Vanessa Williams: Don't Look Back

She's got haunting blue-green eyes, the most genuine smile ever to grace a Miss America and a force of will Arnold Schwarzenegger himself can relate to. Will starring with Arnold in the action-blast Eraser get Vanessa Williams where she's wanted to go since long before she ever entered a beauty pageant?

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Quick: How many Miss Americas can you name who became movie stars? Exactly. There aren't any. (No, Mary Ann Mobley and Lee Meriwether weren't stars.) Show business may be the goal of many a beauty contestant, but few even make it to the "Action News" anchor desk, where artificial smiles and the ability to enunciate are what pass for talent. The freeze-dried wholesomeness that typifies your traditional pageant winner is precisely what movie stars are not made of. And neither is Vanessa Williams, which is why she's the first Miss America with a genuine shot at making it in Hollywood. Of course, it is also why Williams is the only Miss America ever forced to resign due to scandal. Ah, but I'm getting ahead of myself already.

If you recognize the name Vanessa Williams, it's for reasons that have nothing to do with movies. She's not someone who is poised for screen stardom thanks to a series of creditable performances in increasingly successful films. She does have a substantial place in the public imagination, but so far it's had little to do with Hollywood. Williams became instantly famous in 1983 as the first black Miss America. That fame was quickly surpassed by grand-scale notoriety when nude photos of her, published in Penthouse magazine, forced her to give up the Miss America crown.

These days she's known to fans of Top 40 radio as the soulful, mellow crooner of adult contemporary R&B tunes--since 1988, she's acquired a couple platinum albums and a string of hit singles, and her rendering of "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas helped win that song an Oscar. And Broadway buffs are familiar with her successful 1994 run in the title role of Kiss of the Spider Woman. TV movie junkies saw her in last year's remake of Bye Bye Birdie and the career gal saga Sidney Sheldon's Nothing Lasts Forever. None of this suggests a career on the big screen, but make no doubt about it: in 1996, that's just what Vanessa Williams is aiming for. "Feature films are the highest echelon of the entertainment industry," she tells me when we meet at Warner Bros. Burbank studios. Her tone is matter-of-fact, like she's just found the actor's mark she knows she has to hit. And her presence as Arnold Schwarzenegger's copilot in this summer's big action vehicle Eraser is proof that she stands a decent chance.

Miss Americas may not translate well to the screen, but there is a history of pop singers making the jump, from Streisand (a hard act to follow) to Midler (proof of the pitfalls) to Madonna (enough to scare a girl back into the recording studio) to, most recently, Whitney Houston (who, from Williams's perspective, must seem either to be

opening new doors or taking up precious space). But look at those names again: they aren't just singers who decided to act a little--they're some of the biggest success stories in recent entertainment history, winning combinations all of talent, calculation, ambition and confidence. After a short time in her presence, I'm ready to declare that Williams is not deficient in that last category: she's the most confident woman I've met in Hollywood--and I've met Nicole Kidman.

Everything about Eraser is big: big Arnold, big budget, big explosions, and big expectations for a potential summer blockbuster. Sounds like a guarantee, I say, that Williams's first major feature film role is a trial by fire. "I'm not really intimidated by it," she quickly tells me. "I embraced the idea of this movie." When I ask her what specifically she's thrown her arms around, she shows me she has her priorities straight: "The best cinematographer and the best sound people in the business." And after this triumph in sight and sound? Williams is already thinking ahead. "It would be nice if I got a big studio picture to follow this up. A romantic comedy or another action film. I got a lot of positive reinforcement from the producers and director of Eraser. They said, 'You really look good holding a gun.'" Williams is positively beaming as she says this, although at the moment, she is the picture of businesslike elegance in a cream-colored Plein Sud suit.

Superhero attributes are exactly what she's going to need to accomplish her ambitious career plan, which she deftly lays out: "Put out a hit record every two years or so and keep the features coming in, and do interesting television projects and Broadway probably every five years or so-- I could handle that." When I suggest that trying to cover all those bases seems destined to be a frightening, frustrating undertaking, she says, simply, "It's not intimidating. It's reality for me."

Those words "not intimidating" are a veritable buzz phrase with Williams. "Struggle" and "dream" are buzz words of hers, too. Of course, sheer will--which Williams shows every sign of possessing--and a simple, basic idea will take you far in this land of opportunity. No wonder she and Schwarzenegger proved to be soul mates, of a kind, while making Eraser, "[When I met him], Arnold basically said to me, 'I know that it's hard to fight and re-create yourself when everyone doubts your ability.' He started out as a bodybuilder and no one ever thought he'd be a movie star. I think he immediately felt some kind of connection with the struggle that we both had. The struggle to say, 'This is the dream and people will some day get it."'

Williams has a cool, focused, detached way of saying these things. And the only time she looks away during our whole interview is when she glances around for an assistant who's supposed to bring her tea. Her eyes are hauntingly clear, a rather astounding light blue-green, and in them, her eagerness--even an impatience--to get on with the program is quite palpable. Williams is, after all, a 33-year-old mother of three--that's just a year younger than the late-blooming Sharon Stone was when she broke wide with Basic Instinct. Unlike Sharon Stone, though, Williams hasn't been in town for over a decade earning stripes. Has acting, I ask her, been her primary concern all along? "Um, uh-- a concern?" she says. "Let's say 'goal.' I think acting was always the goal, yeah. Singing was--I don't want to say a sideline. Uh, singing was a nice--but--"

"It was how you were going to get where you wanted to go," I suggest.

"Yeah, right. It certainly opened the doors for me to get the roles that I, uh, love..."

Good roles have only very recently begun to come her way. As in the last 18 months. Her Broadway Spider Woman eclipsed everyone's expectations, commercially and critically, when she took over the role from musical powerhouse Chita Rivera. She made the absolute most of her two 1995 made-for-TV movies: she was generally thought to be the best thing about the ratings-bomb Bye Bye Birdie, and in Sidney Sheldon's Nothing Lasts Forever, a glossy prime-time soap opera that was a ratings hit, she played a tough, workaholic doctor (referred to on screen, as Williams was referred to offscreen during production, as "Black Ice") with notable conviction. As far as feature films go, there's been nothing of note. Her pre-_Eraser_ work consists of very small roles in negligible films like The Pick-up Artist, Harley Davidson & the Marlboro Man and Another You. It hasn't been through lack of trying. To understand why Williams is still waiting for a Whitney Houston-sized Bodyguard-like breakthrough (and to gain further insight into her buzz words) you have to go back to Williams's first dramatic entrance into the spotlight.

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