Grace In Favour
If Russell Harty was still with us he'd be quaking in his boots. For, after a decade underground, Grace Jones is back – and this time she's 'going for the jugular'
By David Usborne
4 September 2000
It seems a pity we are doing this for a newspaper and not for TV. The scene is just so perfect. Grace Jones, her beauty as predatory as it always was, is semi-reclined on a low sofa in the $5,000-a-night penthouse suite atop the hip Time Hotel on New York's 49th Street. Even the decor is right. It's disco-era, all black tiles and steel and white fluffy rugs. (The huge bed upstairs is very Shaft.) Grace sips from her glass of Cristal champagne, pausing once in a while only to peruse the platter of raw oysters resting beside her.
The oysters. We had better get this part over with, because it doesn't cast Grace in a good light and that's a shame. Prima donna behaviour from even bona fide stars is rarely an attractive thing, and, let's face it, Ms Jones has hardly been the brightest point in the firmament in recent years. The message came early in the day that she would be turning up later, as promised – it was to be her first major press interview in eight years – so long as there was ample Cristal on hand, no other brand would do, and two dozen oysters.
Nor could these be any kind of oysters. No, Grace required that they came from a particular chef, named Bruno, at the Plaza Hotel. The nice PR man, Jonathan, who had come from London to oversee the entire enterprise – actually to plug an appearance Grace is making at a dance binge in Ibiza later this month organised by Lynx, the shower gel people – was already having kittens when the Plaza announced it couldn't let raw seafood out of the building in case it spoiled. Only when he foolishly offered to sign a waiver making him legally responsible should Grace die from food poisoning were the molluscs released.
So now all is in order, and Grace seems inordinately happy. Warnings to me earlier of some foul mood she was in because of a tooth problem seem to have been quite wrong. She is still famous for hitting Russell Harty on the set all those years ago – 20 years, in fact – but here on the sofa with her I feel safe quite quickly. I flinch only once when she swipes at a midge that skirts inches from my nose. Four hours will pass before we are able to coax her back into the lift and to the limo waiting to take her home to her husband, Attila. He rings at 10pm to ask where she is. (His tone of authority crumbles when he admits he is playing some indoor game with friends involving tennis rackets and a hula hoop.)
It's the oysters that are doing it for her, she insists. "These," she says between slurps, "are my favourite, favourite thing. If I'm depressed, if I'm feeling ill, if I'm feeling whatever, once I get my oysters, my toes start to twinkle." Grace raises one foot, with an ankle as slender as an oboe, almost to my lap to demonstrate. No wonder Attila wants her home. "They go like this and I'm a mermaid in the sea."
It is amazing how good she looks. Born in 1952 in Jamaica and raised from her early teen years in upstate New York before modelling propelled her into celebritydom, she still has that cropped military-style hair and panther-like poise, ready to pounce. I can't actually see the hair, because she is wearing a sort of Castro cap with a long brown scarf flowing down behind it. How has she done it? "I haven't had a face-lift, if that's what you're asking," she says. She still works out, but less fanatically. "I just go in and do some yoga, like a sunrise stretch and that maintains the body. I believe in maintaining." Without her towering high heels, Grace Jones is not actually that tall. That is one of the evening's surprises.
Even she doesn't deny that for about a decade now, she has been nigh invisible. For many of us, it seems longer. Our memories go back to her as May Day in A View to a Kill in 1985 – when Bond was still being played by Roger Moore – and to her smash 1980 dance album, Nightclubbing. Otherwise, there has been the occasional press report, noting, for example, a tangle with the Jamaican judiciary for cocaine possession (she was acquitted) and, 10 years ago, her filing in New York for bankruptcy.
"I have been performing all the time, but my fans have to track me down. I haven't being doing any press. I go underground," Jones explains. What that means is that she keeps her revenue rolling with about three shows a month, mostly at small clubs around the world, while she focuses on making new dance music and doing some film work. This low-profile approach is about to change, however. Comeback is not a word she likes. But starting with her appearance in Ibiza – billed as the Lynx Phoenix Legends event (the actual venue has yet to be identified) – Grace Jones plans once more to come above ground, and noisily. There is a new album coming and even a new recording label, her own, but she is not meant to talk about any of that just yet. Is she about to be huge again? Will her new song – it's called "Hurricane", that much we can say – do for her what "Do You Believe?" did last year for Cher? "Huge again? Sure. When we launch this stuff, then we will go for the jugular."
Will this be the Jones that we used to know? When we next see her on stage, should we expect that old dominatrix stuff, the leather, the suggestion of S&M sex and whips? Jones explodes into a laugh so loud even a Cristal bottle might shatter. It's a laugh that gets more insane – and more infectious, frankly – as the evening progresses. "Yes, absolutely, absolutely. You want whips? If you like. I will have no limitations when I go out there." And what we see on stage is what she really is, she says. The androgynous, gender-ambiguous figure some see in Grace Jones – she has been an icon of the gay scene from her first days performing in Studio 54 in the late Seventies – comes also from within.
"I do change roles in life, I live that way. I go feminine, I go masculine. I am both, actually. I think the male side is a bit stronger in me and I have to tone it down sometimes." Is this an acknowledgement of bisexuality? "I didn't say that, I am talking about role-changing. I play the male side and then I play the female side," she responds firmly. "If you want to talk about sex, don't be shy. I can say what my beliefs are, you know, but I don't necessarily say what I do. I don't think that's anyone's business. I don't think anyone should have to say whether you are gay or you are straight." She pursues the theme. "If you're effeminate that doesn't mean you have to be like that sexually."
Which brings us to Roger Moore and the day he and Grace filmed their sex scene for the Bond film. "Roger has the hardest legs of any man I have ever felt," Grace casually informs us. "Anyway, he also had this gag he would do just before his love scenes. He would always have some kind of contraption under the covers and when you got under them he would goose you with it. I heard about this and I said, 'OK, I'm going to get him before he gets me'. We went to props and we got this very big black sex toy and we put white spots on it, to make it look diseased. When I came back on the set and I had to take my robe off, I had it strapped on and I jumped on him." (By now the top several storeys of this hotel and those across the street must be hearing Grace's hooting laughter.) "But Roger was great, you know. He showed me what he had for me. It was like a six-pronged carrot. A mutation!"
We could not end the night without at least mentioning Harty. "Poor Russell, let him rest in peace," Grace says at once. She remembers every detail of the evening, especially how aggravated she was by the love-in on the set between Harty and another of his guests, Patrick Lichfield. "I was the one who had come all the way from America, but he was some cousin of the Queen, you know." Be honest, did she hit Harty for the publicity it generated, or did she mean it? "Oh, it was totally spontaneous. I was teaching him a lesson how not to be rude. He wound me up. In fact, he was purposely trying to wind me up. I just wasn't going to take it from Russell."
At which point, I offer private thanks that I have not similarly wound the lady up. We seem, actually, to have got on famously. We have a little picture session before saying goodbye – Jones and me on the balcony – and she scrawls a rude message on an empty bottle of Cristal for me. (Too rude even for this newspaper.) All that remains to be done is for Grace to take a "tinkle winkle" in one of the three penthouse bathrooms (one with sauna), for her PA to steal at least one Time Hotel pillow and for Jonathan and I, both drained by our evening with the world's most daunting diva, to call the lift.
'Lynx Phoenix Legends', featuring Grace Jones and others, takes place on 16 September in Ibiza. For tickets call 0906 7224114.