Brooklyn-born Vanessa Williams knew from an early age that she wanted to be in the arts. The budding performer sang and acted her way through elementary school, and joined the chorus and after-school programs. When Williams was 12, she caught a break that set her on the path to stardom.
“Mildred Hohner came to my Saturday music school looking for diverse faces to join the children’s chorus,” she recalls of the woman who founded the New York City Opera’s Childrens’ Chorus. “She auditioned my younger brother, who was a soprano, and another kid, and they started going into the city on Saturdays and working in the opera. I wanted to break into show business and I had no idea how you do this, but I figured Mildred Hohner would know. So I auditioned for her and she asked me if I wanted to join the opera chorus. I didn’t, really, I was just trying to find someone who knew how to get me into the TV, literally. So, not wanting to be rude, I was like, ‘Okay!’ And I started singing with the chorus.”
Williams performed regularly at the famed Metropolitan Opera House and then had the opportunity to head West. “My first time in California was to perform at the Dorothy Chandler [Pavilion] with the New York City Opera,” she marvels. “I was learning all of these classical operas and working with Maria Callas and Beverly Sills and all these people. I didn’t know them from the men on the moon, but I knew they were big deals. All I knew of opera was from The Little Rascals doing The Barber of Seville. It was a marvelous entry into the whole world.”
Through her opera connections, Williams secured a talent manager and began doing commercials. While pursuing her higher education at Marymount Manhattan College, she booked a gig on the NBC mega-hit THE COSBY SHOW. “That was such a national phenomenon,” she recalls. “I mean, people quote me from that still. That carried a long way.” She also nabbed other roles in New York. “I did under-five stuff, I worked on ANOTHER WORLD.”
After moving to Los Angeles, she was quickly thrust into the national spotlight in 1992, playing Rhonda Blair on season 1 of Fox’s much-hyped prime-time series MELROSE PLACE. “It was amazing,” she recalls. “I was here like three months and then I got that job. It was my ‘Welcome to Hollywood!’ job. It was like, ‘You have arrived!’ ” Unfortunately, her time on the show came to an end sooner than Williams expected. “When they fired me three episodes later for no good reason, I was like, ‘Oh, welcome to Hollywood.’ Sometimes you’re in, and sometimes you’re out through no fault of your own. So that was my ‘Welcome to Hollywood,’ job, both the high-highs and the low-lows.”
Williams knew she couldn’t wallow in the professional setback and did her best to bounce back. “It was a devastating shock, but it made me fold into my talent and made me fold into my spiritual survival instinct,” she explains. “It was not some sort of judgment about who I am as an actor. I realized that if I’m only going to feel [worthy] if I have a job, I’m going to be at the mercy of this entity, this Hollywood scenario that I don’t have any control over, and that was not going to work for me. So I joined my church, I got deeper connected to spirit, and I said, ‘Whether I’m on or off a show, it doesn’t validate my work as an artist, my work as a person or anything like that.’ I licked my wounds and I kept working. It broke my heart, but I had to keep going and know that it wasn’t personal, as personal as it felt.” Looking back now, she reflects, “In a way, I feel like it was a blessing because I didn’t get pigeonholed into those character types. Maybe I would have been stereotyped if I had stayed any longer.”
After the MP exit, Williams headed to Spain and put her energy into a new venture. “It was amazing,” she raves. “I lived there for two months. That was one of the blessings that came from being on MELROSE PLACE; I was able to go to Spain and do a variety show there.” When she returned to the States, she booked an episode of LAW & ORDER and has been working steadily in movies and films since. DAYS’s Valerie marks her first major soap role. “It’s been nothing but a love party, and an embrace, and welcome to the family,” she smiles. “I feel really honored to be welcomed into such a hallowed, sacred, long-time soap opera.”
But DAYS isn’t the only show keeping Williams busy. “It’s been really, really marvelous because I’ve also been able to work on other projects, and DAYS has been so great working with my schedule,” she says. “I’ll be coming out in April of this year on a nighttime drama called FAMOUS IN LOVE on Freeform. I’m also on THE FLASH on The CW. I did a five-episode story arc and now they’re doing all this time travel back and forth, so even though my character died, I’m like, ‘This is sci-fi, she can come back any time.’ So they just booked me to come back for a couple more episodes, so I’ll be back on THE FLASH, as well. You’ll see me everywhere!”
Though she loves branching out, Williams is hopeful to have a long future in Salem. “I’m planning to be here and experience all kinds of amazing, wonderful things all the days of my life,” she enthuses. “I want to make this home.”
Williams is loving her new co-stars at DAYS. Here, she weighs in on her frequent scene partners.
James Reynolds (Abe): “Oh, he’s dear, wonderful, welcoming.”
Kyler Pettis (Theo): “Smart, funny, lovely, lovely.”
Mary Beth Evans (Kayla): “Mary Beth is a joy. She’s fantastic, really warm and welcoming.”
Susan Seaforth Hayes (Julie): “Oh man, I learned so much from her. She’s amazing, she’s really, really amazing. Her craft, her commitment, I’ve learned a lot from the veterans here.”
Did You Know?
• Williams earned a Daytime Emmy Nomination as Outstanding Performer in a Children’s Special for the Showtime original movie OUR AMERICA in 2003.
• In 2004, Williams wrote, directed, and produced the short film DENSE, which aired on Showtime.
• Plays attorney Cleo Harris on THE BAY.
Just The Facts
Birthday: May 12
Hails From: Brooklyn, NY. “Bed-Stuy [her old neighborhood] is completely, totally gentrified. I couldn’t even get my kid an apartment there!”
Sons Shine: Williams has two sons, Omar, 19, and Haile, 13.
Brotherly Love: “I have an older brother, Stevie, then me, then Roy, and then Matthew is the youngest.”
Chew On This: “My very first commercial was for Bubble Yum, so people in my neighborhood used to know me as the Bubble Yum girl. Ralph Macchio is in it with me. I kid you not, Ralph Macchio, and he’s playing the drums and we’re, like, doing a rap. ‘Great taste, so fun, the famous flavor that’s a long, long time, great taste.’ It’s really cute.”
Hair And There: “Historically [soaps] have been the hair kingdom, with fanned and feathered long hair down past your shoulders. So my character coming in with short, natural hair really says something particular.”
I Will Follow: On Twitter, she’s @NessaWilliams; on Instagram, she’s NessaWilliams1.