While Prince wasn’t nominated for any American Music Awards in 1982, the night of the ceremony would turn out to be fortuitous for another reason. It was at an AMAs after-party on January 25 when he first met Denise Matthews: a 23-year-old model who, under another name, would soon become the most infamous of his 1980s paramours.
Born in Niagara Falls, Ontario to a German Jewish mother and an African American father, Matthews shared with Prince a tumultuous childhood: her parents divorced when she was young, and she and her six siblings grew up without their mother in their lives. In Matthews’ case, however, the trauma also extended to sustained physical abuse at the hands of her father, who died when she was only 15. “For 15 years, he beat me badly,” she later told Aldore Collier of Jet magazine (Collier 1993 58). “I wish I could see my father in heaven, but I won’t. He’s in Hell” (59).
Despite–or perhaps because of–the low self-esteem she suffered as a result of this troubled upbringing, the stunningly beautiful Matthews went on to pursue a career in modeling: winning the Miss Niagara Hospitality pageant in 1977, and competing for the Miss Canada title the following year. She signed with New York’s Zoli Agency and appeared in a few ad campaigns in the U.S. and Japan. Under the pseudonym “D.D. Winters,” she acted in the 1980 Canadian slasher film Terror Train, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, and had the dubious honor of playing the title role in Tanya’s Island: a truly bizarre erotic fantasy about a model embroiled in a violent love triangle with her painter boyfriend and a bestial, apelike creature (no, seriously, see photo above).
By the beginning of 1982, Matthews had made her way to Hollywood. Like many aspiring actresses, she attended the AMAs in a professional capacity, working as a model for the event. A persistent legend that she was there with Prince’s old rival Rick James, while poetically hard to resist, isn’t supported by the historical record; even James himself, who rarely passed up an opportunity to take shots at his erstwhile nemesis, didn’t mention Matthews in either version of his memoirs. But no matter who she’d come to the party with, Prince was determined to make sure she left with him. “He wanted me to take him to the washroom,” she later recalled. “His manager came up to me and says this guy (Prince) wants to know if you could take him to the bathroom. I said, ‘Ain’t that a line and a half’” (Johnson 1986 61).
“I didn’t know who Prince was,” Matthews told biographer Liz Jones. “I’d been in Japan working and didn’t know he was famous and a brilliant musician, so I wasn’t attracted to any of that” (Jones 119). In fact, she thought he was gay at first–an impression no doubt encouraged by his insistence that they try on each other’s clothes during their first conversation. “He took off his jacket and asked me if I would take off mine,” she remembered. “I asked, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘So I can try on yours and you can try on mine’” (Johnson 1986 61). It was only after they started going out, she told Jones, that she “realized he was definitely not gay” (Jones 119).
Contrary to Prince’s rude-boy reputation, however, their relationship got off to a surprisingly innocent start. “I didn’t go home with him right away,” Matthews recalled to Mary Aloe of the Yugoslav music magazine Rock. “He called me, we dated–it was all very romantic” (Tudahl 2018 13). The night after the AMAs, the pair went out to dinner with Morris Day of the Time and another lady friend: “I had insisted on a double date because I didn’t know if I could trust Prince,” Matthews told Jones. “Then we began to see one another. He asked me to come out and see him on the road” (Jones 120). A few days later, Prince’s guitarist Dez Dickerson recalled, “there she was on the bus, on the road with us” (Hill 80).
With Matthews now in place as his latest muse, Prince was inspired to resurrect his dormant girl group concept, the Hookers. In the months since he’d last worked on the project, Jamie Shoop–the same manager tasked with enticing Matthews into the restroom at the AMAs–had stepped away; as had Loreen Moonsie, the sister of the group’s de facto frontwoman Susan. Neither of these ex-Hookers had harbored any particular ambitions of pop stardom; but Matthews, while not a natural singer, had both boundless sex appeal and a gnawing desire to salve her insecurities with fame. Prince’s first move was to rechristen his new star with a stage name–though his original suggestion didn’t go over so well. “He wanted me to call myself Vagina,” Matthews recalled in 1984. “He said people would know me nationwide… I said, ‘No kidding’” (Buchalter 1984). Ultimately, they settled on the less ribald “Vanity”: chosen, she claimed, because “He said he met his mirror image in me… I was as narcissistic as he was” (Jet 1985 58).
