Vanity was born Denise Katrina Matthews in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Her mother was German while her father part Native and part African-American. She grew up in the Falls and came from what she called “a dysfunctional family.” Her parents divorced when she was young, and her mother suffered from alcohol abuse and depression. Matthews began entering local beauty pageants before moving to Toronto, where she modelled. She won the Miss Niagara Hospitality title in 1977, and went on to compete for Miss Canada in 1978.
At age 19, she moved to New York City to further her career. At five-foot-six, her modelling was limited to commercials and print. In 1980, Matthews made a brief appearance in Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train, which was filmed in Montreal a year earlier. She then went to Toronto to take the lead in the rather odd soft-core horror/drama Tanya’s Island. In both films, she was billed as D.D. Winters. In 1982, she met Prince, and he was the one who officially re-named her Vanity because, he said, he saw his female reflection when he looked at her. After learning that she could sing, Prince, who died in April 2016, asked her to become the lead in an all girl group christened Vanity 6. The group was known for its sexually explicit lyrics, raunchy choreography and lingerie-laden outfits. They had a hit with “Nasty Girl” in 1982. In late ’82, Vanity 6 went on tour with Prince. Matthews posed twice for Playboy magazine, once in May, 1985, and again in April, 1988.
Throughout the 1980s to the mid-1990s, she appeared on the cover of many magazines and in television shows such as Friday the 13th, Miami Vice and Highlander: The Series. She signed a record deal with Motown Records in 1984 and recorded two solo albums, which were moderate successes. Later she signed with A&M Records, then Greffen Records. In 1988, she recorded songs for and appeared in Action Jackson with Carl Weathers, including “Faraway Eyes,” which became one of her biggest hits.
In 1994 Matthews gave up her stage name and turned to religion as a born-again Christian. She said it was the year she almost died from the effects of her daily drug abuse and unhealthy living. She spoke at churches across the U.S. and worldwide. In 2010, Matthews released her autobiography, Blame It on Vanity.
Kidney failure was given as the cause of her death, some outlets claiming it was the result of years of crack cocaine abuse. Denise Matthews was 57 when it was announced that she had died in hospital in Fremont California on February 15, 2016.
Also see: Vanity’s filmography.
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