At 67, pop’s most outrageous innovator is in her prime. As she unleashes her explosive memoir, the performer lifts the lid on a lifetime of sex, drugs and drag queens
Of all the places you’d expect to encounter performance art’s most outré character Grace Jones, an industrial estate in South London is not one of them. But here I am, waiting for her, and she's two hours fashionably late. This humdrum, near-empty restaurant feels too static and austere to handle such a flamboyant presence. I am half-wondering whether she’ll even arrive. And then, in she swoops, wearing a billowing cape, goggle-like sunglasses and a black leather aviator hat. “Hiiiii” she croaks to the staff, before ordering a bottle of red wine and a large plate of lamb chops.
To me, and to everybody else, she is Grace Jones the “music icon”, Grace Jones the “supermodel” and Grace Jones the “cult actress”, with a far-reaching reputation for being difficult, exceptional, and completely off-the-wall. In person though, Jones isn’t as tall and imposing as the fierce, angled images of her most famous photographs by Jean-Paul Goude, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. She is still striking, but also funny and surprisingly warm. “People always like to make me seem taller than I am,” she tells me, cocking one eyebrow, immediately bringing to mind the iconic cover of 1985’s Island Life, where her oiled, outstretched limbs transform her into this statuesque, towering life force. Her voice is filled with different accents and intonations; English, American, with a Jamaican base and a Parisian expression, a hangover from all the places she’s lived. Her words are deep and lilting. She is brimming with magnetism.
Once we sit down at the dinner table, a fly starts dancing around our faces. “Did you see that little bug?” she asks, flailing her hands around. “I can never tell if I’m tripping.” In her upcoming autobiography I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, she often wonders whether she’s “still tripping” even when she’s not high, a continuation of years of enjoying LSD, as if she came up and never properly came down. All that 1960s-strength acid must have taught her a few things about herself. “Outside of the fact that I survived it,” she bursts into laughter. “LSD gave me a lot of insight and sensitivity about what is happening 360 degrees around me. I plugged into all of it. I’m not sure if it’s just the LSD, but it gave me a sixth sense of awareness.”
“I feel feminine when I feel feminine. I feel masculine when I feel masculine. I am a role switcher” – Grace Jones
It’s hard to deny that Jones does have an almost supernatural intuition, especially when it comes to setting the zeitgeist, and being ahead of the curve. Decades before Rihanna donned a monochrome patterned body-suit in “Rude Boy”, Jones was being painted the same way by Keith Haring. Long before Jean-Paul Goude broke the Internet with his shoot of Kim Kardashian for Paper magazine, Jones was being shot in the same way. Her cultural influence is not only in her aesthetics and artistic collaborations, but also in her politics. These days, our Instagram feeds are filled with #freethenipple poses to protest against sexual objectification, but back in 1982, it was the deep, bass-heavy grooves of Jones’ “Nipple to the Bottle” which was getting banned from the radio for the same reason.
She has also long cemented herself as the ultimate gay icon, from the sweaty, Quaalude-filled nights performing cult gay anthem “I Need A Man” (a song about owning your sexuality) at underground basement discos in the 1970s, to the gender-skewing photographs of her in male-sized suits and cropped, angular hair. She expresses her relief at how LGBTQ rights have progressed since the heady disco days of Studio 54. “My brother used to get beaten up all the time because he was very effeminate,” she says. “Hiding, secrets, and not being able to be yourself is one of the worst things ever for a person. It gives you low self-esteem. You never get to reach that peak in your life. You should always be able to be yourself, and be proud of yourself.”
Ms Jones has never apologised for who she is. While she identifies as straight (with the exception of a crush on Tina Turner, because “she just flat-out turned me on”), she has always challenged the concept of gender, whether through the subversive sexual politics in her music, or through her unique and androgynous appearance. In many ways, she embodied the word ‘queer’, long before the word was widely used. “Only you know how you feel inside regardless of what name is put on it,” she comments. “Some people are both genders. I think you just come out the way you come out and you have to embrace it honestly. I sometimes feel very masculine. When I got married to Atila (Altaunbay) he used to say to my mum, ‘I married a man’ because of my unfeminine ways. But that’s how I feel. I feel feminine when I feel feminine. I feel masculine when I feel masculine. I am a role switcher.”
Naturally, her love of role switching encompasses an appreciation for drag. “I love it! RuPaul does such amazing drag,” she laughs, pouring her red wine into her glass from two feet high, so it splashes and spins. “Drag is fun. I painted my husband’s face like a woman, which was fun. I said, ‘let’s see what you look like as a woman with some seriously beautiful makeup.’ He looked gorgeous in a blonde wig.”
