Vanessa Williams and her mother, Helen, have a new book out for Mother's Day
It details their complex relationship and how they survived scandal and success
While they're very different people, Vanessa takes some of her parenting traits from Helen
On the cover of their new book, “You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (And Each Other),” singer/actress Vanessa Williams and her mother, Helen, radiate an empowered sophistication.
Their pose eschews the cliché embrace. Instead they strike a stance of support – mother and daughter side by side, arms hooked. The book intertwines their two stories, how each has struggled on her own and how the complicated relationship that binds them still supplies a safety net.
From public scandal – she stepped down as the first black Miss America after nude photos of her appeared in Penthouse magazine – to Broadway triumph, Williams has been on the celebrity radar for decades. Through it all, her mother has been a touchstone of humor and support in good times and bad.
CNN sat down with both women to discuss their book, their parenting revelations and their memories from a lifetime in the spotlight. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
CNN: How has your relationship evolved over time?
Helen: Well, as Vanessa has grown into womanhood and become a mother, it’s a more adult-to-adult relationship now, rather than the domineering mom, as they tend to think I was, to a more relaxed relationship but understanding that I’m still a mother in the relationship.
Vanessa: As a mother now of four children, I can see her much more wholly as a woman, a mother, someone who has had a past and someone whose past has influenced her choices as well as mine. The wiser you get, the more experience you have, and the more you see people for who they are as human beings, as opposed to figures you have to fight against. I think I am much more conscious of back story, temperament and even going through perimenopause and how it can affect your mood, attitude and relations and how you deal with people. There are a lot of things that you don’t realize that your parents are going through when you’re a kid.
CNN: How did you ‘survive’ all of that together?
Helen: (Her father and I) were the support that we felt she needed to survive some of the things that she had to deal with that were not always the positive things. And we were also the supporters when something really exciting happened, like when she had her first Broadway show.
Vanessa: And it’s never-ending, especially in this business. You’re always going to have people that are naysayers, that don’t believe in your talent, that don’t believe that you have any kind of longevity. I am happy to be able to look back – because the book is called “You Have No Idea,” and every time there has been a major triumph in my career, nobody ever expected it. On Broadway: “I didn’t know she could sing and dance.” A No. 1 hit on the radio: “I had no idea that she could be a recording artist.” With “Ugly Betty” and three Emmy nominations: “I had no idea she was funny.” It is always redefining who you are and raging against the machine.
CNN: What do you think mothers and daughters will take away from this book?
Vanessa: I hope that they see that it’s not all peaches and cream. Even when we shot the cover – they had shown me the cover of Ellen Degeneres’ book with her mom, and it was warm, loving and toasty, and they are embracing each other. And I said, “That’s not us!” In the back of the book, you see me crowning her, because she is the real queen in our family. And so there is a sense of humor, which is part of our dynamic, and that’s how we get through lots of things in our life.
Helen: What I hope they take away is it’s an honest story of two experiences, two different people with two different personalities, and how we were able to respect our roles as a mother and daughter and tell the story that worked for us with support, love, caring and being there for your child.
CNN: What did you want for Vanessa?
Helen: We wanted her to be whatever she chose to be as her life goal. To support her, doing whatever we could to make it happen. To be a happy, successful person.
Vanessa: I also think, had I not been talented in the arts and I still wanted to be in it, they would have said “Why don’t you do something else?” Luckily they saw my talent and my interest in it and they gave me all the gifts to allow me to take dance class, piano and French horn and be in theater and major in musical theater in college, rather than saying, “Why don’t you do something normal?” or “Get a real job.” I never heard that.
CNN: As a mother now, do you hear yourself saying things that sound like your mother?
Vanessa: When I heard it loud and clear was when I was on location shooting a show called “Who Do You Think You Are.” I was on the phone with my 11-year-old daughter. She started with violin, played piano and percussion, then she wanted to switch to the trumpet, and then wanted to drop it altogether. I remember saying, “We don’t drop our instruments in this family. Everyone takes an instrument until they graduate, and that’s what we do as a family, so you’ve got to figure out if it’s violin or trumpet or something else. And I don’t ever want to hear the music teacher telling me you’re not showing up again.” And that’s when I knew, I am the same parent, I have heard this before.
CNN: How would each of you describe that relationship between mother and daughter?
Vanessa: I am lucky to have three daughters who are completely different. I look at my daughters and I have different relationships with all three and there are parts of each personality that are very special. I rely on them for their particular qualities, but I feel happy that I have three completely different opportunities to make my mommy-daughter relationship different.
Helen: And mine was such trial and error before Vanessa was born. I had no skills in diaper changing or feeding or any of the things that you’re required to do as a mother. I enjoyed having a girl – the mother-daughter shopping, dressing up and doing those things together. There’ll be difficult times, especially when girls start growing up, and it’s not easy, but you get through it. You just have to be patient and give them their space and recognize who they are.
CNN: Is there a moment between you two that stands out as unforgettable?
Helen: For me, it was when Vanessa had performed “Kiss of the Spider Woman” on Broadway, because we knew that was one of the things that she wanted to do her entire life. Her high school picture said “I’ll see you on Broadway.” It was something that she’d worked very hard toward. She had some people that did not want her to be on Broadway, and she persisted.
Vanessa: I think one of my mother-daughter memories was at the first state dinner that I attended, when President Reagan invited me to the White House that October as Miss America, and my mother said, “Whatever you do, get the president to sign the menu!” I ended up sitting at his table and trying to think, how am I going to get through this dinner with the president and get him to sign my menu? I listened to him talk about his life in Hollywood and towards the end, I said “Can you please sign this menu for my mother? She will kill me otherwise.” And he very politely did it, and she still has it. The things that you do for your mother!
Helen: But they’re important things.