It's a proud moment, as Vanessa Williams comes full-circle

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ASSOCIATED PRESS Williams is crowned Miss America in 1983 by Debra Maffett.

HERS WAS THE slut-shaming seen around the world.

Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America, was forced to resign after nude pictures of her - some with another woman - surfaced in Penthouse magazine.

It happened in 1984, before Instagram and before America's infatuation with big-bootied reality-TV queen Kim Kardashian and her infamous sex tape.

Back then, the sight of America's sweetheart engaged in what looked like softcore porn was a national scandal. "Vanessa the Undressa," as she came to be known, was forced to skulk away in disgrace.

But life has a sweet way of coming full circle. Williams will return to the venerable pageant Sunday night as the head judge. The head judge!

Honestly, when I read that, I had to do a double-take. I never thought I'd see it. Elwood Watson, co-author of There She Is, Miss America, said he initially didn't believe it when the email announcement landed in his inbox.

"I thought it was from a satirical website trying to be funny," he told me yesterday. "I had to read it two times."

If organizers of the 2016 Miss America Pageant wanted a way to get people talking about it, they found it.

Williams, 52, is the most famous Miss America. And also the most successful - not to mention my personal favorite. I'll never forget that goose-bump moment more than 30 years ago when Williams, dressed in a close-fitting, sparkly dress with a giant shoulder pouf, became the Jackie Robinson of her time.

Pageant organizers are intent on taking advantage of her fame by having Williams, along with the other judges, seated onstage instead of in the audience as is customary.

It's in for a much-needed ratings boost come 9 p.m. Sunday on ABC. Yesterday, in an interview with "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts, Williams tried to put into perspective how her world exploded after the nude photos hit newsstands.

"It was two drastically different images - that was the issue. It was Miss America, who is really kind of untouched and not reality, and then there was this woman in the picture that was the polar opposite of purity, and I was a normal kid in the middle.

"That's one of the problems I've had to deal with in my career, not only being a Miss America, but being a scandalous Miss America," she added.

Scandalous or not, Williams is the hands-down most successful Miss America. Her 1988 debut album, "The Right Stuff," sold more than 7 million records worldwide. She also starred in "Ugly Betty" and "Desperate Housewives."

She co-starred with Cicely Tyson and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Broadway's "The Trip to Bountiful" in 2013. She returned to Broadway in the musical "After Midnight."

Through all the career ups and downs and marriages - she's on No. 3 - Williams has held onto her precious, rhinestone-encrusted Miss America pin. It's been on her wall for 20 years, according to a Facebook post yesterday.

Sam Haskell, executive chairman and CEO of the Miss America Organization, told the Associated Press that he had tried for more than a decade to get Williams back onto the Miss America stage.

This year, he said, was the first time the logistics worked out. After three decades, Williams' climbing back onto that runway in Atlantic City will be a full-circle moment.

I'll be watching.


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