Westchester’s Beauty and Ugly Betty’s Villain
Vanessa Williams is an actress, singer, mother, and unabashedly proud Westchester resident. Her latest role is Wilhelmina Slater, creative director of Mode magazine, on the ABC mega-hit Ugly Betty, which kicks off its second season Thursday, September 27.
Andrea Barbalich interviewed her to get her thoughts on playing a villain on the show, enjoying Westchester, staying in shape (see her workout on page 78), and that grueling Chappaqua to L.A. commute.
Q. Obviously you’re staying fit for yourself. But it’s also important for Wilhelmina to look fabulous. Why do you think the show is so popular?
America Ferrera [who plays Betty] is just so phenomenal, so approachable, and so talented. She is likable; people feel they have a kinship with Betty. She is very sensible and always does the right thing. Plus the timing was perfect. The film version of The Devil Wears Prada happened to come out before we debuted. We shot the pilot before the movie came out, so we had no idea what kind of phenomenon the show would capture. It’s a cross between a soap opera and telling tales. And it’s fun. People say to us, “It looks like you guys are having fun”—and we are. So they tune in because of that.
Q. How does this compare to other things you’ve done professionally?
I’ve played evil women before, and I always get a lot of attention for them. I did A Diva’s Christmas Carol, and I played a witch in Into the Woods on Broadway. So I’ve had practice playing women who are temperamental and larger than life. As an actress, that’s a lot of fun.
If I had to choose between TV, film, and Broadway, I would say I enjoy Broadway most of all because it allows me to sing, dance, and act in front of a live audience. But we may do a musical episode on Betty, which would be a scream.
Q. So you’re happy you’re doing the show?
Yes, I love the role of Wilhelmina! And I received my first Emmy nomination, so I’m very happy I’m doing it. Shooting the show in L.A.—that’s another story. I have to travel a lot more.
Q. Westchester to L.A.—that’s quite a Commute.
Yes. Last year it was very tough. I had four kids in four different schools, and it was not a good transitional year for any of them. The oldest, Melanie, was in her first year at F.I.T. Jillian was a senior in high school, Devin was finishing eighth grade, and the youngest, Sasha, was finishing Montessori. It was the worst year to move anybody anywhere. So I decided when school started that I would commute. It was grueling.
Q. How do you make it work?
I am home on most weekends. It is written into my contract that I always have either Friday or Monday off, so I always have a three-day weekend. So, for example, I’ll fly home on a Thursday night and go back to L.A. on the red-eye on Sunday night to be at work on Monday.
Q. Who helps you keep your home life running while you’re gone?
I have my mom in the next town, Millwood, and my nanny, Kathy, has been with me for eighteen years. She went to high school with me at Horace Greeley, so she knows the area. She is part of the extended family. My ex-husband [Ramon Hervey, the father of Williams’s three older children] still lives in Chappaqua, and our kids spend time with him every week because we have shared custody. [She is also divorced from her second husband, Rick Fox, Sasha’s father.] So they have a village of people taking care of them, and they fly out to see me on weekends sometimes, too. They’re used to jumping on flights.
Q. You’ve made a conscious choice to raise them in Westchester. Why?
There are so many reasons. For one, the school systems are fantastic. My kids are a product of the public school system, and they go to the same schools I went to. My parents moved here in 1964, and this is where my brother and I grew up.
You can commute to the city in under an hour by train or by car, yet you have that country-living elegance. I love the seasons and the trees, the stone, and the natural beauty that Westchester has to offer. It is unforgettable. And all my friends who live in other places, once they see my house and my community, they say, “Now I understand why you don’t want to move.”
Also, there is the feeling of having a village that knows you. My kids have some of the same neighbors I had and some of the same teachers—for example, Polly Kingsbury, the dance teacher at Steffi Nossen School of Dance, and Mr. and Mrs. Fink, the home economics and industrial arts teachers at Robert E. Bell Middle School. There is a sense of security here. Everybody is watching my back. Neighbors talk to each other and look out for everyone. Those are the types of relationships you have in a small town. People know you and care for you.
Q. What are some of your favorite things to do and places to go locally?
The shopping has gotten remarkably better in White Plains. Back in the day, we had Alexander’s and maybe Macy’s and that was about it. Now you have luxury at your fingertips.
And I salsa dance on Wednesday nights in White Plains. My girlfriends and I go out to eat first, and we have tapas and a big pitcher of sangria. Then we go to Vintage and salsa dance with a live band.
