Just calling Grace Jones an enigmatic character doesn’t do her justice. This model-actor-singer thrives on creating chaos, uncertainty, and on using her work to inspire others to boldly face their biggest fears. Delighting in telling the press half-truths about her own life, Jones’s personal life is, to put it mildly, a bit of a mystery. Join us as we separate the facts from fiction in the life of Grace Jones.
Grace Jones is pretty sure she was born in 1948, but somewhere along the way, sources started listing her birth year as 1952. It didn’t matter much to Jones, though—in her own words, “the world likes to know a person’s age for some reason, as if that number explains everything. I don’t care at all. I like to keep the mystery.” There are some things she is absolutely sure about though—such as the very real horrors of her childhood.
To say she had a rough childhood is the understatement of the century. As a child, her mother and father left for the United States to make a living, leaving her and her six siblings in the care of their grandmother and step-grandfather in Jamaica. Jones grew up under the thumb of her step-grandfather’s extreme, religious zeal… and Jones often found herself on the wrong side of that zeal.
Her step-grandfather, who she called “Mas P,” didn’t want children, and now he suddenly had seven of them dumped onto his lap. Resenting their presence, Mas P used a blend of religion and fear to keep all seven of them in line. Jones thought of him as a sadist, using his power as their guardian to beat them under the thinnest of pretenses—and the beatings happened frequently and brutally.
The children each had their own “personal” leather belt that they were beaten with, varying in weight and size, depending on their age. Savagely, Jones sometimes got hit with a heavier belt for transgressions deemed especially sinful. Beatings didn’t always happen after she did something wrong either—sometimes, she was beat simply because she “might” do something wrong. She reached out for help—and it backfired.
A young Jones tried to reach out to her parents to warn them of the ferocity of Mas P’s discipline, writing letters in the hopes that they would reach them. This was not to be, however—there was a devastating twist. It turned out that all letters coming in and out of the house went through Mas P before going to their intended recipient. No help was coming. Jones and her siblings had to learn how to defend themselves on their own.
To defend themselves against Mas P, Jones learned how to be tough from her four brothers. Although she should’ve been a quiet and demure little girl, her brothers brought out the tomboy in her, and she could be regularly found doing handstands in her dress, legs in the air, flashing her panties. Of course, her antics led to punishment, but they found other ways to keep each other safe.
As members of the Pentecostal faith, Jones and her siblings had strict orders to not mingle with the other non-religious kids on their street. However, Jones and her siblings secretly played with their neighbors when Mas P left the house, and developed a warning system in case he was returning. They took turns climbing a tall tree while the rest of them played, giving a sharp whistle if they noticed Mas P was coming home. This worked—for a while.
Inevitably, Jones and her siblings sometimes didn’t catch Mas P’s return in time, and they received beatings for mingling with the kids on their street. To reinforce his iron rule, Mas P made them watch each other’s beatings—but this only made them more determined to protect each other. “If one of us got caught,” said Jones, “the others would feel bad that we hadn’t protected each other.” Soon, Jones and her siblings fought back.
Mas P wasn’t the only one who kept a close eye on the children—members of their church did as well. In particular, a nun named Sister Leah frequently reported the kids’ “infractions” to their step-grandfather, which usually led to even more beatings. One day, the kids couldn't take it anymore, so they planned a brutal revenge. They jumped her all at once. Unfortunately, this didn’t go unpunished.
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Mas P separated Jones and her sisters from her brothers. Technically, the girls shouldn’t be with the boys, even if they were siblings, according to their faith. While it didn’t stop them, Jones had to be more secretive about playing with her brothers. Hangouts became less frequent, and she became lonely. With barely any friends to call her own, Jones took out all her frustration on a new hobby.
Eventually, her great-aunt taught her something that took her mind off of the horrors around her—how to crochet. Jones loved to crochet, and “used to crochet until the skin came off [her] fingers, and then [she] would put on a bandage and keep going.” She found the work almost meditative, calling it “a form of praying.” This small hobby was just one of the few, but bright, rays of light in her life that kept her going.
Described by Jones as a “gentle soul,” her grandmother did her best to protect the children. During especially egregious episodes of Mas P’s punishments, her grandmother tried to stand in between him and the kids, blocking his path. Unfortunately, Mas P was just too strong—he pushed her aside every time she tried to stop him. Still, this small act of bravery stuck with Jones for years to come.
