Vanity, a singer who collaborated with Prince, fronted the group Vanity 6 and courted controversy, died in a hospital in Fremont, California, on Monday. She was 57.
She had been battling kidney failure and abdominal illness in recent years, according to TMZ, which reported the news. The singer’s health had worsened in recent months. Four months ago, she launched a GoFundMe campaign to pay for medical bills. On it, she revealed she was diagnosed with sclerosing encapsulating peritonitis, which causes a blockage of the small bowel. She’d asked for $50,000 but raised less than $7,000.
“I just cannot believe Vanity is gone. She was such a vibrant human being,” Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement. “Working with her on Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, I found her to be a talented natural beauty, inside and out. It was an incredible experience. I will miss her.”
With her titular trio, Vanity — who was born Denise Katrina Matthews on January 4th, 1959, in Niagara Falls, Ontario — gave pop and R&B a sexually charged makeover in the early Eighties. Vanity 6’s Prince-composed 1982 single, the funky, synthy “Nasty Girl,” reached the top spot of Billboard’s dance chart and the Top 10 of the R&B chart. As a solo artist, she scored more pop hits in the mid-Eighties, including “Pretty Mess,” “Mechanical Emotion” and “Under the Influence.” She also attracted controversy for her lecherous image, notably earning a place on the Parents Music Resource Center’s “Filthy 15” for “Strap on ‘Robbie Baby'” in 1985.
Matthews, who began her career as a model, met Prince backstage at the American Music Awards in 1980, and the pair soon sparked both a romantic and creative relationship. “He wanted me to call myself ‘Vagina,'” she told People in 1984. “He said people would know me nationwide. I said, ‘No kidding.'”
She sang backup on “Free,” a track off his 1982 album 1999. That same year, she made her debut as a frontwoman with Vanity 6 on the trio’s self-titled LP, whose track list comprised many songs written by Prince, including the singles “Nasty Girl” and “Drive Me Wild.” She also appeared both solo and with Vanity 6 on the Time’s What Time Is It? LP, another record primarily written by Prince. She broke away from Prince in 1984, telling People, “I needed one person to love me, and he needed more.” She had been slated to co-star in Purple Rain but backed out at the end of the relationship, prompting Prince to begin working with a new protégé, Apollonia Kotero, and put her in charge of her own Vanity-styled girl group, Apollonia 6. Prince later used the sound of Vanity moaning, which he’d recorded in the Eighties, for his Come track “Orgasm” in 1994.
By the mid-Eighties, Vanity was riding a wave of controversy. After Prince, she was linked romantically to a number of high-profile rock stars, including Adam Ant, Billy Idol and Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx, the last of whom became her fiancé. She also posed nude twice for Playboy and baited conservatives. “I put the sexual image of me in my music,” she told The Associated Press in 1985. “My music is very sexual, so you could say I’m just putting all of me out there.” Through it all, she developed a reliance on drugs and by the early Nineties, she had begun smoking crack. She later told Joan Rivers she felt as though she’d been possessed by demons and that a friend had found her levitating three feet off her bed.
Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, Vanity began acting in movies and TV shows, including 1985’s The Last Dragon and 1988’s Action Jackson.
In the mid-Nineties, Vanity became a born-again Christian, after overdosing on crack. The experience led her to evangelism. She would go on to write the memoir Blame It on Vanity about her experiences, and she led her own Pure Heart Ministries in Fremont.
In an interview with Rolling Stone last year, Vanity expressed remorse for her wild ways. “I don’t listen to my old music of Vanity’s unless I have to hear it playing in a mall or something place like that,” she said. “I sing to Jesus for Jesus now. This gives me pure joy … worship! I apologize profusely to those I have offended deeply a million times over.”