Vanessa Williams had just made her London stage debut in a revival of the musical City of Angels when COVID-19 struck.
“We closed March 16th,” Williams says. “That Sunday, the 15th, one of our cast members didn’t feel well. So we all kind of thought, ‘Uh-oh, here we go.’ I flew home that Friday and got sick that following Sunday. And we all fell ill. I had all the symptoms, but at that point, near the end of March, nobody knew where to get a test, and nobody knew what was going on. So I just stayed put and worked it out in my house.”
Fortunately, she’s long since fully recovered, with no lasting symptoms and only one minor lingering issue. “When I inhale, it’s a little noisier than I normally would be. But besides that I don’t see any long-lasting effects. I did lose my voice when I was sick, but thank God it came back.”
And almost as soon as it did, the star was back to a performance schedule as busy as her work has been varied. This year, for example, Williams co-hosted the virtual A Capitol Fourth celebration from the National Mall for PBS, and also popped up as a contestant on RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race in May, competing as Vanquisha De House.
“We shot that last October, so it actually worked out to be a nice little COVID surprise,” Williams says. And the former Miss America — spoiler alert — went on to win her episode, raising $30,000 for the Trevor Project. A longtime LGBTQ ally and early marriage equality proponent, Williams marvels at how much things have changed since just the turn of the millennium.
“My youngest daughter, who’s 20, grew up watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, since she was like eight years old,” she says. “So the fact that Ru, in drag, is in an Old Navy commercial, and drag queens are…not even an oddity or, you know, salacious now…. I love the fact that it’s part of our American day-to-day lexicon.”
The year 2020 has also brought the New York native down to D.C. for multiple occasions beyond Independence Day, including for a limited, live (and livestreamed) concert with Renée Fleming at the Kennedy Center. And just prior to that September engagement, Williams appeared with the American Pops Orchestra for a special holiday concert paying tribute to the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.
Williams served as the show’s co-host along with the APO’s Luke Frazier, and she also featured as part of a stellar lineup of vocal soloists singing through Fitzgerald’s popular 1960 album Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. The socially distanced concert, performed and recorded on the grounds of the Meridian International Center last July, will air on PBS next week.
“It was great to be able to bring beautiful music from a woman who I love and admire. She’s my absolute favorite jazz singer,” Williams says. “And legend has it that Ella Fitzgerald was the cousin of Helen Fitzgerald, who was my mom’s grandmother who raised her. That was the lore in our home, that Ella Fitzgerald was a cousin. If that’s true, then she’s family.”
Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas premieres Tuesday, Dec. 15, at 8 p.m., on all stationed-branded PBS platforms. Visit www.PBS.org for more information.
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