Vanessa Williams
(© Tristan Fuge)
Vanessa Williams
(© Tristan Fuge)
Vanessa Williams has lived through fame, scandal, success, heartbreak, and triumph in her nearly 30-year-career, which began as her short reign as Miss America and includes her Broadway gigs in Kiss of the Spider Woman (which earned her a Theatre World Award), Into the Woods (which earned her Tony Award and Drama Desk Award nominations), and Sondheim on Sondheim, high-profile television roles in Ugly Betty (for which she earned three Emmy Award nominations), and Desperate Housewives, and a slew of pop hits including "Dreamin'," "Save the Best for Last" and "Colors of the Wind."

Now, Williams talks about it all in her revealing autobiography, YOU HAVE NO IDEA: A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other). TheaterMania recently spoke to Williams about the decision to tell her life story, the end of Desperate Housewives, and returning to theater.

THEATERMANIA: What made you want to write this book now?
VANESSA WILLIAMS: At this point I'm approaching 50 and I've got a huge career to look back on, and a wonderful childhood and survival stories. Part of the intention of the book was a theme I've been dealing with since I became famous, preconceived notions: 'You're beautiful so you've never had any troubles in your life," or 'You're a pageant girl so Miss America must have been the pinnacle of your career," or "You're probably learning how to act and sing on the fly and had no training." It was to use all these experiences to illustrate a point. You don't really know who I am, and you have no idea what's behind these various images.

TM: Why did you choose to co-author the book with your mother?
VW: I thought it would be a lot more intriguing. My mom is such a force and big personality. Anyone who knew her said, "I can't wait to read that, because she's always very candid!"

TM: You talk about the Miss America scandal, your divorces, and you even reveal some painful secrets about your past (including childhood molestation and an abortion). Was that cathartic?
VW: I process things pretty quickly and I definitely feel hard, but I'm always looking for what's next to pick myself up and move on. It was uncomfortable at times to re-live the past and put my mind into exactly what my headspace was at the time, but it's a lot easier when you have perspective on it.

TM: In one chapter of the book, you talk about how a failed audition for the musical My One and Only changed your life. Why was that a pivotal moment?
VW: Mike Nichols was the director and I had a great audition. Tommy Tune personally taught me to tap, and everyone was really happy, except Lee Gershwin, Ira Gershwin's widow, who said, "Over my dead body will that whore be in the show." That was when it changed for me and I thought, "Oh, this is not going to be easy, it's not just about talent." She had no idea of who I was, what I had accomplished up to that point, and all the shows I'd done. That was an "aha!" moment for me. I realized nothing was going to deter me from my dream.

TM: Luckily, that didn't sour you on Broadway. Are you planning a return to the theater anytime soon?
VW: I've had phenomenal experiences on Broadway, working with extraordinary talent from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine to Hal Prince. So I'm always open to new theater experiences and I'm always talking about new ideas.

TM: You're currently shooting the series finale of Desperate Housewives (which is called "Finishing the Hat"). What's the atmosphere been like on the set?
VW: We had our last read-through the other day and everyone brought their camera to take pictures of us doing it for the last time. I'm sure there will be a lot of tears when we film the last scene and they say, "That's a wrap for Desperate Housewives."