February 15, 2016 – Vanity was born Denise Katrina Matthews on January 4, 1959 in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, the daughter of Helga Senyk and Levia James Matthews. Her mother was of Polish, German, and Jewish descent and was born in Germany, while her father was of African-American descent and was born in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Growing up in Niagara Falls, God wasn’t her priority. She was more concerned with hiding bruises from her classmates at Princess Margaret elementary school. Routinely beaten by an alcoholic father, Matthews rarely discussed her home life with friends. “She didn’t really like to,” recalls Debbie Rossi, one of Matthews’ best friends at Princess Margaret and later Stamford Collegiate. “And I wasn’t one to force. I just wanted to listen.”
Matthews didn’t confide because she thought every household was like this. Her father, James Levia Matthews, died in 1974 when she was 15 years old. Instead of feeling free, she watched her mother sink deeper into depression and alcoholism.
She felt more confused than ever, but had one huge advantage – she was one of the most gorgeous young women in Niagara Falls. A modeling career beckoned. While her sister, Patricia, became a star athlete at Stamford (she still holds nine school records), the younger Denise was turning heads. “Denise kind of blossomed and got really, really beautiful,” recalls Rossi. “She was fun-loving, and very aware of her beauty. “She had a little bit of trouble in Stamford with prejudice – guys wanted to go out with her, but they didn’t want anybody to know. It really hurt her, so she changed schools.”
After jumping to Westlane, where she graduated, Matthews got her first taste of success by winning the Miss Niagara Hospitality pageant. She was calm and poised accepting the crown. She seemed like a natural.
You just knew she had ambitions of making it big,” says Stamford classmate Vito DiMartino, now head of phys ed at A.N. Myer. “Denise always had good looks.” “Everyone seemed to like her,” adds friend Linda Clarkstone, now a librarian at Westlane. “She was always smiling, always happy. “She was beautiful, and even back then she could sing.” Within a year, Matthews left Niagara Falls for Toronto, and then California.
After she won the Miss Niagara Hospitality title in 1977, she went on to compete for Miss Canada in 1978. At age 17, she moved to New York City to further her career. She signed with Zoli Model Agency. However, because she was short in stature, her modeling career was limited to commercials and photo shoots and included no runway work. Vanity appeared in ads for Pearl Drops toothpaste, before completing a modeling stint in Japan.
In 1980, she had a small role in the horror movie Terror Train, which was filmed in Montreal a year earlier. She then went to Toronto to film the lead role in the B-movie Tanya’s Island. At the time of both film roles, she was billed as D.D. Winters.
In the early 1980s, Matthews was given two tickets to a Prince concert and she became enthralled with the funky Minneapolis singer, who wasn’t quite a superstar yet. Weeks later she met Prince backstage at the American Music Awards. That night Prince called her at 3 a.m. The couple dated for several months, and Prince, learning that she could sing, eventually invited her to Minneapolis to front a racy all-girl group he was forming.
“He wanted me to call myself Vagina. He said people would know me nationwide,” she discloses with a smile. “I said, ‘No kidding.’ ” They settled on Vanity (because he saw so much of himself in her), and Vanity 6, clad in scanty camisoles and singing tunes like Drive Me Wild and Nasty Girls, soon cracked the black Top 10.
Dressed in lingerie and garters, Vanity 6 stumbled with its first single – “He’s So Dull” – but the second, “Nasty Girl,” became a crude classic (and a strip club mainstay). With Vanity, Matthews had found the devillish flipside to her personality.
Prince was so taken with her, he chose her to appear with him on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1983 and offered her a major role as the female lead in his biographical musical Purple Rain. At 24, Matthews was starting to become the star everyone predicted. She was supposed to play the lead female role in “Purple Rain,” the semi-autobiographical Prince film that was a box-office hit in 1984, but abandoned the project before filming began. Back in Minneapolis Vanity had helped Prince script Purple Rain and had been slated to play the female lead, a role based in part on her own life story. But before the cameras rolled, Vanity left—off to California and a solo career. “I needed one person to love me, and he needed more,” she says of Prince and her departure. “I never thought, ‘Oh God, I’m in Prince’s shadow,’ ” she says firmly. “He’d been performing for years and he was my teacher. I miss his humor. I always felt we’d be like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor over the years. I can honestly say I love the kid.”
She then went on to release two albums as a solo artist on Motown, “Wild Animal” and “Skin on Skin.”
