One of the most visually iconic performers of all time, Grace Jones went from successful international model to Andy Warhol's muse to dance-club disco diva in the late 1970s. After embracing new wave music and an androgynous look, she became a superstar in Europe and in underground U.S. circles with songs like "Pull Up to the Bumper," "Private Life," and "Slave to the Rhythm," and the seminal albums Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Slave to the Rhythm. Her Grammy-nominated "One Man Show" tour proved wildly influential, and launched her into a film career that earned her roles as the Amazon warrior Zula in the Arnold Schwarzenegger fantasy sequel "Conan the Destroyer" (1984), the superhuman villainess May Day in the James Bond movie "A View to a Kill" (1985), and as a sexy vampire queen in the horror comedy "Vamp" (1986). Making headlines for her mid-1980s relationship with Dolph Lundgren, Jones sent up her own endlessly out-there image as the fittingly named Strangé in Eddie Murphy's comedy "Boomerang" (1992) and made a triumphant return to music with 2008's acclaimed Hurricane. A true original, Jones was rightfully credited as the inspiration for countless artists who followed, including Annie Lennox and Lady Gaga, and for her far-reaching collaborations with famed artists like Jean-Paul Goude and Keith Haring. Although mainstream America remembered her best for her film work and instantly recognizable appearance - both glamorous and hard-edged - Grace Jones fearlessly assembled an eclectic, intelligent body of work unlike any other.
Born May 19, 1948 in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Grace Mendoza Jones moved to Syracuse, NY with her family in 1965. Always interested in the arts, Jones studied theater at Onondaga Community College and earned a small role as a drug courier in the film "Gordon's War" (1973). Strikingly beautiful, Jones quickly achieved international success as a model in both New York and Paris, which gave her entrée into taste-making circles. As her star rose, iconic artist Andy Warhol brought her into his inner circle, fascinated by Jones's quirkiness and otherworldly glamour, and she became the subject of many of his portraits. Signed to a record deal in 1977, Jones achieved underground stardom in the dance club and gay markets with artsy, eclectic but intelligent disco sets including 1977's Portfolio, 1978's Fame and 1979's Muse. Enjoying her newfound fame, Jones was a constant presence on the New York music and art scene and could be spotted more often than not enjoying the decadence of Studio 54, surrounded by Warhol, Halston and Liz Taylor on any given night.
As the 1980s dawned, Jones shed her disco sound and began delving into New Wave music and a striking, Jean-Paul Goude-inspired androgynous look, exemplified by a flattop and sharply angled clothing. In many ways, she inspired the gender-bending look so popular in the early 1980s, most evident in the style of Annie Lennox. Jones's acclaimed 1980 set Warm Leatherette featured fascinating covers of songs by Smokey Robinson, Roxy Music and The Pretenders. While she continued to be an underground phenomenon in the United States, Jones enjoyed a mainstream breakthrough in Europe with her single "Private Life." She built on her success with 1981's Nightclubbing, which featured reinterpretations of songs by The Police, Iggy Pop and David Bowie, and earned her a minor U.S. hit with "I've Seen That Face Before (Libertango)" and a major U.S. hit she wrote herself, "Pull Up to the Bumper," which crossed over to go Top Five on the R&B chart.
She scandalized Europe with a controversial talk show appearance, when she slapped host Russell Harty across the face on the air, a moment that viewers continued to rank as one of the most shocking decades later. The notoriety only added to Jones's unique mystique, however, and she embarked on her iconic "One Man Show" tour of the United States and Europe, which featured mind-blowing art direction and indelible visuals, including Jones performing the opening sequence dressed as a gorilla and later commanding an army of Grace Jones lookalikes. So influential was this tour that a filmed performance not only earned Jones a Grammy nomination, but it launched her into mainstream film roles and earned her a mark of pop culture immortality as a consummately creative entertainer.
After releasing 1982's reggae-flavored Living My Life, Jones memorably essayed the mighty Amazon warrior Zula alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Wilt Chamberlain in the fantasy sequel "Conan the Destroyer" (1984). A ferocious, almost feral presence and completely believable as the physical equal of Schwarzenegger, Jones proved the film's most memorable element and earned a Best Supporting Actress Saturn Award nomination. She played an even more iconic character with her next film role, as the superhumanly strong May Day in the James Bond film "A View to a Kill" (1985). As baddie Max Zorin's right-hand woman who eventually sacrifices herself to become a hero in her own right, Jones sank her teeth into her role with such gusto that she stole the entire film from no less than Christopher Walken, earning a second Saturn Award nomination and making international headlines for her relationship with strapping newcomer Dolph Lundgren, who served as her boyfriend and bodyguard.
Returning to music, the entertainer released the 1985 concept album Slave to the Rhythm, which did not chart in the United States but in the United Kingdom gave Jones her biggest hit with the title track, peaking just outside Top Ten. That same year, she released her greatest hits, Island Life, but returned with new material in 1986 with Inside Story, which spawned a modest mainstream U.S. hit, "I'm Not Perfect (But I'm Perfect for You)." Back in the multiplexes, Jones portrayed an endlessly stylish and sexy vampire queen in the horror comedy "Vamp" (1986), which nabbed her a third Saturn Award nomination. After a misstep with her supporting turn in Mary Lambert's challenging "Siesta" (1987), which earned her the dishonor of a Razzie nomination, Jones released 1989's Bulletproof Heart and scored a dance club hit with "Love on Top of Love (Killer Kiss)." A more mainstream success came with Jones's hilariously bizarre, self-aware sendup of her art-queen image as the appropriately named Strangé in Eddie Murphy's comedy classic "Boomerang" (1992).
For the film's soundtrack, she contributed "7 Day Weekend" and released two further singles the following year, "Evilmainya" and "Sexdrive." Although she continued to write and record music, including a buzzed-about electro album that was to feature Jones as Marilyn Monroe, she was unable to secure releases for any of the sets. Instead, she took small roles in lower-profile genre film and television projects, including an appearance on the small-screen adaptation of the fantasy film series "BeastMaster" (Sci Fi Channel, 1999-2002). Jones notched another supporting turn as a transvestite circus performer in the horror film "Wolf Girl" (2001) but booked a much more impressive gig performing alongside famed opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti for a special concert. She made her long awaited return to music with 2008's Hurricane, which earned excellent reviews and kick-started another series of concerts and collaborations.
By Jonathan Riggs