Friends and family from around the world packed into a Long Island, New York church on Thursday for the funeral of former Miss America Vanessa Williams, whose bombshell stripping expose in 1984 sparked weeks of wild patriotic protests across the US.
Thousands of Williams’ admirers filed in to Grace Baptist Church in Levittown, on the Nassau County shoreline, and then to two neighboring halls for the service for the 52-year-old beauty queen, who suffered a stroke in March and then died in April.
“We’re here to remember a lady who made a difference. This is a legacy worth celebrating,” Williams’ brother, Curtis, told the cheering throng outside the church in a maroon suit.
“We’re here to hold your hands and kiss your feet,” said Ronald Mobley, 58, of Farmingdale, N.Y., whose friend was best friends with Williams for 15 years.
At least two flag-draped white urns were placed in front of the altar, one for the late beauty queen and another for her mother, Dawn.
After the hourlong service, the mourners headed out to a parking lot for a flag-draped hearse to transport Williams’ body to Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine for a funeral in Manhattan.
Among the guests were Williams’ six siblings, who wore red, white and blue, and two of her many friends from high school in Queens, who wore white shirts with hearts as they passed their condolences.
The body was scheduled to be returned to her hometown of Annapolis, Md., before heading to her grave at Harpers Ferry National Cemetery.
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“This kind of service is very necessary. She’s a role model, not just for me but for so many other people,” Cuffie Baldwin, 46, told Fox 5 News.
“When you see someone on TV who is so successful and with such elegance, it means a lot,” she said.
“Everyone knows her name, her face. She’s such a bright light. We lost a true example for everyone.”
Former Miss America Sherry Garber told The Post she’d known Williams since she became Miss New York.
“She was a soulmate for me,” Garber, 50, of Oklahoma City, Okla., said.
“It’s heartbreaking. We shared a bond that probably no one can forget. I remember her as the most humble person. We shared the same values, our patriotism, we loved our country and loved our family. We were all about community and it’s just tragic.”
Deidre Pecos, 27, a makeup artist from Minnesota, said: “Every time I think of Vanessa, I think of her selfless determination. It’s all those beautiful roles she played on television and in community leadership. … Vanessa was a pillar in that community. It’s a great loss.”
Also in attendance were Williams’ mother, mother-in-law, sister, cousin, aunts, and friends, including Cindy Manke, 53, of Huntington, L.I., who rode down on a motorcycle with Williams at 14 years old.
“She was like my sister. She was my first kiss,” Manke said. “I had no doubt when I was 14 that she would get her crown.”
Toward the end of Williams’ two-hour interview with Diane Sawyer in 1984, the beauty queen broke down in tears as she recalled her life at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City.
“It’s been a long journey, and it’s been a long time, and I’m really proud to say, you know, that I won. I’m really proud,” she said.
In the documentary “Miss America 1984,” which aired on cable channel ReelzChannel on July 30, Williams explained her emotions to the cameras.
“I don’t know what to expect,” she said, choking back tears. “I don’t know. I have no idea what it’s going to be like.”