The final piece fell into place toward the end of the Controversy tour, when Prince overheard production designer Roy Bennett’s wife Brenda singing along to a Stevie Nicks tape backstage. “He turned [the tape] off, and looked at me and said, ‘You could be the other Hooker!’” Brenda recalled to sessionographer Duane Tudahl. “I turned to Prince and asked, ‘Does it have to be the Hookers?’” (Tudahl 2018 14). Once again, Prince acquiesced, and the group was rechristened Vanity 6: a cheeky, if none-too-subtle reference to their combined number of breasts.
Work on the Vanity 6 album began after the end of the tour in late March, at Prince’s home studio in Chanhassen. “The girls would stay out at Prince’s house,” Roy Bennett recalled to biographer Per Nilsen. “Susan had her own place there, so it was basically Vanity and Brenda staying at the house… They used to go roller-skating together. And they’d go out shopping for their outfits at Dayton’s,” a Minneapolis-based department store (Nilsen 1999 106).
Not everything about the arrangement was quite so idyllic, however. Brenda, as the oldest member and the only one with professional musical experience–she had toured and recorded as a backing vocalist in the early ’70s with the Rhode Island blues-rock group Ken Lyon and Tombstone–was the designated “den mother” and vocal coach: a dynamic that created friction with the group’s namesake. “Brenda was the person that was set up to babysit Vanity as far as making sure she could sing… which was very difficult, because Vanity saw herself as the one in charge,” Roy told Tudahl. “So you’ve got Prince telling Brenda, ‘You’re responsible for her singing,’ and Vanity saying, ‘Well, it’s my band’” (Tudahl 2018 14). There was also the small matter that Prince had effectively demoted one girlfriend, Susan, in order to rebuild the group around his latest prize: a callous move which, all things considered, Moonsie handled with grace beyond her 18 years.
Much like the first Time album, the writing and recording of Vanity 6 was a full-group effort–just not necessarily the same group that would appear on the album cover. Dez Dickerson wrote and co-produced “He’s So Dull”: a “kind of Go-Go’s influenced throwback tune,” as he recalled in his memoir. “Denise struggled a bit with the vocal, but I ended up letting Prince handle that. I did the guitars and bass, which didn’t take long at all. Prince also added some organ, which wasn’t on my original demo” (Dickerson 201). Another track, “Bite the Beat,” was contributed by Time guitarist Jesse Johnson, with lyrics by Prince.
Most of the new songs being written for Vanity 6 were fairly literal interpretations of Prince’s elevator pitch for the group, which Brenda summarized as “a 1980s version of the Supremes” (Tudahl 2018 14). “He’s So Dull,” in particular, was memorably described by music critic and biographer Dave Hill as a “genuine post-feminist skit which took the dreamy Chiffons girl pop standard ‘He’s So Fine’ and turned it inside out” (Hill 133-134). It didn’t hurt, of course, that knowing appropriations of ’60s Brill Building pop were heavily in vogue in New Wave at the time–from Blondie to the aforementioned Go-Go’s, whose debut album Beauty and the Beat had gone double platinum in 1981.
But it took a new song called “Nasty Girl,” and a sharp left turn from the winking retro aesthetic, for Vanity 6 to find a musical personality of their own. “Nasty Girl” opens with a syncopated Linn LM-1 beat: another of the irresistibly funky grooves Prince was pumping out with frightening regularity in 1982. A muffled synth-bass saunters into the mix; then, Prince cocks his guitar like a shotgun, announcing the arrival of the squealing main keyboard line. Like its older sibling, 1980’s “Head,” “Nasty Girl” sounds palpably, viscerally sleazy: just listen to that gurgling, distorted synthesizer bubbling up beneath the verses.
Almost as sleazy is Vanity’s vocal performance, which finds her fully inhabiting the man-eating Jezebel persona Prince had devised for her. If her voice strained awkwardly against the chirpy pop melody of “He’s So Dull,” then it’s right at home with the almost proto-rap come-ons of “Nasty Girl.” The fledgling starlet purrs and moans with shocking verisimilitude–a preview of the even more pornographic performance she’d give on the 1983 outtake “Vibrator.” Her climactic monologue–“That’s right, I can’t control it / I need seven inches or more”–is jaw-dropping in its frankness. Finally, after seemingly coaxing an orgasm from the instrumental with the repeated refrain of “Are you gonna come?”, she simply arches an eyebrow and lights a cigarette: “Is that it? Wake me when you’re done / I guess you’ll be the only one having fun.”
