Grace Jones: Enigma Supreme

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There is perhaps a risk involved in reading the autobiography of a figure such as Grace Jones. While her exploits would undoubtedly prove a colourful read, her whole stature is founded on a kind of mystery. Disco queen, style icon and veteran entertainer, it was her turn as the superhuman Bond villain in A View to a Kill which first drew me to her strangeness – for she is, above all, one of the greatest enigmas of popular culture. To read about her life threatened to burst the bubble. Fortunately, it achieved anything but.

The autobiography is called I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, a lyric from her 1981 song Art Groupie. It’s an apt title, given that the memoirs are in fact ‘as told by’ Jones to a ghostwriter. Yet they feel like intimate recollections, stretching back to her strict religious upbringing in Jamaica, surrounded by a family of bishops and clergymen. Her description of these early years is particularly insightful, and almost unsurprising. It makes sense that her outrageous identity has sprung from a kind of repression, a need to assert her own rules and behaviour.

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‘Demanding, crazy, offensive, indulgent, chaotic, depraved. I can be a pain, but most of all, I can also be a pleasure’, she says. Her self-assessment hits the mark. She might best be known for her share of controversial moments, most notably hitting TV presenter Russell Harty with her bag live on air after he turned his back to face another guest in 1981. But she’s also celebratory, daring, playful: in 2012, somewhere over the age of 60 (believe it or not, she doesn’t know her own age), Jones performed Slave to the Rhythm at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, while hula-hooping faultlessly for four minutes straight.
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Indeed, her iconic status stems from an innovative and almost subversive energy. She pushed the world of modelling, singing and performing to their limits. As a figure of disco and the avant-garde, Jones fashioned an inimitable aesthetic – androgynous, intimidating, even primitive – synonymous with the 1980s. It’s not hard to see how she served as a muse to many artists: Andy Warhol, who photographed her, Issey Miyake, who dressed her, and Keith Haring, who painted on her body itself. Even her record covers, designed by Jean Paul Goude (the father of her only child), inspired a new trend for album artwork.

But despite the extent of her exposure and the long trails of controversy she has left behind, Grace Jones has managed to retain her aura of intrigue. At the end of her memoirs, she criticises a long list of modern artists – Madonna, Lady Gaga, to name but an obvious few – who have maintained their fame by recycling her original provocative style. Unlike those artists, as many would testify, Jones isn’t playing a role – the person and the persona are indistinguishable – and she succeeds in giving nothing of herself away.

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Her memoirs are no different, instead perpetuating this shroud of mystery. Demanding, crazy and all the rest of it, she spares no details in describing the zaniest moments of her life, and there are many. However behind all of the performance and show, the thoughts and emotions of the figure beneath still lurks in the shadows. In that sense, the title of her autobiography is apt for another reason – she hasn’t really written her memoirs at all.

Who is Grace Jones, and for what will she finally be remembered? Who will ever know – it seems the enigma is the legacy itself.

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