

Some of it is more overt than other parts of it, but it does begin pretty immediately. The very night that she’s crowned, one of the other attendees of the pageant, who is a former Miss America, makes some crack to someone that she’s with about how she must be “heading back to Harlem now.”

Susie Banikarim (28:00):


Jessica Bennett (28:01):

Then, later in the week, Johnny Carson, on his late night show, makes this joke. I’m putting joke in quotations because it’s not funny. But he says, “Did you hear we have a black Miss America? I bet you didn’t know that Mr. T was one of the judges.”

Susie Banikarim (28:14):

I mean, that joke is just dumb, racist, and dumb.

Jessica Bennett (28:17):

And it’s interesting too, because she says at this time that she hadn’t really experienced bald-faced bigotry at this point. And so her parents say something to the effect of like, “Look, you are a public figure now, and we can’t shelter you anymore.” And it gets really nasty. There are racist, threatening letters sent to her parents’ house, just awful, awful things written and said. She has to have extra security wherever she goes. Armed guards are posted outside her hotel room. She talks, at one point, about how they were actual sharpshooters placed on the tops of buildings when she had her first parade in the South. Just wild, wild. This is the 80s, and there are sharpshooters to protect this Miss America.

Susie Banikarim (29:00):

I imagine there were so many death threats, really.

Jessica Bennett (29:03):

I’m sure we don’t even know the half of it, but I think it was just awful. There’s even another detail that she said, where usually when you have Miss America going to some town or for a parade, they ride in a convertible. That’s a thing. But she could not ride in a convertible because she was too exposed.

Susie Banikarim (29:20):

God, that’s really sad. It just really makes me sad for her that she had to have all these security measures that weren’t required for other people.

Jessica Bennett (29:27):

Well, and her family too. So, her mother, Helen Williams, co-authored Vanessa’s memoir with her, and she writes in that book that we had no idea that her Miss America reign would quickly become a reign of terror for us. That’s how she describes it, a reign of terror. And it’s interesting too, because at the time, you’re assuming that a lot of this is coming from white folks, but she was also being criticized by black people as well, who, I think, dismissed the notion that her crowning was a racial breakthrough. She was pretty light-skinned. She had these beautiful green eyes. It was later revealed that her longtime boyfriend was white. And so she received these really vicious letters that called her a race traitor as well.

Susie Banikarim (30:08):

Yeah, because it’s this idea that you are embraced by your community in one way but also rejected in another.

Jessica Bennett (30:15):


Susie Banikarim (30:16):

You’re never quite good enough for any of the people who feel invested in your win.

Jessica Bennett (30:20):

Yeah. And Vanessa talked about this a bit in an interview she did in 1991.

Clips (30:24):

I mean, I had racial problems when I first won. I got death threats from the Klan because I was black. I got people from-


For winning Miss America?


Yeah, yeah. I mean, I had black people in America who said, “She doesn’t look black enough.”

Susie Banikarim (30:34):

It’s interesting. It reminds me of Robin Givens, who is not celebrated as being black enough, and that must also be really a complicated history for Vanessa to have to navigate. But this is happening over the course of the year. She almost completes the full term as Miss America.

Jessica Bennett (30:54):

Yes. It’s been many months now. And it’s interesting to hear her, in later years, talk about this time because she sounds a bit torn. On the one hand, she’s what, 20, 21 years old. She’s getting to travel the country. She’s meeting all these incredible people. It’s an entree in a lot of ways to what she really wants, which is to be in the entertainment business. But at the same time, there’s this racism, and everywhere she goes, people are asking her about the political issues or the racial politics of the day. And actually, in fairness to her, at one point, she answers that question by saying, “Hey, I’m only 20 years old. What qualifies me to answer that?” Which fairly-

Susie Banikarim (31:32):

I mean, that is really fair. Why is she suddenly being thrust into this position as a leader on racial politics? That’s really a strange position for her to have been forced into.

Jessica Bennett (31:44):

And I think that’s one of the things about being a first of anything too. It’s like you are expected to answer for the whole group, and then if something bad happens, you are again expected to answer for the whole group.

Susie Banikarim (31:58):

Okay. So, we do know that eventually, something bad does happen, and she gets dethroned. What happened?

Jessica Bennett (32:05):

So, what happens is, nine weeks from the end of her reign, so she’s really very close to this year post being over, she learns that nude photos that she had taken when she was 19 years old were going to appear in Penthouse. And the kicker: the nude photos were with another woman.

Susie Banikarim (32:25):

And she hadn’t consented to these photos being released in any way, right?

Jessica Bennett (32:29):

No. The photographer sold these images to the magazine without her permission or her knowledge. And so the way she finds out about them is actually during an interview with a reporter. This is happening on the phone, and the reporter drops it in at the very end of the interview, essentially saying, “By the way, a source mentioned that there would be these nude photos of you appearing in Penthouse. Can you confirm that this is true?”

Susie Banikarim (32:54):

Oh, my God. She must have been so blindsided. She had no idea it was coming?

Jessica Bennett (32:58):

No, no idea. And obviously, she’s extremely rattled when the reporter asks her this. So, she denies it and quickly hangs up, but she also knows that these photos are out there. And so, before she can even figure out what to do, Miss America gets wind of the photos. They see them, and they give her a public ultimatum.

Clips (33:17):

Miss America, Vanessa Williams took off her clothes, and now she’s being asked to give up her crown within 72 hours.

Susie Banikarim (33:24):

That’s Tom Brokaw, right?

Jessica Bennett (33:25):


Susie Banikarim (33:25):

I would recognize his voice anywhere. And he really delivers that line. So, she’s given 72 hours to decide what to do.

Jessica Bennett (33:33):

Yes. And she spends that time holed up in her childhood home. She’s with her parents. She’s told them at this point. Her lawyer is there. Her publicist is there, and they’re essentially debating what she should do.

Susie Banikarim (33:44):

And what does she decide to do?

Jessica Bennett (33:46):

Well, Susie, I’m going to tell you all about that, as well as Vanessa’s remarkable comeback in part two.


Before we go, I wanted to give a quick shout-out to two authors whose books were instrumental in our research of this episode. The first is Margo Mifflin, whose book is Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood. And the second is Amy Argetsinger, whose book is There She Was: The Secret History of Miss America. They’re both fascinating reads, and you can find links to them in our show notes.

Susie Banikarim (34:23):

This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a pop culture moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (34:36):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple, or Spotify, or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram, which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (34:46):

You can also find us on Instagram @jessicabennett and @susiebnyc. Also, check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This is 18.

Jessica Bennett (34:55):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeart Podcasts and the Meteor. Lauren Hanson is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Emily Marinoff is our producer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (35:10):

Our executive producer from the Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Our mixing engineer is Amanda Rose Smith. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim-

Jessica Bennett (35:27):

… and Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out Inretropod.com. See you next week.