Vanessa Williams Is the First Miss America to Resign

Vanessa Williams, the first African American to be crowned Miss America, resigned her title after Penthouse magazine announced that it would publish nude photographs of her. A photographer sold the photos to the magazine without her consent. The scandal combined issues of race, sexuality, gender, the ideal of feminine beauty, and the right to privacy.

Summary of Event

Vanessa Williams gained much media exposure as the first African American woman to be crowned Miss America on September 17, 1983. The following summer, Bob Guccione, owner and publisher of the adult magazine Penthouse, announced he would publish photographs of Williams nude. Pageant officials pressured Williams to resign, which she did. The risqué issue of Penthouse, which hit newsstands the weekend before she resigned, sold out within one week and went through a second printing of tens of thousands of copies. Williams subsequently filed a lawsuit against Guccione and the photographer involved but later dropped the charges. To deal with the negative publicity, she hired a publicist, and with his guidance she successfully revived her career, winning awards as a singer and as a stage, film, and television actor. [kw]Williams Is the First Miss America to Resign, Vanessa (July 23, 1984)
[kw]Miss America to Resign, Vanessa Williams Is the First (July 23, 1984)
Nudity;Vanessa Williams[Williams]
Williams, Vanessa
Guccione, Bob
Miss America;Vanessa Williams[Williams]
Penthouse magazine
Nudity;Vanessa Williams[Williams]
Williams, Vanessa
Guccione, Bob
Miss America;Vanessa Williams[Williams]
Penthouse magazine
[g]United States;July 23, 1984: Vanessa Williams Is the First Miss America to Resign[02110]
[c]Publishing and journalism;July 23, 1984: Vanessa Williams Is the First Miss America to Resign[02110]
[c]Social issues and reform;July 23, 1984: Vanessa Williams Is the First Miss America to Resign[02110]
[c]Sex;July 23, 1984: Vanessa Williams Is the First Miss America to Resign[02110]
[c]Women’s issues;July 23, 1984: Vanessa Williams Is the First Miss America to Resign[02110]
[c]Racism;July 23, 1984: Vanessa Williams Is the First Miss America to Resign[02110]
Marks, Albert A.
Chiapel, Tom
Freeman, Helene
Charles, Suzette
Hervey, Ramon, II

Vanessa Williams announces her resignation as Miss America.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1982, Williams was a student at Syracuse University majoring in theater arts. She spent the summer as a receptionist for modeling photographer Tom Chiapel at his agency in Mount Kisco, New York. He convinced her to pose for some nude photo shoots; on at least one occasion the photo shoots included another woman. Williams later claimed that she was convinced by Chiapel that the shots would be artistic, adding that she did the shoot because she was curious and that she had never agreed to any later duplication or distribution of the images.

The next year, after winning Miss Greater Syracuse and then Miss New York, Williams went on to Atlantic City to represent her state in the annual Miss America pageant. She won the preliminary talent and swimsuit competitions and was crowned Miss America. She did a good job of performing her titular functions during her reign as Miss America 1984, though she received hate mail and castigation from two extremes: racist reactionaries who were opposed in principle to any nonwhite woman winning the pageant and Afrocentric radicals who were disappointed that the first black Miss America had light skin.

The media highlighted Williams’s breaking of the race barrier in the most revered beauty pageant in the United States, and more than once she was compared to Robinson, Jackie Jackie Robinson, who had broken the color line in professional baseball in 1947. Photographer Chiapel saw an opportunity for profit in Williams’s new celebrity. Without consulting Williams, he approached Hugh Hefner, founder and publisher of the adult magazine Playboy magazine
Playboy, and offered to sell him the photos of Williams nude. Hefner turned him down, later stating on The Today Show that he saw the release of the photos as an inappropriate invasion of the current Miss America’s privacy. His publishing rival, Guccione, had no such qualms, however.

Guccione bought the rights to the now-infamous photographs. The September, 1984, issue of Penthouse included several photos of Williams, some depicting simulated lesbian sex. Sales of the magazine increased by more than two million copies over the average issue distribution of 3.4 million. Penthouse published a follow-up photo feature, accompanied by an interview with the photographer, in its November, 1984, issue. Guccione made millions of dollars from the first Miss America exposé alone.

