Vanessa Williams is a diva for all seasons
Vanessa Williams has, without a hint of exaggeration, managed what so many others have so often tried to do. She’s really and truly done it all — from Disney to “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
She topped the pop charts for five weeks with heartfelt ballad “Save the Best for Last.” She scored big-screen hits with “Eraser” and “Soul Food.” She cemented her place in TV history as iconic villain Wilhelmina Slater on “Ugly Betty.” She earned rave reviews on Broadway for turns in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Into the Woods.”
Williams crooned the Oscar-winning “Colors of the Wind” from “Pocahontas” in 1995. And earlier this year, she left contestants in awe as a judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars.”
“Can I just say, I loved you in ‘Eraser,’” gushed Chi Chi DeVayne. “Oh, my God. ‘Eraser,’ baby, ‘Eraser.’”
Williams, 55, is still very much the multifaceted diva.
She’s just signed on for a new TV pilot, “False Profits,” set in the world of makeup marketing. Her first album in almost a decade is due later this year, a “pared down” and “jazzy” collection of her favorite showtunes. And she’s still strutting her stuff as the voice of the brown M&M in TV commercials.
Williams performs Friday at The Corinthian as part of the Brilliant Lecture Series. She spoke about her recent globetrotting, memories of Houston and hearing herself on the radio.
Q: You’ve spent much of this year performing around the world. Are you an easy traveler?
A: We started in late February. We did 10 shows in Tokyo, two shows in Nagoya and did a bunch of stuff in Guam, did the Jakarta Jazz Festival in Indonesia. I’m about 12 hours ahead of time right now. I’ve been traveling so long that I can sleep on a plane, thank God. I don’t need to take an Ambien. I can literally be knocked out before we even take off on the runway. My youngest is a senior in high school, so I don’t travel so much during the school year so I can be here for my kids. I’ve been a mother for 30 years. I used to take the kids’ school schedule and arrange my working schedule around that so I can be there for performances and dance recitals and graduations and birthdays and all that stuff. Next year, I’ll be completely free. I’m not gonna know what to do.
Q: What are your must-haves on the road?
A: Some kind of flip-flops so I can take off my shoes when we take off and then when I have to go to the bathroom. Always some kind of lip balm or something because my lips get dried out. And good headphones,so I can plug in and listen to my music or listen to a movie or something.
Q: How do audiences around the world differ?
A: I’ve been performing in Tokyo for over 20 years. They’re very respectful, and they listen to everything, and they wait until the song is done. Then they applaud. Because people aren’t hoopin’ and hollerin’ and interrupting the song, which we’re used to in the States, it doesn’t mean that they’re not impressed or not into it. But that particular audience has a different style. That’s something that you have to realize as a performer. The audience really does infuse themselves in the music and the moment. It changes every night. That’s the great thing about performing.
Q: You’ll be back around these parts this week. What comes to mind when you think of Houston?
A: One of my best friends lives there, Keva Horry. We became friends when both of our ex-husbands were playing together on the Los Angeles Lakers. We were the only two wives that lived out of town. We became really great friends and traveled the world together. I’ve sang for Kennedy Center a bunch of times and Capitol Christmas and stuff, so I’ve met (President) George W. and Laura Bush at least four or five times. I’ve got tons of pictures of them up on my wall at home. And also, I toured there with Luther Vandross back in 1997.
Q: Your first single, “The Right Stuff,” was released in 1988. What were your original goals as a young singer?
A: Growing up, I never thought I’d hear myself on the radio. I grew up in Worcester County outside New York City, so I knew Broadway was a tangible goal. But I never thought that I’d actually be on the radio. That was always one of those “pinch me” moments. But then when you have a massive hit, and hits, and then you mean things globally, that’s amazing. Like Guam — I never thought I’d actually be in Guam, let alone perform in Guam, and people knew my music and said that they had grown up with me. I sang at a parochial school, St. Anthony … the kids were so young, they had no idea who I was. But as soon as I said “Pocahontas” and “Colors of the Wind,” they all screamed and knew the song.
Q: Do you remember the first time you heard yourself on the radio?
A: I was singing on a George Clinton song as a background singer. I had just finished doing an off-Broadway show called “One Man Band.” Deborah Barsha, who was the music director … said, “I got this call from this guy named George Clinton asking if I wanna sing background. Who is that? You wanna sing with me?” I said, “What? Absolutely.” I ended up singing on “Do Fries Go With That Shake?” and “Hey Good Lookin’.” That was before my album came out. But then, also, hearing yourself on the radio with your own stuff is amazing. At that point, I already had a 1-year-old who was sitting in the back seat while I’m driving up La Brea and listening to “The Right Stuff.”
Q: You’ve appeared twice as a guest judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Are you a fan of the show?
A: Oh, yeah. When it first came out. It was Season 3 that I did it the first time and did “All Stars” this past cycle. Whenever RuPaul calls, I’m there for him. I’m always amazed, particularly because Shangela, I had judged before. It’s just amazing how innovative and creative with hair and makeup and wardrobe and theme — and just creativity in general, it’s just astounding.
Q: What’s the key to not only staying busy but doing work that matters and motivates you?
A: I wish I could give you a plan. But it’s a lot more organic than that. I just finished doing a campaign on heart disease with WomenHeart and Burlington Coat Factory. They heard that my grandmother had died at 28, my mother at 65, so they called me and my daughter (Lion Babe singer Jillian Hervey) to have us kick off a campaign for them. I don’t really go after things. Things kind of come, and then I make the decision whether or not it’s organic and makes sense for me or not. I find that it’s easier for me to deal with life that way than actively trying to go after something and having expectations and being disappointed. At 55 years old, I’ve learned that you have to kind of surrender to what gifts you’re given in life and pay attention to the cues of what’s available and what you should do. I’m about to start a pilot in Dallas (for comedic soap “False Profits”). I’ve done three shows for ABC: “Ugly Betty,” “Desperate Housewives” and “666 Park Avenue.” It’s another adventure, and we’ll see how it goes.