So adept is she at selling the lyrics, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook their layers of camp absurdity–the weird, distancing effect of, as author Alex Abramovich writes, “Vanity channeling a Prince who’s imagining what it’s like to be a woman imagining a man imagining her as a nasty girl.” The scenarios the song describes are often banal in their nastiness: Vanity’s professed taste for “sailors” in particular is a slut cliché as old as sea travel (and sluts). Even her titular moniker is less a brazen self-identification, like in Betty Davis’ 1975 funk scorcher “Nasty Gal,” than it is a hopeful, almost meek suggestion: Vanity, novelist Emily Barton notes in conversation with Abramovich, “pose[s] her nastiness as a question in the chorus” (Abramovich 2016). This curious appeal to external validation would grow more explicit in concert: where, as biographer Matt Thorne notes, Vanity would “psyche herself up” by leading the audience in a call-and-response with the phrase, “Vanity is nasty” (Thorne 2016).
“Nasty Girl” is a song rife with, in Barton’s words, “textual instabilities” (Abramovich 2016). It’s aural pornography with an undercurrent of embarrassed self-consciousness; a brash, brassy strip-club grindfest with a bridge in which Vanity attempts to “croon” like a Disney princess. Some of this tonal inconsistency may be attributed to the song’s murky authorship: despite being officially credited to Vanity, it’s widely assumed to have been written by Prince; yet Denise Matthews later claimed that she wrote the lyrics and “never got paid for any of that” (Jones 122). Considering the aforementioned idiosyncrasies of Vanity’s “nastiness,” it’s tempting to accept her claim at face value. Abramovich suggests, “given the time Vanity spent in Prince’s company (and Prince’s bed), it seems possible that she could have anticipated the song he might have written—channeled him channeling her—internalized the hyper-sexual fantasies he was projecting onto her… then turned around and asked/begged us to project those same fantasies back onto her. This isn’t sex; it’s role-playing” (Abramovich 2016).
For better or worse, “Nasty Girl” was the role that made Denise Matthews a star–even if, as she later admitted, it was one she played reluctantly. “Prince created the whole Vanity  image,” she told Collier. “I lied and said it was the image I wanted… [but] I wanted the old Diana Ross image” (Collier 1993 59). Years later, after becoming a born-again Christian, she would reject the “Vanity” moniker entirely: “I remember looking the word ‘vanity’ up in the dictionary,” she recalled to Jones. “It said, worthless, lack of real value, trivial, pointless. Oh yes, I was learning to love myself! I was told, it’s wonderful, just get out there, take off all your clothes and run around naked and people will love you and give you money… When I look back at Vanity, I just think, oh, you poor thing” (Jones 120).
Oddly enough, Matthews almost got her wish for a more demure reputation: Prince’s camp, understandably gun-shy about releasing a song to radio with the lyrics “If you ain’t scared, take it out / I’ll do it like a real live nasty girl should,” chose “He’s So Dull” as the group’s debut single and promoted it with placement in the 1983 comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation. It tanked–a victim, Dave Hill suggests, of Warner Bros.’ refusal to promote anything by Black artists to a Top 40 audience (Hill 134). But “Nasty Girl,” aimed squarely at the R&B and dance charts, had no such obstacles: it reached Number 7 on Billboard’s Hot Black Singles, Number 1 on Hot Dance Club Play, and even topped the “Bubbling Under” Hot 100 Singles chart–no small feat for a song most mainstream radio stations wouldn’t touch with gloves on.
More importantly, “Nasty Girl” has had a lasting cultural impact: it is, as Matt Thorne argues, “among the most influential songs Prince has written.” Thorne traces a direct line through Madonna–who, he observes, “in her earliest incarnation could have been a fourth member” of Vanity 6–to Janet Jackson and Britney Spears, for whom producers the Neptunes returned to the “Nasty” well not once but twice: on “Boys,” with its refrain of “Let’s turn this dance floor into our own nasty world,” and on “I’m a Slave 4 U,” which features a drum track heavily inspired by “Nasty Girl” (Thorne 2016). Beyoncé’s 2013 song “Blow,” another co-production by the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams, also bears a passing resemblance to the song–a connection Bey underlines by segueing into a full-blown cover during live performances.
In short, wherever there are young women singing disarmingly raunchy lyrics in revealing lingerie, that’s Vanity’s legacy in action. It may not have been the legacy Denise Matthews wanted, or even deserved; but if there’s anything to be gleaned from today’s pop music landscape–from Beyoncé and Rihanna to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion–it’s that “nasty” girls aren’t going anywhere.