As if having a terrible home life wasn’t enough, the kids at school teased Jones relentlessly as well. Incredibly shy and quiet, the kids mocked her for her “skinny frame,” and she didn’t have many real friends. With few people to lean on, Jones turned to nature instead. She loved the signature lightning storms and floods of Jamaica—they took her mind off of the horrors around her. As a result, Jones soon became a force of nature herself.
When she reached the age of 13, her parents finally brought her, and all her siblings, over to the States and away from her step-grandfather. Her father had finally made his dream of establishing his own church in the States come true, and felt the family should stay together. While her parents weren’t quite so savage in their punishments, the strictness of their religious upbringing stayed the same—and this finally broke Jones.
Perhaps it’s a bit of a stereotype, but Jones ticked all the boxes of the teenage rebel trope. Having enough of the religion she grew up with, she turned away from the church and her parents. She started wearing makeup, drinking, and partying at clubs. Amazingly, she still kept up with school while doing all of this, graduating high school and enrolling into Onondaga Community College—where her new life officially began.
Halfway through college, a drama professor for a theater class she took changed the course of her life forever. The professor thought she had a good voice, even though Jones had never really considered herself much of a singer. Nonetheless, the drama professor left for Philadelphia to produce a play during Jones’s third year in college, and she left to work with him—then, things got really wild.
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Grace Jones fell in love with the Counterculture movement that flourished there. She dived headfirst into the movement—she lived in hippie communes, made a living as a go-go dancer, and experimented with many types of illicit substances. Rebelling against “normal” society became, well, normal for Jones, which made her next move not at all surprising.
Jones didn’t stay in Philadelphia for long. Tired of the hippie scene in Philadelphia, Jones decided to leave, and hitched a ride with, unbelievably, a motorcycle gang. For a while, Jones stayed with the gang with no particular destination in mind, traveling aimlessly from city to city. However, Jones still wanted to act, and soon, she found one city that called out to her—New York City.
At 18, Grace Jones started looking for acting jobs, with little success. She auditioned for anything and everything New York City offered, but, as Jones recalled, “they all wanted a black American sound, and I just didn’t have it.” What Jones did have, though, were her looks—her square shape and skinny frame struck a strange silhouette, which intrigued at least one modeling agency in the city.
With no acting jobs available, Jones turned to modeling. She didn’t find success there either—at least, not with conventional modeling agencies. Agencies barely gave her a glance, as they were disinterested in her strangely angular and androgynous look—and it didn’t help that she was also, well, black. Instead, she turned to the Wilhelmina Modelling agency, who specialized in unusual looking models—and even they didn’t accept her right away.
Wilhelmina Cooper, one of the founders of the Wilhelmina Modelling agency, liked the strangeness of Jones’s look and signed her on, but sensed that Jones herself didn’t quite know what sort of model she wanted to be yet. She encouraged her to discover what sort of “look” she wanted to portray… Which led to Jones completely shaving her hair and eyebrows in her quest for self-discovery. Cooper. Was. Livid.
Cooper's reaction was devastating. She blew her top at Jones. She wanted Jones to discover herself, not make herself a completely unmarketable model! Without her hair and eyebrows, Jones looked “brutal” and “confrontational”—not exactly advertiser-friendly. Cooper gave Jones a strict order to grow her hair and eyebrows back. No more shaving—ever. In the meantime, Jones had to wear wigs for her shoots—which she absolutely hated.
The wigs made Grace Jones completely unrecognizable to herself in the mirror, and it became a sticking point in her working relationship with Cooper. She loved how her shaved head made people uncomfortable, how it would “provoke them into a reaction.” She didn’t look like a man nor a woman—not quite American, nor Jamaican—in fact, she barely looked human. And Jones loved it. This, along with one more problem, caused the modeling jobs to dry up. So, she decided to go to Paris.
In Paris, Jones roomed with Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange, models who also worked in the Paris fashion industry. Unfortunately, the three female models faced a terrifying dark side in the city. They were regularly harassed by men, and frequently had to eject unwanted intruders from their apartment. Unsurprisingly, Jones found herself having to fight back against the men who employed her as well—for that, she had a trick up her sleeve.
Jones had complete and total confidence that she could find a rich sugar daddy at any time she wanted. Whenever an agent or agency fought with her over a deal, she used this to her advantage, telling them, “I don’t need to do this. I could marry into millions in minutes.” Jones had no plans to do this, but it became her default position for the longest time—until she found another cause to fight for.
