Grace Jones: ‘Carry yourself with class’
The icon of sound and style on partying in Dublin, why the Eighth Amendment should be scrapped and how she learned from the likes of Talking Heads, Cyndi Lauper and Debbie Harry
While in Ireland, Grace Jones became aware of the Repeal movement, for which she’s promised to lend her support. Photograph: Vincent Duterne/Photonews via Getty Images
Grace Jones strides into our agreed restaurant exactly as expected: towering over the waiters, in sunglasses and a flowing Issey Miyake coat, an hour late and full of apologies because of it.
“I’m exhausted,” the singer, actress, model and all-around boundary pusher repeats, the first of many times she seems to speaks in actual italics. Unable to sleep the previous night, at 8am Jones found a shop that would sell her a bottle of wine to help, but it’s put her off-kilter all day.
She was recently in Dublin for two extraordinary shows, and now she is coming back for a headline appearance at the Metropolis festival in the RDS.
“It’s going to be quite different, because the Dublin shows were a one-time only thing, specifically for the documentary,” she says, referring to the anticipated biopic about her, directed by Sophie Fiennes and produced by Dublin-based Blinder Films. “It was an idea that Sophie had, to have a performance where we had complete control of the cameras, so we knew if we had to stop and start, we’d have time to do that.”
Indeed, the stage design was unique – imagined by the late designer Eiko Ishioka years ago, and resurrected by Fiennes specifically for the documentary.
The aim is to premiere it at Cannes this May, a natural move a year after the release of Jones’s autobiography I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, in which she chronicled her 40 years as a pioneering artiste, drawing together music, art and fashion, rethinking gender norms, and partying with celebrities from Jerry Hall to Timothy Leary.
Time has been Jones's friend. She belies her 68 years, still hula hooping topless in body paint during her shows, while the importance of the trail she blazed becomes ever more apparent. Without her, Lady Gaga’s Haus of Gaga may never have been assembled. Had she not helped create the similar aesthetic with her former partner Jean-Paul Goude, then Kim Kardashian wouldn’t have (hashtag) broken the internet. The growing reverence means the documentary will come at an optimal time.
My version of reality TV
“I guess [the documentary] is my version of reality TV in a sense. Sophie has been following me for 11 years, so there’s a lot of material,” she says, removing her sunglasses to reveal her youthful eyes – once again, defying the laws that apply to the rest of us. “The concert was the final part: after 11 years there’s no more filming, so afterwards was like a wrap party.”
Indeed, post-show, Jones hit the town at the nearby Workman’s Club, much to the surprise of its regulars.
“I don’t even remember how I got home,” she says, accompanied by a generous laugh. “It was great. There was a really good DJ and great music. I hardly go out because when I do my concerts, it’s like my party. I have some red wine on stage, and if it’s really cold and I’m playing outside in the cold like a festival in Scandinavia, I have some whisky. I got that from Pavarotti, actually.”
While in Ireland, she became aware of the Repeal movement, for which she’s promised to lend her support. It’s an issue that has affected her; in her biography, she discussed her own abortion, shortly before she and Goude had their only son Paulo in 1979.
Needing antibiotics for a seriously infected wound, she was told by doctors that the medicine meant her baby would be born without limbs if she didn’t abort. So if anyone understands the importance of choice, it’s her.
“It’s all based on religion, it’s all based on control,” she says, considering Ireland’s stance. “Religion controls the women more than men, which is very unfair.”
The anti-choicers would argue it’s more to do with protecting the rights of the foetus, I suggest. “We know that’s bullshit,” she says. “We know that is bullshit. No, because if I didn’t have an abortion, I would have had a child with no arms and legs. It’s got to be your choice, it has to be your choice. I think men are just afraid of women being in control of their bodies.”
Does she have any regrets over her decision? “Absolutely not. No way,” she says, shaking her head emphatically. “That’s what the doctors advised me. I wanted a healthy baby. I knew that it was 90 per cent possible to have a child with no arms and no legs. That’s ridiculous.”
She opens an arm towards Paulo, dining in close distance. “And here, that’s my result.”
The personal has become political
With a mind unconcerned with daily life, it’s unusual for Jones to become involved in political issues. But now more than ever, the personal has become political, proved again when conversations turn towards Donald Trump.
“I can’t believe he actually, possibly, could become president. That is insane,” she says. “I’ve met Donald Trump a few times and I just know when I look into somebody’s eyes, this guy is a really, really bad guy. I got that from Trump.”
In case his reputation has preceded him, nothing untoward happened; merely a few photo opportunities when they shared the same publicist, John Carmen. “He was rich but not famous, so we were photographed together a few times because he wanted to be seen with famous people,” she explains. “So he’s smart in that way, but to listen to his rhetoric is just scary. And the people who are voting for him are senseless. It’s like things are going backwards.
“I don’t spend much time in the States even though I have a place in New York and am a US citizen, but if Donald Trump becomes president, I’m going to change my citizenship. I know that’s extreme, but yes.”
Her marbled accent, which also hints of her Parisienne past, is proof that she divides her time between the US, London and Jamaica, where she was raised and now has a partner. Given the high profile of some of her relationships – Jean-Paul, Dolph Lundgren, Sven-Ole Thorsen – she’s chosen to keep this one out of the limelight, and keep Jamaica as a private place in which to recharge and find inspiration.
“I try to go for four months every year, the winter months, but probably I’ll try spending half my time there soon,” she says. “It’s one of the richest places: the standard of living, the outdoors, the food, the art. It keeps me sane. There’s lots of music there, a lot of original-thinking people there, so it’s a life force.”
When it comes to popular culture elsewhere, she’s spoken out about artists who’ve borrowed her ideas, but has she listened to anyone recently who she admires? “I don’t have the time!” she says, so melodramatically we both end up laughing.
“I like Adele, she has an amazing voice, but at the same time, there’s no visuals there. It’s just about the voice, which is fine.
“It’s in this period when everyone is copying that it’s refreshing to have somebody fresh. Because with me, there was Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry, Talking Heads, who were all a bit weird. It was a period of complete uniqueness in one’s expression, and I was lucky to have people like that around me.”
It’s surprising to hear her speak so self-effacingly, given the diva tag that’s followed her around since her infamous scuffle with chat show host Russell Harty in 1980. Even when discussing her pioneering mix of art and music, she simply puts it down a result of company she kept: Andy Warhol, Helmut Newton, Keith Haring. And far from a selling-ice-to-Eskimos situation by releasing a cover of Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose to the French market back in 1977, it transpires that was done without mischief.
“I was ignorant to Edith Piaf, I’d never listened to her or heard La Vie en Rose before,” she says. “When I told people that I recorded it, they said ‘oh my god, aren’t you scared that people are going to throw tomatoes at you?’ And then I did my homework. I think in a way it was a good thing, because I didn’t know she’s god to French people.”
With no plans to step away from the spotlight (“I think retirement means death, I’d be so bored,” she says) Jones is coming to the end of the album she’s been recording for the past four years, with ideas for one after that too. She also promises to follow up her biography with a second instalment, detailing some of the stories that remain unexplored.
And topless hula-hooping in body paint? Don’t expect that to stop anytime soon.
“I don’t attach any stigma to nudity, I see myself as an African woman in that sense,” she says. “I think it’s fine as long as you carry yourself with class.”
No one can accuse her otherwise.
- Grace Jones plays the Metropolis Festival in Dublin's RDS on November 5th. See metropolis.ie for full details.