She is the new black woman.
She can have her politics public or personal. She doesn't have to conform in style or statement to represent any group. She is building new, fresh images.
She is Vanessa Williams, the new Miss America, the first black to hold that title. Today she responded to the blinding lights and shouting voices with determination, telling reporters: "I have to figure out whether I am going to voice my own opinion or try to represent America as a whole."
The new black women are hot. This summer Jennifer Beals, of interracial parentage, scored at the box office, as well as set fashion trends, in "Flashdance." Shari Belafonte, older than the college-age Williams and Beals, does commercials for Calvin Klein jeans, a sultry representative for an all-American product.
And now there is Williams.
To her, the victory means: "It can happen today. There is nothing holding anyone back. It means people can do anything they want and be anything they want.
"Nothing has held me back."
From the first moments of her tenure as Miss America, Williams--a 20-year-old musicial theater major at Syracuse University--seemed to accept the inevitable controversy and even crave the distinction of being different. That is one mark of her generation, born in the throes of the civil rights movement, immune from the physical strife of direct racial bias--and taught that a colorless world is the reward the last generation has bequeathed.
Today she got another dose of beauty pack journalism, and was skillful, even playful in handling it. At the Plaza Hotel, photographers had Williams pose in front of the waterless fountain. She was dressed in bone and champagne, from a ruffled-collar blouse to a knit suit to 3-inch heels. They asked her to raise her hands in a sphere above her head. "Start over there and swing slowly," one of the paparazzi commanded. Smiling, amused at the madness, she did it six times, then several more as the entourage moved down Fifth Avenue.
The onlookers were plentiful: cooks in white uniforms, executives in three-piece suits, shoppers barging out of Bergdorf's, saw her and said: "Our timing couldn't have been better." A chauffeur in a blue cap extended his hand. "I wish you all the luck in the world."
In her hotel suite, with gifts of roses and other flowers, she was just as direct, gracious and lively. She appeared self-conscious about the clothes overflowing from her suitcase and slightly appalled at the price of a cheese sandwich from Plaza room service.
"I think I would be doing the same thing if I were Spanish or white or Chinese. I am still a person, I still feel the same way about being crowned. I don't think they chose me because I was black and it was time for a black Miss America. They chose me because they thought I could do the job."
"There is absolutely a difference this year. We always have good press. But this, oh my," said Ellie Ross, a pageant traveling companion who has seen seven winners through their grueling year. "Today nobody in the press sat down, they all crowded around her."
Vanessa Williams' dilemma is that of anyone stepping into the overnight deluge of attention that she collided with: Is the job structured for consensus or does it allow for individuality?
"Color makes no difference," is not only her feeling but that of many of her contemporaries. Her mother, Helen Williams, admires the positiveness of her daughter's generation: "Without that realism, she wouldn't have won."
Though she will never be free of the tag--The First--Williams is not concerned. The whole notion initially appears to be a handicap. She grimaced when someone mentioned her achievements in the same breath as Jackie Robinson. "I think that is quite severe," she said. "I think this is a great accomplishment and I am very proud."
She wasn't shying away from any controversy. She is annoyed some blacks might feel she wouldn't have won if she had the darker features of model and actress Iman rather than the toney beige of "Fame" actress and dancer Debbie Allen. Color conditioning, for long a controversial subject in black communities, is basically a belief that whites don't feel as threatened by fair-skinned blacks as by darker ones, and therefore lighter blacks achieve more success. "I am not aware of that criticism; that is a shame, unfortunate. Just because I have lighter skin and lighter hair doesn't mean I am any less a person. I am not more pro-white or pro-black."
She is happy the celebrity spotlight is being focused on some black women. "Beals had her own controversy because she looked Italian. Debbie Allen is dynamic, I saw her years ago and knew she was going to make it. It was just a matter of time," said Williams.
"It is a lot easier to make it today in the entertainment field if you have a good talent or if you are beautiful. Diversity is appreciated a lot more than in the 1950s when there were problems with racial issues. There is still bigotry and racism going on. But there are also the majority of people who aren't thinking about it. I have had no severe problems growing up. I have been called names, every black person has been discriminated against at some point; I am sure I have been. But now I know it is not half as hard to make it as 20 years ago," she says.
Williams didn't plan to be Miss America, didn't spend years training, and had a optional plan of teaching and raising a family of a boy and a girl if her Broadway ambitions didn't pan out.
She has been lucky. She grew up in a quiet suburb of New York, free of social problems, boasting one of the most competitive, highly rated public school systems in the country. Both her parents teach. She and her mother describe the home as "deeply religious." A Catholic home, says her mother, that parts from some of the church stands, particularly on abortion.
Earlier this year, Williams was going to perform in her first equity production, "Cyrano de Bergerac," which was canceled, freeing her to try the local Miss Syracuse pageant. She had been recruited by a local pageant veteran. She won that contest in April and was on her way.
"She was impressed by my talent. She designed all my gowns. She had been competing, so she knew all the ins and outs of pageantry. She told me which questions they were likely to ask--I had a mock interview before the state competition--and what the image of Miss America should be. For me there is no ideal Miss America. I am my own person."
But the responsibilities of the double whammy of being the country's symbol, as well as a black symbol, are still unfolding. She talks about being a role model for the majority of black women her age who are parents, undereducated and underemployed. "Without education you can't go anywhere. It is unfortunate our young women get pregnant or involved in things, and education can help you go far."
As someone called her from the next room to get ready for another photo session, she said of the coming year, "I am nervous, I don't know what to expect, I know I am controversial," adding that her outspokenness could cost her some promotional appearances. "But it is an invigorating kind of nervousness."