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Vanessa Williams' positive thinking a hit with students

Vanessa Williams oozed flawless poise as she stepped out of a white limousine and strode toward the dance studio _ until she discovered the wide red lipstick smear on her chin.

Without breaking her stride, Williams giggled and rubbed at the red streak.

"I guess I was trying to do too many things at once this morning," she admitted sheepishly.

To the students huddled in a University of South Florida dance studio, hoping to catch a glimpse of the performer, Williams' ability to balance her career with a sense of humor is exactly what they want.

She spoke candidly about her success with the students, who for three weeks have participated in the Musical Theater Project of Tampa. The students have trained intensively in singing, acting and dancing in the hope of one day following Williams' example. The students have met with professionals during their stay in the program, and their experience will culminate in a production today.

"Are you always so perfect?" one student asked, wondering how she could become as well-rounded as Williams, who currently stars with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the summer movie Eraser.

"It all comes down to your essence," Williams responded.

"I'm far from perfect," she said in an interview later.

She pointed out that her current fame had come through work. True, there have been some downfalls, but she overcame them by dodging the labels others placed on her.

She laughed good-naturedly at jibes referring to the Miss America scandal that threatened to derail her career. Nude photos of her were published in Penthouse, forcing her to give up the crown she had won in 1983, but not the dream of becoming a performer. The accomplished singer/dancer/actor spoke passionately about her desire to move beyond labels.

"I wish people would stop referring to me as the dethroned Miss America who went on to superstardom," she said with a sigh. "I was somebody before I became Miss America."

She grew up in a suburb 45 minutes outside New York and within the shadow of Broadway. The daughter of music instructors, Williams was brought up believing that she was someone, and that anything was within her reach.

Her mother, a singer, made sure her daughter had every opportunity to explore the theatrical career she never had.

"My mother would have loved to have been a singer, but at that time, there were better opportunities in teaching," Williams said. "She wanted to make sure I had the best."

When the 12-year-old Williams watched teenager Stephanie Mills belt out tunes in The Wiz, she decided that she, too, could reach Broadway.

Now 21 years, three albums, a Broadway show and several movies later, Williams still believes that, while traveling the road to success involves a little backtracking, the final destination is worth the work.

"So what if you have setbacks," she said, leaning back and smiling. "Once the dust settles you'll get a chance to shine."

At a glance

Students in the Musical Theater Project of Tampa will present Broadway '96 at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. today at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $20.