The Real Thing | Out Magazine

The Real Thing

The Real Thing

When it comes to talent, Vanessa Williams is a multi-threat. She was the first African-American Miss America, she's starred in countless movie and theatre roles, she's sold millions of records, including her signature song, Save the Best for Last, which spent five weeks at the top of the charts, and she plays the delightfully bitchy Wilhelmina Slater on the ABC hit Ugly Betty. Now Williams is returning to music again with the release of The Real Thing on June 2. The songstress eighth album -- a work in progress for the last two years and her first on Concord Records -- follows her last release, 2005's Everlasting Love which featured her favorite love songs from the 70s. Williams says shes going back to whats familiar by hand-picking songs she describes as a hybrid of samba, bossa nova, salsa, pop and R&B and all built around the theme of love. We caught up with Vanessa to chat about her new album, President Obama's first 100 days, and how she feels about the Miss California brouhaha. Out: You remarked the songs on The Real Thing are about relationships and how they relate to the modern-day love affair as seen from a womans perspective. How would you describe a modern-day love affair? Vanessa Williams: What is love? I did a whole song called Love Is. But what is it? Its a theme that seems to be universal -- no matter what language, no matter what sexual orientation. People love. People fall in love. They get hurt by love. Their heart gets wounded by love. Their heart is opened by love. Their heart is hopeful by love. What is one of the fondest memories you had making this album? The day they surprised me by bringing Bill Withers in the studio to listen to me record his song, Hello Like Before. He came in with his daughter, and I was completely emotional. I called my mom and burst into tears because he reminds me so much of my dad, and he was a huge Bill Withers fan [Williams father died in 2006]. Growing up we would listen to him on 8-track in the van all the time on long family trips. Bill Withers is very much a part of my musical background, and its great to have his song live on because hes such a great singer and songwriter. Youve been married twice. What are some of the lessons youve learned about relationships through your journey with love? That you never know. Its always different. There are no answers. Im one of those people who likes to say, If I do this; Ill get a result. Or, If I do this; this will happen. But with love you just never know. Your strength and your vulnerability are always in question. Love is just one of those things that you always strive for. Youre lucky when you get it, and it hurts when it goes away. One person you love is President Obama. Before he was elected you said, He would be great for our nation. How do you think hes doing? I think its a tough job, and hes done an excellent job thus far. Just watch his Notre Dame speech. He came out and confronted the issue [abortion] immediately. He basically said you can have your own beliefs, but people need to be tolerant of other peoples ideas. Hes always searching to create dialogue between people, and that is the most intelligent thing to do because with an education thats how you grow, learn and change. Hes just been a maverick by listening to others, and hes done it brilliantly. You have a huge gay following and rightfully so for all the work you do for the LGBT community. What inspired your work in the community initially? Was there ever a moment that made you realize you wanted to be an ally? There was never a moment. The gay community was always a part of my life. I had gay friends since high school, and then I majored in musical theater in college. I had four people who were at my first wedding in 1987 who have since died of AIDS. So, Ive been affected by gay issues. I also grew up in New York and my mother and father had gay friends. There was never a switch where I said, Im going to speak out for gay rights. Its always been natural, organic. During your reign as Miss America in 1984 you were involved in one of the most infamous beauty pageant scandals ever and gave up your crown after suggestive photos of you were published. Recently another pageant contestant, Miss California Carrie Prejean, came under fire after she spoke out against the right for same-sex marriage. Do you think its fair the way the media handled her response? Im surprised at how much this story has gone on and on. My personal opinion is really, Who cares? Shes not running for a government position that could make an actual change in policy, so who cares? Let it die. Do you think they should have stripped her of her title? Who cares! Really, who cares in the grand scheme of things? Ugly Betty has just been renewed for a fourth season. Are you still enjoying playing Wilhelmina? I absolutely love her. We just got moved next season to Friday nights at 9:00, so I hope all the fans follow us. I hope that (time change) is not an indication of anything. I love our cast, our writers and our creator. Its a ball to work on, and it just gets more and more delicious every season. Can you reveal anything thats going to happen in the next season? We are going to be doing a musical episode where everyone is going to sing. I also sang in the season finale this year with Christine Baranski. Every season they give me more and more things to do. Im playing tennis with Billie Jean King. Im speaking French. It just seems like Wilhelmina is an expert at everything. The challenge is always looking like everything is effortless. Is there a song that youve recorded that you think would be perfect for Wilhelmina? Come on Strong. Its an insistent song from the new album. Lena Horne originally did it, and if Wilhelmina was going to sing a song, this is the song she needs to sing. On The Real Thing you reunited with Phil Galdston and recorded a song called I Fell In. Galdston did two of your biggest hits, Save the Best for Last and The Sweetest Days. How important is it to you to have a hit record at this point in your career? Of course to the record company the hits are very important. I was signed to Concord Records two years ago, and with this particular album Id sit down and come up with producer ideas and the time would keep ticking and ticking because things wouldnt happen because of my schedule. After a while I just said, Why dont we go back to the people who know me and are consistent? I wanted to cut out half the guessing game. I started this album in LA, did some in Tennessee and then finished it in New York. Getting a hit out of it was the real bonus, but actually having it happen was the real trial -- the real thing. Are you going to tour? I did two nights in Atlantic City, and Ill be doing some promo things on television. Im also doing a concert for Placido Domingos new CD that Im singing on in Rome in July. Then I go back to work on Ugly Betty. Theres not much time to do anything, but there will be a few one-off dates when I can run off to a casino for a Friday and Saturday. It just seems that time just keeps getting faster and faster the older I get, and it would be nice to be able to catch a breath every now and then. But you have to strike while the iron is hot. Speaking of catching your breath, the first song on the new album is called "Breathless." What leaves you breathless? A good show. I remember seeing the opening night of West Side Story. Just hearing Leonard Bernsteins music made me breathless. Watching Anita and the girls doing classic Jerome Robbins choreography made me breathless. Watching my kids perform leaves me breathless. Going to a new country and enjoying it or driving up and seeing the Great Pyramids left me breathless. You know, Ive been lucky to have a lot in my life. To the outside world it may seem like you have it all -- a musical career, an acting career, four beautiful children. What is something that you still want? I would like a partner to help me with all this stuff. It would be nice to have a date once and a while. A romance would be wonderful. That side of my life could certainly use some attention. The Real Thing is available June 2. Williams will also host the 36th annual Daytime Emmy Awards on the CW Network on Aug. 30. For the latest information, Send a letter to the editor about this article.

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