Grace Jones: 'God I'm scary. I'm scaring myself'
Pop's formidable diva talks sex, slaps and annoying copycats (that's you, Lady Gaga)
"I think the scary character comes from male authority within my religious family."
Photograph: Gustavo Papaleo
Three bottles of red wine, a platter of sushi and four dozen oysters are lined up waiting for her, but still there is no sign of Grace Jones. We've been warned. Jones keeps Jamaica time. She doesn't appear in daylight. This is Graceland, and in Graceland only one person dictates the terms. Six pm turns into 7pm. We're in a freezing, underground car park turned exhibition space. Seven pm turns into 8pm, and now the stories are coming thick and fast. There was the time Jones kept David Bailey waiting a whole day, or was it two? Eventually, she calls and her manager Brendan screams down the phone at her: "GET HERE NOW, YOU B!TCH!" Eight pm turns into 9pm.
She once appeared during the day for Breakfast TV, her make-up artist Terry says. "She said, 'Darling, you're ruining my reputation, you know I'm a vampire.' " How did she look by day? "Quite surreal. Like she doesn't really belong. She definitely belongs to the night."
As a supermodel, pop star, Bond girl, artistic muse and artwork in herself, Jones is a one-off. Photographers and artists love working with her. Andy Warhol's Grace Jones all red lipstick, fierce flat-top and pink backdrop is one of his last great portraits. Helmut Newton wrapped her in the arms of Dolf Lundgren to recreate Adam and Eve as a modern-day designer muscle couple. Keith Haring body-painted her into a parody Masai warrior. Perhaps most famously of all, Jean-Paul Goude shot her as a rippling racehorse virtually naked, standing on one leg, bronzed and oiled, microphone in one hand, right leg raised at 90 degrees to meet her right arm it is an astonishing image, albeit famously faked.
Now she is working with Chris Levine, another artist straddling sculpture and photography. In the corner of the room is a huge multicoloured image of Jones with her eyes shut. Stand at different distances and angles, and the image changes. This 3D photograph, made up of 30 images of Jones hit by lasers, has the wizardry of a hologram and the humanity of a classic portrait Madame Tussauds meets Irving Penn.
Nine pm turns into 10pm. Shoots with Jones are always like this. And yet there is something about her. People are prepared to wait. Two years ago she made her first studio album in 19 years. One of the team talks about all the people she's turned down as collaborators including Lady Gaga. Not up to it, thinks Jones (of which more later).
At 10.03pm the doors burst open. A huge trunk is carried in. Then another. And another. Jones has brought her entire wardrobe and then some. It turns out she stopped at her favourite Issey Miyake store on the way they opened up specially so she could raid. "Finally!" she says, looking round the room as if we're the ones who have kept her waiting all these hours.
Jones is 61 now, but could pass for someone in her 30s. Her skin is extraordinary. Soft, shiny and muscly. She's wearing a ridiculous outfit huge ski boots, tight jesterish jumpsuit, clashing socks, sable fur hoodie and looks magnificent. Her bad manners should make me want to slap her, but I feel surprisingly well disposed towards her. Anyway, in Graceland it's Jones who gets to do the slapping, as I'm about to find out. Despite all her achievements, she's still best known in the UK for hitting TV chatshow host Russell Harty when he turned his back on her.
It's getting on for midnight, she's on the red wine and is starting to come to life. I'm looking at her clothes admiringly, and she's encouraging me to try them on. "We're all a bit woo," she says. "I love cross-dressers."
Terry is painting her face, and she's talking 13 to the dozen. Conversation with Jones is a pinball game ping, ping, ping, then it's gone. So we ping from beatings to drug busts and Brittany oysters within seconds and back again.
She's looking at herself in the mirror. Her face is as fearsome as it is beautiful, especially fully made up. Did she consciously created an image to go with the face? "No. I think the scary character comes from male authority within my religious family. They had that first, and subliminally I took that on. I was shit scared of them."
