Like Prince’s best songs, “Nasty Girl” — “Don’t you wanna come with me / Do you think I’m a nasty girl?” and “If you ain’t scared, take it out” and “I need seven inches or more” — still can raise a blush more than 30 years later. Even Vanity, the singer and Purple One protege who climbed to fame as the song climbed the Billboard charts in 1982, was eventually ready to put it behind her.
“I want to apologize for the things I used to say and show to you,” Vanity, who was born Denise Katrina Matthews, said in 1997. “The other day, I heard that stupid song I used to sing, ‘Nasty Girls.’ You don’t listen to stuff like that, right?”
We did — we do. But now, Vanity, who parlayed her time with Prince into an acting career before developing a drug problem and turning her back on her past to become an evangelical and inspirational speaker, is dead, after a long battle with kidney problems caused by substance abuse, TMZ first reported. She was 57.
“My GREAT SISTER and FRIEND IN CHRIST passed today,” Sheila E., another Prince collaborator who turned to Jesus, tweeted. “Vanity, Denise Matthews. I WILL MISS YOU DEARLY. U ARE IN HIS ARMS NOW, FREE OF PAIN.”
Sheila E. added a long statement from Vanity’s GoFundMe page — established by the singer after she was diagnosed with an intestinal condition in 2014.
“Boy it is not fun suffering in this body of weak flesh,” the statement said, “but Jesus is straightening out all my crooked places.” It continued: “I repent daily my sins, my faults and my shortcomings. He has brought me out of so many fires, oh so many, 23 years alive after the doctors pronounced I would be dead way back then 1992.”
Vanity was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, in 1959 to a Polish Jewish mother and an African American father. Explaining her racial background to her classmates was annoying, she said; alleged abuse at the hands of her alcoholic dad, who died in 1974, was barely survivable.
“It’s not like you’re an adult and you can say, ‘Oh, I’ll just sink myself into my job,'” she said in 2007. “An abused childhood affects the entire life. … It affects every facet of the life. It affects going to school, with welts all over your body. … The times that were supposed to be the highlight of my life were the most miserable.”
Still, she was “one of the most gorgeous women in Niagara Falls,” as her hometown paper put it, and she won the Miss Niagara Hospitality Pageant in 1977 at 18. This humble beginning led to a career in B movies and modeling — and that led to rising R&B icon Prince. As legend has it, he first wanted to rechristen her as “Vagina” but chose “Vanity” because he saw in her his “female reflection“; she was soon the star of the Prince-sponsored, scantily clad trio Vanity 6 — so named, according to another legend, for the number of breasts in the band.
“Prince and I happen to think alike,” she told Rolling Stone in 1983.
They wouldn’t for long. Although they were a couple for three years, Vanity soon went the way of many other Prince proteges edged out of the spotlight. She was cast as the lead in “Purple Rain,” but that fell apart as her relationship with its star did, and she was replaced. Her career was launched, though, and TV and film beckoned — if only marginal roles or offerings in “Miami Vice,” “Action Jackson” and “Tales from the Crypt.” She posed for Playboy magazine twice; she dated rock stars such as Billy Idol and Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx.
“I can’t believe I did freebase with Vanity all night,” the hard-living bassist wrote in his journal at the time. “I threw her out at about 8 a.m. She was getting crazy and telling me about God.”
Indeed, as Vanity’s star began to dim, it appeared that her true passion as she entered her 30s was drugs.
“I’d inhaled enough rock so that by the age of 35, you could light me up, smoke me and stick me in the nearest cold grave,” she said. “Easily, the devil had won me and readied my tired body for hell.”
“I was hospitalized with my blood pressure at 250 over 190,” she said. “I was suffering from kidney failure, and I was going blind. I was placed in intensive care and given three days to live.”
This near-death led to a rebirth — and a new commitment to God. The Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy found her preaching at a church in Prince George’s County in 1997.
“When I was out in the world, I lived by lies. And people called that glamour,” she told the congregation. “What was bad was seen as good, and the more I shocked, the more I was loved. But I hated myself.”
Evangelism, however, did not lead to great wealth. The woman formerly known as Vanity married Anthony Smith — a former Los Angeles Raiders player who is now serving three consecutive life sentences for murder — but they divorced. She wrote a memoir, “Blame It On Vanity” (2004), that’s now out of print. Her GoFundMe page sought $50,000, but she raised less than $7,000.
By her own account, she got rich too young, lived too hard and too fast, and was living only to tell the tale — and warn others.
“I’m not only nasty,” she once said. “That’s just a part of me.”