Singer doesn't miss Miss America

Substitute: Charles succeeded to the beauty crown after Williams was fully exposed by Penthouse.

February 15, 2002|By Marc Schogol | Marc Schogol,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - She'll always be remembered as the second African-American Miss America, who inherited the title in 1984 after the first, Vanessa Williams, was seen without her crown (or anything else) in Penthouse magazine.

But when someone says, "Here she comes," these days, it's usually when Suzette Charles, the former Miss New Jersey from Mays Landing, is being the "taxi mom" for her 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

"I'm doing just what I want to do right now," Charles said in a cell-phone interview while driving her children to tennis lessons near the family's home on Long Island's posh North Shore.

"I'm enjoying watching them grow - I think that's the best job in the world," Charles, 38, said.

Like the defrocked Williams, Charles, who appeared in commercials and small acting roles as a child, went from Miss America into a singing career.

Charles, who'd had 15 years of voice lessons, 10 of dance, seven of drama as well as flute, guitar and piano lessons, performed as the opening act for Gladys Knight and the Pips, Lou Rawls, Alan King and Bill Cosby. She played Grossinger's in the Catskills, Le Cabaret in Monte Carlo and most of the Atlantic City casinos.

Charles continued singing after marrying a New York ophthalmologist eight years ago. But after her daughter was born, trying to breast-feed during recording sessions "was not working well."

So although she still makes some appearances (she'll be in Atlantic City this summer), she says, "I really haven't been on the road. The kids are my duty now."

She visits this area frequently. "My parents still live in New Jersey, in Mays Landing. I went to Temple University and have a lot of friends from there." But it was in her native New Jersey, in Atlantic City, that she got her big moment.

She came very close to winning the Miss America pageant outright, finishing second after singing "Kiss Me in the Rain" so movingly during the nationally televised finals that, according to one published account, "you could almost hear 50 million pairs of lips making smooching noises all over America by the time she finished."

Still, it looked as though she'd become just another forgotten also-ran. Then, about two-thirds of the way through Williams' yearlong reign, the magazine published those pictures of Williams and another woman in compromising positions. Williams abdicated; Charles succeeded her and said she would work to "uplift" the pageant's tarnished image.

She obviously succeeded, because nearly 20 years later, Miss America is alive and well.

But Charles said she won't push her own children to follow in her footsteps. "I think I missed out on a normal childhood," she said.

With her own children, "I wouldn't encourage or discourage," Charles said. "You have to monitor what's right for the child."

Charles said she's seldom stopped on the street by people who recognize her. "Maybe sometimes the parents of kids in school, but not really. The spotlight is on the kids now."

Charles also said she seldom reflects on the Williams episode. "It was crazy, sure, but I have so much going on now that I don't think about it."

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