Q&A: Vanessa Williams looks back on career, looks forward to ‘Capitol Fourth’

Vanessa Williams previews 'A Capitol Fourth' (Jason Fraley)

You don’t get more American than fireworks, patriotism and live music on the Fourth of July.

The annual tradition of “A Capitol Fourth” returns to the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol at 8 p.m. Thursday, airing live on PBS and to troops overseas on the American Forces Network.

John Stamos returns to host the event, which includes performances by Vanessa Williams, Carole King, Lee Brice, Vanessa Carlton, Yolanda Adams, Go West featuring Colbie Caillat, The O’Jays, Lindsey Stirling, Laura Osnes, Laine Hardy, Keala Settle, Maelyn Jarmon, Angelica Hale, the cast of the Broadway musical “Beautiful” and a 50th anniversary salute to “Sesame Street.”

“It’s an honor,” Williams told WTOP. “I’m doing ‘America the Beautiful,’ an arrangement by my dear friend Rob Mathes. It’s one of our traditional songs. … I’ve done it frequently, it’s wonderfully run, it’s outdoors, people bring their families on the lawn, my mom’s driving down with a couple of my cousins, so it’s almost like America’s picnic. It’s one of those really traditional things, then everyone gets the chance to turn on the TV and watch the fireworks.”

As always, there will also be annual performances by the National Symphony Orchestra, The Ministers of Music, MusiCorps, Choral Arts Society of Washington, The United States Army Band, The U.S. Army Herald Trumpets and The U.S. Army Presidential Salute Battery.

“It’s always a pleasure to sing with the National Symphony Orchestra, which I just did two nights at the Kennedy Center last May,” Williams said. “This is my second Capitol Fourth, I’ve done Memorial Day twice, I’ve done Capitol Christmas. … I’ve been in D.C. a lot recently, but it’s definitely a pleasure to spend the Fourth of July with that amazing view of the Capitol.”

Born in the Bronx in 1963, Williams studied musical theater at Syracuse University before gaining fame as the first African American to be crowned Miss America in September 1983.

“I was a musical theater major, so my goal was to be on Broadway,” Williams said. “I had no idea I’d be a beauty queen or a trailblazer as the first black Miss America. It was happenstance getting scholarship money. I was a musical theater major, so I knew I could sing, dance and act, it was just a matter of what song I was going to sing. All that happened in six months.”

After relinquishing the crown in an unfortunate controversy — she later received an apology by Miss America’s CEO — she successfully launched a music career. Her debut album, “The Right Stuff” (1988), earned three Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance twice for “Dreamin'” and the title track “The Right Stuff.”

Her next album, “The Comfort Zone,” earned three more Grammy nods, including Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for “Runnin’ Back to You” and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Save the Best for Last,” which also competed for Record of the Year.

“They had given it to Bette Midler, who turned it down; Streisand turned it down as well, so I’m glad I got it,” Williams said. “Back in the day we had cassettes, so that came across my [desk]. … I said, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful melody. I’m surprised nobody snatched this up.’ … It was one of those one-take songs where you just feel it and tell a story. It felt wonderful in the studio, but I had no idea how big it would become. … It ended up No. 1 for six straight weeks.”

Her next Grammy nods came for TV and movie soundtracks, including “Love Is” for “Beverly Hills 90210” (1993) and “Colors of the Wind” for Disney’s animated “Pocahontas” (1995).

“Ballads were my big thing,” Williams said. “I’d just come off Broadway doing ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ when I got the call to do ‘Colors of the Wind.’ Disney is one of those franchises where their movies stand the test of time. I did ‘Colors of the Wind’ and I’ve seen it in many dance performances over the years, a lot of recreations, so it’s an honor to have that as part of my lineup. Every time I sing it in front of an audience, a lot of people are singing along.”

Her TV and film work allowed her to transition into acting on ABC’s “Ugly Betty” (2006-2010).

“I loved ‘Ugly Betty,'” Williams said. “I had a great time for the four years that show ran. We did the first two years in L.A. and the last two years in New York. It was a crazy talented cast. It was almost like doing a movie or a play every single week. Every episode was a joy and just pushed every kind of limit. Wilhelmina Slater, the character that I played, was so deliciously unpredictable and a real joy. I had so much fun playing such a dastardly ambitious woman.”

All these years later, she is amazed at everything she has accomplished.

“Looking back now at 56, it’s just amazing how crazy life is and how life can take you places you never thought possible,” Williams said. “Not only did I become a star on Broadway, but I got a chance to be a recording artist, a television and movie actress, a fashion designer, an author, all kinds of things that came about because of my determination at 20 years old. Looking back, it’s just amazing how you can never predict where life will bring you.”

Find more details on the event website. Hear our full conversation with Vanessa Williams below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Vanessa Williams (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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