But above all, there is a sense of tradition here that is hard to replace. We enjoy the tree-lighting ceremony in the middle of town, apple picking in October. We go to church on Sundays and to brunch afterward at Le Jardin du Roi, a French restaurant in Chappaqua that has consistent food and is very low key. My parents have a vegetable garden, so we have fresh corn and tomatoes in the summer. I love the snowfall, the fact that my kids can go sledding in their front yard and then invite their friends over and go inside for a cup of hot chocolate.
There are a lot of memories here, and so far nothing has been able to top them.
Q. Back to your work on Ugly Betty for a minute. There is a message that the show sends in that Wilhelmina has a very high-powered career, but her personal life is not so good. She has a difficult relationship with her father and is not close to her daughter. What is your comment on that, and how would you compare yourself to her?
Wilhelmina as a character is one of those people for whom there is never enough. Nothing is ever good enough. And you got a little flash of that when her father was introduced on the show and all her awards meant nothing to him. You can see that wound, and you can see her trying to fill a bottomless pit that she’ll never be able to fill. I can understand the drive that she has. But my love of family is so much different. That is my haven and my support. Her haven is really the office: that’s where she thrives, that’s where she knows she rules. For twenty years, she has worked really hard to make the magazine what it is. She is the creative talent behind its success, and she can never let go of it. If my career were to slip away, as multi-faceted as it is, I know that I would have a family and a community that would fill my time and I would find other things to do. That is not the case with Wilhelmina.
Q. So you feel strongly that it’s important to have both?
Absolutely. But it’s never balanced. People ask how I balance everything, and it’s just not. Because when I’m working, I miss my kids at home and miss their activities, and that hurts and that’s something I have to get over. But I make sure to be back for the things that are most important. And, on the flip side, if there is something I can’t do for my career, that’s something my business people know and have to deal with. I will say, “Sorry, I can’t do it,” because my family comes first.
Q. Something is always on the lower Rung. It might be yourself sometimes, or your kids or your career or your relationship.
That’s right. The biggest thing, though, is knowing that nothing is ever permanent and you can never take things personally. In my forty-four years, those have been my key philosophies. Things will change, especially with kids. That’s my whole outlook.
Vanessa’s Westchester Secrets
Yoga teacher: “Helena Mertens, formerly of Westchester Center for the Arts and now at Women for Fitness in Bedford.”
Workout wear: “It’s a variety. Nike sneakers and gear are durable wash after wash. And I love cotton because it breathes.”
Nutrition strategies: “I have my food delivered to me in L.A. by Chef Paola Petrella. It’s low-fat, high-fiber, and loaded with flavor and variety. In New York, I shop organically at Mrs. Green’s, limit my sugar, try to avoid starches and refined carbs. Juicing is also a great way to start the day: carrot, celery, and beet with lemon and ginger.”
Skincare regimen: “I use Proactiv Deep Cleaning wash and toner, Mario Badescu eye cream, and Mila Moursi moisturizing oil.”
Hair: “A bit of a shocker, but I do get my hair relaxed at Sears at the Galleria Mall in White Plains. I have followed my stylist, Anetta, from JC Penney to Bloomingdale’s and now to Sears. It’s almost always open, and someone is almost always available at the last minute.”
Nails: “I go to Ana’s Nails on King Street in Chappaqua. She’s warm, inviting, and a master at mending a broken nail.”
Massage: “Nordic Therapy Spa on Route 120/Bedford Road in Chappaqua gives a great deep-tissue massage in a relaxing atmosphere.”
Waxing: “For anyone adventurous enough, Shine Salon on Main Street in Ossining gives the best Brazilian.”
Shopping: “A few of my favorite stores are Lilies & Lace in Armonk, Chiara Scura Shoes in Mount Kisco, and Phyllis’s Leather Shop in Chappaqua for handbags.”
Coffee or Tea: “I’m regularly at Dragonfly Caffe on Wheeler Avenue in Pleasantville for my daily Chai tea—a cozy, eclectic ambiance for a chat or computer use.”
Catering: “I just hosted an eighteenth birthday/graduation party for my daughter and used Thai at Home by Nisa Lee. She’s Westchester-based, but her food is Asian-inspired. The party felt like you went to visit a faraway land.”
Recent read: “The best book of the summer was Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.”
Tech gadget: “I can’t function without my BlackBerry. I have all my contacts, school schedules, appointments, and photos on it. It’s the way I stay in touch with my nanny, assistant, and kids. It’s life changing.”
how vanessa gets that body
Vanessa Williams’s personal trainer, Sal Gaglio, doesn’t believe in cardio. Really? So, is that how Williams stays looking so great—no cardio?
