Vanessa Williams returns to Miss America pageant


Asia Letlow


On Sunday, Sept. 13, viewers watched the 95th annual Miss America pageant, held in Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The night included judgments of the usual categories, ranging from talent to evening gowns. Special events included a performance by guest judge Vanessa Williams, who was issued an apology by chief executive Sam Haskell. This left viewers in a state of contentment, as many can recall the scandal that led to Williams’ resignation in 1984, seven weeks before the end of her term as Miss America that began in 1983.

That night, Haskell stated, “Though none of us currently in the organization were involved then, on behalf of today’s organization, I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less than the Miss America you are and the Miss America you will always be.” He also added that Williams possessed great dignity and grace even after her resignation.

Williams was crowned Miss America in 1983, representing the state of New York. She was the first African-American woman to claim the title. However, controversy arose when nude photographs of her had resurfaced against her will two months before the end of her reign. She was forced to resign as a result of the growing scandal. The title was surrendered (though the crown was not) and given to Suzette Charles, the first runner-up, for the remaining seven weeks. Charles represented the state of New Jersey. Some media outlets referred to Charles as “Miss America 1984-b” after she assumed the role.    

Williams never intended for the photographs to make their way into the public view. When she was nineteen, she worked as a receptionist for a local photographer named Tom Chiapel whose work focused on the nude female form. Williams participated in two sessions with him, and a third with an associated photographer. She was not pleased with the nature of the photos, and asked for the negatives to be destroyed. The photographs ended up being shown in Penthouse Magazine, and the repercussions extended far beyond the Miss America committee.  She was met with damning rejection from several Broadway auditions and public endeavors solely on the grounds that her photos essentially painted a picture of her as too provocative.

Some question the sincerity of Haskell’s apology. Given that he was not part of the committee that forced Williams to resign thirty-two years earlier, this leaves room to question the true nature of his statement.

As per an interview with Inside Edition, Charles did not believe Williams needed an apology, insisting such was done for the ratings. “I have a feeling that was about ratings. I think that as accomplished as she is, and how she’s worked so tirelessly for 32 years to build her career…I’m not sure why she needed that apology,” she said.  

The night concluded with Miss Georgia Betty Cantrell winning the title of Miss America 2016, who was crowned by previous winner Kira Kazantsev.