Denise Matthews better known by her stage name Vanity. She was a singer, an actress and one of the most gorgeous women in the 1980s.
After having hooked up with Prince in the early 80’s he would decide to turn her into a music sensation. But he felt a name change would help get her more attention. So young model and singer Denise Matthews would be renamed Vanity.
She would peak in popularity towards the beginning of the decade. She had albums, appeared in movies and dated practically every musician and actor around.
Her pictures and posters adorned countless bedroom walls with drooling adolescents getting lost gazing into her sexy eyes. Throughout the decade she would consistently be ranked as one of the most beautiful women around. Then by the time the 80’s were coming to a close she would gradually disappear.
By 1994 years of drug use would almost end her life. After surviving a near-death experience she would renounce her Vanity persona, swear off Hollywood and became a born-again Christian Evangelist.
I guess it was because I watched Terror Train recently, which was one of her earliest film roles, that somehow launched a nostalgic conversation with some friends about Vanity and how we had such an enormous crush on her.
It was her relationship with Prince that really started her showbiz story off. In 1982 she was a model and aspiring actress. I suppose that link up has become something of a popular piece of music trivia since.
He met Denise Matthews at an awards show and she soon became Prince’s musical protege. His first suggestion to the young Matthews was to supposedly have her change her name to Vagina. No joke. I really read that! It certainly would have had people remember her name. Maybe the little guy knew what he was doing.
Instead they settled on the name Vanity. She would be the lead singer in the three-girl group Vanity 6. Why was it called Vanity 6 and not Vanity 3? The 6 was in reference to the total number of breasts in the group. This was a change from his original plan to call the group The Hookers. Prince obviously was a believer in the philosophy ‘sex sells’.
Prince wrote and produced all their songs. Their debut album featured the song ‘Nasty Girl’. I honestly don’t know much about Vanity’s singing career. I’m mainly only familiar with that song because it plays in the strip club scene in Beverly Hills Cop. Anytime I hear it that’s the only thing I can picture.
People took an interest in Vanity and she easily turned heads, but just as quickly as Vanity 6 was created she left the group, she left Prince and attempted a solo career.
Her desertion of Prince cost her the lead female role in his 1984 movie Purple Rain, which supposedly she helped him write. The female lead character was said to have been based on her.
Proof ‘there’s always someone to fill your shoes’ in showbiz, Prince hooked up with Apollonia, who would get the role in Purple Rain. She would also fill the vacated spot in his conceived girl group changing the name to Apollonia 6. The lead singer was different, but the number of breasts remained the same.
Vanity would release two solo albums, but neither would set the music charts on fire.
Thanks to her exposure from her music career it started to open up the doors to acting. In 1985 she appeared in The Last Dragon, which is what I connect her most with. I think most people who were around when that movie came out associate her the most strongly above everything else of her playing that dancing/singing host in that far-out marital arts adventure.
The Last Dragon is pure 80’s cinema. It tells the story of Leroy (Taimak), a martial arts student in New York who is trying to reach ‘The Final Level’ of his training and to possess ‘The Glow’. One night Leroy stumbles onto an attempted kidnapping of a dance show host played by Vanity.
The movie is complete 80’s cheese with an evil martial arts gang, a neon lit nightclub dancing, wild clothes, grade-B special effects and of course a soundtrack that could have only been created in the 1980s.
And it was hit. I have to revisit this movie at some point. I liked it when I first saw it. It was just goofy fun. Plus, Vanity looks fantastic in it. She always seemed to radiate this sensual sex appeal and also came off pretty classy and elegant.
I guess that’s one of the things that attracted her fans to her and how she made such an impact on them at the time. She might not have been the best actress around, but she was charismatic onscreen and as I’ll repeatedly say – very easy on the eyes.
I’m actually more familiar with the 7th Heaven song she sings in that movie than any of her other songs, besides Nasty Girls, just because I used to watch this movie all the time when it was on cable.
There’s some ever so slight subtle sexual innuendo contained in the song that you might pick up on if you listen very carefully. Yeah really subtle! When I first heard this I just wanted to watch a martial arts movie and didn’t pay the song too much mind or what the words were. All the sexual lyrics went right over my young head. Now listening to it they’re quite hard to miss!
I remember me and my friends being so excited when Vanity landed the cover of Playboy in 1988 and appeared au natural. We were able to snag a copy and pored over those images with lust in our young eyes. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever been as enthusiastic over opening an issue of Playboy to gaze at a woman than that day. What a pack of young sexual deviants we must of looked like.
