R.I.P. Vanity: The diminutive model-singer-actress rocked the 80s in her lingerie and lace

By on February 15, 2016

We learned today that Vanity — the former model, actress, and Prince protégé — has died following years of poor health. She was 57.

Born Denise Katrina Matthews on January 4, 1959 in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, she was a young model who entered beauty contests in her teens, taking home the title of “Miss Niagrara Hospitality” in 1977. She competed in the Miss Canada contest a year later, and soon thereafter moved to New York City, at age seventeen, to further pursue her modeling dreams.

Those dreams took her to Japan, where she also pursued singing (her stage name was Denise Sonic while she was in Tokyo), and much of her first modeling work appears to have been either for print work, or for nude photo sessions of one type or another. At five foot six, she wasn’t tall enough to strut the runway.

Mathews apparently met Prince in 1980, around the time of the American Music Awards, and her knockout looks and charisma intrigued him. He called her at 3 a.m. that same night and they began dating for the next several months. Prince, learning that she could sing, he eventually invited her to Minneapolis, where he’d been demoing songs with a modern girl group trio — featuring his girlfriend Susan Moonsie, Boston-based singer Brenda Bennett and Jamie Shoup — who were calling themselves “The Hookers” at the time.

Prince’s vision for the sexy trio included hving them sing racy, provocative numbers he’d written while cavorting around onstage in skimpy lingerie and stiletto heels, dressed like high-priced call girls, a dream he’d concocted after apparently inspired by watching the re-make of A Star Is Born (the one with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson).

Vanity was focused on her modeling and burgeoning acting career at the time, and not music. In the early stages of her career, she billed herself variously as D. D. Winters and Rina Vanity (her real middle name is Katrina), appearing in the first of her many b-movie movies, a slasher pic called Terror Train, in 1980 (with then queen-of-the-Bs Jamie Lee Curtis, and which had been filmed in Montreal the year previous), then she appeared as the lead Tanya in the chick flick Tanya’s Island, which was shot in Toronto, arriving on our shores sometime in 1981.

She also continued to model — she appeared in ads for Pearl Drops toothpaste, and on the cover of Cameo’s awesome 1982 album Aligator Woman — and she kept in touch with Prince, and they began a relationship sometime in 1981, appearing together on the cover of Rolling Stone that same year.

Finally, in January 1982, Shoop was dropped from Prince’s girl group in place of Matthews, who was re-christened with the name Vanity. Prince had originally suggested that Matthews use the stage name “Vagina,” but decided Vanity 6 was a better name for the sexually evocative trio, the “six” in their name actually representing the fact that they had six breasts between them, the other four belonging to her two other singing partners.

Under Prince’s watchful eye and working as their producer, Vanity 6 released three singles before their self-titled debut album. The first of these, “He’s So Dull,” appeared on the soundtrack to National Lampoon’s Vacation but failed to chart very high, but the second, “Nasty Girl,” was a huge dancefloor hit, topping out at #1 on the U.S. R&B and Dance charts, and it bubbled under the Hot 100 Singles chart too, effectively putting Vanity 6 into the frontal lobes of just about everyone who heard the song.

It also was used in the movie Beverly Hills Cop (but Prince wisely held it back for their debut, so it’s not on the soundtrack LP), and it was also featured in the 1983 sex-comedy romp Private School.

After releasing a third single, the minor hit “Drive Me Wild,” the trio’s Vanity 6 debut was released, eventually going gold. It would be their only album, but their videos — in regular rotation on MTV — were unforgettable, and if you have seen any of them, you know how it was mainly Vanity attracting all the attention.

That singular attention on Vanity led to her wanting to work alone, and so it was around this time she broke up with Prince and launching a solo career by signing with Motown Records, who released the first of her two solo albums, Wild Animal, in November 1984; the album featured an R&B/dance hit “Pretty Mess.”

