Cue: Grace Jones leaps off the Eiffel Tower—Bond is in pursuit—parachute deployed; lands safely, and makes a successful escape from the MI6 agent. The scene from A View to a Kill (1985), where Jones plays May Day opposite Roger Moore’s James Bond, was a moment of pure movie drama, it also perfectly encapsulated her mysterious and fearless oeuvre. It is not surprising that during her career Jones transcended modeling and singing, and dabbled in acting—with roles as diverse as her career. She starred as a warrior opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action fantasy adventure Conan the Destroyer (1984), and as a parody of herself in the romantic comedy Boomerang (1992) with Eddie Murphy. In Vamp (1986) she plays Katrina, a red headed vampire. However, it is that jaw-dropping leap, which perhaps best embodies her attitude to life. Jones has always been prepared and has a predisposition to take leaps of faith, her self belief seemingly rock solid. In her autobiography, ironically titled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Jones recalls how when rejected for a role, casting agents and producers would tell her, “You stand out too much”. She would simply respond, “That’s ok, I’m not like anyone else”.
Her fans are testament to the appeal of her distinctiveness. When they post images of Jones on Instagram, typical hashtags read #iconic, #legendary, #theoneandonly. There are few performers who have made such an impact across so many areas of popular culture. A force to be reckoned with—throughout her life she has consistently challenged convention—never content to just do what was expected of her. Jones is a modern day polymath, a trail blazing poster girl for postmodernism, with a cultural lineage that runs from Josephine Baker to Santigold, FKA Twigs and Rihanna.
Born to Marjorie and Robert Jones in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Jones is one of six siblings brought up in a very religious, authoritarian community. She offers no definitive date of birth, maintaining that one should not be defined by age. In the 1960s the family moved to America settling in Syracuse, upstate New York. The only black family in a predominantly Italian neighbourhood, Jones stood out with her extremely dark skintone and unusual voice—once described by a critic as “A cross between Ethel Merman and David Bowie”. Jones considered herself an outsider, and rebelled against her strict upbringing by experimenting with her image and reinventing herself. Jones purposefully rejected mainstream culture and in her late teens joined a hippie commune, earning a living as a go-go dancer. Hanging out with a Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang and living as a nudist—if only for a month—shows off the extreme nature of her character.
After a failed audition with songwriting legends Gamble & Huff, Jones decided she would be ‘an artist’ and moved to New York. Modeling to pay the rent—although deemed ‘too exotic’ for many commercial jobs—Jones shaved her head, already seeing herself in the abstract, and recognising her unique qualities. Jones wasn’t interested in emulating anyone, or anything else—it wasn’t ego as such, more a certainty in her self direction. Jones’ agent was not of the same opinion, and made her wear wigs to castings.
The 1970s were synonymous with a party lifestyle and Jones was no stranger. Being a regular on the underground nightclub scene Jones came into contact with Andy Warhol, and the jet set crowd—Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Bianca Jagger and Jackie O—along with downtown hipsters, gays, blacks and Latinos that defined the throbbing heart of New York City. Her introduction to Puerto Rican illustrator Antonio Lopez—who surrounded himself with an entourage of beautiful people, all dressed in vintage clothes, creating their own characters—came about through such adventures. Jones became one of ‘Antonio’s Girls’, a group of bewitching models that included Jerry Hall, Jessica Lange, Tina Chow, Pat Cleveland and Paloma Picasso. “He liked the freaks and made them freakier,” said Jones in her memoir.
Lopez worked with Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld and invited Jones to join him in Paris. In her own eccentric style she made her way to Paris by taking a cheap flight to Luxembourg and hitchhiking the rest of the journey. Jones caught the eye of photographers Helmut Newton and Hans Feurer. She adored the glossy eroticism of Newton’s imagery and credits the photographer with teaching her how to perfect the character that she was creating. Feurer presented women as powerful dominatrix’s, a concept that clicked with Jones—Feurer would later photograph her first record cover, I Need A Man. Jones admired how these two photographers pushed at the boundaries of their chosen métier and enjoyed professional freedom.
In Paris, Jones and roommate Jerry Hall were shameless in their pursuit of style—one look included chicken bone necklaces and bare breasts inspired by the near naked showgirls at Le Crazy Horse de Paris cabaret. They frequented Club Sept—a favourite with poseurs and provocateurs—where Jones began to sing over the records being played, sometimes climbing on the tables in the process. If she didn’t dance on the tables her fellow nightclubbers would be disappointed—and Jones was never one to disappoint.
The first to admit she is not the best singer, Jones found her voice in disco music by accident. With a range lower than most disco divas of the day, her allure was further fuelled by her androgynous look and sound. Her first trio of albums—Portfolio (1977), Fame (1978) and Muse (1979)—featured disco versions of Broadway classics. With lyrics half sung, half spoken—sometimes in French—Jones appeared even more seductive, channeling the ghosts of Josephine Baker, Édith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich before her. The imagined yet heartfelt narratives of songs such as I Need A Man and Am I Ever Gonna Fall In Love In New York City? sealed her reputation as a gay icon.
Jones evoked a world of consummate glamour and artifice. For the covers of her first albums she enlisted illustrator Richard Bernstein, best known for the impossibly perfect, airbrushed covers of Warhol’s Interview magazine—Jones incidentally appeared on the cover of Issue 24. This old style Hollywood imagery tapped into the glam mirrorball moment, defined by Studio 54, of drag queens and designers—Candy Darling and Calvin Klein, Divine and Diane von Fürstenberg—who would sashay side by side in sequins and satin on the dancefloor. Disco was all about dressing up and Jones took the concept to the ultimate limits. For a performance at Studio 54 in 1977, Jones dressed as Nefertiti, and appeared on the back of a Harley Davidson, surrounded by near naked musclemen. This was the epitome of Jones as Disco Queen—ruling over the night and the world she was creating.
