Remembering Denise “Vanity” Matthews, The Original ’80s Provocateur

CENTURY CITY, CA - MARCH 21: Singer Vanity attends the premiere of "The Last Dragon" on March 21, 1985 at the Plitt Theater in Century City, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
CENTURY CITY, CA – MARCH 21: Singer Vanity attends the premiere of “The Last Dragon” on March 21, 1985 at the Plitt Theater in Century City, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

Vanity, the former actress, Prince protege, and whose birth name is recorded as Denise Katrina Matthews, was a relic of the 1980s and sadly passed away on February 15 of this year. For those that experienced the decade, Vanity was a pretty big celebrity. The super pretty Canadian, who was African-American on her father’s side and of Polish descent from her Caucasian mother, met Prince backstage at the 1980 American Music Awards. Though by then, she had already begun pursuing a career in entertainment, having starred in B-movies and some commercial modelling.

What I knew of Matthews prior to her passing was that she sang the lead vocals of the Prince produced and written track “Nasty Girl” for the group Vanity 6 she was in. After a near-death consumption of crack cocaine in 1994, the drug she was horribly addicted to since the ’80s, she had converted to a life of faith. I even remember an episode of Hard Copy in which they interviewed her about the transition. (My mom was all about watching Hard Copy back in the day. The TMZ of the ’90s).

I also recalled this terrible song she from her debut solo album, Wild Animal, called “Pretty Mess.” Her Cassie-like tone sang gleefully about a guy’s ejaculation getting all over her dress. I learnt of it while watching a VH1 countdown of the most “Awesomely” bad songs ever. I hated the fact that she made that song. Vanity was better than that! The video for it is extremely hard to find. It’s not even on YouTube or Vimeo. But in the clip, which VH1 did include in their schadenfreude special, featured random splatters of white paint and liquid as Vanity made “Oh wow!” faces. No.

No.

This is a supposed to be a tribute piece to Vanity, so I didn’t mean or want to get all hard on the girl so early on. Vanity was otherwise a pretty damn cool trendsetter. I didn’t know the extent of this until after February 15 and naturally I did some research on her the next day. She was a total It girl of the ’80s and fans from her days with Vanity 6 and Prince followed her when she began acting in bigger movies like 1985’s The Last Dragon (now deemed a “cult” film) and 1988’s Action Jackson (yours truly was literally a year old when it was released that February). She was also on talk shows from Arsenio Hall to Joan Rivers and a definite fixture in paparazzi pics.

Vanity 6 on 12/9/82 in Chicago, Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage) *** Local Caption ***
Vanity 6 on 12/9/82 in Chicago, Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage) *** Local Caption ***

I also re-watched the video for 1982’s “Nasty Girl.” The song still slays some of the dance songs that are out today. The funk slinky R&B beat is unforgettable and Vanity’s thin voice had a lot persuasion and attitude. The song was perfect for her to sing. The video is fun to watch too as it’s very simplistic in its camcorder looking footage. Vanity and her girls Brenda Bennett and Susan Moonsie wore chic, almost to the ankle, slip dresses and kitten heels in an empty pillar filled room (sexual innuendo now that I think about it. This is a Prince production, in the ’80s, we’re talking about). They looked great and Vanity, in particular, gave off such star quality. From her lip synching embellishments and flirtatious camera looks, I got it! Also in the video, they have a wardrobe change and return in lingerie as outerwear. Vanity wore a lace bodysuit with a blazer and thigh-high boots. Edgier before Madonna, she looked sexy and defiant. Vanity 6 were somewhat ahead of their time as fashion provocateurs of the beginning of MTV (Matthews also briefly dated Prince, as did her bandmate Susan).

Vanity_6_albumVanity 6’s self-titled debut would be their only album, and Matthews would release two solo albums, more singles (her song “Undress” for Action Jackson was produced by legendary Minneapolis musician Jesse Johnson of Morris Day and The Time) and act throughout the ’80s. (She was actually meant to play the role of Prince’s love interest in Purple Rain but dropped out of Vanity 6 before production began. She was replaced by Apollonia Kotero, who would go on to front Apollonia 6 with Susan and Brenda. They too only had one album).