After her music career started, as Vanity she starred in a number of movies, including The Last Dragon, which featured her underground hit “7th Heaven.” In 1986 she starred in Never Too Young to Die opposite John Stamos (“She was pretty wild,” Stamos once said about his co-star. “She was like Al Pacino in Scarface, blasting these fucking prop machine guns all over the place. We weren’t even rolling!”). The film also featured Gene Simmons. She went on to appear in 52 Pick-Up and 1988’s Action Jackson, her highest profile role, in which she starred opposite Carl Weathers, Craig T. Nelson, and Sharon Stone. From the mid–1980s to the early–1990s, Vanity guest–starred on numerous TV shows. She played a villain who tortured Nancy Allen’s character in the 1990 TV movie Memories of Murder, guest-starred in an episode of Miami Vice’s third season, and in 1992 appeared in an episode of Highlander: The Series. She also appeared in Friday the 13th: The Series in the episode entitled “Mesmer’s Bauble”.
She thrived on raciness, often performing in lingerie. “My music is very sexual, so you could say I’m just putting all of me out there,” she told The Associated Press in 1985. She was on the cover of Playboy in 1988.Vanity then left the group (and Prince’s organization), and signed with Motown Records as a solo artist in 1984. She released two albums for Motown in the mid-1980s, and had mild success on the US pop and R&B charts with a handful of singles.
Besides Prince, Vanity was linked romantically to Adam Ant and Billy Idol. In 1987, she stated that she and Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx were engaged. She joked that she would become Vanity 6 (Sixx) again. They never married. In Sixx’s 2007 autobiography, The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star, he describes his 1987 drug use with Vanity who was addicted to crack cocaine at the time. Anecdote: At one point, the wasted couple is laying in bed when Sixx believes he hears voices and fires a .357 magnum through the door. It was only his radio.)
In 1994, Vanity overdosed on crack cocaine and suffered from near-fatal renal failure. She recalled that after being rushed to the hospital, doctors said she had three days to live while on life support. She said that Jesus appeared to her at this time and spoke to her, saying, if she promised to give up her Vanity persona, he would save her. Upon her recovery, she completely renounced her stage name and career and became a born-again Christian. In 1995, she said, “When I came to the Lord Jesus Christ, I threw out about 1,000 tapes of mine—interview, every tape, every video. Everything.”
In 1995, she married football player Anthony Smith of the Oakland Raiders, who later was sentenced to life in prison murder. She ignorantly had stated that she had chosen not to receive any further revenue from her work as Vanity, and cut off all ties with Hollywood and her former life in show business. Her marriage to Smith however lasted only one year.
After a kidney transplant in 1997, she decided to devote her life to Christ and became an Evangelist. “All I had become was thus painted on my face — vanity,” she later wrote on a personal website. According to her sister, the former Vanity eventually became an ordained minister and preached in churches around the country.
In 2010, she released her autobiography, Blame It On Vanity: Hollywood, Hell and Heaven.
Due to her kidney problems, which were caused by years of drug abuse, Matthews had to undergo peritoneal dialysis five times a day (each session was 20 minutes long).
She suffered from sclerosing encapsulating peritonitis, a rare complication of a peritoneal dialysis, and died in Fremont, California on February 15, 2016, from renal failure, aged 57.
Two months after her death, on April 21, 2016, Matthews’ ex-partner and music mentor Prince died in his Paisley Park residence, also aged 57.
Onstage in Melbourne, Australia, Prince offered a tribute of his own. “Her and I used to love each other deeply,” he told the crowd, according to Australian news media accounts. “She loved me for the artist I was; I loved her for the artist she was trying to be.”
By her own later admission, Vanity led a fast life, and it took its toll. In an interview with Jet magazine in 1993, she said she had been “extremely wild” in her younger days. “There was a lot of cocaine,” she said. “I tried men, women, everything. I didn’t snort cocaine, I smoked it. I had found my way into the playground of the pearly white stuff called cocaine,” says her bio Blame It On Vanity. “I’d inhaled so much rock that by the age of 35, you could light me up, smoke me and stick me in the nearest cold grave. Easily, the devil had won me and readied my tired body for hell.”
Even though she resents the “lies” former lover Motley Crue guitarist Nikki Sixx tells in his book about their times in 1987, she admittedly contributed to it. “I was the glutton for punishment (with Nikki), and also the punisher punishing,” she writes. “It wasn’t easy being high all the time and relating to another human being. He could have related better to a pet rock.”