Image was integral to the Jones experience. As a teenager she was the first to wear her hair Afro-style and favoured two pairs of eyelashes—adopted from The Supremes—orange lipstick and green eyeshadow. For her stage act, Norma Kamali designed clingy sparkling bodysuits for Jones, while artist Keith Haring famously painted tribal patterns onto her naked body. Later, Azzedine Alaïa would lace her into slinky gowns and corsets and the outlandish drama of Philip Treacy’s sculptural hats would become a fixture. The original Treacy creation Jones wore for a gala concert—shaped like a galleon—had been appropriated by Jones.
In the mid 1970s Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake dressed Jones in custom made hooded robes and molded metallic breastplates. These outfits are still considered some of the most influential pieces ever worn by Jones. Through Miyake, Jones discovered Japanese Kabuki theatre—a combination of formality and subversion—a favourite of David Bowie, who also played with androgyny, alien otherness and theatrical pose in the pop arena. Miyake favoured the concept of fashion show as an event, enlisting Jones to sing I Need A Man while modeling a wedding dress. Jones was part of Issey Miyake and Twelve Black Girls, a show that toured Japan and was seen by 15,000 people. The experience taught Jones about the essence and impact of stagecraft.
A hugely influential, and some might say transformative, relationship was with art director Jean-Paul Goude, who became her lover. Goude had first seen Jones perform at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute dressed as an Erté illustration. Jones fell in love with Goude like a teenager. Their relationship was a tempestuous collaboration of ideas, producing imagery that was often dark in its inspiration. Jones has described how Goude wanted to shape her into a perfect image—a living sculpture, an illusion. His startling collaged, cutup style, as seen on the covers of Slave to the Rhythm and Living My Life, exaggerated her differences.
Goude also photographed Jones for the cover of Island Life (1985). With extended limbs, her glistening skin lends her the appearance of a ceramic statue, something to be worshipped. This style of imagery elevated Jones’ iconic status; a prescient commentary on the modern day trend for virtual lifestyles. Goude’s arresting style suited Jones’ aggressive and outrageous attention grabbing behaviour. In her act she would often crawl around on the stage like a caged tiger, and in 1978 Goude photographed her in such a scenario. Goude—who some might say was Dr Frankenstein to Jones’ monster—would later admit that part of the reason for the couple’s split was that he became possessive of the character he helped create.
Perhaps the best illustration of the true brilliance of their liaison lies in the legendary concert tour in 1981, A One Man Show. As Bowie had done previously with his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, Jones was performing as a singer. Rather than merely duplicate her hits on stage, she created an immersive experience that was as much about the visual presentation as it was the music. In keeping with the electro, other-wordly vibe of her sound, Jones employed jerky, robotic movement in an extraordinarily spartan set that played with light and shadows. Originally prompted by a lack of funds, the imagery was in tune with the cutting edge trend for minimalism and modernism—part brutalist Bauhaus architecture and part futurist landscape. This astonishing theatrical event showcased her new drum, bass and synthesiser sound masterminded by Chris Blackwell, owner of Island Records. With Blackwell she reinterpreted underground new wave classics such as Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing and Warm Leatherette by The Normal, as well as recording what would become her own—Demolition Man, My Jamaican Guy and Pull Up to the Bumper, and achieved cross over from disco to new romantic. Her vocal delivery was pared down, affording an insane intensity to the presentation, a distillation of ideas rendered to the bare bones. During La Vie en Rose Jones sheds a single tear. A tiny artfully crafted moment of pure theatrical magic.
Jones identified early on that she could use her role as an entertainer to expose her audience to the more thought provoking matters of race and gender. Not being one to shy away from confrontation, she illustrated this to perfection during a TV chat show interview in the 1980s. When host Russell Harty made the mistake of ignoring Jones—by turning his back on her to talk to other guests—she took this as an insult and rebuked him with a slap. The incident provoked headlines: ‘Grace was a disgrace’. Yet, for Jones, it was a case of basic courtesy. This moment though, for better or worse, forever defined her as a dangerous diva.
For his Spring 2013 ready-to-wear collection fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier paid tribute to the pop stars of the 1980s—Jones, Annie Lennox, Madonna, Ziggy Stardust, Michael Jackson, Boy George, ABBA & Amanda Lear. The show opened with models reminiscent of Jones on her Nightclubbing (1981) album cover, sashaying down the catwalk in a series of slick tuxedo suits—a black lacquered pill box hat doubling as her trademark square cut afro. There was no mistaking the reference. Gaultier has always been a designer who celebrates difference and diversity. This sartorial homage recognised the groundbreaking effect Jones and her contemporaries had with their original gender-bending antics. Jones, who was never content to play the part of a packaged pop star, was central to a cultural shift, that beyond boys in makeup and girls with cropped hair and mean stares, thrust the issue of sexuality and gender politics into the mainstream.
Jones’ aggressive, ‘take me as I am’ swagger may not have been to everyone’s taste—Schwarzenegger and Moore found her difficult to work with—but she was driven in her pursuit of achieving greater things. Her modeling, singing and acting career thrived due to her sheer determination, flamboyance, and desire to be something different. The distillation of Jones as one critic puts it: “An Armani wearing all star alien accordion playing angel of androgyny”. And yet, there is so much more.