(Featured Image: “D.D. Winters,” a.k.a. Denise Matthews, a.k.a. Vanity, in Tanya’s Island, Alfred Sole, 1980; © Jef Films International.)

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 and, it’s been alleged, sexual 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).

Denise Matthews in 1981; photo by Steve Landis, stolen from the Niagara Falls Review.

By 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 irresistible, 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).

Prince and Matthews (a.k.a. Vanity) in 1982; photo by Allen Beaulieu, stolen from PrincePix.

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” (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 researcher 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 total number of breasts.

Top: The Hookers, 1981; L to R: Jamie Shoop, Susan Moonsie, Loreen Moonsie. Photo stolen from Denise Vanity Matthews (the Tumblr, not the person). Bottom: Vanity 6, 1982; L to R: Susan Moonsie, Vanity, Brenda Bennett. © Warner Bros. Note the poster of Marilyn Monroe in the background of both shots.

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.

Music video for “He’s So Dull,” 1982; © Warner Bros.

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.

Music video for “Nasty Girl,” 1982; © Warner Bros.

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 all 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 strains 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).

European single art for “Nasty Girl”; © Warner Bros.

“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 [6] 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).

© Warner Bros.

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 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 she 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 popular music landscape–from Beyoncé and Rihanna to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion–it’s that “nasty” girls aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“Nasty Girl” YouTube

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13 thoughts on “Nasty Girl

  1. Vanity was such a perfect counterpoint to Prince. I think the original “Nasty Gal” was Miles Davis’ ex-wife Betty Davis, her 1975 album was titled that. Supposedly she was a role model for Prince’s style including some of his famous screams. I think she is still alive, way ahead of her time. Peace and love Ms. Davis wherever you are, we honor you!

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    1. Definitely agree that Betty Davis was an underrated influence on Prince (including by him)! His “PFUnk/F.U.N.K.” seems heavily inspired by her song with the same title, and I think I read an interview with him later in life where he namedrops her.

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  2. Vanity 6 was just way too unpleasant for me. Every time I thought about buying a copy, I would easily talk myself out of it. As much as I want to hear everything Prince produced, this one still stays on the shelf. Still, the three singles I heard from this album sounded like fine art next to the Apollonia 6 album. “He’s So Dull” was a witty retro pop outlier that was at odds with the – as you correctly say – sleazy vibe here. Maybe I’ll get the single of that one if I run across it.

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    1. Yes, there was a definite drop in quality from Vanity to Apollonia 6, which is even more tragic/comic when you hear about all the songs he wrote for the album but ended up giving to someone else: “17 Days,” “The Glamorous Life,” even “Manic Monday”! They really got the short end of the stick, hahahaha.

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  3. Thanks for the post. This was Prince’s first hit and his introduction in the Netherlands. Controversy had been a very minor “hit”. But as good as Nasty Girl is, the album never lived up to that promise. It seems to be just throwaway tracks that should have been buried in the vault and kept there. Especially He’s So Dull. (but there’s no accounting for taste, I suppose)

    Lastly, the Benelux is not a union (although it was a border union for a while) and it is only referred to as Benelux, for BElgium, the NEtherlands and LUXembourg. (they used to be under one royal house, loosely referred to as the low countries, they got together at times for convenience and to not be laughed at by the other countries for being so small. Shame countries don’t get to wear heels to mask insecurities about their size 😉 )

    And regardless of the risk of me going off on a low country history tangent, that single cover was used all over Europe, in fact, in the US too, was it not?

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    1. Nah, as far as I can tell we just had the boring ol’ white sleeve for the single in the U.S.–we almost never got cool picture sleeves here. Thanks for the info, though–I thought it was a little weird that Discogs specified Benelux for the single art and had to consult Wikipedia to see how to identify it (which, as you can see, clearly didn’t go so well). “European” is much simpler.

      I have to admit I have a soft spot for Vanity 6, especially the Susan-led electro tracks and of course “Nasty Girl.” As an album, though, it’s pretty slight. Fascinating that “Nasty Girl” was such a big hit in the Netherlands! I’m guessing broadcast standards and practices were less of a concern there than they were here?

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      1. I also do like the Susan tracks and especially have a soft spot for the Drive Me Wild 12″. I do feel that the Vanity 6 album hasn’t aged well though, as opposed to the Apollonia 6 album. On the Apollonia 6 album, once you plough through the mostly forgettable A side of the album (from which they lifted all the singles for some obscure reason, side B is all gems, although the skits almost ruin it. (like many a hiphop album that used skits a lot a few years later) But A Million Miles, Oo She She Wa Wa, Some Kind Of Lover and In A Spanish Villa are all great tracks that still really work well. I prefer them over a lot of the so-called great tracks that did not make it to the album.

        As to Nasty Girl being a hit in the Netherlands.. it’s an irresistible song. Sex is not really as big a deal here as it is in the US. There was much more debate about the violence in the video of Two Tribes by Franky Goes To Hollywood. Plus, English is not our native tongue, as famously pointed out in this commercial. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUEkOVdUjHc 🙂

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