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Vanessa Williams on gay cruising, Miranda Priestly & her longtime 'bond' with LGBTQ+ people

Vanessa Williams on gay cruising, Miranda Priestly & her longtime 'bond' with LGBTQ+ people

Vanessa Williams on gay cruising, Miranda Priestly & her longtime 'bond' with LGBTQ+ people
VACAYA/Gabriel Goldberg (@HollywoodBruisers)

The Devil Wears Prada musical star shares the origins of her allyship while aboard a VACAYA cruise.

Vanessa Williams had “an extraordinary experience” during her performance on last week’s VACAYA cruise of the Caribbean.

The singer — known for chart-topping hits like “Save the Best for Last,” as well as Broadway showstoppers — had a bit of extra time toward the conclusion of her 9 p.m. show last Thursday in the Celebrity Apex cruise liner’s packed 500-seat theater. She decided to search through her sheet music for a musical number, which she knew would be a hit with the mostly LGBTQ+ audience.

Then, gay lightning struck. From the crowd, someone yelled out, “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Williams’s music director didn't know the music, but Williams was inspired. “I said, ‘I'll do it a cappella.’”

VACAYA/Gabriel Goldberg (@HollywoodBruisers)

As background, Williams made her Broadway debut in 1994 in Kiss of the Spider Woman, a musical by Terrence McNally. She replaced Tony winner Chita Rivera, who recently passed, as Aurora, a diva dreamed up by a gay man to escape his harsh reality of imprisonment in Argentina. Williams dedicated the song to Chita. And then, she did indeed sing the titular song a cappella.

The crowd hushed, the boat swayed, Williams’s voice soared, and there was “eerie connection by the end. It was really, really unusual, and unexpected, and so fulfilling.”

“Those are the kind of audiences that you get on VACAYA, for sure, which — I've never had that experience happen before,” she marvels.

From the onset of Williams’s time in the public eye — she was crowned Miss America in 1984 as the first Black winner, then was forced to give up the title after public outcry over a Penthouse spread – Williams felt a deep connection to the LGBTQ+ community. By virtue of “going through the fire publicly,” she felt “an immediate bond with people that are ostracized, that are judged, that…have 100 percent more to go through than everybody else just to get in the door because we're judged,” she relates.

The Miss America incident wasn’t Williams’s only origin of queer empathy. She “lost so many friends through the AIDS crisis.” That galvanized her as an activist. During the interview, she counts five guests from her first wedding in the 80s alone who became victims of the epidemic. Being silent? Never an option.

“Many of my friends are gay, so I have never ever questioned, Should I align with that? Should I speak? You know, [from the beginning] I had no hesitation to speak my truth about standing up with my gay brothers and sisters who are amazing,” she says.

And speaking out for what she believes in is also just part of her character. “When you are outspoken about who you are. As Miss America…I was pro-ERA, I was pro-choice. At 20 years old, I didn't say, 'Oh my God, what are people going to think?' That's who I am,” says Williams, now 60.

VACAYA/Gabriel Goldberg (@HollywoodBruisers)

Williams credits her progressive worldview to her New York City upbringing by parents who were educators and “both really open.” From her childhood, she recalls a family friend, Mr. Rodman, “a fabulous attorney” who gifted her a first bottle of YSL Opium perfume. After Rodman bought a Porsche with a stick shift, but didn’t know how to drive it, her father taught him how.

Rodman “had this sense of elegance…and I knew that he was gay. You know, people didn't talk about it, but we knew…so there was never, ever any judgment, never any name-calling. So I grew up with that freedom. My kids grew up with that freedom of being free and not judged. And I thank my parents for creating that safety net.”

Williams first recalls standing up for her queer friends in high school — “as a dancer, all my friends were gay, you know, every show I did I had gay friends.” After observing “the two guys that weren’t out” being teased by bullies, she remembers “sticking up for them because they knew that they had a home with the girls.”

It’s a practice of allyship she would continue for decades. “It's just standing up and showing your solidarity over and over and over again,” she says.

Last week on the VACAYA cruise, Williams was there front-row in the audience for Alec Mapa — her castmate from Ugly Betty, the ABC dramedy where she played another gay icon, Wilhelmina Slater, the fabulous-and-scheming creative director of a fashion magazine. During his comedy set, Mapa credited Williams with helping inspire him and his husband to foster and then adopt a son. The experience was chronicled in his 2013 show (and film), Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy.

Williams has four children, “the biggest blessing I’ve had,” and says she sometimes nudged her Ugly Betty castmates to take the parenthood plunge. “Taking risks is scary because you don't know what's going to happen. But I always encourage, especially, you know, Alec, a great guy who had so much to give, and fell in love with his foster child. He's like, ‘I'm not giving him back,’ you know, and he took the risk of like, ‘I'm going to educate my child and give him a life that I know I can afford him.’ And you know, it's made his life sweeter. So I'm happy that I can be the prime example of, I don't want to say having it all. But, you know, I brought my kids everywhere. Yeah, I was exhausted sometimes…but it's always worth it.”

During his set, Mapa jokingly asked if Williams had been to the “dick deck,” a reference to the red-light district open nightly on the ship’s pickleball court. “Not on this boat,” replies Williams with a smile — this is her fifth queer cruise, after all. And she had only boarded the luxury Celebrity Apex cruise ship on Wednesday in Antigua, the last island destination of the 7-night voyage, which embarked in Fort Lauderdale and had stops in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The cruise ran February 17 to 24, and included performances with entertainers like Alan Cumming, Daya, and the drag performer La Voix.

On cruising with queer people, Williams says “it always feels like family,” noting she had just lunched with Mapa and the gay NPR host Ari Shapiro on VACAYA. Shapiro performed a cabaret set with Cumming several nights earlier.

Williams will win over more LGBTQ+ fans by taking on the role of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada musical, set to debut on London’s West End in October 2024. (She had initially begun workshops for the Smash Broadway production but was lured to the Devil part by the starring role, the production’s new director and choreographer, Jerry Mitchell, as well as new music from Elton John. “You gotta trust me, I’m gonna turn this around,” Mitchell assured Williams after the show had a shaky world premiere in Chicago in 2022, as she recalls.)

VACAYA/Gabriel Goldberg (@HollywoodBruisers)

So how does the one-time Wilhelmina Slater feel about stepping in the heels of Streep, who was Oscar-nominated for the role of the chilly fashion maven?

“Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep. Wilhelmina Slater is Wilhelmina Slater. And on stage, you have to project... and you can't do things subtly because no one will see it when you're in a 1500-seat theater. So you're going to own the stage and be a little bigger. So, it's not going to be Meryl Streep. It'll be my Miranda Priestley — with music, obviously.”

"We’re gonna have really good fashion… we’re recreating the Met Gala. It's not just Runway, it's going to be huge. It's going to be worth your dollar, that's for sure.”

VACAYA is “the first large-scale adults-only vacation company on earth built for the entire LGBTQIAPK community and their straight ally friends,” as its website describes. Learn more at

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Daniel Reynolds

Daniel Reynolds is the editor-in-chief of Out and an award-winning journalist who focuses on the intersection between entertainment and politics. This Jersey boy has now lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade.

Daniel Reynolds is the editor-in-chief of Out and an award-winning journalist who focuses on the intersection between entertainment and politics. This Jersey boy has now lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade.