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Singer, actor, minister

Denise Matthews is a singer who rose to fame during the 1980s when she performed under the name Vanity as a backing vocalist for the Minneapolis R&B/funk star Prince and fronted the all-female pop trio Vanity 6. In addition, Matthews was a film and television actor who appeared in several films between 1980 and 1995. After her music career declined, Matthews became a born-again Christian and minister. She has been candid about the drug abuse and personal issues that nearly killed her when she was at the height of her fame. "I always put on a show," she told Aldore Collier in Jet in 1993. "You put this big facade up and don't want to give anyone the idea that you're weak. I finally let it go and gave it to God. I said, ‘I am nobody. I need somebody. Please help me.’"

Matthews was born Denise Katrina Matthews on January 4, 1959, in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Her mother was German and her father African-American; after her mother remarried, Matthews's immediate family would eventually grow to include seven siblings. She began her career as a model, and made her film debut in Klondike Fever (1980), a film based on events in the life of the American writer Jack London. She also appeared in two other films in 1980—Terror Train and Tanya's Island—using the name D. D. Winters.

By most reports, Matthews's association with Prince began in January of 1982 when she and the musician met and began dating. He decided she would be the ideal front person for an all-female singing group he was planning. According to one version of the story, Matthews adopted the stage name Vanity at Prince's suggestion after she reportedly refused to use a more sexually explicit one that Prince originally recommended; in another version Prince gave Matthews her stage name because when he looked at her he saw a female reflection of himself. Vanity 6 teamed Matthews with Susan Moonsie and Brenda Bennett, two friends of the Minneapolis-based artist. Onstage the group wore lingerie—which was considered a daring professional move at the time. Their single "Nasty Girl" went to #1 on Billboard's U.S. dance-singles chart in 1982 and made the trio instantly famous.

Vanity 6 toured as the opening act for Prince during his 1982-83 tour, and the trio's scantily-clad stage show garnered them further attention—though Matthews later said she had hoped for a different kind of performing career. As she told Collier in Jet several years later, she had felt pressured into going along with the lingerie and double-entendre lyrics. "I did it because [Prince] told me I had to do it," she said. "If I didn't do it, I wouldn't get paid. I got into it. I wanted the old Diana Ross image." When Matthews and Prince broke up, he reportedly penned the song "When Doves Cry" about her, which went on to become one of his biggest hits.

That split was both personal and professional, with Matthews leaving the group to sign with Motown Records. She also bowed out of the group and her planned role as the female lead in the Prince film Purple Rain. She was replaced in both by Apollonia Kotero, and the group renamed Apollonia 6. Matthews's first solo record was Wild Animal, released in 1984 with the first single "Pretty Mess," followed two years later by Skin on Skin, which failed to do as well on the charts. These two albums served as the final chapter in her brief recording career, but she did have better luck with her film roles over the next few years. She appeared in The Last Dragon, 52 Pick-Up, and Action Jackson, all released during the late 1980s. In addition, Matthews acted in guest roles on such television series as Highlander, Miami Vice, and Tales from the Crypt.

In her personal life Matthews was linked with the British singers Adam Ant and Billy Idol, and was engaged to Mötley Crüe bass player Nikki Sixx in 1987. This period of her life, she later admitted, was marred by heavy drug use, which finally culminated in a near-fatal crack-cocaine overdose in 1994 that resulted in kidney failure. As she recalled in an interview with Margena A. Christian in Jet, Matthews was given just three days to live. "My blood pressure was 250 over 190. I lost both kidneys. I had internal bleeding with blood clots on the brain. I was completely blind and deaf. I had a heart attack and a stroke."

After an astonishing recovery, Matthews abandoned the name Vanity and the persona associated with it. She became a born-again Christian, and in 1995 she married Anthony Smith, who played defense for the Los Angeles Raiders football team. Collier, writing for Ebony in 1995, visited the newlyweds at home and was told by Smith that Matthews, in her newfound zeal, sometimes brought homeless people back to the house in order to feed them. "If I don't watch, out she will even hand out the furniture in our house. She is constantly giving out her number and offering meals and showers to people," Smith said. At about this same time, Matthews's name surfaced in the murder trial of retired National Football League player O. J. Simpson; in the debate over whether or not members of the Los Angeles police force harbored a racial bias against Simpson, the fact that the detective on the case, Mark Fuhrman, had pulled over Matthews for speeding several years earlier and then asked her out was cited as proof that Fuhrman was not a racist.

The damage to Matthews's kidneys from her drug use was permanent, and afterward she required manual dialysis five times a day. As of 2008 she lived in the San Francisco Bay area community of Fremont, and operated Pure Heart Ministries out of her home. In November of 2007 she told Christian that she still spoke to Prince by phone occasionally, but had not seen the famously reclusive star in years. "I'm waiting for God to supernaturally hook us up," she said. "I would love to see his face. I've been praying for Prince a very long time and I believe he's praying for me."

At a Glance …

Born Denise Katrina Matthews, January 4, 1959, in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada; married Anthony Smith (a professional athlete), 1995 (divorced, 1996). Religion: Evangelical Christian.

Career: Worked as a model, late 1970s; film and television actor, 1980-95; Vanity 6, lead singer, 1982-83; backing vocalist for Prince, 1983; released first solo album, Wild Animal, 1984; Pure Heart Ministries, founder and minister, 1995—.

Addresses: Home and Office—39270 Paseo Padre Pkwy., No. 214, Fremont, CA 94538

Selected works

Albums; as Vanity

(With Vanity 6) Vanity 6, Warner Bros., 1982.

Wild Animal, Motown, 1984.

Skin on Skin, Motown, 1986.

Also appeared on the Prince album 1999 (1983) as backing vocalist.

Films; as Vanity unless Otherwise Indicated

(Uncredited) Klondike Fever, 1980.

(As D. D. Winters) Terror Train, 1980.

(As D. D. Winters) Tanya's Island, 1980.

The Last Dragon, 1985.

Never Too Young to Die, 1986.

52 Pick-Up, 1986.

Deadly Illusion, 1987.

Action Jackson, 1988.

South Beach, 1992.

Neon City, 1992.

Da Vinci's War, 1993.

Kiss of Death, 1995.



Ebony, June 1995, p. 54.

Jet, January 11, 1993, p. 58; November 26, 2007, p. 48.


Evangelist Denise Matthews, (accessed March 23, 2008).

—Carol Brennan

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vanity is the short-sighted pursuit of bodily life, its transient pleasures, and achievements. Characterized by a narcissistic pride in personal appearance and temporary accomplishments, vanity thumbs its nose at the inevitability of death and religious lore setting store on an afterlife (though it is possible to be vain about seeking martyrdom). One of the greatest poetic celebrations of vanity — a paean in praise of corporeal pleasure — is Edward Fitzgerald's musical translation (1859) of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into Dust descend:
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and — sans End!
Conversely, the classical warning against worldly vanity — ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’ — fills twelve chapters of the book Ecclesiastes. Implying a state of spiritual emptiness, vanity inspired, in seventeenth-century Leiden, a genre of still-life painting called the vanitas. Essentially an exhortation to repentance, the vanitas featured symbols of earthly wealth and enjoyment such as jewellery and wine goblets, alongside momento mori like the human skull or a clock and, sometimes, symbols of eternal life. The message is clear: death comes to all mortals.

In secular society, vanity is most readily identified with the sin of pride in bodily appearance, manifesting in luxurious garb and flamboyant ornamentation. Vanity occurs in differing degrees of severity and ridiculousness and has a number of roots, but few human beings are immune from it. On occasion, it derives from a desire to show a particularly splendid, sexually attractive, part of the anatomy in its best aspect. The parson in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, for instance, inveighed against the vanity of fourteenth-century youths in sporting ludicrously brief tunic skirts: ‘some of them show the very boss of the privy member and pushed out parts that look like the hind parts of an ape.’ A similar argument might be made (with the appropriate gender, and anatomical, changes) for the 1960s mini skirt. In most cases, however, vanity is concerned with the concealment, and aesthetic amelioration, of bodily inadequacy, imperfection, or weakness. The vanity of the middle-aged man compelled to scrape a few strands of hair across a bald pate, or of the woman who would rather ask a fellow pedestrian her bus number than don spectacles, tends to be regarded with amused indulgence. However, the ostentatious display of garments which unduly expose the body, and so render it sexually provocative, can invoke moral judgement, censure, and severe disapproval.

Women have traditionally suffered (and been prepared to suffer) more than men in the name of vanity. While the male body lends itself less to remoulding, men's evident disinclination to endure pain in the name of beauty is also an expression of centuries of male social dominance. For instance, although some European men have been known from the eighteenth century to wear corsets, women's abdomens have consistently been the main target of tight lacing and whale-bone stays. Even after all the fast-changing cultural and gender perceptions of the twentieth century, there is little doubt that women are still judged more from the outside in. Culturally constrained by their appearance, women's body image plays a larger part in determining their self-esteem and self-identity. Ironically, women are willing agents within this process as well as victims of a socially dictated, collective vanity.

Corrective surgery for the repair of accidental and trauma-inflicted injury is acceptable vanity. The surgical restoration of noses has a history of thousands of years' duration in India. But the growth, during the twentieth century, in elective surgery for purely cosmetic reasons is probably regarded as the ultimate form of dubious vanity. Although still most popular with women, cosmetic surgery increasingly has a market amongst men. Even where surgery is successful, the aesthetic improvements achieved are often ordinary rather than exquisite. The risks are manifold: danger in undergoing anaesthesia; surgical failure; poisoning of the immune system through silicone dispersal from ruptured breast implants or injections to increase muscle-bulk; and permanent disfigurement at the hands of unscrupulous, inadequately-trained surgeons out to make a fast fortune.

There can be a huge divide between relatively harmless ‘peacock’ posturing and susceptibility to forms of coercive, collective vanity which irreparably damage the body. A particularly inhumane example of the latter is the binding of young girls' feet in China, a custom which persisted into the twentieth century.

Changes in sartorial fashion are also society's authorization of the human need for collective vanity. The answer for religious sects like the Amish of North America is to shun bodily vanity through anachronistic adherence to the styles of the seventeenth century. But the seventeenth century was hardly immune from the condition. The anonymous author of England's Vanity: or the Voice of God Against the Monstrous Sin of Pride, in Dress and Apparel (1683), compared the vanity of the English with the canker of syphilis, since they would accept ‘No Cut but a French Taylor's to shape our Cloaths; No Language but the French to serve our Tongues; no Religion but the French to content our Souls; I pray you what will be the end hereof? There is a disease among us called of that Name too, I pray God it be not too Epidemical; if it be not gotten into our Bodies, sure I am tis gotten into our Heads.’

Fiona Macdonald


Woodforde, J. (1992). The history of vanity. Alan Sutton, Stroud.

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673. Vanity (See also Conceit, Egotism.)

  1. Barnabas, Parson conceited and weak clergyman. [Br. Lit.: Joseph Andrews ]
  2. Bottom, Nick self-important weaver. [Br. Lit.: A Midsummer Nights Dream ]
  3. Cassiopeia claimed her beauty was greater than that of the Nereids. [Gk. Myth.: Leach, 196]
  4. Eglantine, Madame distinguished by her feminine delicacy and seeming worldliness. [Br. Lit.: Canterbury Tales, The Prioresss Tale]
  5. March, Amy beautiful, vain, spoiled girl. [Am. Lit.: Little Women ]
  6. mirror attribute of vainglory. [Art: Hall, 211]
  7. Narcissus fell in love with own image. [Gk. Myth.: Howe, 174]
  8. peacock conceit personified. [Animal Symbolism: Hall, 239]
  9. Turveydrop, Mr. conceited father of Prince. [Br. Lit.: Bleak House ]
  10. Zion, Daughters of Lord reacts harshly to their wanton finery. [O.T.: Isaiah 3:1626]

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van·i·ty / ˈvanətē/ • n. (pl. -ties) 1. excessive pride in or admiration of one's own appearance or achievements: it flattered his vanity to think I was in love with him | the personal vanities and ambitions of politicians. See notes at egotism, pride. ∎  [as adj.] denoting a person or company that publishes works at the author's expense: a vanity press. 2. the quality of being worthless or futile: the vanity of human wishes. 3. a dressing table. ∎  a bathroom unit consisting of a washbasin typically set into a counter with a cabinet beneath.

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vanity vain or worthless thing XIII; quality of being vain XIV. — (O)F. vanité :- L. vānitās, -tāt-, f. vānus VAIN; see -ITY.