Last month, Jones performed at AfroPunk festival, completely topless, covered in paint, and hula-hooping throughout the entirety of “Slave to the Rhythm”. It marked a powerful moment from the 67-year-old artist, who in a world steeped in body-shaming, ageism and sexism, still sticks a middle finger up to those that try to contain her, just as she always has done. “Politically, I am a feminist,” she reflects. “In Jamaica I grew up with very strong women. A lot of them are the judges, for example. The men are the lions and the women are the lionesses. But just because you are a strong woman doesn’t mean you are feminist. Personally, I think the women deserve more than the men. It’s true. We can do a lot more than men can do. In fact, we do do a lot more than men.”
Her predication for shape shifting extends much further than the evolution of her style and sound over the decades. Born and raised in a painfully strict Christian household in Jamaica, she would get beatings from her grandmother’s husband if she was seen playing after school, and described her childhood as “forbidding and sheltered, a place of exploitation and oppression.” Jones escaped to New York in her teens and then travelled around Europe, living in hippy communes and immersing herself in the music, art and theatre worlds, growing her hair out into an afro and dabbling in the emerging chemicals that defined an era full of creativity. Eventually, she landed a modelling contract and ended up in Paris, where she posed for the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Kenzo, appearing on the covers of Vogue and Elle.
In her memoir, Jones speaks candidly about the racism and discrimination she experienced in the early days of her modelling career. During one particularly shocking moment, she describes how Johnny Casablancas, the often heralded founder of Elite Model Management, refused to send her out on appointments. When she confronted him, his exact words to her were: “Well, to be honest, selling a black model in Paris is like trying to sell them an old car nobody wants to buy.” She then screamed at him, leaning over the desk like “the prow of a ship powering through hundred of dry, gleaming snakes”, and shrieked “I HOPE YOU DIE OF CIRRHOSIS OF THE LIVER!” Two years ago, of course, he did pass away due to liver cancer.
Decades later, and diversity in the fashion industry is still, sadly, a massive issue. Jones feels as though these barriers have yet to be broken down. “I don’t think it’s changed at all!” she says, “I think it goes two steps forward and three steps backwards. It’s like chasing a tail. It turns into a trendy thing and then it goes back. That’s why I don’t like trends. It doesn’t help anything. It’s a false wall. It’s a fake wall. It’s like building something and the next day, you tear it down. Do you know what I mean?”
This isn’t the first time she has expressed her distaste for current trends. Before we meet, an excerpt of her memoir was released in which she criticised contemporary pop stars like Miley Cyrus, Rihanna and Lady Gaga, who she felt failed to challenge the status quo, or break any sort of mould. “Pop music was never, ever my thing,” she tells me, adjusting her leather hat, and putting her empty plate aside. “For me, pop is when everything begins sounding the same and melting into each other. Every now and then you’ll have individuals that stick out and actually have a chance. I’m sure there is a lot of talent out there, but it’s like they are bucking up against walls instead of maneuvering around it. I was more underground and I used to look at everyone in pop and think that I didn’t want to sing because I don’t want to be like that. But now, all the songs sound alike except from a handful.”
When asked who deserves to be called a ‘music visionary’ today, she takes a moment to consider the question. “Amy Winehouse was one of those voices and styles that stood out,” she says. “And there are young people that are not known out there yet, but they are in the underground.”
In her memoir, she speaks with equal passion about her love of music and her love of sex, using similar language to describe the two. Which of the two does she prefer? For the first time this evening, she looks genuinely aghast. Not because of the question (Grace Jones is no prude), but because of the choice. “There is no way you can separate music or sex!” she shrieks. “You want to put on some good music when you’re having sex. I love Barry White.” I ask her whether Barry White is still the soundtrack to her bedroom. “It’s not now, but it was,” she says, erupting with laughter. “Anytime, you can put that on. Just his voice and those rhythms… And it’s great for dancing! He knows what he’s doing. These days, I’m listening to this compilation Cutlass Riddim. It’s a CD I bought on the beach in Jamaica. That’s the name of the CD and they’re all different artists but with the same rhythms. That’s a really sexy album. It makes you want to dance.”
It’s hard to imagine Grace Jones ever slowing down, and sure enough, even as it approaches 10pm, she has a full night of meetings ahead of her. Before we part ways, she speaks about her wider plans for the future. “I’m still finishing my album. This one is very different.” she says. “I’m performing one of the singles live, it’s called “Shenanigans” but it hasn’t been mastered yet. We haven’t put it on the Internet, but it’s got to be ready soon. I’ve got the whole book tour first, and a documentary film to do. I had to move certain things because I would go crazy.”
Before she leaves, she gives me a rib-cracking hug and orders some Sambuca, which is downed by the bar. I do the same. “I love to see a young female go get ‘em!” she says, eyeing me up and down. I can’t work out whether it’s a compliment or a piece of advice. I am reminded of her own words, at the beginning of her memoir, “If you want me, this is me. Not the caricature of me. This is the deeper me, the other me, and there are other me’s I’ve not even thought of. But I’ll get to them. I’ll keep following the trail I left behind and find out where I’m going next. I’ve got one life to work with and I’ll squeeze it dry before I’m through.”
Grace Jones' new memoir I'll Never Write My Memoirs is out 24th September