Vanessa Williams was on vacation in Egypt with her daughter last year, seeing the sights on the last day of their Nile cruise, when she noticed another tourist who stood out from the rest.
He was wearing a Sabres shirt.
“So I went up to him and asked him, ‘Are you from Buffalo?’ ” Williams said.
No surprise there. Western New Yorkers around the world are used to these encounters, and that includes Williams, whose mother grew up in Buffalo.
Yes, he said. He was from Buffalo, and he still lived there.
“We talked about the Bills, and we found out his mom grew up just a few streets away from where my mom grew up on the East Side,” Williams said. “We had a lot in common.”
And that is how Jim from Depew, a St. Bonaventure grad and, as she puts it, “just a nice, regular, gorgeous guy,” came to be dating the former Miss America, 11-time Grammy-nominated singer and popular actress from stage, screen and television. And why, when Williams appears in concert Dec. 28 at Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel, there will be a lot of friendly faces in the audience – his big Polish family, and her uncle and lots of cousins.
Williams, 50, said she appreciates her mother’s hometown even more now that she visits every couple of months.
“I like the good wings and, I can’t believe it, I’ve just had beef on weck,” she said. “I had no idea it was that delicious!”
She presumably will share that information with her band when they arrive in Buffalo next week. It’s a close group, the same musicians she performed with when she was here in 1997 with Luther Vandross, she said.
“We’ve kind of grown up together, performing with the kids all running around,” Williams said.
Next Saturday, she’ll share the stage with one of those kids, her now-grown daughter Jillian Hervey, who performs as Lion Babes. Broadway singer Darius de Hass also is joining her for a show that will include lots of hits and, she said, “possibly some seasonal things, depending on how burned out people are by the 28th.”
Younger fans who want to see Wilhelmina Slater from “Ugly Betty” or Renee Perry from “Desperate Housewives” may not have connected the dots before to realize Williams also is the singer of the Academy Award-winning song “Colors of the Wind” from “Pocahontas,” along with “Dreamin’,” “Save the Best for Last” and other hits, as well as having two holiday albums.
One of her Grammy nominations, in 1994, for best pop collaboration with vocals, came from “Love Is,” which she made with Buffalo-born R&B star Brian McKnight.
That was the same year she replaced Chita Rivera in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” on Broadway. Her most recent Broadway run was as the selfish Jessie Mae Watts in “The Trip to Bountiful,” which starred Cicely Tyson. A television version of the stage show will be on the Lifetime cable network in February.
And it almost didn’t happen for her.
“It was one of those things,” Williams said. “I was shooting ‘666 Park Avenue,’ ” – her TV show after “Housewives” ended – “and then Hurricane Sandy came in and wiped out our shop in Brooklyn – there was just water everywhere. Of course it took a while to get everything cleaned up, then we came back to work and got the notice we were canceled.”
She was unemployed for almost an entire week before the offer came to appear in the Horton Foote classic with Tyson.
“We had an extraordinary run on Broadway,” said Williams, adding that Tyson was an inspiration to all involved. “She never missed a show. She’s incredible. Any time I feel a little ache or pain, I think of her and go on.”
For next year, going on could mean more concert appearances, getting back to the studio, or possibly taking “Bountiful” on the road. After spending the past seven years performing in hourlong television dramas, she said, things are much more open.
“I’ve got all of next year to gig,” she said, which also means seeing more fans in person.
And she said she enjoys that. Fortunately, people don’t confuse her with the dragon-lady characters she has played recently, possibly because off- screen she doesn’t really look the part.
“I tend to wear a lot of ‘drag’ as my characters. I’m much more pared down in real life,” Williams said. “Most of the time I’m out in Uggs and sweatpants.”
Still, she gets recognized.
“I have great fans,” she said. “The ones who are ‘Betty’ fans come up and say, ‘I miss “Betty” so much!’ Others will say, ‘I love you in “Desperate Housewives,” ’ or ‘You’ll always be my Miss America,’ ” or, she says with a laugh, “Your mom is a piece of work!”
Because, yes, they feel they know her mother, Helen Williams from Buffalo and Fredonia State College. The two collaborated on a memoir that made the New York Times best-seller list in 2012, “You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (And Each Other).”
From the book and the personal appearances they made to promote it, it is easy to see how Williams has stayed so grounded through her tumultuous, successful and continuing career.
And why she wouldn’t be shy about approaching a Sabres fan on the banks of the Nile.