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vanitybanditti, bitty, chitty, city, committee, ditty, gritty, intercity, kitty, nitty-gritty, Pitti, pity, pretty, shitty, slitty, smriti, spitty, titty, vittae, witty •fifty, fifty-fifty, nifty, shifty, swiftie, thrifty •guilty, kiltie, silty •flinty, linty, minty, shinty •ballistae, Christie, Corpus Christi, misty, twisty, wristy •sixty •deity, gaiety (US gayety), laity, simultaneity, spontaneity •contemporaneity, corporeity, femineity, heterogeneity, homogeneity •anxiety, contrariety, dubiety, impiety, impropriety, inebriety, notoriety, piety, satiety, sobriety, ubiety, variety •moiety •acuity, ambiguity, annuity, assiduity, congruity, contiguity, continuity, exiguity, fatuity, fortuity, gratuity, ingenuity, perpetuity, perspicuity, promiscuity, suety, superfluity, tenuity, vacuity •rabbity •improbity, probity •acerbity • witchetty • crotchety •heredity •acidity, acridity, aridity, avidity, cupidity, flaccidity, fluidity, frigidity, humidity, hybridity, insipidity, intrepidity, limpidity, liquidity, lividity, lucidity, morbidity, placidity, putridity, quiddity, rabidity, rancidity, rapidity, rigidity, solidity, stolidity, stupidity, tepidity, timidity, torpidity, torridity, turgidity, validity, vapidity •commodity, oddity •immodesty, modesty •crudity, nudity •fecundity, jocundity, moribundity, profundity, rotundity, rubicundity •absurdity • difficulty • gadgety •majesty • fidgety • rackety •pernickety, rickety •biscuity •banality, duality, fatality, finality, ideality, legality, locality, modality, morality, natality, orality, reality, regality, rurality, tonality, totality, venality, vitality, vocality •fidelity •ability, agility, civility, debility, docility, edibility, facility, fertility, flexility, fragility, futility, gentility, hostility, humility, imbecility, infantility, juvenility, liability, mobility, nihility, nobility, nubility, puerility, senility, servility, stability, sterility, tactility, tranquillity (US tranquility), usability, utility, versatility, viability, virility, volatility •ringlety •equality, frivolity, jollity, polity, quality •credulity, garrulity, sedulity •nullity •amity, calamity •extremity • enmity •anonymity, dimity, equanimity, magnanimity, proximity, pseudonymity, pusillanimity, unanimity •comity •conformity, deformity, enormity, multiformity, uniformity •subcommittee • pepperminty •infirmity •Christianity, humanity, inanity, profanity, sanity, urbanity, vanity •amnesty •lenity, obscenity, serenity •indemnity, solemnity •mundanity • amenity •affinity, asininity, clandestinity, divinity, femininity, infinity, masculinity, salinity, trinity, vicinity, virginity •benignity, dignity, malignity •honesty •community, immunity, importunity, impunity, opportunity, unity •confraternity, eternity, fraternity, maternity, modernity, paternity, taciturnity •serendipity, snippety •uppity •angularity, barbarity, bipolarity, charity, circularity, clarity, complementarity, familiarity, granularity, hilarity, insularity, irregularity, jocularity, linearity, parity, particularity, peculiarity, polarity, popularity, regularity, secularity, similarity, singularity, solidarity, subsidiarity, unitarity, vernacularity, vulgarity •alacrity • sacristy •ambidexterity, asperity, austerity, celerity, dexterity, ferrety, posterity, prosperity, severity, sincerity, temerity, verity •celebrity • integrity • rarity •authority, inferiority, juniority, majority, minority, priority, seniority, sonority, sorority, superiority •mediocrity • sovereignty • salubrity •entirety •futurity, immaturity, impurity, maturity, obscurity, purity, security, surety •touristy •audacity, capacity, fugacity, loquacity, mendacity, opacity, perspicacity, pertinacity, pugnacity, rapacity, sagacity, sequacity, tenacity, veracity, vivacity, voracity •laxity •sparsity, varsity •necessity •complexity, perplexity •density, immensity, propensity, tensity •scarcity • obesity •felicity, toxicity •fixity, prolixity •benedicite, nicety •anfractuosity, animosity, atrocity, bellicosity, curiosity, fabulosity, ferocity, generosity, grandiosity, impecuniosity, impetuosity, jocosity, luminosity, monstrosity, nebulosity, pomposity, ponderosity, porosity, preciosity, precocity, reciprocity, religiosity, scrupulosity, sinuosity, sumptuosity, velocity, verbosity, virtuosity, viscosity •paucity • falsity • caducity • russety •adversity, biodiversity, diversity, perversity, university •sacrosanctity, sanctity •chastity •entity, identity •quantity • certainty •cavity, concavity, depravity, gravity •travesty • suavity •brevity, levity, longevity •velvety • naivety •activity, nativity •equity •antiquity, iniquity, obliquity, ubiquity •propinquity

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