The Miss America pageant competition was a major part of American culture for decades after its founding in 1921. In the sixty-plus years that the competition was held prior to Vanessa Williams’ win in 1983, the pageant had only ever crowned white Miss Americas. When Williams won the crown 40 years ago this month, it was a watershed moment that inspired young girls of color all over the country.

For the first three decades of the Miss America pageant, Black contestants weren’t even allowed to enter. The first Black contestant was Cheryl Browne, Miss Iowa, in 1970, but it would be 14 years before the color line at the crown would be broken.

The Messenger takes a look at Williams’ win, the scandal which caused her to step down and the enduring legacy both had on the Black contestants who followed:

Williams was a standout contestant from the start

A Bronx Native raised by music teachers in New York’s upstate suburbs, Williams excelled at multiple instruments and studied music and dance in college. Her musical ability would play a significant role in her winning the Miss America pageant in 1984.

After her freshman year of college at Syracuse University, Williams worked as a summer receptionist for a photographer who often arranged nude photos. She took the opportunity to pose for photos with another model when she was offered, but upon seeing them, she asked for them to be destroyed.

A year or so later, Williams was approached about competing in the Miss Greater Syracuse competition. Without any prior pageant experience, she was crowned both Miss Greater Syracuse and Miss New York State in 1983. She went on to win the Miss America crown that year as well — only six months after first entering the pageant world.

The impact of her win was felt across the country

Williams told ABC in 2015 that as a college junior, she couldn’t immediately grasp the huge impact of her win at the time. “I didn’t realize how big it would be,” she said. “Older Black women thought they’d never see it in their lifetime and some people would cry.” Since Williams’ win, there have been eight Black winners of the Miss America pageant.

Miss America 2010, Caressa Cameron-Jackson, was just 8 years old when Williams won the competition. A Black woman herself, Jackson told The Messenger she remembers “feeling seen” when she saw Williams accept the crown. “I wanted to be just like her,” she added. “To see a real Black woman that looked like me be honored as ‘the ideal’ was awe-inspiring.”

Caressa Cameron is crowned Miss America 2010.
Caressa Cameron is crowned Miss America 2010.Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Planet Hollywood

In the A&E docuseries Secrets of Miss America, 1984’s Miss Louisiana Nina Whitaker also weighed in on what it was like to see Williams win. “I wept tears of joy because it was almost unbelievable,” Whitaker said. “Miss America was this beautiful, intelligent woman who was Black.”

But even as Williams was celebrated, she faced racial hate and “credible threats” on her life for winning the competition. “When people tell you that they’re going to throw acid on your face and kill you because of who you are,” Williams told NPR in 2012, “It’s terrifying as a 20-year-old.”

A nude photo scandal affected her win as the first Black Miss America

Williams held the crown for most of that year’s reign before the photos she took at her old summer job were published without her consent in the men’s magazine Penthouse. The media unleashed a firestorm of negativity on Williams that she would later describe as “betrayal and humiliation, that happened to me on a grand scale.”

At first a shining example of dissolving color lines and changing times, Williams became a target for public shaming. “People would ride by the house and beep things and yell stuff,” Williams told ABC in 2015. “They took down the sign in Millwood, New York: “Home of Miss America.” The pageant’s board asked her to resign.

On July 23, 1984, Williams would make history again as the first winner to give up her title. Runner-up Suzette Charles, a biracial Black woman, would finish out the remainder of the year as Miss America.

Charles told The Messenger that she remained focused on the opportunity at hand when she was passed the title. “The pageant was another space to do my best and show my talent,” she said. “I enjoy performing and enjoyed the opportunity that experience gave me.” Even though Charles was the second Black woman to hold the title and had a successful seven-week reign, Williams’ resignation still left a sour taste in the mouths of some.

Cameron-Jackson said that when she was younger, her mother had always left the scandal out of the story whenever she talked about Williams. “I’m glad she [did],” she said. “[My mother] chose to honor Vanessa in the manner she deserved.”

However, after learning about it as a teenager, Cameron-Jackson said she was appalled by the way Williams was treated: “The [Miss America] organization, in self-preservation mode, chose to turn its back on her and the media chose to crucify her.”

Williams would go on to have a successful career as a singer and actress

Vanessa Williams receives the 97th annual Installation and Lifetime Achievement Award at Sheraton Universal on April 12, 2018 in Universal City, California.
Williams receiving the 97th annual Installation and Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce in 2018.Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

Only a few years after resigning her title, Williams moved on in spectacular fashion. She was nominated for a Grammy for her first album only five years later and went on to receive several other Grammy nods. She released 13 albums and often landed on Billboard’s Hot 100 list. Williams also embarked on a successful acting career, earning acclaim for her Broadway performances and garnering Emmy Awards for her on-screen work.

In 2015, then-Miss America CEO Sam Haskell publicly apologized to Williams and her mother for the 1984 debacle during the pageant’s live broadcast, in which Williams served as a judge. That year was Williams’ first return to the Miss America stage in 32 years.

Charles told Inside Edition she believes the apology was all about ratings: “As accomplished as [Williams] is, and [how] she’s worked so tirelessly for 32 years to build her career and to prove to America what she was always all about,” Charles said, “I’m not sure why she needed that apology.”

Williams’ experience sticks with Black contestants

Williams’ treatment during the scandal is still fresh for some Black pageant contestants and winners. Cameron-Jackson told The Messenger, “Even in college when I was well within the legal age of drinking, I chose not to consume alcohol and I would never allow anyone to take photos with me with any kind of cup in their hands,” she said. “I didn’t ever want to give anyone something to talk about.”

Cameron-Jackson said that as 2010’s Miss America, Williams’ experience taught her a valuable lesson. “[That] situation proved the old adages that ‘we have to work twice as hard to get half as much,'” she told The Messenger, “and ‘we will never get away with the things that they can.'”