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You Have No Idea- by Vanessa Williams and Helen Williams

May 6, 2012

You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, her No-Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other)
by Vanessa Williams and Helen Williams
Gotham Books $28.00 296 pages.

Sometimes, I love being a book reviewer. Because, if it hadn’t come up as a BlogHer Book Club pick, I’m pretty sure You Have No Idea wouldn’t have been a book on my radar. I have vague memories of Vanessa Williams being crowned the first black Miss America, and of her Miss America crown being mentioned when a few songs of hers were all over the radio. But celebrity biographies full of Miss America Pageants, acting careers, a scandal or two and really big houses, are not the sort of book I usually seek out.

Reviewing a memoir is really strange. For a book reviewer accustomed to critiquing plot and character development, to read a memoir recounting things that actually happened… focusing on character actions means I’m judging someone’s life choices! And that feels exceedingly awkward! (I’ve said this before.) Also, is there such thing as a spoiler alert for a memoir, when the writer is someone famous, and you can learn some of the details of the story on Vanessa Williams’ IMDb page?

I really like that this was a joint project between Vanessa Williams and her mother. I was most interested in the kinds of ordinary details: Vanessa growing up in a small town with somewhat strict parents (doing chores, taking two instruments in music lessons.) She nourished dreams of singing and dancing on Broadway, and her parents encouraged her. She sounds like she was especially close to her father, growing up. That made me smile. Her closeness to her parents made me smile, as did some of the emphasis on being down to earth and connected to family while music and acting happened. Treating the Miss America pageant as a way to get scholarship money sounds perfectly sensible.

I don’t know what to make of the actual celebrity happenings that are part of the story. The things Vanessa Williams got famous for don’t interest me (though the description of the photograph scandal that cost her crown sounds tame compared to the age of TMZ and Lindsay Lohan) and I’ve caught the odd episode of Ugly Betty now and again. Moving into a larger-than-life LA house, multiple marriages… eh. I might care more if I were reading as a fan. But I also had a really cynical thought that the ingredients had been compiled like a Celebrity Memoir Checklist: rise to fame, scandal, multiple marriages, comeback, juggling family and work, artistic process. Having her mother’s input as part of the book tempered that, and made reading this better.

Disclaimer: I am reviewing this book for the BlogHer Book Club and am being compensated, for expressing my honest opinion.

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