In Memoriam: Denise Matthews (Formerly Known as Vanity)

VanityThere is a saying in the music business, “The hits just keep on keeping.” But that phrase is also, unfortunately, à propos this year, as 2016 has dealt a steady blow to music lovers with the passing of multiple artists within the first 2 months of the year.

The latest addition to the RIP Class of ’16 is singer, pop culture icon, and evangelist Denise Matthews, known to the world as Vanity. The Canadian-born entertainer rose to fame as the front woman for Vanity 6, the pop/funk trio Prince assembled in the early 1980s as one of his many musical off-shoot projects. Flanked by vocalists Brenda Bennett and Susan Moonsie, Vanity 6 stalked stages as the embodiment of male fantasy as they crooned out songs like “Nasty Girl,” “3 x 2 = 6,” “Drive Me Wild,” and “If a Girl Answers, Don’t Hang Up.” After releasing one album and opening for Prince on his 1999 tour, Apollonia picked up where Vanity Vanity 2left off, as Matthews set out to launch her solo career.

In 1984, Vanity signed to Motown Records and released the album Wild Animal, which featured the pop/R&B hit “Pretty Mess.” Her second Motown album, Skin on Skin, premiered two years later and spurred the single “Under the Influence.” While Vanity’s recordings performed relatively well, it was her turn on the silver screen that truly catapulted the raven-haired beauty into superstardom. Her role in the 1985 urban martial arts classic, The Last Dragon, is the stuff of legend, and subsequent roles in films like Action Jackson and 52 Pick-Up propelled Vanity even further into pop culture.

Throughout the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s, however, Vanity struggled with drug addiction and eventually retreated from entertainment. In the mid-1990s, she reemerged sober and having ditched the moniker bestowed upon her by Prince, choosing instead to use her given name, Denise Matthews. While she continued to perform and appeared in a few TV shows here and there, it wasn’t long before Matthews left the secular world behind, committing her life to Christ and becoming an evangelist. Following a kidney transplant in 1997, she devoted herself full-time to her ministry.

Matthews published her memoir, Blame It On Vanity, in 2010, and just months ago she launched a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money to cover costs for her medical care.

News of her passing on February 15—confirmed just minutes before the Grammys were set to air—spread like wild fire across social media, with fellow Prince associates Sheila E., Jill Jones, as well as NPR music journalist Ann Powers, The Foreign Exchange’s Phonte, and Questlove and dozens of fans expressing their disbelief. The SoulTrain.com family extends our deepest condolences to Denise Matthews’ loved ones as we mourn the loss of yet another artist whose light made all of our lives brighter.

Rest in power, Vanity.

—Rhonda Nicole

One Comment

  1. Jason Elias says:

    That was great Rhonda, I’ve always liked Vanity a lot.

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