Vanessa Williams (search) is a fighter who knows how to win and lose gracefully. She made history in 1984, when she became the first woman of color to win the Miss America title. Months later, she had to relinquish the title after a magazine published nude photos of her.

She was barely in her 20s, and her career was in the gutter. But Williams dusted herself off, left New York and headed for Hollywood, where she turned her notoriety into movie roles and hit records. She later became a formidable presence on Broadway, starring in "Kiss of the Spider Woman." (search)

The former beauty queen is a reluctant star who avoids publicity.

"You wouldn't even recognize me in my sweatpants and baseball cap, driving the kids around in my truck," Williams told The Post from her Westchester home.

Despite her desire for privacy, she's been in the news lately -- not only for her new album, "Everlasting Love," (search) a collection of love songs from the '70s, but for the trials of her love life. Williams' husband, ex-NBA player Rick Fox, filed for divorce from the singer-actress in August.

You've said that the Miss America incident made you a better person. How?

That incident made me deal with the press, deal with the entertainment business, deal with image. It forced me to dig deep.

Does it all seem like a silly incident from the past now?

It was serious. I don't harbor resentment, but this is a wound that still feels like it could be easily opened. It's a part of my history and I've come to grips with it.

The songs on the new record suit your voice. How were they selected?

When I look for songs, my first inkling is about melody. I want a song that's memorable. I also want a song that has a story.

Is that from your work on Broadway?

I think so. Storytelling is my biggest asset as a performer. As a singer, I use all of my acting abilities to convey a song.

Describe what you do.

I want to create a mood and tell the story. It's that simple. Every song has a character, and that's how I work to find it.

This album is very old-fashioned. It could have been released in the '70s.

That was a time I was in school and I was learning about myself. The songs remind me of being young and carefree and having a dream.

You have your own brood now.

I'm raising four kids. They're 17, 15, 11 and 4. It's interesting to hear what they listen to and see them rediscover older music.

How do you teach your kids about music?

I just turned my 4-year-old on to Aaron Copeland's "Appalachian Spring" and the "Billy the Kid Suite." Copeland was one of my dad's favorite composers and I leaned every horn lick in those pieces. Now I'm bringing my child on the same journey I took.

What's the secret to being a fortysomething mom with four kids -- and looking as good as you do?

Work. I have a trainer. I work out on the treadmill. I watch everything I eat. It isn't as effortless as I wish it was.