The public thinks you’re an ex-beauty queen and of course they think that you have no talent and you’re a bozo. And you have to constantly prove over and over that, yes, I did get to where I am because of my talent, and I will have longevity.Vanessa Williams
Pop music history is filled with comeback stories, as audiences react well to tales of adversity and overcoming. For instance, Tina Turner was a respected recording artist during the 1970s (after her time with the abusive Ike Turner). Still, she only became a pop icon when she triumphed as a superstar in the 1980s (after “What’s Love Got to Do with It”). Cher was a famous singer and actress since the 1960s, but became a phenomenon to younger audiences when she approached the millennium with a smash hit single, “Believe”, and earned a new career. Mariah Carey emerged in 2005 from a series of public and private setbacks, including a disastrous film debut via The Emancipation of Mimi (which became the best-selling album of the year).
What these stories have in common is that they feature a talented woman who faces obstacles yet perseveres to become stronger and more successful. Although inspirational, these tales are also textbook and lend themselves to cliché because they have been told and retold countless times.
Among the greatest comebacks in pop music history is that of Vanessa Williams. She’s a gifted and beautiful woman who is a trailblazer and a pioneer, not to mention someone who faced ignominy before doubling down on her talent and hard work, only to emerge as a top-selling recording artist, Broadway star, and TV comedienne. Despite her 1988 gold-selling debut album, The Right Stuff, successfully introducing the public to Williams, it’s her 1991 sophomore release, The Comfort Zone, that cemented her superstar status.
Vanessa Williams became a household name in September 1983, when she was named Miss America and became the first Black titleholder. The New York native was a Syracuse musical theatre major when she earned the crown. During the talent portion of the competition, Williams performed a cheery rendition of the pop standard “Happy Days Are Here Again”. Almost a year into her reign, nude photos were published by Penthouse that Williams took when she was a college student and model. The backlash was immediate: she was forced to give up the title, with the people behind Miss America clutching their pearls in manufactured outrage over pictures that were sold to a sleazy rag without Williams’ consent. Of course, this happened years before the public consciousness no longer saw this type of thing as a violation. As a result, Williams was left piecing together her crumbled career.
In a 2015 conversation with Valerie Mosley, Williams admits that she was confident that she would prevail. Chalking it up to determination and ambition, she says, “I knew what I was good at. And it would be a matter of time. It might take five years; it might take ten years… [it took] a bunch of strategizing and luck.” The rise of her pop career came when MTV was a major force in the music industry, and recording artists were meant to be visual and musical. Therefore, Williams’ jaw-dropping looks made her a dream pop star for the early 1990s. She also came at a time when pop music was ruled by dance divas like Madonna, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Gloria Estefan. In this context, she seemed like a perfect fit.
Building on the success of its predecessor, The Comfort Zone is a glossy, stylish pop record that features pretty ballads, some sexy midtempo numbers, and great dance-pop songs. Although most dance-pop records are producer-driven, Williams’ warm and gorgeous voice makes her an appealing and charming frontwoman for a set of fashionable pop tunes.
Produced by an army of trendy, hot pop producers (namely, Keith Thomas, who worked on five of the 14 tracks), the LP works as a vehicle for the singles. Williams isn’t known as a songwriter (despite being credited as co-writing the club tune “2 of a Kind”). Thus, it’s easy to dismiss her as merely a singer propped in front of the microphone. (AllMusic once unfairly dismissed her as a “walking mannequin”.) However, her luxurious voice and her diva attitude make her stand out. During promotional interviews, she had a witty haughtiness (that would come in handy amidst her eventual career as a TV comedienne).
The biggest track on the album is the Billboard number one hit, “Save the Best for Last”. It became her signature song. Reaching number one in 1992 and staying there for five weeks, it earned Williams a Grammy nomination. She would eventually tally up 11 Grammy nominations in her career. Written by Phil Galdston, Wendy Waldman, and Jon Lind—and produced by Keith Thomas—it would also become an Adult Contemporary pop standard and a Light FM mainstay. It’s a lush and lustrous tune that feels overproduced yet still perfect in the extravagant studio gloss that Thomas ladled onto the track. Plus, Williams’ warm voice—which is seemingly perfect—manages to step through the production with some nuanced phrasing gracefully (you can practically hear her rueful smile when she sings, “crazy” within “Isn’t this world a crazy place?”).
