Thursday, May 3, 2012

BlogHer Book Review: You Have No Idea

This review is part of the BlogHer Book Club program. If you've read You Have No Idea, join in on the conversation.

Vanessa Wiliams' autobiography You Have No Idea is co-written with her mother, Helen Williams. Despite the title, I don't think I am this book's target audience because I, literally, had no idea.

I'm going to make a confession: my pop culture love is deep, but narrow. It's not that I don't like Vanessa Williams or her work, it's that I have literally never seen it. Any of it. I've never watched Ugly Betty. I've never seen a single episode of Desperate Housewives. I know that these things exist in a tangential sense, but they're not part of my pop culture repertoire.

Even more, I didn't know anything about Vanessa Williams' Miss America scandal. I'm no fan of beauty pageants. I don't watch them; I don't follow them. I wasn't even born yet when Williams' was crowned the first black Miss America, and I didn't know that she had lost that crown over some nude photos from her youth.

So, when Vanessa came to life through the pages of her book to tell me that I "had no idea" about her real story, she was absolutely right. And sometimes that impacted the way I read the book. The book is clearly written to people who have some idea, people who were caught up in the scandal of her Miss America days, people who had judged her through two public divorces, people who had watched her characters come to life on screen. But since she was talking to these people, I often felt like the narrative was disjointed. There would be repetitions, tongue-in-cheek foreshadowing, heavy-handed dismissal of criticism I'd never seen. Sometimes having no idea made it hard for me to follow this story.

But that doesn't mean I didn't get anything out of it. Vanessa and her mother weave a tale of hard work, heartbreak, mother-daughter conflict, love, and triumph. The story is powerful, and Vanessa pulls back the veil on celebrity and demonstrates some of the cruelty the world delivers as well as some of the joys of performing. She also shares some very personal details, even beyond the public scrutiny she'd already received. It's balanced and inspiring.

I was most touched by the ways Vanessa talked about motherhood. In addition to several positive messages about breastfeeding (which we need, especially coming from black mothers, as Blacktating has been talking about after Beyonce's public breastfeeding), Vanessa calls her children her "greatest accomplishment." (She also calls breastfeeding "the most maternal act there is.")

She recounts how her children kept her grounded, saying "I couldn't become too self-absorbed because I was too busy changing diapers." She discusses the balance of roles and her frustration with her then-husband/manager when he slipped out of daddy mode and into professional mode: "he didn't know how to take off the manager hat and just be a husband, a father." She describes being thirty-three weeks pregnant while performing at the 1993 Grammys and talks about flying back and forth across the country to make sure she was at as many birthday parties, school plays, and little league games she could possibly attend. It's a tale of a woman devoted to both her career and her children.

Overall, You Have No Idea isn't really meant for me. I was left feeling like I snuck in too late at the end of someone else's party. But if I'd been a guest at this party from the beginning, I think that Vanessa Williams' toast to her guests would be a nice way to spend the evening.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book and compensation for participating in this BlogHer Book Club review. All opinions and ideas expressed are solely my own. 


  1. Great review! I enjoyed the book but I really liked Vanessa Williams on Ugly Betty!

  2. This book is incredibly
    entertaining! Vanessa is very honest and reveals a ton of ultra private
    information. I laughed, cried, and could not put this book down. I loved
    how Vanessa's mom Helen wrote her version of Vanessa stories, they
    didn't hold back any juicy details. I admire Helen's parenting strategy,
    which as a result has made Vanessa a pretty amazing mom herself. This
    is a story of hard work, persistence, and brutally raw honesty.

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