She is Vanessa Williams. Iconic, legendary and the first Black woman crowned Miss America, the breathtaking triple threat has done, over and over again, what Black women do best: rise and fall and rise again. Becoming a household name in 1983 after her victorious win and sparking conversation across the world, one could easily say that she gave Black men and women our first “Barack Obama moment.”
Decades later, Vanessa Williams is the epitome of poise, grace, beauty and brains. She shares with EBONY.com her newest heart health campaign with Bayer Aspirin and what it’s like working with Cicely Tyson on the Broadway revival, The Trip to Bountiful.
EBONY: What struck a chord with this campaign, Handbags and Hearts? Why did you feel compelled to get involved?
Vanessa Williams: Bayer Aspirin knew my health history. I’ve been working on behalf of women’s heart health for at least 10 years or so. My paternal grandmother actually died at 28 of a heart attack. My other grandmother died at 64 of a heart attack. My grandfather died at 53 of a heart attack, and my other one at 80.
Our heart health in my family is not good at all, so I was always hyper aware, particularly with my father since he lost both of his parents so early. He doesn’t remember his mom because he was only three years old when she died. I’ve always been hyper aware of taking care of my heart; my parents were as well. We had a vegetable garden. We ate a lot of organic food back when it wasn’t cool to be organic! Heart healthy was just part of growing up. It’s trendy now, but I was lucky to have parents who understood its importance.
EBONY: What is the unique message this campaign is working to send to women about heart disease?
VS: This campaign is working to make women aware that our heart disease symptoms are very different and minor in comparison to men’s. We all know that men have a tingling down the arm, or compression in the chest. Women tend to have nausea, no energy at all, have slight tightening in their jaw, look pale, and even sweat. And you could probably think it’s the flu, or that you don’t have enough energy, or that you’re just exhausted. But those are the symptoms of heart attack.
So we’re working on this campaign to help women understand the awareness. If you know for sure that your family has a bad history of heart issues, you should carry aspirin with you at all times. Chewing an aspirin immediately will help to save your heart from further damage when or if you do experience an attack. We just want to provide as much awareness for women as possible, particularly minority women. Heart attacks are the number one killer over cancer for women.
EBONY: Is it fair to assume that because of your education, you’re very heart healthy?
VW: Well, you know, I do love my chocolate! And I do love a cocktail. I’m not saying I’m Buddha or anything. But I would much rather exercise hard and feed my body good fuel than do absolutely nothing. With my work, I never know what I’m going to be called to do. Even on Broadway, even though it’s not a musical, I still have to project, I still have to warm-up, I still have to fit in costumes every week and not gain five pounds. Still have to do red carpet. You’re mindful of all these things. You’re always in preparation, and that comes with being at your best health.
EBONY: Speaking of Broadway, can you tell me a bit more about your role in The Trip to Bountiful?
VW: To be honest, it’s a joy to work with a legend like Cicely Tyson every night. She was one of the reasons why I wanted to be an actress. Every iconic film that she was in, between Sounder and Roots and Diary of Miss Jane Pittman inspired me to pursue acting. She comes on screen and you’re just mesmerized by her presence. She’s our legend. She’s our Meryl Streep. She has paved the way. So it’s a pleasure to work with her.
This is the first time Cuba [Gooding, Jr.] has done Broadway, so it’s been great to take this journey with him and see his excitement. When you’re doing film or television, it’s all pretty controlled, and you get a chance to do it over again, and it’s a very intimate setting and environment. But Broadway is a stage where things happen differently every night.
EBONY: Is there a tip or secret that Cicely Tyson shared with you about being an actress that you’ll never forget?
VW: It’s more about watching and observing her and her process. She’s not a storyteller. She doesn’t say, “Chile, let me tell you...” [Laughs] It’s watching her and being aware of her process and seeing how she changes the show every night, and her character every night. She fine-tunes things and finds humor where there wasn’t before. She brings the house down every night.
EBONY: You’ve published an amazing book with your mother, You Have No Idea. Tell me a bit about what it was like writing a book with your mother.
VW: There were no books that [my mother] was interested in that were for her age demo. My mother’s 73, so it was a good opportunity for her to write what she wants to write for women her age. She also got to talk about her role as my mother. It just made every story richer because we all know what has happened to me, but now you get to see what happened to my mother based off my life, and how we managed to handle things together.
EBONY: I love the title, because it immediately speaks to mothers and daughters about the lack of understanding what it means to be in our shoes.
VW: It’s the perfect mother-daughter book to read. I’ve got three wonderful daughters and my son. But mother and daughter relationships are tricky. There are differences with generations and personalities and outlooks, and a lot of it has to do with acceptance as well. Sometimes you have things in common, but sometimes you’re so totally different. I learned, from writing this book that I am the person I am because of what she made me, whether that’s good or bad.
EBONY: You’re, obviously, absolutely beautiful. Can you share a beauty secret that your mother gave you growing up?
VW: Oddly enough, my mother was never really hung up on beauty at all. The emphasis was always on achievement and being smart. My mother never said, “Oh, look how beautiful that girl is.” It was always, “Look at how smart that girl is. Look at how much she’s achieved.” It was always about looking at their achievements, what their rank was, what they’ve accomplished, and so on.
I’d say the only thing that was probably revered in terms of beauty was skin. My mom had problem skin, and I had problem skin. So it was always, “Look at her skin! There’s not a wrinkle in sight!” That would be the one thing that we would drool over because we had such problem skin. But besides that, it was always accomplishment, achievement and being smart. Which, by the way, is beautiful.