La Vie en Rose: Happy birthday to singer, model and actress Grace Jones.
Here’s the question: What happens at Grace Jones’ 70th birthday party? Arriving nude to the party has already been checked off her list. Perhaps Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake will create a custom cape for her that somehow perfectly describes her no-nonsense feelings of age? Feelings which, not surprisingly, scoff at age altogether. As her 2015 memoir states, “There are more important things about me than my age that will give you a better idea of who and what I am. I was born. Let’s take it from there.”
Grace Jones’ memoir, by the way, is amazing. Titling it with her lyrics “I’ll never write my memoirs,” she made the choice to do the unexpected. The result? A voyeuristic glimpse into her mind and a lucky chance to live vicariously through her thrilling experiences as an international model, performer, Bond villain, and lover. Want a funny story about Jack Nicholson in Paris from the perspective of Grace Jones? It’s in there. And that’s just a sampling of the contents of the book. Find a copy and devour it.
Her story starts in Jamaica, where she was born May 19, 1948, but was not yet discovered (either by herself or by the public). She had a difficult upbringing, so it’s nice to imagine her life really began in her early teens after a few days’ visit with her aunt Sybil. Aunt Sybil was different from the rigid extended family who raised Grace (or Bev, as she was called back then). At Aunt Sybil’s, there was no religious pressure to act and dress in a refined manner. With Aunt Sybil, she was able to see for the first time what freedom was like. Nail polish, makeup and straightened hair were just a few simple indulgences that sparked her early exploration of physical self-expression.
Fast-forward to the 1960s when she was a teenager arriving in Syracuse, New York, to finally live with her siblings and parents. Here she aimed to leave the old, controlled Bev behind.
It wasn’t an immediate or easy transition, but Grace Jones eventually fell into the 1970s hippie communities, where she happily sauntered toward her wild side. However, she always functioned as somewhat of an outcast. It wasn’t easy for her to fit in with any crowd.
Jones’ wild side, combined with unrelenting hard work, led her to the club scene and a modeling career. In her memoir, she tells great stories about this era, including seeing Jackie O. and Lou Reed sitting mere yards apart in a club called Le Jardin. She writes: “…the wide striving scope of New York weirdly expressed. What they call the beautiful people, but plenty of wonderfully ugly, unlikely people, as well, a toxic mix of those with everything to lose and those with nothing to lose.” She describes this world as a place where celebrities could actually get a whiff of the real people, and where the real weirdos could fuel their creative work. This world is where Jones’ career and some of her inspiration began, a trippy melting pot where she could find her place.
From New York, she went to Paris, where she hoped to be better understood as a model. Here, her singing career also started when she belted a favorite karaoke tune out her hotel window. This led to a series of recording sessions, difficult voice lessons and the eventual discovery of her distinctive voice. This is also where she met and befriended many of her artistic collaborators in fashion, photography and performance.
Jones collaborated with artist Richard Bernstein, famed Interview cover artist, who also created the cover of her debut album, Portfolio. Her words about the collaboration speak to why her music and identity still impact people across generations: “It was all part of the same sense of making entertainment for a world craving pleasure and escape larger, bolder, and brasher, and more energetically enchanting. The unsettling growing chaos of the threatening, corrupt and paranoid world out there, all the political scandals and indefinite wars and crises, needed to be kept at bay. Presidents and governments were cracking up, people needed to look after themselves, and create their own rules and customs.” These themes of bucking convention bleed through all her artistic choices.
Her relationship with Jean-Paul Goude is an unavoidable topic in her life story because he’s the father of her child, as well as a major part of her most famous artistic era. Together the two created surreal music videos, sets, photography and the amazing One Man Show. While they ultimately separated, they remain part of one another’s life, now collaborating as grandparents to their son Paulo’s daughter.
Grace Jones continues to challenge herself and everyone around her. She has referred to Rihanna and Lady Gaga as young artists finding themselves but not having enough of their own style.
Still pursuing her legacy, Jones continues to tour and insists on mixing it up. She won’t simply sing the same hits. She sees every new project as a new phase worth honoring and sharing: “I have been around for a long time, heart pounding, ready to pounce on my prey, blurring borders, speaking my mind, believing that the world is full of visible and invisible forces, crossing the water, tripping, grieving, loving, hunting, conquering, seducing, fighting, dreaming, laughing — and I always will be.”
Happy birthday, you Warm Leatherette, you.