Grace Jones signed on with John Casablancas, founder of Elite Model Management, when she arrived in Paris. For days, a frustrated Jones received no assignments. She confronted Casablancas, and, after some hemming and hawing, he told her the truth: “Well, to be honest, selling a black model in Paris is like trying to sell them an old car nobody wants to buy.” Jones did not take that well at all.
Jones had always had difficulty finding jobs because of her skin, but agencies never shoved it in her face quite the way that Casablancas did, and this motivated her like nothing else had. Jones leaned over his desk and screamed, “I’m going to make you EAT THOSE WORDS!!” and turned, leaving a stunned Casablancas behind her. Black or not, she was going to show the world what she had—with or without Casablancas.
Instead of downplaying her extreme features to make herself easier to hire, she leaned into them—hard. By now, her hair started to grow back in, so at midnight, she opened a window and screamed that she needed a haircut into the night air. Well, renowned hairstylist Christian Houtenbos, who was her neighbor, happened to hear her, and offered his services. He created her now-signature look, cutting her hair into a manly flat top. And she started getting jobs.
Casablancas turned out to be wrong about what the Paris fashion industry wanted, because Jones’s incredibly angular look—further accented by the extreme haircut—made her the darling of Paris fashion. Designers such as Yves St. Laruent, Kenzo Takada, and Azzedine Alaïa loved her dark skin and androgynous appearance. Soon, she even appeared on the covers of Elle and Vogue. Of course, Jones didn’t stop there—she kept pushing her limits.
During a shoot for lingerie company La Perla, the crew were shooting their swimwear line outside when the male models started suffering from sunburn. In a moment of spontaneity, Grace Jones offered to step in for the male models herself. Unbelievably, she pulled it off, saying, “You’d definitely think I was a man in those shots!” Jones’s unique style got her noticed—to the detriment of her father.
As Jones’s fame rose, a photograph of her, along with her family, started circulating in Ebony magazine, which members of her father’s church discovered. Given how strictly her father upheld their religious teachings, he should’ve cut her out of his life—but he didn’t. Instead, he simply said, “I don’t care, I support my daughter.” It held him back in his own career, but gave Grace Jones the confidence to keep pushing her forward.
Despite her success, modeling was more or less a fun side project for Jones, something that she did “just to pay the rent.” While searching for something that she actually wanted to do, a friend suggested that she try singing. That also wasn’t quite something she wanted to do, but she recorded a demo—and it landed her a record. In the course of her ensuing musical success, she ended up meeting a man that shaped the future of her career.
All great albums need a great album cover, and Jones’s album was no exception to this. Collaborating with famed French artist Jean-Paul Goude, the two created some of the most eye-popping pieces of album art in their time. His art exaggerated the blackness of her skin and the ferocious brutality of her look, eliciting a confused, though intrigued, mainstream reaction. Their working relationship grew closer—and then, it escalated.
Goude intertwined himself deeply into all aspects of her career, including her acting career. Jones soon received the script for the film Blade Runner, and the production team offered her the role of Zhora. She turned it down on the advice of Goude, who warned her that the film was “too commercial” would make her a “sellout.” Later, she flipped through the script out of curiosity—and regretted her decision.
Jones was on a plane to Paris as she read through the script, and actually loved the part. Unfortunately, by the time the plane landed, the part had already been given to actress Joanna Cassidy. Blade Runner became an influential cult classic, even preserved in the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Thanks to Goude, Jones missed out big time—and their relationship got worse.
Goude loved the idea of having Jones as his muse. Unfortunately, he treated her more like a piece of art than as an actual human being, saying, “I became jealous and possessive of the character that, through her, I was able to create.” Somewhere in this unhealthy mess of a working relationship, the two ended up having a child together named Paulo, leading to a very strange request from Jones.
Jones and Goude split up after their relationship got too messy, but Jones really, really wanted a second child. So, she asked Goude if he could please give her some of his sperm, so that she could artificially inseminate herself in order to have a second child. Goude, uh, politely declined the request. Somehow, this didn’t stop other famous artists from cozying up to her.
In the 80s, Jones hired a young actor named Dolph Lundgren to be her bodyguard. Soon after, they began dating—but their relationship was far from ordinary. Lundgren confessed that Jones would often bring home up to five girlfriends at a time to share with him. This was all while he was working on the film that made him famous, Rocky IV. So he'd stay up all night with a bevy of beautiful women and then head to work with Sylvester Stallone the next morning. The 80s!!
