March 9, 2017 at 5:21 pm EST | by Brian Walmer
A conversation with Vanessa Williams
Vanessa Williams, gay news, Washington Blade

Vanessa Williams has dabbled in so many fields, she says she’s always intrigued to find out where fans recognize her from. (Photo courtesy the Howard Theatre)

Vanessa Williams

DJ Baronhawk opens

Friday, March 10

7:30 and 10 p.m.

Howard Theatre

620 T St., N.W.

$60-95

Star of stage and screen Vanessa Williams makes her Howard Theatre debut performing two shows Friday evening (March 10).

Williams, whose career spans 30-plus years, is known for her roles in the TV series “Ugly Betty” and “Desperate Housewives” along with motion pictures such as “Soul Food” and “Eraser.” Along with her film credits, she has appeared in many Broadway shows and released six solo albums spanning a multitude of hits.

Vanessa has just wrapped up a new series on VH1 entitled “Daytime Divas” and is hitting the road this month for a handful of concert dates.

During a phone interview Monday while in Minneapolis promoting her spring clothing line for Evine, Williams talks about performing, still being starstruck and her signature song, “Save The Best For Last.”

WASHINGTON BLADE: Friday brings you to the Howard Theatre for two shows. Are you looking forward to your first time at the historic venue?

VANESSA WILLIAMS: I’ve been doing dates for a long, long time and it’s always great to do different venues. Every room has a different feel. That’s why live and theater is so exciting because the audiences are kind of informed and I switch up the set on how I feel the audience is leaning. I may do some more R&B if the audience is more of an urban crowd. I might do more Broadway or standards if it’s a benefit or a gala. It’s always curious to see who ends up showing up and tailoring the show to what I feel is going to be their likes.

BLADE: Do you prefer theaters to clubs or outdoor arenas?

WILLIAMS: You know, each venue is a unique experience. My first experience on tour was in 1997 with Luther Vandross and we did arenas. It’s a huge operation and everyone has their tour buses and we’re all pow-wowing before the shows and in-between shows, eating and exercising together. It was a like a little village camping out every time we set up in a different city. That was really wonderful and I have so many great memories of that. I love doing outdoor venues. It’s the summer time and smelling the barbecue off in the distance. It’s hot and balmy but people are in their picnic chairs ready to enjoy the day. That’s a whole different kind of thing. The breeze is blowing through your hair and it’s a lot more casual and relaxed. Then there’s the concert venues where I do symphony dates and I have a full orchestra behind me and feel very professional and classy. It’s also another opportunity to do a different set and do some Broadway stuff with the full orchestra. A theater allows me to kind of interact with the audience in a very intimate way so they can hear the hits, they’re not blasted away by the huge speakers and they can sing along and have a personal experience.

BLADE: One of the last times you were in D.C., you performed for Diana Ross at the Kennedy Center Honors. How did that come about?

WILLIAMS: I’ve done two Kennedy Center tributes. One for Tony Bennett and I did “The Best Is Yet To Come,” which was amazing, then I got the call to do Diana Ross and sang “Touch Me In the Morning.” Hanging out with her afterward at her table with her kids, she asked me if I wanted to buy her house in Greenwich and I was like, “It’s OK I got my own house about 20 minutes away, I’m cool” (laughs). I worked with her on Motown Returns to the Apollo in ’85 and I was playing Josephine Baker and sang “La Vie en Rose” and I think she played Billie Holiday. She was definitely there and that was the first time I met her.

BLADE: Do you still get Starstruck?

WILLIAMS: Oh yeah! There’s plenty of people that are legendary that walk into a room and truly have a presence and take all the air out of the room. I remember the first time I was at acting class out in L.A. studying with Donna Strasberg and one of her dear friends was Sophia Loren and I just couldn’t breathe. She was not only stunning, but she’s one of those movie icons. I saw her couple years later and age for her I guess stopped years ago, because again — she’s stunning and so elegant and has such a presence. That was the same thing I felt when I first met Lena Horne and I could barely speak and she goes “It’s OK honey, it’s OK.” (laughs). I definitely still get starstruck.

BLADE: Do you feel your music career is sometimes overshadowed by your acting career?

WILLIAMS: No. I think there’s a time and season for everything. Particularly when I first started recording, I was 25 years old, had one child and we’re talking 30-odd years later and I’m still in the game. Whatever presents itself to me at the time, I’m up for the challenge. I just finished doing a series for VH1 and it’s kind of coincidental because I started out in my recording career hosting a show for VH1 called “The Soul Of VH1.” Twenty years later I’m back on the network playing a character in a series so it’s nice to be able to do so many different things and have options. I’ve always been able to come back to my music, Broadway, television and find a home in a show that seems to be perfect.

