In The Spotlight: Q&A with Vanessa Williams

New Beginnings Family Academy had the opportunity to sit down for an In The Spotlight interview with Vanessa Williams, one of the most respected and multi-faceted performers in the entertainment industry today. Her critically-acclaimed work in film, television, recordings and the Broadway stage has been recognized by every major industry award affiliate including 4 Emmy nominations, 11 Grammy nominations, a Tony nomination, 3 SAG award nominations, 7 NAACP Image Awards and 3 Satellite Awards. Her Platinum single “Colors of the Wind,” from Disney’s “Pocahontas,” won the Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe for Best Original Song. Williams spoke on how her childhood experiences helped shape her love of literacy and the arts. 

Williams will be performing at the 20th Anniversary Gala on Thursday, April 20 in Westport, Connecticut at The Inn at Longshore. For more information on tickets and ticket packages, click here.

NBFA: What a unique concept to turn a song into a children’s book. Can you share how your children's book Bubble Kisses came to be?

Williams: I was sending my youngest daughter Sasha off to her freshman year of college, and was at a parent’s activity at Chapman’s University. One of the mothers came up to me and told me that she was working at Sterling Publishing, and said if I ever wanted to write a book she would be interested. I said I actually happen to have an idea that I’ve sat on for about 25 years. It was two moms saying goodbye to their kids starting off college and working together as partners to create Bubble Kisses.

Was the song written for the purposes of the book or something prior?

The song was something that I had been given years before when I was thinking about doing a children’s album back in the 90s but never got around to making it. I always loved the song and thought it was really creative in that beautiful 1940s Andrew Sisters style. I felt that it would lend itself not only to a really great song, but also to a cute story that could be expanded into more than just a song.

You thanked your father on the back of Bubble Kisses for reading to you every night. Can you share how his emphasis on reading to you has impacted you, individually and as a parent and grandmother?

Those are some of my most cherished memories of growing up and my dad knew the importance of education. Both my parents were music educators, so he knew the importance of education as well as having private one-on-one time with your parents. Not only was I being read a story by my dad, but it was also a time to share how the day went and ask questions that needed to be answered. Reading together allowed us to explore new worlds like fantasy and fairy tales while talking about history and imagination. 

"Not only was I being read a story by my dad, but it was also a time to share how the day went and ask questions that needed to be answered."

It definitely helped my career in that it allowed me to be creative, adventurous, curious and love language. My dad would read to my children, so that was lovely to have that continue for the next generation. Now that I’m a grandmother, my grandson is 13 months now, I read and sing to him. I tend to sing more to him, my dad also sang to me, so I love to be able to continue singing and telling stories through song. It’s so important to have that one-on-one time for discovery, asking questions and using language as a tool.

New Beginnings Family Academy’s (NBFA) model is Emotionally Responsive Practice (ERP), which emphasizes the attachment bond between the parent and child during the developmental years. Your first book You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other) was a dual memoir you wrote with your mother. Can you share how your relationship with your mother has played a role in shaping who you are today?

My mother is 83 years old now and still a force of nature. I think our relationship was challenging, unique, protective and resilient. She gave me the strength to survive and thrive in my career and life as a woman. She was a tremendous role model in terms of being outspoken and an advocate in what she believed in. Writing You Have No Idea together was a combination of love letter, memoir, and reflection of a mother-daughter dynamic that many can relate to.

How did having music educators as parents impact your love for music and the performing arts?

Both my parents cherished the arts in all forms. When I decided I wanted to be a professional in the arts, they didn’t tell me to get a “real job.” As I see arts programs cut in education, it saddens me because even if you’re not going to be a professional in the arts it helps you in every aspect. Reading music helps in math, and playing in a band helps socialization. Learning a new skill in the arts enriches your life. That was the biggest thing: besides being a requirement in my household, we had to take band or orchestra until we graduated high school. I have many great friends and have traveled all over the world through being in the orchestra in high school. It has enhanced my life and made me a better musician, which was a result being surrounded by music but also the fine arts. Whether it’s music, dance or theater, the arts are a necessary part that enriches your life and that’s what my parents gave me.

"Whether it’s music, dance or theater, the arts are a necessary part that enriches your life and that’s what my parents gave me."

You’re a performer, singer, actress and author. Where do you feel most at home? 

I would probably say the stage because it is what I’ve done since middle and high school. When I’m playing a character, singing and dancing with the cast onstage that is my most happy place. I love being in front of a live audience and working with an incredible team every night.

Is there something you want to try career-wise that you have not yet? 

I’m getting into the producing realm which is something I did 20 years ago with a TV movie for Lifetime, but I am working on some new projects. I’ve never directed. That is a zone I haven’t done yet but I’ve got a lot of ideas and been in the business a while that I would be into. I’m also mentoring youths now; I love to teach. I also was doing City of Angels in the London West End Theater, but that was right before everything locked down so I would love to return and make my West End debut.

What are you working on now? 

I’m one of the co-founders for Black Theatre United, which is a non-profit that emphasizes, along with mentoring, Broadway inclusion in all aspects by bringing theater and the arts to everyone. Especially to address the inclusion of black performers, creators, union members, playwrights, producers, theater owners. We have two mentoring programs with the Williamstown Theatre Festival, one of my mentees was a young costume designer at Fredonia University where both my parents went. That was wonderful to be able to mentor her senior year and get her situated with a bunch of my friends who are all in the business whether they’re designers, stylists or in the fashion world. While I was doing POTUS, I was working with two mentees in the advertising agencies on Broadway on how to market Broadway shows. It’s wonderful to be there to answer questions and help.

NBFA is celebrating its 20th Anniversary helping Bridgeport Connecticut students thrive.  We instill confidence in our students and encourage them to follow their dreams. Many of our students aspire to become authors, singers, musicians, dancers and actors. What advice do you have for them or for their parents/families?

One always must be willing to network and find where your resources are. There are tons of programming that are always available online and of course scholarships and fellowships in our given field. You just need to make sure you do the research as there is always money to a specific program. 

Second, to follow your skill set - What are you good at? -- is the easiest way to start your career. It might not be where you want to end up, but that will help you make money. If you’re really good at computer programming start there and work on what your ultimate goal is. Make sure you are making money as just sitting down and waiting for the phone to ring is not going to make you progress anywhere. 

Third, always ask for help. There are a lot of helpful people out there that are willing to give advice and steer you in a helpful way. 

Last, follow your heart. You know what you’re good at and what your vision is. It doesn’t happen overnight but always be prepared and do your best so you can get hired again. People talk, so when your reputation is great stellar people will want to hire you again. That is how you have longevity in your career.

"Parents can encourage their children to be brave, adventurous and not limit themselves."

Is there anything you would like to add?  

Parents can encourage their children to be brave, adventurous and not limit themselves. Some people have had parents that said, “Get a real job. That’ll never happen.” Those people are talented individuals who are working today, but they have a chip on their shoulders. I would say to parents to make sure to give your children the right tools to help facilitate their dreams, listen, and guide them as best as you can. Don’t say, “It’ll never happen.”  Realism is done with love and support.

For more information on 20th Anniversary Gala tickets and ticket packages, click here.

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