Everyone knows Grace Jones. She is a legend. An icon. A complete original. Somehow she has been able to define the era of the 1980s while also being completely ahead of her time. Maybe you know her from her modeling, androgynous look, her acting, her music career, or as a source of inspiration for many artists who came after her; nonetheless, you know her. To be honest, before researching Ms. Jones for this article, I truly only knew her from the images I’ve seen and a couple of songs. She was a two-dimensional person in my mind, and I was curious about her personality, what drove her to become the outlandish figure she is currently known as. I started watching old interviews, and the more I watched, the more I became fascinated with this woman who went against every societal construct in this very conservative time, and did so fearlessly. She truly is an incredible, one of a kind soul and made her mark in the world of fashion, music, and pop culture, paving the way for some of the most successful people in showbusiness. Without Grace Jones, we would live in a world without Madonna, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and so many more. So, without further ado, let’s get into it.
Grace Jones was born in 1948 in Spanish Town, Jamaica to conservative, religious parents, and under the discipline of an even harsher step-grandfather, whom she referred to as “Master P.” She recounted that he would regularly beat her and her siblings, and that she “absolutely hated him.” The stress this abuse caused her system resulted in an ulcer, but all the same, she maintains that this adversity shaped her personality, perspective, and career. After this, she decided suppressing herself to please her family was not worth the stress, especially after it had manifested into an injury. Not being her true self quite literally caused her harm. Jones ended up rejecting much of what her family tried so hard to instill into her, yet at the same time absorbed a resilience they never intended. This sense of self-preservation, almost a need to father herself, is the foundation for the masculine side of her renowned androgyny. Her disciplined, militant childhood led her to become a disciplined, militant person, to which she cheekily commented, “Even if that sometimes means being militantly naughty, and disciplined in the arts of subversion.”
Her family moved to New York when she was thirteen years old, meaning freedom from her grandfather and a newfound sense of expression. In college, her theater professor asked her to accompany him on a summer stock tour in Philly, and of course, being all rebellious and whatnot, she agreed. It was the 1960s, and she immersed herself in hippie culture, out in the city earning money as a gogo dancer and doing lots of drugs. At eighteen, she signed with Wilhelmina Modeling Agency; however, she had trouble getting booked in the states because many people did not know what to make of her look, believing her features were confusing and too exotic. This prompted her to move to Paris in 1970, where her striking, unusual appearance was welcomed in the high fashion scene. The Parisian culture at this time was very different from The United States, more raunchy and wild, meaning that Jones’ unique look was something to be in awe of, rather than something to gawk at. Americans like to put labels on things, and many don’t like anything that might make them uncomfortable, requiring them to reevaluate, or think a little deeper, about what they believe to be true about the world. (Ahem). Grace Jones couldn’t be put into a box, which put people out of their comfort zone. So Paris, a place where people frolicked on nude beaches and the high fashion scene strove for originality, welcomed Grace Jones with open arms. She started to develop her signature style by putting together looks from French thrift stores, something she continued to do even in the heyday of her career. In Paris, she began to get hired as a runway model, walking for Yves St. Laurent, Claude Montana, and Kenzo. It didn’t take long before she began appearing on the covers of Elle and Vogue and associating with incredibly prominent people in the fashion world like Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani.
She began her music career in the mid-70s, recording a few disco albums and found success in the club scene. Jones became a notorious guest at Studio 54 after its opening in 1977 and was very involved in the nightlife scene at the time. As a performer, she was becoming recognized as “queen of the gay discos.” When she took to the stage she was hyper-masculine and feminine, flamboyant and eccentric. Her performances were (and still are!!) extravagant, with avante garde costumes, and she would sing with a ferocity and an anger she said only really came out on stage. She was a spectacle, and drew in many a spectator. Her outspoken acceptance of and involvement in the gay community was incredibly important. Keep in mind the time period; homosexuality was simply not accepted in mainstreem society. Gayness was considered a disease for the majority of the 20th century, and is still treated as such by many to this day. Jones’ involvement in the gay community really proves that she was striving to be herself and to surround herself with authentic, creative, unapologetic people more than gaining mainstream success.