All during the late 80s, Vanity tried to balance her interest in acting with her music career, appearing in Playboy twice (in May 1985 and again in April 1988), and she also tried to continue acting, usually appearing as the sultry singing ingénue frequently in trouble with the law.

She’d helped Prince script his film Purple Rain movie in Minneapolis, and had been slated to play the female lead, a role based in part on her own life story, but even before the cameras rolled, she’d decided to split to California to begin her solo career, so her co-starring lead role eventually went to Apollonia Kotero, Prince’s new protégé, who got the job of fronting Vanity’s old group, who were now re-christened as Apollonia 6.

When the Purple Rain crowd threw Vanity a farewell party at the now-famous First Avenue Club in Minneapolis, Prince’s little purple heart was still broken, and he did not attend.

During the 1980s, post-Prince, she was romantically linked Adam Ant, Billy Idol and was, for a time, even briefly engaged to Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx in 1987 — joking that she would become Vanity 6 (Sixx) again — but they never married. Sixx would later write about her addiction to crack at the time in his 2007 autobiography The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star.

Skin on Skin, her sophomore effort and her last solo album, was released in May 1986. The album spent 19 weeks on Billboard‘s LP charts, topping out at #66 in the top 100, and #18 on the R&B charts. The album produced two hit singles, “Under the Influence,” and “Animals.” She was also signed to Geffen for a time too, but no further recordings were released and she left the music business to now finally concentrate on her acting career.

Some of the higher-profile movie titles Vanity appeared in during the 80s include 1985’s The Last Dragon (a low-rent fantasy/romance martial arts flick, also produced by Motown, which featured her underground hit “7th Heaven”), the very weird 1986 film Never Too Young (which starred John Stamos, and also featured Gene Simmons of KISS), and 1986’s 52 Pick-Up (playing a naive stripper assisting blackmail victim Roy Scheider; it also starred Ann-Margret).

Her highest profile role came as a sexy nightclub chanteuse in 1988’s Action Jackson, featuring Carl Weathers, Craig T. Nelson and Sharon Stone. She’s memorably naked in just about all of them, too.

From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Vanity also guest-starred on numerous TV shows, including an episode during the third season of “Miami Vice,” a 1992 episode of “Highlander: The Series,” and an episode of “Friday the 13th: The Series,” as well as a couple of TV movies.

The 1990s weren’t as kind to Vanity, who continued to work as an actress but mostly in minor parts in pretty forgettable films (many of which went straight-to-video), like 1991’s Neon City, and 1993’s Da Vinci’s War.

She also battled addiction to crack cocaine during the decade, and even OD’d in 1994, suffering near renal failure which led to her having lifetime problems with her kidneys and needing peritoneal dialysis treatment five times a day (each session lasting twenty minutes each) for the rest of her life.

She left Hollywood, quit drugs for good, and became a born-again Christian, dedicating the rest of her left to God, and becoming active in her local church in Fremont, California. She had a religious epiphany and denounced her work in Vanity 6, and it was unlikely we were ever going to see her reunite with her Vanity 6 bandmates.

She fell in love and, after a very short month-long courtship, married a Los Angeles Raiders football player named Anthony Smith in March 1995, but their marriage lasted just one year (he would later be charged with four murders, in 2011 and 2012, which had occurred sometime between 1999-2008).

She thereafter focused her life on her Christian faith, and on God, and became an evangelist, writing an autobiography, Blame it on Vanity: The Autobiography of Evangelist Denise Matthews formerly known as Vanity.

Her health continued to decline from the mid-90s onward, sadly, and she ended up having a very complex and severe form of kidney disease — sclerosing encapsulating peritonitis — which is an inflammation of the small intestines. She had a kidney transplant in 1997, but the problems continued and we have read that she was in church just the past Saturday evening, telling the congregation she was “ready to go home.”

She died today, Monday, February 15, 2016.

R.I.P. Denise Matthews, aka Vanity.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
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