Born in Bronx, NY to parents Milton and Helen Williams, Williams grew up in the Westchester County town of Millwood, NY. Growing up the child of two music teachers, Williams became interested in singing and performance from a young age; she studied piano, French horn, acting and dancing and was involved in her school's concert choir and chorus. While a teenager, she attended New York's prestigious School of Performing Arts and later went on to study musical theater at Syracuse University on a Presidential Scholarship. Leaving college to pursue a career in show business, Williams began to enter beauty pageants. After being crowned Miss New York in 1983, she went on to compete in the 1984 Miss America Pageant. The first black Miss America ever crowned, Williams' win quickly put her in the spotlight and positioned her for a promising career. Unfortunately, her reign did not come without difficulty; though her title brought applause from many, Williams endured racial discrimination and even received threatening hate mail. In July of 1984, her landmark reign came to a seedy end when nude photographs of Williams surfaced - some of them involving lesbian erotica - causing a media frenzy. After the pictures were published in Penthouse magazine without her consent, Williams was forced to give up her crown to her runner-up.After a few years out of the spotlight to lick her wounds, Williams regained her composure and moved forward with her career. She made her feature film debut with a small role in "The Pick-Up Artist" (1987) and went on to sign a record deal after a catching a music producer's eye while singing backup vocals for George Clinton. In 1988, she released her first album, The Right Stuff. The album put Williams on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, selling over 500,000 copies and going on to earn her three Grammy nominations, including one for Best New Artist. The Right Stuff also earned Williams the NAACP Image Award for Best New Artist in 1989. Pursuing an acting career as well, Williams appeared in "Under the Gun" (1989), "Another You" (1991) and "Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man" (1991) alongside Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson. Releasing her second album, The Comfort Zone, in 1991, Williams scored a string of hits from the album including the No. 1 hit, "Save the Best for Last." The album earned Williams three more Grammy nominations and three American Music Award nominations. Scoring another Top Ten hit in 1993, Williams recorded the single "Love Is," a duet with Brian McKnight which appeared on the "Beverly Hills, 90210" soundtrack. The chart-topping single earned Williams and Knight the Billboard Music Award for No. 1 Adult Contemporary Single.Proving her versatility, Williams made her Broadway debut in 1994 by replacing Chita Rivera in "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Receiving critical acclaim for her performance, she won the 1994 Theatre World Award for Best Debut Performance. That same year, Williams released her third album, The Sweetest Days. Mixing jazz, rock and soul influences, the album allowed Williams to showcase her broad talent as a singer. The following year, she recorded the hit single "Colors of the Wind" for Disney's animated hit feature "Pocahontas" (1995), earning herself a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Williams went on to release her first solo Christmas album, Star Bright, in 1996. Now an established and enormously successful pop singer, Williams' acting career began to take off as well. She landed her first starring role as a government witness opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Eraser" (1996). After the picture's success, she went on to land more leading roles, including portraying one of a trio of daughters in the sleeper hit "Soul Food" (1997), which earned Williams the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Motion Picture, and exhibiting her dancing skills in the Latin-themed romance, "Dance With Me" (1998). A continually successful recording artist, Williams released her fourth pop album, Next in 1997. Embarking on her first ever concert tour with the release of the album, Williams co-headlined with R&B singer Luther Vandross on the U.S. leg of the tour before touring solo overseas. In her personal life, Williams began seeing Los Angeles Lakers star Rick Fox. The pair eloped in the Caribbean in 1999 before having a traditional ceremony for family and friends in New York. On film, Williams appeared in the urban high school thriller "Light It Up" (1999), and as one of Samuel L. Jackson's leading ladies in the remake of "Shaft" (2000). Combining her musical and acting talents, she appeared as pop singer Ebony Scrooge in the television movie, "A Diva's Christmas Carol" (2000), which brought a new twist to the Dickens classic. Returning to the stage in 2002, Williams starred in a Debbie Allen-directed production of "Carmen Jones" at the Kennedy Center. She was also cast in the role of the Witch in the Broadway revival of "Into the Woods," which earned Williams a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.Focusing on her career, Williams returned to television, appearing on the short-lived UPN series "South Beach" (2006) before landing the role of conniving fashion magazine editor Wilhelmina Slater on the surprise hit series, "Ugly Betty." Cast against type, Williams was given a chance to shine as a dethroned magazine editor trying to regain control of her empire. The role of the cutthroat Wilhelmina proved instrumental in legitimizing Williams' career as an actress. In mid-2007, she received her first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, going head-to-head against such established and talented actresses as Holland Taylor and Conchata Ferrell. In addition to her new primetime position, Williams starred in a pair of limited release independent films, including "My Brother" (2007), which earned her Best Actress honors at the Harlem International Film Festival, the African-American Women in Cinema Film Festival, and the Santa Barbara African Heritage Film Festival. With "Then Came Love" (2007), Williams starred as a single mother in search of the anonymous sperm donor who enabled her to have a child. She next hit mainstream cinemas playing the publicist of teen pop star Hannah Montana in "Hannah Montana: The Movie" (2009). Back on the small screen, she once again earned an Outstanding Supporting Actress Emmy nomination for her continuing work on "Ugly Betty." Not long after "Betty" was cancelled in 2010, Williams joined the cast of an even higher-profile program, "Desperate Housewives" (ABC, 2004-2012).