Interestingly enough, this rejection of societal norms is what made her a household name. She gained international fame after her 1981 album “Nightclubbing,” her most successful record in the US and abroad. From there, the public became fascinated by her. The 1980s were really Jones’ heyday, and soon she was cast in high profile movies such as Conan the Destroyer and as a villainous Bond girl in the classic Bond film, A View to Kill. With her success came representation for those who may not have been able to see themselves in the public eye. Pop stars at the time looked like Madonna, Bon Jovi, ABBA, and while they are worth remembering and their contribution to the music industry is revered, they did help perpetuate the white, blonde, blue eyed beauty standard. Bond girls have basically been played by different variations of skinny, hyper feminine white women from the jump. Grace Jones rising to fame, especially at this time, showed people that they did not have to fit into this one standard to be considered beautiful, valuable, sexy. She was anything but this one dimensional view of what has been constantly thrust into the limelight, and is even more legendary for it.
heekbones give her a rigid, serious look, yet her lips and nose are softer and more feminine. She chose to emphasize her masculine features rather than trying to hide them. Her hair is always short and her flattop has become iconic. I always find myself staring at her teeth, oddly enough, as it looks like she has about a million of them; bright white and perfectly straight (I’m probably just jealous). Her skin is deep and seemingly flawless, she is long and lean and could definitely beat you up. She is strange and captivating, moving with a distinct grace, and when she opens up her mouth to speak she becomes even more intriguing. She also proved that a woman did not have to be uber femanine to be sexy, as she was notorious for having men (and women) all over her. This woman is anything but just a pretty face.
Watching her in old talk shows, it was clear that most of the time whatever stuffy old host was interviewing her had no clue what to say. Often their questions boiled down to “why do you act the way you act,” as she was just so far out of the norm at the time they didn’t know what to make of her. Although, she was infamous for hitting a talk show host, so maybe they were all just a little scared of her. She never seemed to censor herself, and was very self-reliant, always speaking her mind in a booming voice with a laugh to match. Some anecdotes include: getting into a fight with an airline pilot, and subsequently winning by lying down on the runway in front of him, showing up to parties completely nude, as well as having a reputation for cleaning out a store whenever she was depressed. She claimed that she did not believe in marriage, because she did not believe in divorce. Despite the zillions of times she was asked, Jones did not choose to define her sexuality and thought that trying to put a label something as complicated as how one feels was pointless. She had a son with artist Jean-Paul Goude, and they raised him as friends. She told Interview magazine in 1984,”The future is no sex. You can be a boy, a girl, whatever you want.” Grace Jones was true to herself. I think it is obvious how incredibly ahead of her time she was, but it is also important to note how genuine she is, and that she did not say or do any of these things, as outrageous as they may seem, to gain attention. She did these things because it was what she wanted to do. Some are outrageous for fame and attention, no matter the message it sends. To me, this is not the case when it comes to Ms Jones. She sent a message of love, self acceptance, and broke barriers because of her pure authenticity. She is truly a one of a kind soul.
Looking at her from a modern perspective, she might not seem too out of the box, but the 1980s was a very different time. Much like her upbringing, the 80s was a time in which conservative religious values were being pushed in western culture, and Grace Jones had no problem breaking every barrier and expectation set for her. Her role in society as a successful, fashionable, revered, queer black woman was basically a huge middle finger to what society thought was valuable. I would not be surprised if she was the bane of Reagan’s existence. Everything about her is somewhat of an oxymoron, as her bold style choices, bright colors, and dramatic silhouettes went on to define the style of this time period. She was and still is, a groundbreaking figure in music, fashion, and popular culture. Jones is cited by Afrofuturists as an inspiration to the Afrofuturism movement itself. This movement reimagines the future, arts, technology, and innovation through a Black lens, in an otherwise white landscape. The movie Black Panther is a good example of this vision in motion. Grace Jones, iconic not only for her music and fashion, showed the world what it means to have an open mind, and taught people how to accept things that might have otherwise been hard for people to open their minds to. Artists I stated earlier such as Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna all have said Jones inspired them in one way or another, whether it be her nonconformist attitude, fashion sense, or individuality, she opened the door for some of the most legendary artists to follow. The cover art for Teyona Taylor’s most recent album entitled The Album, is a direct reference to Ms. Jones. She is an inspiration to many, an icon for all, and a beacon of hope for the future. We still have a long way to go.