Some of Vanessa Williams’ sweetest days were spent on top of the Billboard charts. Her trademark tune, “Save the Best for Last,” was released 17 years ago, showing that the do-it-all diva was more than a beauty pageant queen and pin-up babe. But acting roles – as venomous magazine-head Wilhelmina Slater on that queer-adored juggernaut of a TV show “Ugly Betty,” and in “Hannah Montana: The Movie” as a conniving publicist – sidetracked her music career. Until now, at least.
With “The Real Thing,” released June 2 on Concord Records, Williams scooted back into the recording studio, creating an easy-listening conglomerate of jazz, R&B and Latin-swayed songs. The chanteuse’s eighth album, her first since 2005’s “Everlasting Love,” took two years to make – longer than she expected, but hey, it ain’t easy being a bitch.
How did it feel to return to your musical roots?
It felt great once I could find the time to actually do it. It seemed like getting into the studio was this labyrinth of obstacles to achieve. I signed with Concord over two years ago, when I started doing the first season of “Betty” – flying back and forth on the weekends and trying to figure out producers to work with, etcetera – (and recording it) just seemed to take an eternity. And then we finally said, “Let me go to the people that I know and work with the best.” And we called (producer) Keith Thomas, who had done “Save the Best for Last,” “The Sweetest Days” and “Colors of the Wind” – all my big hits – and he ended up doing a bunch of tracks. Once we figured out the song list and everything – as soon as we were ready to go – they moved us (“Ugly Betty” gang) to New York (laughs). So I started recording out in L.A., and then did some in Nashville while I was shooting “Hannah Montana,” and then finished up in Los Angeles. So once I finally got behind the mic, it was great, but getting behind the mic was the issue.
On this album, you’ve strayed a bit from the R&B/pop sound of your early songs.
Well, Babyface’s stuff is – “Just Friends” and “Breathless” are. The music business has changed so much that to target and try to plan it out is – I know it’s admirable, but it’s a gamble. And I’m 46 years old; I hope that the people that were fans come along for this ride. If I get any new fans that are younger and don’t know me as an artist, that’s great, but I’m just kind of letting it go out there and we’ll see who it appeals to.
Well, I’m still on the bandwagon. How long have you wanted to do a jazz/Latin project?
For a while. I wanted to do a Latin album after I did the movie “Dance With Me.” I said, “I would love to do a whole Latin album,” and everyone thought I was crazy – and then Ricky Martin came out a year later, and I said, “I told you, this is a wave.” That was two record companies ago. My first idea was to do an entire Brazilian album, and it’s still a hard sell because record companies want to know that they can make money and that it’s not going to be so specialized. But if it’s good music, it’s good music. And I don’t want to say that this is a compromise, but this is a compilation of doing what the first intention was, adding a little bit of – like “Come on Strong” is a little Wilhelmina. If she were going to sing a song, that would be the song that she would sing.
Speaking of Wilhelmina, how disappointing was it to hear that “Ugly Betty” was being moved to Fridays in the fall?
Believe me – we’re, ah – we’re nervous. We hope our fans will follow us. I hope that everyone moves with us to Fridays at 9.
With “Ugly Betty,” motherhood’s changed Wilhelmina a great deal during this past season. Where do you think she’s headed next season?
Honestly, we don’t know, because they won’t tell us.
Where would you like to see her?
I would like to have her have some resolutions with Connor. I would like to have her possibly go out on her own, but I love the fact that they’re willing to give Wilhelmina anything, and she has to be a master at it. So it’s always a challenge. Victor Nelli, our executive producer, will say, “You play softball?” I’m like, “Mmm, in gym.” There’s always these fabulous scenarios. “Have you ever had acupuncture?” “No.” “Well, you’re gonna get 10 needles in your face and have reflexology while you’re doing this scene.” So I love the challenge of Wilhelmina, because it never grows old. I can’t wait to see what situations they put her in next year.
In film and television – with “Ugly Betty,” “A Diva’s Christmas Carol” and your recent part as a Wilhelmina-like publicist in “Hannah Montana: The Movie” – you haven’t always been a very pleasant person. How did you get so good at being a bitch?
It’s like an alter ego. It’s like being able to be a brat; everybody can be a brat and you make fun of brats and you can always say, “Oh, if I had bad behavior, this is what I would do in this situation.” So basically it’s like taking your polite hat off and being able to be a child. I played the witch in “Into the Woods,” Aurora in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” – there’s something very alluring about being stealth and sneaking in and causing havoc in a very understated and silent way. I always love watching films where characters were completely devious or evil but did it in such a subtle way that their acting was brilliant. So even though our show can be very broad, I try to make Wilhelmina as – I don’t want to say as believable as possible – but to make the audience understand why she behaves the way she does. I think that with season three you got a chance to see why Wilhelmina has so much armor, because every time she lets it down she gets hurt; she gets burned. She tries to be a better mother this time, and this time around she loses her baby again. I hope that I’m doing a good job at allowing Wilhelmina to be a full character.
You’ve always been so supportive of the gay community, winning an “Ally for Equality” award from HRC. Why are you so devoted to LGBT issues?
It’s always been a part of my life. I grew up dancing and in the theater. I had gay friends in high school. I was going to major in musical theater in college. Even my mother had gay friends growing up. Four of my friends that were at my first wedding died of AIDS in the ’80s. I’ve been affected by gay issues my whole life. I have (gay) friends that are married. I have (gay) friends that are great parents. I have (gay) friends that are business partners, who are fabulous and in established relationships that have lasted longer than both of my marriages combined. I’m also lucky that I had parents who were really open and non-judgmental and inclusive, and I guess there aren’t that many in the grand scheme of things, but in New York – and in my business – it’s very natural. So, I’m always surprised by people that are not tolerant, that are uneducated, and it saddens me, but honestly there’s a lot of change going on. It’s furious. And (with) the rally we just had in New York for gay marriage, we’re on the brink. And the fact that there’s so much dialogue happening now, and it’s such a hot-button issue – that means people are talking about it. And the more you talk about it, the more educated you can be. So I think time will tell, but everything has its time. And now is the time.
June is Pride month. Even though you can’t be part of it because of your busy promotional schedule and then the “Ugly Betty” shoots, how will you celebrate it?
By being supportive. Give me the dates and I’ll see if I’m in town (laughs).
You were a beauty pageant queen in the ’80s, so what’s your take on the whole Miss California Carrie Prejean controversy?
You’re maybe the 12th person that has asked me this morning (laughs). Well, ya know, my answer is: Who cares? Who really cares? She’s not a legislative body. She’s not in any elected position to make a change in policy and government, so who cares?
How would you have answered her question regarding gay marriage?
Everyone has the right to happiness, and everyone should be created equal. End of story.