It’s an apology that’s three decades overdue, but on Sunday night the Miss America organization finally said sorry to Vanessa Williams.
In 1983 she became the first black woman to win the crown. And then came the nude pictures published in Penthouse without her permission. The photos were taken two years prior to the pageant, when she was about 19 years old and working at a New York modeling agency. A photographer promised that they’d be shot in silhouette and that she would not be identifiable.
This was well before social media, hacked celebrity nudes and the infamous flash of Janet Jackson’s boob that was treated like a massive attack on American family values. The message was and still is: A woman’s naked body is to be shamed and blamed and is a weapon against all things wholesome.
When Penthouse debuted the racy pics of Vanessa, her forced resignation came just 10 months after winning Miss America.
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Even Playboy’s king, Hugh Hefner, knew this was wrong. The photos were offered to his magazine before Penthouse. He passed.
“The single victim in all of this was the young woman herself, whose right to make this decision was taken away from her,” Hefner told Time. “If she wanted to make this kind of statement, that would be her business, but the statement wasn’t made by her.”
Vanessa didn’t vanish into oblivion. She has had hit records and was a fan favorite on “Ugly Betty.”
But still, why did the apology take so long? How come no one took a bigger stand on her behalf?
“I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be,” Sam Haskell, executive chairman of the Miss America pageant, said to Vanessa on stage Sunday night.
I’m glad she had her moment. But I wonder whether another woman shamed by America will get a chance to win again: Janet Jackson.
It has been 11 years since nine-sixteenths of a Super Bowl second destroyed the pop culture icon’s career. It was 2004, and Justin Timberlake was just starting his solo career, carving out his post-boy-band identity. He and Janet were performing his hit “Rock Your Body.”
As his lyrics, “Better have you naked by the end of this song,” played, he reached over, grabbed a corner of Janet’s right breast cup and ripped it off. The red lacy layer under the black leather was supposed to be revealed. Instead, her boob jumped out, and a gold star-plated nipple winked hello to millions of viewers. She instantly cupped her hand over her naked ta-ta.
But that flash of a second would dominate much of 2004. The NFL, FCC, MTV — everyone — blamed Janet for damaging the nation’s moral integrity. She was pretty much uninvited to the Grammys that year.
Justin? He was there, ready to apologize, to be the good boy.
I’m a huge fan of Justin, but even he admitted she unfairly took all the scorn. Let’s get real. This is the same guy who just two years later went on to sing “Dick in a Box” in a “Saturday Night Live” digital short that would win an Emmy. But that’s the luxury of being a man. Men can show their chests, own their sexy and manage to escape condemnation.
Women don’t have that privilege. Janet certainly didn’t. The NFL hired MTV to produce the Super Bowl halftime show the year her bra fell apart. Yet they acted like they’d never seen Prince’s bare bottom on the VMAs. We’re talking about the same awards show where Diana Ross bounced Lil’ Kim’s breast in her hand in 1999. Come on. Janet was more topless on the cover of that 1993 issue of Rolling Stone than she was on that Super Bowl stage.
But none of that mattered. That boob drew a lifetime penalty flag. Her albums after the Super Bowl tanked. She eventually moved overseas. And now she’s gearing up for a comeback.
“Unbreakable,” her 11th studio album, comes out Oct. 2, just weeks before her Oct. 27 tour stop in Kansas City. So far she has been packing arenas. Will she be able to score a win the way pop royalty should?
Only time will tell. Even Michael Powell, then-FCC chairman, admits that the controversy was an overreaction and that there was pressure to go after Janet.
“I think we’ve been removed from this long enough for me to tell you that I had to put my best version of outrage on that I could put on,” he told ESPN last year. “Part of it was surreal, right? Look, I think it was dumb to happen, and they knew the rules and were flirting with them, and my job is to enforce the rules, but, you know, really? This is what we’re gonna do?”
It took 32 years for Vanessa Williams to get a formal apology. A decade has been long enough for Janet. Let’s hope that America can pack that nine-sixteenths of a Super Bowl second in a bra in a drawer and move on.
Haven’t we realized Nipplegate didn’t break American values? Butts and boobs are no threats. If women were treated as whole humans rather than scandalous pieces and parts, we’d really be unbreakable.