Albert A. Marks, the executive director of Miss America Organization, saw the photographs of Williams before publication and insisted that Williams resign. She did so at a news conference in New York City on July 23; the September issue of Penthouse appeared on newsstands just days before her resignation. Williams said she relinquished her title because she did not want harm to come to the pageant. She was allowed to keep her scholarship money but did lose endorsement deals. She also lost a deal for her autobiography.

The pageant weathered the scandal. Miss New Jersey, Suzette Charles, had been one of three other African American women, the highest number to make it so far in the history of the pageant, competing for Miss America in Atlantic City in 1983. Charles was first runner-up in the overall competition, so she took over as Miss America following Williams’s resignation. Her reign was for a short two months. That Charles was a woman of color might have mollified some of the theories circulating that the publication of the nude photos of Williams was racially motivated.

Williams’s lawyer, Helene Freeman, filed a $500 million lawsuit against Chiapel and Guccione in early September, 1984, claiming that the development and distribution of the photos had never been authorized or approved. Guccione had answered such assertions earlier by responding that he had in his possession a model release form that Williams herself had signed. He said that two different, respected handwriting-analysis experts had verified the signature as that of Williams. While Williams maintained throughout the controversy that she was a naïve young woman who had been misled by the photographer, she eventually dropped the charges.

Williams’s career was salvaged, in no small part, because of the help of her publicist, Ramon Hervey II, who had been hired to do spin control. Hervey was an effective publicist and, later, he became her manager. Hervey helped transform her 1984 notoriety, which started scandalously, into an impressive, award-winning career in music, theater, film, and television. Williams and Hervey married in 1987.


It is clear that the September, 1984, issue of Penthouse was controversial. It also was incredibly lucrative financially for Guccione. Its cultural impact, however, was less clear at the time the scandal broke. The nude-photo feature would soon set the tone for an increasing emphasis on salacious articles and images of celebrities in American popular culture in the closing decades of the twentieth century.

At the time of the controversy, feminist leaders such as Gloria Steinem and influential African American leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Jesse Jackson rallied in defense of Williams, creating enough of a support base to indicate that the risque photos, which, in the past, surely would have destroyed a young Miss America’s future, did not—and should not—negate Williams’s overall accomplishments as a person.

The scandal also led to discussions about how African American celebrities are held to a different standard of public acceptability than are white celebrities. It also brought to light the different standards of acceptability and beauty among African Americans, standards based on the lightness or darkness of one’s skin. The scandal also raised feminist questions about the significance and purpose of how women are treated and represented in both beauty-pageant culture and men’s Pornography pornography, and ways in which the two categories might intersect. Furthermore, the scandal led to more open and frank discussions about fantasies of lesbian sex.

Subsequent beauty pageant scandals would have less dramatic impact, and the general public would be more willing to forgive beauty queens some tarnish on their crowns, particularly if the women involved publicly apologized and asked for forgiveness. Williams’s comeback after the scandal made her a powerhouse star, ultimately suggesting that the notoriety of such a scandal, when handled adroitly by a good publicist, could indeed be used to further one’s career. Nudity;Vanessa Williams[Williams]
Williams, Vanessa
Guccione, Bob
Miss America;Vanessa Williams[Williams]
Penthouse magazine

Further Reading

  • Banet-Weiser, Sarah. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. A cultural history of the Miss America pageant that considers how the pageant process shapes and influences female identity at both the personal and social levels.
  • Elmer, Jonathan. “The Exciting Conflict: The Rhetoric of Pornography and Anti-Pornography.” Cultural Critique no. 8 (Winter, 1987): 45-77. A scholarly evaluation of the Williams scandal in the context of cultural debate over defining the boundaries of pornography.
  • Jones, Trina. “Shades of Brown: The Law of Skin Color.” Duke Law Journal 49, no. 6 (2000): 1487-1557. Historical legal review of “colorism,” the issue of varying acceptances and perceptions of light skin versus dark skin, within the larger construct of dealing with African American racism.
  • Shalit, Willa. Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female. New York: Hyperion Books, 2006. Williams and sixty-six other inspiring women celebrities and writers share short, personal essays on significant events in their journeys to becoming women.
  • Watson, Elwood, and Darcy Martin, eds. “There She Is, Miss America.” New York: Palgrave, 2004. Interdisciplinary anthology that explores the intersections of race, gender, ethnicity, and consumerism in the Miss America pageant.

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