Throw away your pageant sash and glower at America Ferrera, because it is Vanessa Williams’ 50th birthday. The woman who was crowned the first black Miss America in 1984 only to have that title revoked once nude photos of her resurfaced in Penthouse rebounded to enormous fame with a staggering music, TV, and Broadway career. She’s a talent and a vision and one awesome gay advocate. In 1984, she was pro-choice and pro-gay in an era when beauty pageant contestants tried their best to express forgettably palatable opinions. She’s righteous, sweet, and an HRC honoree. Love this woman. So without further ado, let’s honor Vanessa Williams with a quick countdown of her five most fabulous moments. Fight me in the comments, pleeeease.
5. The kickass self-possession of “Work to Do”
I understand that Vanessa may be more well-known for “Save the Best for Last,” “Colors of the Wind,” and her Christmas renditions, but to me her fiercest moment as a recording artist was “Work to Do,” an En Vogue-reminiscent jam from ’92 ’bout payin’ bills and bein’ on your own. It was a proper and sassy follow-up to “The Right Stuff” from ’88, in which she chirped like Pebbles and Jody Watley but deftly outsang them anyway. Would you like to guess how many Grammys Ms. Williams has been nominated for? Would you? Because the correct answer is ELEVEN.
4. Her deadly stank as Ugly Betty’s Wilhelmina Slater
Ugly Betty had tons of brilliant moments, and most of them centered around the nefarious, professionally evil Wilhelmina Slater. Williams played the fashion doyenne with enough Disney villian eyebrow choreography to render Cruella de Vil tongue-tied, and the role earned her three Emmy nominations. Hard to her best moment since they’re all so hair-raisingly, camp-tastically ferocious, but this moment of classic scheming works for me.
3. A fabulous trip Into the Woods
Oh, did you forget that V. Williams is also a Tony nominee? Because she was absolutely stellar in Into the Woods as the Witch. Her command is both scary and saucy, but she’s such a charismatic performer that you kind of root for the evil dame. I also loved her in the ’90s musical version of Kiss of the Spider Woman.
2. That time she saved Christmas with Luciano Pavarotti on SNL
I’m not sure how many former Miss Americas have sung next to Luciano Pavarotti on live television and pulled off sounding wonderful right alongside him, but Vanessa Williams can certainly claim the feat for herself. On this Christmas episode of SNL, she sang “Adeste Fideles” with the Tenor, and she’s just as angelic as the choir behind her. There was no going back after this: She put herself on track to deliver full-throttle fabulousness for the rest of her days here.
1. A Diva Does Dickens: The Camp Grandeur of VH1’s A Diva’s Christmas Carol
Yes, I love Ugly Betty. Yes, I love “Dreamin'” and “Runnin’ Back to You.” But to me, Vanessa WIlliams’ greatest achievement is the 1999 VH1 made-for-TV movie A Diva’s Christmas Carol, in which she plays a ruthless, washed-up star who revisits her past — Dickens style — and learns about the error of her ways. Did I mention that her character’s name is Ebony Scrooge? And that one of her “Ghost of Christmas Past” is played by Kathy Griffin? And her former bandmate is none other than Chilli from TLC, and her character name is (wait for it) Marli Jacob. LIKE JACOB MARLEY, GUYS. Vanessa, you showed the first shades of Wilhelmina here, and the spirit of Christmas thanks you for it. What are your favorite V. Wiliams moments? Is she not a righteous superstar goddess for all time? Stop it. She is.