The Real Queen: Vanessa Williams

By Clay Cane

Originally published on Advocate.com June 11 2009 11:00 PM ET

Who doesn't love Vanessa Williams? Black, white, straight, gay, country, or suburban, Vanessa Williams transcends every group. This could be the reason why she has survived the entertainment industry for over 26 years and has the résumé to prove it: 14 Grammy nominations; a Tony Award nomination; tons of hit singles, including her legendary pop ballad "Save the Best for Last"; and the 2007 "Ally for Equality" award from the Human Rights Campaign.

The former beauty queen has been a friend and honorary member of the gay community from the start of her career. Her performance as Wilhelmina Slater on Ugly Betty has only catapulted her popularity among gays -- many of whom will protest if she doesn't win an Emmy for the role.

Now, Miss V is taking it back to the music with The Real Thing , in stores now. Here, Vanessa talks about the new album, her history with the gay community, exhaustion with Carrie Prejean (take notes from one of the original beauty queens, Miss Carrie!), and more.

Advocate.com:What is your approach when you go back to the recording studio?Vanessa Williams: It's kind of like jumping back on a bicycle -- once you know how to ride it, it's easy. Luckily, I only worked with one new producer that I had not worked with before. Keith Thomas, he did "Save the Best for Last" and "Colors of the Wind," he is a dear friend. Babyface produced two songs, I've worked with him before and he is a friend as well. Getting into the studio was the easy part, it's just making the time, picking the right material, and the direction the CD was going to be.

You mentioned Babyface. Is it true that while working on the two songs you did with him you were running a gay wedding?Oh yeah! I went to two gay weddings actually. I went into the studio and finished both songs then went to my dear friend Daniel and Rick's wedding, who had gotten married about 10 years ago but made it legal. October was the end date in California. The next day I went to Christopher and Mark's wedding, who was the costume designer for the Hannah Montana movie. They had a beautiful ceremony; Alan Cumming sang a song and Loni Anderson was there. Lovely couple. Quite a weekend!

What can your gay fans expect from the album The Real Thing ?It's about as perky as a jazz album can possibly be! [ Laughs ] My original intent was to do a Brazilian album because I love the feel and sensuality of Brazil and the music. It morphed into some jazz songs. One song we did was a Lena Horne song "Come on Strong," kind of an homage to Wilhelmina, where I am living at every day on the set. It went through a bunch of directions and I think we came out with a taste of everything.

VANESSA WILLIAMS 02 XLARGE (GILLES TOUCAS) | ADVOCATE.COM

When did you first realize you had a gay following?Probably in college! [ Laughs ] I've danced and done theater my entire life. Even high school, back in the late '70s and early '80s, when people, especially in high school, were not out -- there were my couple of friends that were not out that would always hang out with the black girls and eventually came out. In college I was a music theater major; a lot of my friends were out and helped make me be who I am, but also are my dearest friends. I have three friends that I have on speed-dial and probably e-mail on a daily basis for not only personal reasons but career advice. When I do a benefit, "Do you think this is a good song to sing?" "Will this go over well?" "What do you think about this project?" I trust their opinion because they are schooled, smart, witty, cultured, and have a wicked sense of humor. They are also fantastic friends that are loyal and appreciate everything that I am.

But I am one of the lucky people -- growing up, my mom had gay friends. So I grew up having my mom's relationships with gay men… something that was completely normal, natural, fun, and exciting. I remember the gifts I would always get were fabulous! [ Laughs ] My first bottle of perfume was Opium, which was very classy; from one of my mom's friends who was a lawyer… his apartment was always phenomenal. He bought a Porsche -- but didn't know how to drive it -- because it was gorgeous to look at it. So my dad taught him how to drive a stick-shift. That love for beauty and aesthetic is something that I've always felt comfortable with and was always surrounded by.

I am one of the lucky few. You hear so many tragic stories of people not being able to be who they are. Thank God the tables are turning. Every day there is another obstacle that people are confronting -- now is the time to have open dialogue. If it's not gay marriage, if it's not gays in the military, there is always something in the forefront and I think that's fantastic. Dialogue with education is how you get power.

Have you every experienced any flack for being so supportive of the gay community?Not to my face. I've never experienced that and it would be kind of crazy. Even when I won Miss America back in 1983, they don't tell you, "This is what you have to say when people ask you a question." I was always very clear of what my personal beliefs are. There was no real platform. I was pro-choice back in '83 when it was considered scandalous for Miss America to actually have an opinion.

What do you think about this controversy with Carrie Prejean, who said she was not for gay marriage?Do we really care what she has to think or say? I'm surprised that it has gotten as far as it has. She's not a legislator. Do we really care? Is it going to make a difference? I think everyone should continue to fight the good fight on equality. Iowa just passed. Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, it's happening, slowly but surely. We just had a huge rally in New York. Let the foot soldiers do the work. Why give her any more credence?

VANESSA WILLIAMS RICK FOX X390 (ABC) | ADVOCATE.COM (GILLES TOUCAS) | ADVOCATE.COM

What has Wilhelmina Slater done for your gay icon status?[ Laughs ] Whenever you play a diva effectively you get big props! First, I have to say thanks to Silvio Horta for creating her. She is not a caricature, the scripts go on and on; they make her a full, well-rounded human being. You realize she is passionate about her work, her style, her diction, her posture, and who she hangs out with. But she's also a woman who has been hurt and scorned, she's a tough lady. I love Silvio for keeping her as deep as possible but also making her so witty. She is a diva! I love playing her.

Do you model the character after anybody you know or have worked with?She's a compilation. I've met Anna Wintour once, but I certainly don't model her after Anna Wintour. There's other people I worked with and also people from my own life. She's definitely a combination of a lot of people.

Any desire to return to Broadway?I'd love to! I've just got to find the time. We just finished and we go back the second week of July, so I wouldn't have time. We're doing a musical episode upcoming season 4 and I can't wait for that to happen.

Any plans to remix any of the songs on The Real Thing ?I've been waiting for remixes for months now. I'll ask the record company what the deal is with that. Concord is a jazz label -- I'd love to do a dance album, but it would probably have to be on a different record label.

When you get to heaven what is the DJ playing?Wow… this is like Inside the Actors Studio, but the club version! [ Laughs ]

The remix! [ Laughs ]I guess "I Did It My Way" -- as schmaltzy as it is, it hits the nail right on the head.