By Dana C. Ayres
When one thinks of the origins of the androgynous look, very few of today’s generation would consider a Black woman to be at the root of the concept. Grace Jones, often associated with wild, on-stage antics, flamboyantly outrageous costumes and over sexualized live performances, has left an undeniably significant imprint on world-wide pop culture through disco, new wave and pop music. According to Allmusic.com, Jones was one of the most unforgettable characters to emerge from the New York City, hedonistic Studio 54 scene solely because of her appearance. She was dubbed, “the Queen of the Gay Discos” in the 70’s.
She began her full-fledged recording career, up to the present day, pop artists like Nikki Minaj, Rihanna and Lady Gaga, have benefitted handsomely from Jones’ musical and artistic legacy. Artists like Madonna, Anne Lennox and even Miley Cyrus cite Jones as their muse.
Born in Spanish Jamaica in 1948, singer, songwriter, supermodel, record producer and actress got her start when her family moved to Syracuse, New York. Jones signed with the infamous Wilhelmina Modelling Agency in Manhattan. Jones quickly realized that there was no real market for her particularly “dark” features and unique talent. She had to go elsewhere for her brand of beauty to be appreciated. The 5′ 10-1/2″ chocolate bombshell was well-received in Paris and she worked with industry giants like Yves Saint Laurent and Kenzo Takada, among others. She landed on the covers of Vogue and Stern while working with the likes of Hans Fuerer.
While modelling in Paris, she began to take bit parts in small film productions. Her debut film appearance was “Gordon’s War” in 1973. She amped up her acting career by the mid 80’s. Jones is best known for her role in the James Bond classic, “A View to a Kill” in 1995 and with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Conan the Destroyer.” Her most memorable and warmly regarded performance was for her role as Helen Strange in the 1992 Eddie Murphy romantic comedy, “Boomerang.”
While in Paris, her and her roommate, model Terri Hall, were regulars at the popular gay nightclub, “Club Sept,” where she rubbed elbows with the likes of Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld. When in New York, she would be seen at Studio 54 with her constant companion, Andy Warhol. Despite all the fabulousness of her life, most of the hoopla around Jones came through her music and her zany on-stage persona. The former shy, young girl of a strict, Caribbean, Apostolic upbringing had a strained relationship with her devoutly religious father, who because of his faith, was forced to distance himself from his daughter and her music. Jones changed her last name to Mendoza in order to fool her parents early in her career.
In 1974, Jones signed with Island records and released 3 albums; Portfolio, Fame and Muse. After disco died in the 80’s, Jones had to recreate herself in the increasingly popular new wave music scene. Her first 80’s release was Warm Leatherette and delivered the R&B hit “Pull Up to the Bumper”. Nightclubbing was her last studio album of the 80’s and –considered to be her best–made it to the Top 5 in 4 countries and became her highest grossing record on U.S. Billboard mainstream and R & B charts. Jones was famously known for slapping a talk show host on live TV while promoting her Nightclubbing album after he turned his back to interview another guest and she believed she was being snubbed.
Jones loves to give to causes that she is passionate about. She is an avid supporter of the AIDS cause and has donated her time and talents to raising money for research, education and acceptance of its sufferers. In 2010, Jones performed at the 1st Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Award viewing party, raising $3.7m. In 2012, she performed at the Inspiration Gala raising $1.3m for amfAR-The Foundation for AIDS Research.
Today, Jones father, Bishop Robert N. Jones is deceased and she is surrounded by her mother, Marjorie; her brother, Bishop Noel Jones who starred in the 2013 reality show, “Preachers of LA;” and her only son, Paulo, whose father was also a long-time collaborator with Jones.
In her memoir to be released in September, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. Jones states, “Trends come along and people say, ‘Follow that trend.’ There is a lot of that around at the moment. ‘Be like Sasha Fierce. Be like Miley Cyrus. Be like Rihanna. Be like Lady Gaga. Be like Rita Ora and Sia. Be like Madonna.’ I can’t be like them, except to the extent that they are already being like me.”
Prophetic words from a pioneer who was bold enough to dare to step out into the unknown to make and then remake herself in an ever-changing, pop culture industry.