Vanessa Williams is used to living her life in the spotlight. After a career in entertainment that has seen her win Miss America, lose her crown amid scandal, and go on to succeed in music, movies, television and Broadway, she knew she had an interesting story to tell. But Williams also knew a tell-all would be incomplete without the perspective of one of the most important people in her life: her mother, Helen.
So she pitched her publisher, Gotham Books, on the idea of co-writing a book with her mother, resulting in their joint memoir, “You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (And Each Other)” (Gotham Books, 280 pp., $28).
“It’s a real mother-daughter story,” Vanessa said, calling from a Los Angeles hotel room while her mother phoned from her Chappaqua home. “I thought [including my mother] was a unique twist, and plus she’s a real character.”
One of the most unusual aspects of the memoir is the non-linear storytelling. The book jumps almost immediately into the Miss America scandal that erupted after nude photos of Vanessa were published by a magazine. She said this structure was by design.
“I wanted it to read like a novel. Instead of going in chronological order, we did a great job of mixing it up so readers would be engaged,” Vanessa said. “It was important not to mince any words and come to many obstacles early on.”
Her mother, Helen, certainly did not mince words when giving her take on her daughter’s adolescent years and rise to fame. She is particularly candid when sharing her opinion about Vanessa’s personal life, such as her disapproval of Vanessa’s marriages to Ramon Hervey and former NBA star Rick Fox. But Helen said she did not mind revisiting the past. “It was good to go and relive the moments, even some of the unpleasant ones. I’m over 70, so I can still keep things in perspective about what happened at the time.”
Among the most difficult events Williams addresses in “You Have No Idea” was the revelation that she had been molested by a teenager when she was 10 years old, something even her mother did not know about until she read it in the book. Williams said that while promoting the memoir, she has been surprised by the number of people who told her that they had been molested, and thanked her for speaking out about what had happened to her. “I had no idea how many people have gone through this. It was the most stunning thing,” she said. Vanessa added that these disclosures made her glad that she had shared what happened to her, because “you want to tell your story and inform people about how you survived.”
Ultimately, Vanessa and Helen agree that working on the book strengthened their already tight bond. Helen says that the book gave her better appreciation of Vanessa as a mother (she has four children: Melanie, Jillian, Devin and Sasha) as well as how their own mother-daughter relationship has evolved. “Raising a girl in her formative years, you are the person who sets the rules and makes sure they follow them,” she said, referring to the push-pull dynamic the two had during Vanessa’s turbulent adolescence. “But now that she’s a mom herself, it’s more of an adult-to-adult relationship.”
After her husband Milton passed away in 2006, Helen moved from the Williams family home in Millwood to Chappaqua, and is now neighbors with her daughter. But the pair spent Mother’s Day apart this year. Vanessa was in Los Angeles with her four children, and attended a viewing party of the final episode of her series “Desperate Housewives” thrown by co-star Teri Hatcher. Helen planned to spend the day quietly, decompressing from the whirlwind media tour, and hoped to relax and treat herself to a Broadway show.
Even though they did not celebrate together this year, both women believe that Mother’s Day is an important occasion. Helen said that “any day that gets me a present and recognition is a great day,” and her daughter agreed, adding that “it’s just the simplest [gifts] that are most meaningful.”
In a way, their joint memoir could be one of the best Mother’s Day gifts they give to the next generation, and each other.
“Everyone’s got their story with their mom, so it was wonderful to write my story and put our relationship down on paper,” Vanessa said. “And my daughters found out things they didn’t know about our relationship, so it was informative to them too. I think it makes them cherish their relationship with me and their grandmother that much more.”