Vanessa Williams and Helen Williams
Performing – and music in particular – has always played an important role in Vanessa Williams’ life. Born in Millwood, New York, Vanessa’s early years were spent surrounded by music. Her parents were music teachers who recognized her musical gifts early on and encouraged her to pursue her love of the arts. Her early interest in performing led to a passion for musical theatre. She won an NFAA scholarship, was a finalist for a Presidential Scholarship in acting in 1981 and chose to continue her education at Syracuse University, where she majored in musical theatre.
While at college in 1983, Vanessa was sought after by local talent scouts who invited her to participate in the Miss Greater Syracuse Pageant. Three months later, Vanessa won the 1983 Miss America title and the $30,000 scholarship that accompanied it. The controversy that followed only left Vanessa stronger and more empowered in her commitment to a career in the world of entertainment.
Vanessa made her film debut in 1986 in Under the Gun and she appeared in the films The Pick-Up Artist, Another You (with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder) and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (with Mickey Rourke). She starred opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Warner Bros.’ action thriller, Eraser, followed by a leading role opposite Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia in Hoodlum. She has also starred in the romantic dance-musical Dance With Me, Shaft, opposite Samuel L. Jackson and in the hit Disney feature film, Hannah Montana: The Movie.
Vanessa launched her recording career in 1988 with her first album, “The Right Stuff,” which went gold and earned her first three Grammy Award nominations. Her 1991 multi-million selling follow-up, “The Comfort Zone,” which featured the unforgettable “Save the Best For Last,” and her third album, “The Sweetest Days,” each yielded multiple hits and Grammy nominations. She was nominated for yet another Grammy for her hit single “Colors of the Wind,” from Disney’s Pocahontas, which went on to win an Academy Award, Golden Globe and the Grammy for Best Song in a Motion Picture.
In 1994, Vanessa realized a life-long dream, taking Broadway by storm when she replaced Chita Rivera in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Her performance won critics over and was a box-office sensation, firmly establishing Vanessa as a multi-talented triple-threat. Vanessa also garnered rave reviews and was nominated for a Tony Award in the 2002 revival of Stephen “Into the Woods,” taking a brief break from the production to headline a limited special engagement of the classic, “Carmen Jones,” at the Kennedy Center, playing to sold-out houses and achieving glowing notices.
Vanessa stars in ABC’s critically-acclaimed hit series, Ugly Betty for which she has won or been nominated for numerous individual and ensemble awards, including the Emmy, SAG Award, Golden Globe and NAACP Image Awards.
Her charitable contributions are many and varied, embracing and supporting such issues as education, homelessness, abuse, women’s issues and health concerns, AIDS and anything having to do with children.
As a child, Helen Williams attended Buffalo East High School. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Science degree from SUNY Freedonia and her Masters from Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. She worked on additional graduate studies at New York University.
From 1960 until she retired in 1998, Ms. Williams taught vocal music at Ossining Public Schools. She also taught as an adjunct professor at Manhattanville College School of Education.
Ms. Williams has had many highlights throughout her career. She appeared as the guest conductor with Westchester All County Elementary Music Festival Choruses and as the accompanist for Westchester County Elementary & Intermediate Music Festivals. She helped organize and implement “Claremont Cares” program, an innovative approach to basic education studies. She has also worked with Jolliet Illinois Public Schools as a consultant on the Children for Peace Project
Ms. Williams was the recipient of the March of Dimes Mother of the Year in 2001 and named as a Rotary Paul Harris Fellow in 2006. She also received the Cab Calloway Lifetime Achievement Award from the Westchester Broadway Theater.
Ms. Williams thinks the best thing about teaching are the moments “when you see the excitement in a student's face when they finally achieve an understanding of a problem or complete a challenging task…when your students return years later as adults to tell how your being a mentor and role model had a positive impact on their lives…when you recognize you have the gift to communicate via your talents and skills to help form and develop young minds, then choose to make that your career goal.”