Q&A With Vanessa Williams

The singer, dancer, model, and actress dishes about mothering, health habits, and the memoir she wrote with her mom.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on April 02, 2012
6 min read

Singer, dancer, model, and actress Vanessa Williams has released hit songs, starred in Broadway musicals, feature films (think Eraser and Shaft), and TV series (including Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives, and, starting this year, 666 Park Avenue). This year, she and her mother also published You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other).WebMD the Magazine caught up with the busy mother of four and asked her how she stays fit, how she stays grounded, how she feels about aging, and what it's like to write a book with your mom.

You've been an actor in ABC's Desperate Housewives, which is ending this month, and Ugly Betty before that, as well as a singer, dancer, and model. How do you find time to take care of yourself and stay fit?

I make the time. I've got one child in school, so I gear my life around her schedule. You have to be really organized. I've been a mother for 24 years and before that I went from college to working, so it's hard for me to not have a schedule.

You and your mother wrote the memoir You Have No Idea. How did you decide to tell your story with your mom?

The older I get, the more I realize how important my parents were in terms of not only creating me but giving me the skills to cope in life. People always ask, "How are you so grounded?" It always comes back to me being brought up by two parents who were loving and supportive, but who also were terrific in terms of setting boundaries. Writing a book with my mother allowed me to reflect on what made me me.

How did your mom influence your health habits as you were growing up?

She was always extremely active. When I was growing up, if she wasn't taking the dog for a walk, she'd be in town doing an exercise class. We would ice-skate together as a family, so being active is something that both my parents did.

Did she teach you things that you have passed down to your own kids?

We always had fresh produce available because of my parents' love for gardening. I used to bring my kids over to my parents' house every year to pick pumpkins out of the pumpkin patch. So my kids learned to appreciate fresh vegetables.

Do you have a personal health philosophy?

I listen to my body. I don't weigh myself. I'm not obsessed with pounds -- if I feel good in my clothes, I feel good. If my clothes start to get tight, I know I've got to modify what I'm eating.

What's your eating style?

I enjoy food. I enjoy good wine. I enjoy good, hot, fresh bread if I'm in France, with a nice slab of ridiculously delicious butter. So, especially when I travel, I always try to eat what's local and what's good. I try not to to overindulge, and if I do, I have enough discipline to get back on the routine to better health.

How do you feel about aging?

I'm so excited about technology and aging now because I really think that it prolongs having to go under the knife. There's so much that's available in terms of skin firming and fat reduction that are all machines [such as lasers] and not surgical procedures. So I keep crossing my fingers that technology keeps getting better and more refined. It allows aging to be graceful.

In your memoir, you talk about how you were always very independent, but there were times when you should have said 'no' that you didn't. Is there a message you'd like to pass on to other women?

I think we all have an internal gauge that warns us about certain situations in life. And it's up to us to listen and tune in to it, but also to act upon it. Listen to that voice, because it's there to protect you.

Is what you do for a living important to your health?

I think being able to express yourself is the most important thing that anyone can do in their life, so I'm lucky to be able to do what I love and get paid well for it. I think a lot of people have passions and creativity and when those are stifled, that's when depression sets in and illness starts. Doing what you love -- whether it's numbers or hotel management -- is important to feed your soul.

Desperate Housewives is ending this season. What's next for you?

I've got a development deal at ABC so I will be under their umbrella for a while. I don't know exactly what they have in mind, but that's the direction that I'll probably be going in the near future.

What are your best and worst health habits?

The worst would be that I'm a baker. That's my kryptonite. My best is that I like to do something every day, even if it's just getting on the treadmill for an hour and watching the news or doing my crossword puzzle. I'll take a brisk walk, or take a class like Pilates or yoga.

What book influenced you the most when it comes to your health?

It's Eat Right 4 Your Type: The Individualized Diet Solution to Staying Healthy, Living Longer & Achieving Your Ideal Weight [by Peter J. D'Adamo]. It matches your ideal diet to your blood type. I definitely find validity in the philosophy. I'm O+, so, for instance, which means coffee is supposed to irritate the stomach and I'm not supposed to have a lot of it. But meats are very good, and high aerobic exercise is very good.

Is there one health habit you wish you'd started earlier in your life?

Sunscreen. I grew up in the '70s, so it was baby oil and reflectors. Sunscreen would have done me well back in my teenage years and early 20s. I probably wouldn't have the majority of the wrinkles I have now if I had paid attention to that.

What do you do for relaxation?

I love to sit out and be in nature. I also do my crossword every day; that's relaxation for my mind. When I travel, I always book a massage as soon as I land just to get the knots out. And when I'm on vacation, I love to horseback ride -- that's really relaxing and also thrilling.

Do you grow vegetables like your parents did?

I don't have a vegetable garden now, but I always have a pot of herbs that I cook with.

Did your parents also pass on a love of cooking?

Yes. My mom would cook, and my dad also enjoyed baking and would create different types of breads. So my kids have an appreciation for home-cooked food. They always felt welcome to cook and be in the kitchen. I'd say, 'If you want a snack, I'll show you how to make an egg sandwich.'

Do you enjoy exercise?

Yes, and I was lucky to have danced all my life, so I have great muscle memory. If you've trained your muscles all your life and you take some time off and then jump back in, it's amazing how quickly your body remembers. So I can gain or define muscle very quickly. I really enjoy moving my body, whether it's Tae Bo, going to a salsa club, or doing weight training with a trainer.

When you were reading your mother's sections of You Have No Idea, did you learn things about her that you never knew?

Well, I'm one of those people who always asks questions. My mother didn't have the luxury of the information that we have [about our parents], because people from the generation before didn't talk a lot about it. A lot of family history wasn't mentioned and discussed at the dinner table, so there's a lot of mystery that we in our generation are so fortunate to be able to delve into.

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