The massive success of “Save the Best for Last” would create a signature sound for Williams, so much so that she would become known for stirring (if somewhat treacly) ballads. After The Comfort Zone, she’d score with more hit singles like “Colors of the Wind”, “The Sweetest Days”, and “Love Is”, all of which nailed a top 20 spot on the Billboard charts.
The other massive ballad from The Comfort Zone, “Just for Tonight”, is a far sultrier affair than the chaste “Save the Best for Last”. A top 40 hit (reaching number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100), the song was a smooth R&B tune that glided on a classy, glassy sound created by Thoma (who wrote it with Cynthia Weil, the woman who helped pen Dolly Parton’s massive pop hit, “Here You Come Again”). Naturally, Williams’ smooth, clear-as-a-bell voice matches well with the silky-smooth production.
But The Comfort Zone also showed a side of Vanessa Williams that is sadly overlooked: the dance diva. Though a minor pop hit, she went to the pole position of the dance charts in 1988 with the title track of The Right Stuff. The song sounds like a Janet Jackson tune, but with Williams’ purring voice working well alongside the timestamped clattery drum machines and pounding keyboards. With The Comfort Zone, Williams and her producers took to the clubs with the other singles and other album tracks.
Almost immediately, gay audiences embraced Williams, and gay clubs welcomed her dance work. She would later become an even greater queer icon with her campy turn on the ABC comedies Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives and her work on Broadway. If anything, the dance tunes may be better than the ballads because they show a fun, funky, and sassy side to her that seems, well, drained, on the slow “Save the Best for Last”.
“Running Back to You” is probably the album’s best moment because it perfectly encapsulates 1991 Vanessa Williams. A big pop hit (number 18 on the pop charts, number on on the R&B charts, and number two on the dance charts), it also boasted a fantastic music video directed by Ralph Ziman that’s both dated and timeless. In it, Williams cavorts with backup dancers, looking fierce and fabulous. The splashy colors that spill out of the television screens reference early ’90s acid house (even if the song is firmly MOR dance-pop).
There are other instances in which Vanessa Williams channels her inner Donna Summer. Covering the Isley Brothers, she grooves on a sparkling “Work to Do”, whereas “2 of a Kind” is a funky, fast-paced number. There’s also “Freedom Dance (Get Free!)”, a brilliant house song that recalls Deee-Lite and should have been the direction Williams took with her recording career since she could have easily forged a path as a dance/disco diva in the vein of Lisa Stansfield, CeCe Peniston, or Crystal Waters.
The early ‘90s was an important time in Williams’ career. She finally established herself as a legit pop star with her string of hit singles, music videos in heavy rotation, and numerous TV appearances. She transcended the scandal that defined her public persona in the late 1980s. The cultural currency of the Miss America pageant dissipated dramatically, and Williams’ scandal was largely confined to a footnote in her incredibly successful career.
The Comfort Zone was the peak of Williams’ pop career and the moment she crossed over into superstardom. The record’s success—especially its hit singles—meant that she could parlay her exponentially growing celebrity to branch out into other avenues of entertainment, including television, film, and the stage. It’s telling that in her interview with Mosely, Williams cites her 1994 work on Broadway’s Kiss of the Spider Woman as the moment when she knew that she “came back”, implying that her pop career was a stepping stone to her stage work.
Williams would ride the success of The Comfort Zone for the next few years, appearing on awards shows and making guest appearances on chat shows and network television. She would return with her third album, 1994’ The Sweetest Days, which went platinum, scored a top 20 hit with the title track, and even reunited Williams with “Save the Best for Last” songwriters Jon Lind, Wendy Waldman, Phil Galdston as well as producer Keith Thomas. Later, she would score another top five hit with the Disney ballad “Colors of the Wind” (from the animated film Pocahontas) and earn a gold record for her first Christmas album in 1996.
After 1997’s Next, she recorded far less and shifted her attention to her stage, film, and television work (establishing herself as a highly in-demand character actress). All of the major successes she’s had since 1991 have been built on the big media profile that she primarily earned through the triumph of The Comfort Zone. The Penthouse scandal and the Miss America fracas were significant obstacles that a young Vanessa Williams had to face, but coming out of it from the other side made The Comfort Zone sound so much sweeter.