Jones grew up in Jamaica among a family of leaders on one side there were pentecostal ministers, on the other politicians. In her early years she was brought up by grandparents because her parents had moved to the US. Her step-grandad, she says, was ferocious. He used to beat her at the least opportunity. "Sometimes we'd have to climb a tree and pick our own whips to be disciplined with. When you had to pick your own whip, you knew you were in for it." Could she pick a tiny one? "No, you had to pick a proper whip, take the leaves off and fftttt ffffttt." The wind whistles through her teeth. How old was she? "I guess I was six years old. I thought everybody had the same."
At 12, she went to live with her parents in the US. She showed a talent for languages and hoped to be a Spanish teacher, but discovered she preferred theatre and rebellion to school and God. Could she ever have been a serious woman of the church? "No, never. I made a special effort not to be." And how. She took drugs, took her clothes off, got into all sorts of trouble. Were her parents embarrassed? "Of course." Ashamed? "Totally." At what? "What d'you mean at what?" She raises her voice, affronted. "I get on stage, show my tits. I do crazy things. I get arrested." For what? "This girl set me up with cocaine. It was such a tiny amount that the judge laughed it out of court. Not even a cockroach could get high on that, the judge said." How old was she then? "I don't know. I don't count! I don't count! I just know it happened when I was recording in Jamaica, and the girl that was running the studio was in love with my boyfriend and she wanted me out of the way."
Who was he? "He was a Jamaican guy. My Jamaican Guy is not named after him." Who was it named after? "A guy called Tyrone who was with the Wailers. But I couldn't have him because he was with somebody else. He was a beautiful guy. He doesn't even know I wrote it about him." She laughs. "Well, he'll know now."
In New York, she hung out with Warhol and the Factory crowd. "I'd go every day, have lunch, just chat. Andy wanted to know everything that was going on. We were just this group of people who loved the arts and the art world. I was modelling and had started singing."
In the early 70s, it was the boys (Bowie, Bolan, Iggy) who glamorised androgyny. But by the late 70s Jones was outdoing them. She exuded both grace and menace, femininity and masculinity, and of course sexuality. Helmut Newton adored her from a distance. "When I was modelling, he would call me all the time to work and then, when I got there, he would say, 'Oh my God, I forgot you don't have big tits', and send me back. Then we ended up working together quite a lot, and my tits didn't matter any more because he loved my legs. Hehehehe!"
Jones had always hated her thin legs. At school, she was mocked for them. Look how skinny my ankles are, she says today I can circle them with my thumb and forefinger. Her arms, she says, are a totally different proposition.
"Can I feel your muscles?"
"Sure," she says.
I'm shocked she really is ripped.
"Ehehehehe! Chchchch! Ahahahaha." She has got a great laugh like a manic rooster. And still she's going. "Chchchhahahaha." Just as I'm beginning to worry she's suffocating, she calms down. "When I started modelling, I'd raise my arms and it was all muscle and all the other models had nothing. Really, everybody thought I was a man. I don't have to do much to have muscles. It's just genetic."
Jones has always been a woman of extremes: the body, the laughter, the four dozen oysters a day, the drugs. "I once took acid for three days. It was called the super-trip pill, STP, yeah they don't do that any more." Were there bad effects? "No, but I was under doctors' care. It was done for experiment, not for partying. Mind-opening. That was the way to take it. If you take it just for partying, that's when it goes pear-shaped."
Throughout, she was determined to be open with her parents about what she was and what she had become. "I did not make an effort to make everything pretty for them. I showed them the worst, and I thought if they could accept the worst
I don't like people who hide things. We're not perfect, we all have things that people might not like to see, and I like to show my faults."
Gradually, her parents did learn to accept the worst. "My dad had become a bishop, and I found out he was carrying pictures of me in his wallet, showing off quietly. And when I first did Merv Griffin..."