Denise “Vanity” Matthews was the first one to admit that she was no great force as a singer. Truth be told, it wasn’t ever about that, anyway.
“I think there’s some talent behind this, or else I wouldn’t be in the business,” she told Donnie Simpson during an early appearance on BET’s Video Soul. “I don’t think I’m a great Aretha Franklin. I’m not a Diana Ross, you know? I’m Vanity, and I’m whatever I am. I don’t mind being Vanity.”
As it does with many bits of pop culture nostalgia, time has softened the purist snobbery that dogged Matthews’ body of work. The shape-shifting ingénue had been everything from a Canadian beauty queen to a B-movie personality before making the unlikely leap to records, Soul Train and major motion pictures. Her union with the Purple One is well documented and its progeny, the dance-funk masterpiece “Nasty Girl” and the gold album Vanity 6 (1982), are among the best slices of no-bullshit R&B feminism from the modern pop era. She knew what she was working with, and she knew how to sell it. You felt the fantasy.
Matthews’ defection from the Uptown family shocked many, but the years that followed showed she had more range than most realized. Motown pulled out all of the stops to make her a marquee attraction: Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon saw her turn in a solid performance opposite Taimak, while her solo debut Wild Animal (1984) yielded two moderate hits in “Pretty Mess” and the underrated jam “Mechanical Emotion.”
As she moved through her recording career she showed real growth, particularly on her biggest solo hit, the atmospheric top 10 R&B single “Under the Influence.” All the while, she continued working in television and film, most notably in the Carl Weathers vehicle Action Jackson. It seemed she was proving her naysayers wrong.
And that’s what made her fall from grace so unfortunate. A creative mind with a flair for art and fashion design, Matthews lost her way—and her health—amid a frightening decline into cocaine abuse. Thankfully, a religious awakening brought about a new beginning, and she dedicated her life to Christianity and telling her story of redemption from all things Vanity. Despite enduring ongoing health issues for decades, Matthews remained radiant and, by all accounts, gracious to her many devoted fans. Reportedly at peace in her last days, she quietly passed away on February 15th.
Denise Matthews left Vanity behind ages ago, but the influence remains. The swagger of new school bad girls like Rihanna without Vanity’s legacy? Unthinkable.
Recommended Listening: Vanity 6 (1982) | Buy via Amazon