Vanessa was born to music teacher parents in New York City. She danced and sang in school performances and signed high school yearbooks with a promise that she'd one day be on Broadway. After she won her perforating scholarship to Syracuse University she tried to make it into the New York entertainment business. She entered several beauty contests in the year of 1984 and eventually won Miss New York. She later became the first African American woman to win the Miss America contest. During her reign, she found herself involved in a scandal when revealing photographs were leaked to the media, and she ended up resigning her crown. After the media storm had settled down, Vanessa landed a recording contract and released several hit albums, including The Comfort Zone and The Sweetest Days. Following her chart success, she returned to the acting world, appearing in films such as Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, Eraser, Soul Food and Shaft. She kept her high school promise and preformed on Broadway in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.