I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

"Olive Oyl" Becomes a Star: Grace Jones

by Kollin Holtz
July 31, 2017

Grace Jones is a Jamaican born (May 1948), New York raised (1962) model, actress and most notably, a Grammy nominated Disco pop star turned new wave/R&B artist at the peak of anti-disco sentiment. Her Androgynous style landed her on the covers of Elle, and Vogue magazine inspiring the aesthetic of many female pop stars to come. Her fashion sense and style is a rebellion against the status-quo regarding gender rolls, and what a woman’s “place” is. Through her music, clothing and attitude, she most certainly is the rebellious epitomic representation of the Pastor’s child that she claims to be.

Grace was born and raised in Spanish Town, Jamaica until the age of thirteen. While there, she was raised by her grandparents part-time while her fashion-forward seamstress mother trotted the globe behind Grace’s sermon giving Pastor of a father. Growing up, she was name called things like “Olive Oyl” after Popey the Sailor Man’s shapeless love, and “nothing-in-the-middle” for what some saw as her lack of breasts. In these early years, surrounded by familial men of the cloth with a line of bishops stretching back to her Pentecostal grand Uncle, Grace took note and issue with the well defined, strict gender roles established around her. Grace didn’t want to become her Grandmother, and speaking about her she says, “She could never say anything at all. She just lived through all that abuse in the name of religion. If she did object, my step-grandfather (who was twenty years younger than her) would dismiss her with a wave of his hand. Even though my mum was tough, my dad was scarier.”

In 1962, her parents moved her and her siblings to New York. While Grace was seen as a tad masculine, her brother was seen in the reverse. In Jamaica, he organized the church choir and played the piano. Apparently these tasks in the U.S. at the time suggested the boy might be questioning his role as a male in hetero-normative society. In response, Mr. and Mrs. Jones put a stop to such activities, and he supposedly to this day doesn’t even use a keyboard despite his varied musical talents as a professional musician. All this in spite of the fact that he’d had several girlfriends, according to Grace.

In the 1970’s, Grace began her modeling career. In an elevator in New York, she professed her frustration with the industry to Frend / Tunisian modeling agent, Claude Haddad, “’They don’t like black people in this country,’” to which he replied, “”’Come to Paris’” Modeling was not her calling, as she describes it, it was “just a way to pay rent.” One day she shaved the hair off her head (eyebrows included) much to the displeasure of her employers, and that was when she decided, “Okay, I’m out of here.”

She did a few odd jobs, like Go-go dancing, before finally settling into the beginnings of her music career. She signed on with a company called “Island Records,” a branch of Universal Music Group. She released a trio of disco albums titled Portfolio, Fame, and Musefrom ’77-’79. Tom Moulton, the producer who helped Gloria Gaynor’s career, initially headed Grace’s first album at Island Records. Perseverance and dedication kept her in the studio recording her first album, even though she drove her initial producer out for wasting his time by practicing in the recording room. Her voice was not what Tom expected, saying, “She couldn’t sing. She sounded like Bela Lugosi.” Before walking out on her, Tom said, “We don’t practice in the studio. We record.” That was the end of their collaboration, and it was a way for Grace to get the studio out of her way so she could record things the way she wanted rather than how the producer wanted her to do them. She promoted Portfolio, her first album, playing shows in the gay discos of 1977 New York City.

Muse was the last of her disco albums before transitioning into “New Wave.” Many Rock’n Rollers despised the dance club hits of Disco. Two months before the release of Muse (released in September of 1979), they took to Cominskey Park, the former Chicago baseball stadium, in a 50,000 person drove to witness “Disco Demolition Night.” At around 6pm people who brought Disco records watched them piled and exploded in the middle of the field. After, the Stadium goers crowded the field having to be dispersed by riot police.

Grace’s music career, androgynous look, her square, padded and angular fashions and flattop cut have inspired many of today’s pop artists like Lady Gaga, Santigold and Brazillian Girls. Aesthetic, and musical talent propelled her into the public’s eye and the Billboard top 100. Her openness about her sexuality and ever-changing roster of boyfriends were a constant point of intrigue. There are many stories she brushes over in television interviews like having her boat run aground on a coral reef in Jamaica while she had no shoes and was surrounded by sea urchins, or that she went to trial over a Jamaican man, fighting for his love with his voodoo practicing ex-wife. While these are impossible to investigate now, there are plans for her to release a memoir in the fall of 2014. Perhaps then more will come to light on this ministers daughter who likes to do things her way no matter what anyone else has to say about it.

Gorss, Michael. Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women. New York, New York: HarperCollins, 1995. 292. Print.

Simpson, Jeff, dir. Dir. Alpha Beta. 06 03 2007. Web. 2 Nov 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqJrhgX5ZtE>.

Jones, Grace, perf. Perf. Joan Rivers. The Tonight Show. NBC: 1980's. Television. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fY_hoj0dR4k>.

Sawyer, Miranda. "State of Grace." Guardian. 10 10 2008: n. page. Web. 5 Nov. 2013. <http://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/oct/12/grace-jones-hurricane>.

Brown, Helen. "Grace Jones At 60." Telegraph [London] 04 11 2008, n. pag. Web. 5 Nov. 2013. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/rockandjazzmusic/3562845/Grace-Jones-at-60.html>.

Various, . "Disco Demolition Night." Wikipedia. Various2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_Jones>.

Kollin Holtz is a comedian, writer, and filmmaker living in a closet under the stairs in San Francisco, CA. Check out his website,www.kollinholtz.com for updates on his shows, and his podcast “Closet Talk With Kollin Holtz.” You may also follow him on twitter @KollinHoltz if ya fancy.