Goude wasn’t the only one who found her a fascinating muse. Famed artist Andy Warhol also worked closely with Jones, creating several art pieces that featured her. The two soon became close friends. In fact, they became so close that, when they both received an invitation to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wedding, they both went together—not that Jones asked for Warhol’s permission to be his date, of course.
Warhol didn’t expect Jones to be his date for the wedding, figuring she probably wouldn’t even show up. Imagine his surprise when he read in the newspapers that Jones planned to take him to Schwarzenegger’s wedding in her own private jet! Despite the fact that she didn’t, you know, ask him beforehand, he figured he had nothing to lose and attended the wedding with her. It ended up being an embarrassing day.
Grace Jones ended up sleeping in on the day of the ceremony, forcing her and Warhol to rush to the airport, an hour late. The two arrived at the church as the ceremony was well underway. Of course, the crowds recognized the two of them and immediately started screaming and cheering as the two entered the little church—just as Schwarzenegger and his bride were finishing their vows. Talk about stealing someone’s thunder!
Sure, she kind of ruined his wedding, but that didn’t mean Jones was shy about working with him. Jones eventually got a gig in the film Conan the Destroyer as Zula, a powerful female warrior, alongside Schwarzenegger, who played the titular character, Conan. Production wasn’t always smooth—Schwarzenegger actually described her as “too tough.” Outdoing the Terminator himself was definitely no small feat!
Throughout the years, Jones had many relationships, but she only ever married once. She met a Turkish man in Belgium named Atila Altaunbay, and, in 1996, the two eloped in Brazil while she was working. Her own father performed the actual marriage ceremony when she took him home to Syracuse. Altaunbay’s family never approved of her though, and the two ended the marriage… Well, sort of.
After the couple separated, Altaunbay went back to his family, but there was a bizarre twist. They never revealed to her where he went after his return. Having no clue where to look for him “to get the divorce sorted,” the two remained legally married. To top it all off, Jones figured out that he was actually just 24 years old—nearly 20 years her junior! With Jones though, this was probably the least strange thing about her, because things definitely get weirder.
As Grace Jones continued to stretch her career, others put limits on her that she had to fight against. Agencies wanted her to be more marketable and less extreme, especially in her music and concerts. Tired of “the whole corporate system,” Jones started paying for her own records so that she had more artistic freedom—which she used to throw some insane concerts.
Now free to do whatever she wanted, Jones’s concerts rocketed her to fame. In one concert, Jones pulled men from the audience onto the stage, demanding that they all take off their shirts. They did, and the description of Jones dancing along with a crowd of half-clothed men on stage made its way into Ebony magazine, causing both laughter and outrage from its readers in equal measure. This wasn’t her only crazy concert either.
Given her track record of less-than-family-friendly performances, Disney World probably should have known better than to invite Grace Jones to perform at one of their shows. But they did—and they paid the price. Jones ended up taking her shirt off, flashing her breasts to everyone (including the kids), and then “proceeded to light up and smoke a doobie” while on stage. That earned her a lifetime ban from the happiest place on earth—and the admiration of fellow performers.
Jones’s on-stage shenanigans encouraged many to follow in her footsteps. In the early stages of her career, Lady Gaga reached out to Jones to collaborate. She said that Jones had inspired her music and sense of style. Jones' response was devastating. Uninspired by Lady Gaga’s work, Jones also pointed out that Gaga was still in the midst of crafting her own image, and wasn’t ready for collaboration. Her high demands extend beyond just her fellow artists though.
Grace Jones has a very specific demand for those who want her to throw a concert. Upon arrival at the concert hall, she must have 2 dozen oysters—either Colchester oysters or Fine de Claire oysters—waiting for her backstage on ice. Do not shuck her oysters though—Jones likes to shuck her own oysters, so they must provide an oyster knife as well. No oysters? No concert. Jones is a lady that knows what she wants!
Many popular pop artists of today cite Jones as an influence on their work. Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Solange, and Lorde are just some of the artists that take inspiration from her music and her style. From her beginning as a shy, quiet girl, Jones has come a long way. Pushing art, culture, and gender norms to their extreme, Jones will likely continue to influence future generations of artists to come.
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