BLADE: You’ve done pretty much everything in your career. How does it feel to have different generations recognize you for different things? Some know you as Miss. America, others as Wilhelmina Slater (from “Ugly Betty”) — how does it feel to have such a broad fan base and continually gain new fans?

WILLIAMS: It always surprises me who recognizes me when I’m walking through an airport or outside walking down the street because being 53 years old, I assume people my age know me, but I got a whole set of young folk that know me from “Ugly Betty.” I go across the world and I was in South Africa and people recognized me for being a desperate housewife and in Australia they know my music. It’s unbelievable! “Elmo In Grouchland” for the young kids growing up knowing me as “The Queen of Trash.” I’m always curious to find out where they know me.

BLADE: Why do you think gay men are attracted to you?

WILLIAMS: Both my parents were music teachers and my mom had many gay friends. Some were teachers, hair stylists and lawyers. My father was completely open and generous and had no issues at all so I came from a family that was completely tolerant and exposed. When I started doing musical theater in high school and college, many of my friends were gay. They helped me choose music and amplified my diva ability to be a chanteuse and be a bigger sex symbol than I probable felt natural to be, but they highlighted it. I’ve always been surrounded by the gay community so there was no real transition for me. I remember my first grown-up gift was a bottle of Opium Perfume which I thought was so, so, so grown up! (laughs). It was from one of my parents’ friends who was a lawyer and drove a gorgeous Porsche and he had a beautiful apartment with padded silk walls and there was a sense of style and elegance that he represented. That was the first time I equated style and panache and femininity with a gay man.

BLADE: Your last album, “The Real Thing,” came out in 2009. Any plans for new music?

WILLIAMS: I would love to have new music come out. I think the past two or three labels I was talking to and in negotiations with, they fell apart. My genre is kind of disappearing. From going R&B to pop to I guess you could call it adult contemporary to smooth jazz is kind of dried up. There’s not many stations that play what’s normally been my lane for the past 10 or so years. It’s difficult to find a place in terms of a new label. The recording industry is completely changing so a lot of people are self-producing and self-distributing so I haven’t quiet figured out what my next move is, but I do have a lot of ideas and I’m definitely open to recording more music. I’d love to actually work with my daughter (Jillian Hervey) who’s a recording artist and doing incredibly well. To do one song with her would be great. The name of her band is Lion Babe and she’s killing it.

BLADE: Does she ever come to you for advice or you give her advice from your experiences?

WILLIAMS: Well you know, my kids are lucky because they’ve been behind the scenes of every genre. They’ve been in my dressing room when I was on the Broadway stage, on tour with me, in my trailer whether it’s television or movie sets. They understand how hard the work is, they understand the commitment, being professional, showing up on time and knowing your stuff. Jillian kind of got her sea legs — not sea legs, but her vocal chops/recording legs when she graduated from college and was looking forward to being a professional dancer. I had some dates in Japan and she said, “I wanna go,” and I said if you wanna go, you have to sing and she learned everything on the plane and learned the in-ear monitors and how to work the mic, do multiple shows a night and take care of her voice, so she started being on the road with me right after college and that was an easy transition.

BLADE: Are you surprised 25 years later that “Save The Best For Last” has becoming your signature song?

WILLIAMS: No. When I recorded it, I knew it was a great song, I knew that it would do. I had no idea it would do as well as it did. I guess those are the best surprises in life when you enjoy it, having a good time and it explodes and you’re not expecting it. That’s when it’s really sweet. It still holds up. When I sing it, people sing along and it’s like karaoke time. It’s great to have one of those signature songs as part of my repertoire.

BLADE: Do you feel there’s anything left to conquer?

WILLIAMS: Hmm … (pauses) … actually, I’m going to be directing season two of “Daytime Divas” for VH1 which is going to be exciting, so that will be my next step. The show’s airing later on this spring and I’m starring in it. It’s about a day time talk show called “The Lunch Hour” and I’m the producer and star of the show. It’s great to be back on television.

BLADE: What are you most proud of?

WILLIAMS: My kids. Ask any mother (laughs). I look at them and it’s great to see what you hope and dream for them all come to fruition. They’re all doing their own unique thing, they’re all very creative and I’m glad I could bring them into the world.

1 Comment
  • Great interview Brian! I think it paints a great portrait of what it is to be a very successful, professional entertainer who is focused, hard working, and far more flexible and open to change than I ever would have thought- from someone of her stature. Excellent! Thank you!
    -Shawn S.

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