Entertainment Spotlight Interview: Vanessa Williams

New York Superstar Radiates Through Song and Stage at WHBPAC

Whether you know her from her days as the deliciously nasty Wilhelmina Slater on Ugly Betty or her arc on Desperate Housewives, or gravitated to the Bronx native’s timeless songs like “Save the Best for Last” and the theme to Pocahontas, “Colors of the Wind.” Vanessa Williams continues to be a force on stage and screen. The singer/actress graces the stage at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on August 4 for a night of song, stagecraft, and realness as she connects with her material and her fans.

Williams’ multi-faceted career has taken her from television to movies (Soul Food, the Shaft remake, Hannah Montana: The Movie) to a range of theater from musicals to dramas including Into the Woods, The Trip to Bountiful with

Cicely Tyson, Bye Bye Birdie, and more. She even co-penned a New York Times bestseller with her mother Helen. What remains at the core for Williams and what has driven much of her career is her honesty and her truth when working on a project; she embodies the role whether it’s a song, an on-screen character, or on stage.

The daughter of two music teachers and mother of four, Williams has talent throughout her family in various fields, and she spoke with Hamptons Monthly about supporting her children’s creative ambitions, the variety of content on her current tour, and some of her most treasured memories over the year out East.

You perform in a lot of cities, but the Hamptons is a pretty special and different place. Having spent a lot of time in New York, do you have any standout moments visiting the Hamptons over the years?

Well, I have four kids – my daughter Jillian and her music partner, Lucas Goodman, are in the duo Lion Babe, and I have memories hanging out at their place out there on the water in recent years. Russell Simmons had a benefit out there about 10 years ago. He helps kids through art. I was there for that. Fashion designer Carmen Marc Valvo has a house in Bridgehampton I have visited, eating Coq au Vin and toasting the New Year with champagne on the winter side of the Hamptons, and I’ve gone out to visits friends here and there. I think most people equate the Hamptons to summer fun. My dad’s a Long Island guy so he grew up in Oyster Bay.

What might surprise the crowd about your show’s lineup at WHBPAC?

I think the biggest surprise is the up-tempos. “Work to Do” is huge, and people get up and dance when I do that. But I also do a song that was written after one of my breakups, “Who Were You Thinkin’ ‘Bout,” that’s kind of country and rock-ish. But people expect to hear love songs which have been good to me. But I think people also love the up-tempo stuff and it gets them grooving and moving. I think people also love the musicianship of my band. They all have a different tour they are on and when I call them they come join me on mine. I have been with my band for 21 years already. Our first tour was in 1997 with Luther Vandross. With my band, they don’t have to shift through their sheet music; they know the songs. It’s in their bones.

Your brother Chris is an actor who has been in numerous films and TV shows, and one of your children – your daughter Jillian – is the singer in duo Lion Babe, who just recently played the main stage at Coachella. Was your family full of talented people growing up, and did you ever expect one of your kids would be in this business?

My parents were both music teachers, so I played piano at five, French horn at nine, violin. I was a classical and jazz dancer. I was in regular chorus and marching band and musicals, but being in music is just what we did.

When my kids were following my path, I knew they were talented but I didn’t know where their paths would go. Jillian was a dancer and went to The New School and she got injured and broke her wrist and had to stand out, and that’s when she started her music with. My oldest, Melanie, is a fashion stylist. My son Devin is a designer; he designs sneakers and does graphic design and mixes music. And Sasha, my youngest, plays drums and lots of other instruments and has a band.

I’ve always supported my kids. I’ve never had parents that said “get a real job.” So many people are tortured for the rest of their lives because their parents said “get a real job.” I’m so lucky to have this. The thing is, follow your dreams is so broad and so esoteric, but if you follow your skill set, that will make you happy.

You are such a multi-faceted performer; What would you say is your secret weapon as a performer and as a human?

What makes people connect is being true and honest. It’s not just about vocal acrobatics, it’s connecting to an emotion. When I stand behind a mic I don’t say, “when I was five I lost

my bike and it hurt my feelings.” I really step into a character and look at the lyrics and say this is where I need to be. I approach the piece as a character. That’s what makes people cry. When you’re singing, it’s pure and people are connected to it.

At your upcoming show in the Hamptons, besides singing some of your own hits and other popular songs, will you be sharing stories about your life, career, family, struggles, achievements, jokes?

I do kind of a mini walk through my life. I do start out with “The Right Stuff.” Jesus, that was 30 years ago in 1988 from that up-tempo dance era. I do my hits but also a section on Broadway shows I’ve done. It’s definitely intimate and allows a stripped-down version and that honesty to come out.