Plucked from obscurity to become part of the Prince posse, Vanity was the apple of every man’s eye in the mid ’80s, as the lead singer for pop girl group Vanity 6.
Denise Matthews, from Niagara Falls, Canada, was an aspiring model and singer, trying to break into the big time, making appearances in B movies and taking any job she could.
A lucky move by Matthews was to work as a model backstage at the American Music Awards, which allowed her to meet Prince; he had been wanting to create a girl group after watching the film A Star is Born in the late ’70s.
Prince had paired three girls with a working name of The Hookers but when he met Matthews, he knew she would be lead singer of his girl group. He named her Vanity since as the story goes, she was looked like a female version of himself in the mirror. Prince and Vanity also became a twosome, and Vanity 6 was created with Matthews as lead singer.
Vanity 6, named for the number of breasts in the girl group, also included Brenda Bennett and Susan Moonsie, Prince’s former girlfriend. Their first single He’s So Dull was a minor hit, but the second single Nasty Girl was a radio and chart hit. Written by Prince, Nasty Girl made number one status on the Billboard Dance charts in 1982 and was used in the film Beverly Hills Cop.
Under Prince’s influence, band members were dressed up in satin and lace lingerie and their songs were suggestive and sexual – the trademark of the group. Vanity 6 worked as back-up singers to Prince and the Revolution and went on tour as their opening act, upstaging Morris Day and the Time, upset to be relegated to a third name on the billing for the national tour for the Prince and the Revolution album 1999.
Vanity was also chosen to be on the cover of Rolling Stone with Prince, the image shot by Richard Avedon, despite the story being about Vanity 6 and Prince’s role as producer and mentor.
As 1983 rolled in, and Prince was developing his film Purple Rain, Vanity was going to be his co-star. But suddenly, she quit the group and movie project and said she wanted to become a solo performer. The rumour mill suggested she left because of the end of her relationship with Prince, but the reality was her being offered a solo record deal with Motown Records.
Vanity recorded two albums with Motown, neither receiving much notice. She continued her acting career, appearing in small parts and trying to work her connections to continue to open doors for herself. After Prince, Vanity was linked to fellow pop stars Billy Idol and Adam Ant, and even was engaged to Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx. As the 1980s came to close, so did the career opportunities for Vanity.
I remember seeing the video of Nasty Girl and wondering how any girl could wander around a club in those outfits – understanding on some level the power these girls wielded with her sexuality and yet being confused by putting so much of it out there, so to speak. The video was played endlessly on television, despite the risque outfits and suggestive moves by the band members; for those boys who didn’t like dance music, there seemed to be many things that attracted them to the videos of Vanity 6.
Vanity and Vanity 6 was relegated to a minor blip in music history, a brief time when the outfit outshone the music in the early ’80s. Prince remains an innovator for his performances and music creativity, no matter his love for the girls in sexy clothing, using their sensuality as a cover for their lack of musical skill.