The Queen Of Multitasking
Vanessa Williams Returns to Atlanta for the ASO's 75th Gala

By Lee Valentine Smith

She initially rose to fame as the first woman of African-American descent to win the Miss America title when she was crowned in 1983. Thirty-six years later, Vanessa Williams is one of the busiest personalities in show business.
The singer, actress, writer and fashion designer has released a batch of stylistically diverse albums, starred in a number of successful and critically lauded television and films and her current clothing line via HSN remains a popular brand.

This month Williams arrives at Symphony Hall for a career-spanning musical performance at the ASO's 75th Gala. Calling from a hotel in Los Angeles after shooting a guest spot on Lena Waithe's new BET drama Twenties, Williams chatted with INsite about her career and her love of the symphony.

It's exciting to hear that you'll be in town for the Symphony's big Gala.
It'll be a good time and I always love working with symphony orchestras. So it's my treat.

Sounds like a fun evening and it should certainly be a different experience than your Capital Fourth performance in D.C. back in July.
(Laughs) Oh you mean the show with all the bugs flying into my eyes and my mouth and my ears?

I did notice that a few times, yes. But you transcended the obstacles.
I had no choice! During the dress rehearsal the same thing happened. I swallowed a bug and obviously coughed through the rest of the song. But I was determined to get through the tune without having a 'live moment,' I guess you could say. I actually heard from Renee Fleming who'd done it the year before in the same set-up and she said the same thing happened to her. As soon as the lights went on, all these bugs just surrounded her as well. It's not far from the Reflecting Pool, so it was a bit compromising.

You won't have that problem at Symphony Hall.
No, it'll be inside and gorgeous.

Every artist I've talked to about symphonic shows agrees that there's just nothing quite like that initial rush of performing with a full orchestra.
Exactly. But that's one of the options of having a repertoire that has live strings on the albums. To hear them again just as they were recorded is so great. Sometimes when you're touring you have to use a synth pad on the keyboards to replicate the sound of the strings. It gives the audience the same arrangements - but it just doesn't have the same tone and resonance as a real orchestra.

For a set like the Gala, how deep will you delve into your catalog?
Sometimes the orchestra will do one particular song and then I get to do my set or sometimes they'll do half of the concert and I'll do the second half. It just all depends on what they ask for and what is needed for the program. So there are the hits and then then the Broadway tunes as well.

Your career has covered so many styles, you can almost create a custom set for every venue at this point.
I can. What has become kind of the wild card in the set is from a show I did for the 100th anniversary of the Dallas Symphony. [Master cellist] Yo-Yo Ma was one of the special guests. We were able to do a couple of numbers together and one is from a musical called House Of Flowers [the 1958 musical by Harold Arlen and Truman Capote]. "I Never Have Seen Snow" is one of my favorites and depending on how good the cellist is determines if I'll do that number or not. If there's a premier cellist in first chair then I'll break out the Yo-Yo Ma arrangement. I see some sweat sometimes but they always end up working it out.

Looking back at your discography I was surprised to see that [Williams' 2009 jazz album and most recent release] The Real Thing is now ten years old.
I know but it's not from lack of trying. I've been signed to a couple of labels since then but the industry is so different now. But I just got signed to BMG for a new two-record deal and I was in the studio yesterday. Now we're all good to go and I'll have something new out soon.

Will this be another jazz record or more in the pop direction? Where are you heading with this one?
We'll see. I've had a lot of ideas: big band, dance, tropical. I have some things recorded so we'll see what ends up being released first. I'm happy to have a nice, stable relationship with a label again.

When [Williams debut album] The Right Stuff was released in 1988, an artist could actually feel at home on a label.
There was some stability back then. You were signed for eight years and ten albums or something and you knew you'd have a home for a while with a whole force behind you. There was a cushion and you really felt sustained. My middle daughter Jillian Hervey is in a band now called Lion Babe. They were on Polydor UK which was my first label. Now they've got their own label, she's just finished a US tour and is headed to Poland this weekend. It's all about creating awareness through music festivals and just playing live. It's all about selling your merchandise and being a brand.

You know very well about being a brand because you cover so many aspects of the arts.
I'm lucky. I've been around now for thirty-plus years so with the hits I've had but also television and film and Broadway and a new clothing line, I've got many sources of crossover revenue to hopefully sustain me for a while. I'm able to dip in and out of many different genres.

You just filmed the role in Twenties but you've jumped around the TV dial for a long time. From Ugly Betty for several years to Desperate Housewives.
Then after that I did 666 Park Avenue and Trip To Bountiful on Broadway and then back to TV for The Good Wife and Broad City. If it's an interesting role, a great cast and some kind of organic connection for me and if it all works, then it's fine.

Every one of those projects you mentioned are vastly different. 666 was so different from Broad City, for example.
Well that's the luxury of having opportunities and not being afraid to take them. You have to be able to take a risk in this business to - I don't want to say be relevant - but just to keep moving forward.

Your new film "Miss Virginia" looks interesting and again, quite different from any of your other roles.
Yeah that comes out in October I believe. I play a journalist and Uzo Aduba ("Orange Is The New Black") stars in it. I play a journalist who is kind of grilling her.

Let's not ignore your voice work, either. Like Disney, Jr.'s T.O.T.S. for one.
It's super easy and ten minutes from my house when I want to go to the studio. I get a chance to sing and it's fun. It'll be there for my grandkids - whenever I get some!

Any new Broadway shows on the horizon?
I'm doing a reading for some backers in September based on one of the Colette novels. Then I have some other offers too so I think I could be back on stage, hopefully within the year - in something.

You've done everything at this point, but do you consider the theater - and Broadway in particular - your first love?
I would say yes. Just because it allows me the chance to sort of do it all. I get to work with a great ensemble and act in front of a live audience.

You can't beat the instant gratification of the live performance. But it seems that fashion is a close second for you now. The new line features some decidedly forward-thinking designs.

I'm way more involved in it that people might expect with a "celebrity line" because I'm involved in every aspect of fabric, cut, colors and fit - even down to the hardware and accessories. It's a really nice collaboration because the quality is there and they know I'm committed. I do love it.

You're especially hands-on with it. Some celebrities would just say, 'Yeah whatever, just put my name on it'.

Yes but people can see through that now. You can't go on television and pretend that you know about something you have no connection with - or something that you might be seeing for the first time and trying to pretend you created it. People can always tell if you really mean it. That's why for me, no matter what I'm doing, it's all about being genuine and alive in the moment.

Vanessa Williams performs Saturday, September 14 at Symphony Hall. For more information, please visit atlantasymphony.org.

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