Before she embodied Ugly Betty's evil magazine editrix Wilhelmina Slater (think Anna Wintour meets Alexis Carrington), Vanessa Williams was the ultimate good girl: Miss America 1984. But Williams didn't let the wholesome title, or a cringeworthy nude-photo scandal, stop her from eventually tackling the entertainment industry on every front, racking up handfuls of Tony, Emmy and Grammy nominations as a pageant-queen-turned-singer-turned-consummate-actor. Now, with the transition of Betty's production from Los Angeles to Queens' Silvercup Studios for the show's third season, the Westchester-born Williams is having a homecoming of sorts. She talked to us about shoulder pads, Hannah Montana and, of course, "Save the Best for Last."
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Playing such an evil character on TV, can you be a bitch to everyone and just claim it's "research"?
[Laughs] That's a good angle. Haven't done that yet. It's actually freeing. You feel like you're a naughty kid in school—you get to behave badly and get away with it.
Any villains you've based your portrayal on?
A lot of it is on the page. I've been lucky to have a career for a while, and worked in almost every aspect of the business. I've done photo shoots, made videos, done television and film... There are definitely a lot of situations you can draw upon.
The Los Angeles Times called your portrayal "deliciously evil"—are you tasty?
Hmm. Deliciously evil? I think [Wilhelmina] is subtle and her presence is pretty formidable. I wanted to make sure that when she came on screen, just her carriage itself would show that this woman is not joking. I say a lot with my eyes, my looks, my sneer.
So, deliciously subtle, then. Wilhelmina actually has more editorial expertise than any of the other characters on Ugly Betty. We could use you at TONY.
[Laughs] Heads would roll, and you might have a lot of positions that...might not last.
We'd end up dressing a lot better.
Are you a clotheshorse? Wilhelmina wears some fantastic stuff.
In real life? No, actually I'm one of those people with things that I've had for 20 years in my closet.
Uh-oh, like shoulder pads?
Hmm, do I have any? I think I may have gotten rid of those, but it's not too far off. This season [on the show] I'm wearing a lot of vintage stuff from the late '80s and '90s, like Thierry Mugler fashion, that do have original shoulder pads. So it is coming back full circle.
What's the most embarrassing thing in your home closet?
I dunno... I do have a harlequin catsuit from the "Comfort Zone" video.I'd love to be one of your kids around Halloween time.We have plenty of looks to pull from.
You must be popular with your eight-year-old, being in the Hannah Montana movie.
Ooh, yeah. Not only did [Sasha] go on set, but she also got the chance to go to Miley's house in Tennessee to swim in her pool. She borrowed a bathing suit and got changed in her room. Doesn't get better than that.
Now your kid can't ever pull that "Mom, you never let me do anything!" line.
Oh, yeah. Coolest mom on the block.
So there's another actress named Vanessa Williams out there. You ever worry about a Single White Female thing—you could disappear and she'd take your place?
Oh, no. And well, she's not white. But actually, I've never met her. I hear she's lovely.
Do you get each other's mail?
When I did the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, they sent her my check, and she sent it to me. It was nice of her to not cash it.
One last question: Are you saving the best for last?
I'm not saving anything right now, but if it comes—I hope the end is a long time away.
The season premiere of Ugly Betty airs Thu 25 on ABC.