Vanity performing the song ‘7th Heaven’ in The Last Dragon
I think we’ve pretty much reached the peak of Vanity’s fame.
She appeared in a few more movies, mostly forgotten. She had a small part in John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up from 1986 (you can read my review of the film here).
Vanity also appeared in a larger role in the film Never Too Young To Die from the same year. The only things worth noting about the film is Gene Simmons plays the bad guy and George Lazenby plays John Stamos’ secret agent father. Oh and she sensually seduces Stamos in one scene. I think its attained something of a cheesy cult status, mainly due to how laughable it all is.
This is such a silly scene, but admit – it is awfully entertaining!
Again, the use of subtlety is nowhere to be found here. But heck fans of Vanity would enjoy watching it. Plus, you can admire the acting nuances that Stamos brings to the scene. He brilliantly uses those props, like the apple bit!
Then came the movie that seemed like it would be a success, offer her a lot of exposure and be a significant step in her movie career.
Carl Weathers headlined his first solo lead as an action hero in 1988’s Action Jackson. Vanity played the love interest, who again looks great.! She played a singer/dancer again.
That seemed to be the bulk of her film roles playing a singer/dancer. It wasn’t that much of stretch to accept and wasn’t that challenging for her probably. Besides with her looks it would have been too difficult to accept her as some working-class waitress who couldn’t get a date.
Action Jackson was produced by Joel Silver who was really rolling with hit action flicks in the 80’s. More Jackson movies were planned, but I guess it wasn’t a big enough hit and that ended the adventures of Weathers character. Did I mention Vanity looked amazing in this movie?
Vanity performing ‘Undress’ in Action Jackson
As the 80’s drew to a close Vanity’s acting career started to run on fumes. A few B-movies followed. Some guest spots on TV shows. And then her wild life finally caught up to her.
Vanity’s personal life had been a turbulent mess throughout the decade. She was romantically involved with a bunch of entertainers. Besides Prince she also supposedly dated Rick James, Adam Ant, Billy Idol, Nikki Sixx, James DeBarge, Micki Free, John Stamos.
Along with all the romancing and showbiz lifestyle also came heavy drug-use. She became addicted to crack cocaine. Her heavy abuse of the drug would severely damage her body which would inevitably lead to her life coming very close to ending.
As she was rushed to the hospital in 1994 being near death she claimed Jesus made her an offer that if she ditched her Vanity persona he would save her life. Miraculously she survived and from that moment left ‘Vanity’ in the past. She began using her real name again, she left showbiz and devoted her life to spreading the word of God by becoming a Christian evangelist.
A later interview with Matthews after she had found God.
She seems like she wasn’t kidding with this turnaround in her life. She’s really into God now. So much so that it makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable with her passion about Jesus. I get a bit nervous when every other sentence from someone includes the words ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’. I personally find it a bit overboard.
When I watch later interviews with her and see her deep Christian perspective she discovers I start to wonder if she traded one addiction for another.
Matthews distanced herself from her Vanity persona. In 1999 she wrote a book titled ‘Blame It On Vanity’, that recounted her life. She covered her journey from an abusive childhood, her time with Prince, her sex symbol status, her drug addiction and ultimately finding good and being saved.
I’m not sure what to think when she says she has disowned the Vanity part of her life. I’ve heard conflicting stories about the finances she continues to get from her Vanity days.
There are some claims that she still cashes the checks from royalties of her music, film and television appearances back when she was in show business. While other sources say she flat out refuses any money that comes from her time as being ‘Vanity’. Even going so far as when she was in desperate need of money to pay for medical expenses she set up a crowd funding account to rather than taking any Vanity royalties that were due to her. So, I’m not sure what the real story is there.
It’s nice to see she’s happier and healthier than she had been when she was so popular in the 1980s though. It’s that period of her life that millions of fans will always remember her from. They’ll always think of her as that gorgeous exotic looking woman who was Prince’s gal, sang Nasty Girl and appeared in The Last Dragon.
* Sadly, a few years after having originally written this post, Denise Matthews aka Vanity died on February 15, 2016. She was 57 years old. Three months later on April 21, 2016 Prince died, also at the age of 57.
Vanity looking absolutely stunning performs the song ‘Pretty Mess’ in 1984. You can consider the sexual connotations of the song on your own.