But homegirl was also a major drug addict. Matthews was addicted to crack cocaine. In Action Jackson, where she played a mistress named Syndey, even there, you could kind of tell it had begun to alter her. Worse, she was portraying a heroin addict in the action flick.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 19: Singer Vanity attends the premiere of "A Fine Mess" on March 19, 1986 at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA – MARCH 19: Singer Vanity attends the premiere of “A Fine Mess” on March 19, 1986 at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

This one video I found on YouTube she almost appeared erratic as she talked to a young Bryant Gumble about her celebrity life. Approximately round this time, she was briefly engaged to Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue. Other rumoured boyfriends included Billy Idol and Adam Ant.

vanity

jetno7Years after she became sober and an Evangelist, in 2010, Matthews published her biography, Blame It On Vanity, detailing her previously wild lifestyle. I can only imagine the sad tales in it. Sixx had admitted in his own book that two of them did cocaine together and had some rough late nights and early mornings.

She died on February 15 of renal failure. Matthews suffered kidney problems because of the amount of drug use and cocaine she entertained. She even had to endure 20-minute long sessions of peritoneal dialysis every day to subside her kidney disease. Her condition had worsened in the last months of her life. It was barely publicized at the time, but she had set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for her medical costs. Allegedly she had even begun offering her possessions for sale to add to her medical bill piggy bank. She was additionally hopeful of re-publishing her biography in the near future.

Fun memories of her being a fashion icon and first teen crush flooded the comments section of a lot of publications that reported her death following the news. I imagined a lot of them were kids when she was popular and hearing about her made them long for the good ol’ days in their eyes.

Camera: DCS460A Serial #: 460-1208 Width: 3060 Height: 2036 Date: 9/12/97 Time: 10:44:32 Counter: [ 2] ISO: 80 Aperture: F22 Shutter: 125 Lens (mm): 52 Exposure: M Program: LA Exp Comp: 0.0 Meter area: Mtrx Flash sync: Norm Drive mode: S Focus mode: S Focus area: Wide Distance: 1.0m

She was so cool but there is a lot of sadness in Matthews history evidently. While she was naturally sexy and beautiful, these qualities of hers were turned up to such a libidinous level, looking back, Vanity was a bit cheapened in her presentation. Not to say that posing for Playboy, as she did, or singing about sex or sexuality is of poor taste. I’m more so referring to the “Pretty Mess” ridiculousness moments of her career. There’s nothing clever or challenging about material like that. It’s just stupid and begging for attention. When you watch her in The Last Dragon or witness her interviews, she had true star power and talent. She didn’t have to be the toy of a bunch of gross industry men. She did, however, stand up against Prince when he originally wanted her stage name to be “Vagina”, not yet “Vanity.” Prince was something else in the ’80s, huh? (During his perv era, he also infamously wrote Sheena Easton‘s “Sugar Walls.” Honestly, that track might’ve been on that same VH1 list. The instrumental of this track is by far fantastic, sidenote).

Denise Katrina Matthews was only 57 years old that 15th. Apollonia kindly gave her the title of the “Princess of Funk” and disclosed that the two had kept in touch via “social media.”

I did like one comment I read on YouTube where a fan (to paraphrase) said that while images and songs like “Nasty Girl” Matthews fought hard to erase herself from, she’ll be remembered for being a part of many childhood and ’80s memories. I just wish she had a team that cared about her while she was an entertainer. I know the drug use she likely brought on herself. But she was a star when you watched her. She could’ve been greater. Or at least, could’ve found God under not such dejected circumstances. But, at least, she found him.

Rest peacefully, Denise.

Former singer Vanity (now going under given name of Denise Matthews & a Christian evangelist) sitting on grass holding open Bible. (Photo by Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Former singer Vanity (now going under given name of Denise Matthews & a Christian evangelist) sitting on grass holding open Bible. (Photo by Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

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