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And while this win seemed like a victory to many, Williams tells Good Housekeeping that this moment was ridden with "attention, pressure, negativity, and death threats." She was just 20 years old at the time, and simply entered the beauty pageant to earn scholarship money to alleviate college costs. Instead, she was subjected to racism and discrimination on all fronts: "Many said that they didn't recognize me as Miss America because I was Black. Then some people in the Black community said that it wasn't a fair win because I had lighter skin," Williams reflects.
Just 10 months into her reign as Miss America 1984, Williams was forced to give up her crown after Penthouse magazine published nude photos of her. Although the photos were taken two years before her reign and published without her permission, the public and Miss America organization didn't seem to care. "Not only was this something that had never happened within the pageant organization, and it was this huge dichotomy. It couldn't be more polar opposite of two images — you've got Miss America who's angelic, and naked pictures," she shared on Oprah's Master Class. Her resignation remains the first and only in the pageant's 99-year history.
More than three decades later, Miss America pageant's chief executive, Sam Haskell, offered a public apology to Williams at the 2015 show: "Though none of us currently in the organization were involved then, on behalf of today's organization, I want to apologize to you and to your mother, Miss Helen Williams. I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less than the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be."
But Williams never let this scandal stop her. In the years since, she's had incredible success in music with songs like "Save the Best for Last," dominated the theater world (She was starring in City of Angels on the London West End right before COVID-19 shut everything down.), published a children's book, designed a popular clothing line for HSN, and landed recurring roles on Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives.
In recent years, she's combined her many talents — singing and performing, mainly — on PBS' A Capitol Fourth, an annual 4th of July celebration that she co-hosts with John Stamos. Not only does this year's show look different than year's past due to social distancing guidelines, Williams confirms that the show's sentiment also meets this current moment, no matter how difficult it may be. "A lot of people feel disenfranchised by the freedom that the 4th of July represents. It was really important to me that I got a chance to address this feeling because I couldn't host the show and ignore what's happening," she explains.
During the 90-minute broadcast, which airs on Saturday, July 4 at 8 p.m., she'll perform two songs that hold a special place in her heart: "Not While I'm Around" from Sweeney Todd and "Somewhere" from West Side Story. Both performances, according to Williams, will touch on the "turmoil and intense energy felt in the United States right now."
"Not While I'm Around," in particular, hits close to home. The gorgeous ballad is "basically saying nothing's going to harm you, not while your mom's around." This powerful statement about unconditional love and protection at all costs is important in this current climate because "it is something that particularly Black mothers are fearful of when they see these incidents arise time and time again." As a mother of four, Williams believes this song focuses on what's important at a time like this: "I have a Black son, so it simply needs to be addressed."
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