*Two months before Prince was found dead in his Paisley Park home on April 21, 2016, one of his biggest protégés, the Niagara Falls, Ontario-born beauty Denise Katherine Matthews, whom Prince renamed Vanity, lost her life to kidney failure.
Matthews started her career as a model in the late 70s and won the Miss Niagara Hospitality title in 1977. She was also a contestant in the 1978 Miss Canada pageant.
Soon after her pageant stint, she moved to the States to further her modeling and acting career. It wasn’t long before she booked a Pearl Drops toothpaste commercial in 1978.
In 1980, she landed a small role in the horror movie “Terror Train” [below at the 6:30 mark] and the lead role in the B-movie “Tanya’s Island,” credited in both as D.D. Winters.
“Terror Train” recap (1980)
“Tanya’s Island” trailer (1980)
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, Prince had reportedly been mulling the mentorship of a girl group ever since he saw the 1976 movie “A Star is Born” with Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand, which arrived in theaters one year before his debut album, “For You.” …Or if you believe Prince’s nemesis Rick James, he stole the girl group idea from James’ group, The Mary Jane Girls, while Prince opened for James’ Fire It Up tour from November 1979 through May 1980.
As the story goes, Prince initially formed a trio called The Hookers, featuring his personal assistant Jamie Shoup as lead singer, and sisters Loreen and Susan Moonsie. Their recordings, however, were put on hold when Prince hit the road again in November 1981 for his Controversy Tour. That’s when Shoop and Loreen Moonsie informed Prince that they no longer wanted to be in the group.
Earlier that year – on Jan. 30, 1981 to be exact – Prince was at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles when Rick James appeared with his date, Canadian model/actress Denise Matthews. Prince figured out a way to shoot his shot with Matthews by summoning her as his escort to the restroom. Vanity explains below at the 1:26 mark, adding that she assumed Prince was gay when they first met, and only interested in her clothes.
Hot Properties Live TV Show with comedian/actor Richard Belzer (1985)
With Jamie Shoop and Loreen Moonsie no longer in The Hookers, and Matthews now on his arm, Prince decided to replace Shoup with Matthews as the lead singer, and Moonsie with his wardrobe assistant Brenda Bennett, whom he had overheard singing while working in the dressing room. Matthews reportedly rejected The Hookers as the group’s name, as well as Prince’s suggestion that she call herself Vagina. However, the two agreed on Vanity, and the trio was renamed Vanity 6.
They would serve as the opening act of his 1999 tour in 1982-83. Here’s a 1983 performance of their lone hit, “Nasty Girl,” in Bloomington, MN.
Below is an 1982 performance of “Nasty Girl” in Detroit with Prince on guitar.
“Nasty Girl” was not the trio’s first single from their self-titled debut album. That distinction belonged to “He’s So Dull,” which hit big only in Australia and the Netherlands.
Here’s their performance of the single on the UK’s “Top of the Pops.”
Prince had planned to cast Vanity as the female lead in the his 1984 biographical film “Purple Rain,” but Vanity broke up with Prince and left the group. He replaced her with lookalike Apollonia Kotero, and renamed the group was re-named Apollonia 6.
Vanity would later say that she had always been uncomfortable with the sexual image that Prince created for her. “It bothered me at the time,” she told Jet magazine in 1983. “I lied and said it was the image I wanted. I did it because he told me I had to do it. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t get paid. I got into it. I wanted the old Diana Ross image.”
Vanity went on to launch a solo career and recorded two albums for Motown, “Wild Animal” in 1984 and “Skin on Skin” in 1986. From “Wild Animal,” she released the minor hit singles “Pretty Mess” and “Mechanical Emotion” featuring Morris Day.
During this time in the mid-eighties, Vanity appeared in the Motown film “The Last Dragon,” as well as “Never too Young to Die,” “52 Pick-Up” and “Action Jackson.”
Matthews gave up her stage name “Vanity” and became a born-again Christian in 1994, the year she had a near death experience from years of smoking crack cocaine. Matthews would later reveal that she was rushed to the hospital where doctors put her on life support and told her she had three days left to live due to ailing kidneys. During subsequent interviews, she said Jesus spoke to her in the hospital and said he would save her if she promised to give up her “Vanity” persona and lifestyle.
Matthews shared her testimony in a 1992 interview with “700 Club” co-host Ben Kinchlow.
In 1995, Matthews told a reporter: “When I came to the Lord Jesus Christ, I threw out about 1,000 tapes of mine—every interview, every tape, every video. Everything.”
After a kidney transplant in 1997, Matthews decided to devote 100 percent of her life to evangelism and traveled around the world spreading the word. But she could not escape the toll of her decade of drug use in the 80s and had to undergo dialysis for failing kidneys. The condition would ultimately take her life on Feb. 15, 2016, at age 57.
Below is bittersweet video of Matthews showing off items around her apartment to her nephews, and expressing her final wishes for various keepsakes. The video was shared by her sister, Deborah Matthews-Brown.
After Matthews’ death, Prince dedicated his “Little Red Corvette/Dirty Mind” medley to her at a concert in Melbourne, saying, “She loved me for the artist I was, I loved her for the artist she was trying to be.”
Prince would die two months later, also at age 57.