Vanessa Williams, 45, has gone from beauty queen to Ugly Betty’s queen of mean. Along the way, she has rewritten the rule book for women who know exactly what they want!Vanessa Williams isn’t the kind of woman who would risk breaking her ankle rather than ask for a better-fitting pair of shoes. As the crew of Ugly Betty sets up a shot on a street corner in downtown L.A., which is doubling for New York, she sends a wardrobe person scurrying in search of something more comfortable than her black stilettos. In less than a minute, she is presented with open-toe, patent leather pumps that won’t slip off her feet.
Williams is now fabulous from head to toe, as befits her character, scheming fashion editor Wilhelmina Slater — decked out in a high-collared silver jacket; a gray, knee-length pencil skirt; a sleek, streaked wig (similar to her own hair, but styled for Wilhelmina’s larger-than-life persona), and an hour’s worth of makeup. At 45, Williams is still the radiant beauty who, in 1983, became the first black Miss America. But television doesn’t do justice to the mischief in her striking blue-green eyes.
“She always says that she gets her ‘mean eyes’ from her mom, because her mom would shoot her kids a look that would just make their hair stand on end,” says Michael Urie, who plays Wilhelmina’s flamboyant assistant, Marc St. James.
And then there is her voice: low-timbred, resonant, silky yet insistent.
“Midtown Nobu, please,” she says, strong-arming past Betty White’s stunt double into the backseat of a taxi. “You’re very rude!” says the double, dressed in an elaborate rain hat and poncho.
“And you’re wearing plastic,” Williams replies acidly.
“I’m going to be late!”
“And I’m going to get wet. I’m Wilhelmina Slater. I don’t get wet,” Williams says. She slams the specially rigged door on the woman’s hand and throws a ball of wadded bills at her, adding, “This should take care of it.”
Williams’s flair for putting the mean in Wilhelmina earned her an Emmy nomination last fall and added another line on a resume that already included R&B and pop artist, film star, and Broadway showstopper. In Ugly Betty, she brings intelligence, poise, and unapologetic assertiveness to the maddest of Wilhelmina’s machinations. It’s a rare combination that makes what could have been simply a cartoon villainess surprisingly human and, yes, even likable.
“It’s so much fun to play a strong, capable woman who isn’t an attorney in a suit or a doctor spouting medical jargon,” Williams says, restuffing her purse with fake dollar bills for the next take. “It’s great to be so broad. Usually you only get that in theater. When a director on Ugly Betty says, ‘Go bigger,’ it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’ll give you bigger!'”
At this stage of her two-decade career, bigger is definitely better. “I’m enjoying every moment,” she says. “In your 20s, you think, I’ve got to prove something. In your 40s, you don’t. You realize you don’t have control over everything. Many times I’ve said, ‘What is the lesson I’m learning?’ It always reveals itself.”