Not exactly. The Chappaqua mom of four is still a fan of the treadmill, the Stairmaster, and—her favorite cardio activity—salsa dancing. But she limits those activities in favor of three-times-weekly weight-training sessions with Gaglio, the owner of Fitness for Health in Briarcliff Manor. “If you want to do cardio, go ahead,” Gaglio says, “but no more than two days a week, twenty minutes max. Cardio depletes you and makes you hungrier.” Gaglio’s approach centers on weight training, which he says does a better job of boosting the heart rate and defining the body.
Williams uses another trainer when she’s shooting Ugly Betty on the West Coast. But since a friend referred her to Gaglio three years ago, she’s been loyal to him whenever she’s in New York. The reason she cites is simple: “Results.” In one hour with Gaglio, Williams does a full-body workout that strengthens and tones her 5’6″ body and has put her in the best shape she’s ever been in. (How much does she weigh? “I don’t weigh myself,” she says.)
Williams says she appreciates that Gaglio pushes her to reach her potential. But the responsibility is hers, too. “There is no magic pill,” she says. “To stay defined, healthy, and strong, you have to move—especially after having kids. Sal can guarantee results if you listen and do what he says, but it’s about working hard too. Having a trainer forces you to show up, and I do.”
Take a look at Williams in action on the day we dropped in on her workout.
1. the warmup
A five-minute warmup gets Williams moving and helps prevent injuries. Shown here with her trainer, Sal Gaglio, she uses the Arc trainer, which works her quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
Williams begins her lower-body workout with lunges, which work her quads, hamstrings, glutes, and inner thighs. She does two sets of 30 reps, alternating legs.
This move works the hamstrings, quads, and glutes. Williams does two sets of 30 reps.
4. the hamstring blast
This three-part move works the hamstring and core. First, lying on her back with hips raised and feet on the physio ball, Williams moves her hips up and down for 15 reps. Then she moves the ball toward her and away from her (not shown) for 15 reps. Finally, with her feet against the ball, she moves her hips up and down 15 times.
Gaglio created this move, which he says is one of the toughest exercises for abs. In a crunch position, Williams keeps her elbows touching her thighs while Gaglio slowly rocks her body up. “Most people cannot do this exercise,” he says, “and a beginner is lucky to do two or three reps.” Williams does 15 to 20, closing her eyes the entire time. “It hurts,” she says. “Try it and you’ll feel my pain.”
6. pushup row
In this upper-body move, Williams works her chest, back, core, triceps, and delts. From a pushup position on the floor, she keeps one arm straight while pulling the other back, holding a 12-pound weight. Then she places that arm back on the floor for 15 reps. She does two sets, one on each side.
7. single arm row with lateral raise on physio ball
Seated on the physio ball, Williams sits tall with her right arm holding the handle of a 60-pound cable crossover. As she pulls the handle toward her body, she raises her left arm out to the side (holding an 8-pound weight) until it’s parallel to the floor. Working her upper back, rear delts, side delts, and core, she does two sets of 15 reps.
8. squat curls
Starting in a standing position and holding 12-pound weights, Williams squats down on a Bosu,stands back up, then curls the weights to her shoulders and presses them overhead. This move, done in two sets of 15 reps, works the quads, hamstrings, glutes, biceps, anterior delts, and core.
9. posterior delt
From a pushup position, Williams gets her body into a tripod position, keeping her legs wide with one arm stiff on the floor. She lifts a 7.5-pound weight laterally with a straight arm, lifting the arm slightly above parallel. She does two sets of 15 reps.
10. tricep extension with physio ball
Lying on her back on the ball and holding a 12-pound weight, Williams extends her arm straight toward the ceiling. Lowering her hand, she locks her elbow into a 90-degree angle. Doing two sets of 15 reps, she works the backs of her arms and her core.
11. wood chop
Seated on a ball while pulling a thick rubber band, Williams simulates a wood chop. With both arms holding the band’s handle, she crosses her body and brings the band toward her opposite foot.
The move strengthens her trunk rotation and spinal flexion,
working the abdominal wall and obliques. She does 20 reps on each side.
12. ab crunch on physio ball
Lying on her back on the ball, Williams keeps her hands behind her head to support her neck. As she crunches up, she aims her chin to the ceiling and pushes, driving the small of her back into the ball for 30 reps. For Williams, this is a recovery exercise between other moves.
Hanging with her upper arms in leather straps, Williams raises her legs straight out as high as she can and then lowers them. She does 10 reps with her legs out and 10 with her knees bent, working her abs.