“I am so terribly sorry,” said the woman in a black blazer and leopard-print heels, hovering over Grace Jones. “There’s no way that I can have you keep doing this interview here.”
Ms. Jones looked up incredulously and said, “What?” She was in the lounge room of the spa at the Mandarin Oriental, New York, wearing a towel wrapped around her head and a terry robe, a half-drunk mimosa in one hand.
Smiling a frozen smile, the hotel employee continued, “This area is for spa guests who are having ——”
“I am a spa guest!”
“Of course, Ms. Jones, I know. But people who are having treatments ——”
“So can we put a robe on him and get him a treatment?” Ms. Jones said, referring to her interviewer, whom she had ushered into the spa 15 minutes earlier, having checked out of her room upstairs.
The answer was no: hotel policy. Nevertheless, the woman was quickly learning what decades of agents, photographers, album producers, tour managers and lovers already knew: Nobody tells Grace Jones what to do.
“You’re so corporate,” she said, looking the woman up and down. “I would hate having your job. You want to work for me?”
The hotel staff, realizing it had awaked a lioness, swiftly rustled up an empty room on the 39th floor, where Ms. Jones ordered up a bottle of Champagne and fresh orange juice.
Undisturbed at last (and still in her bathrobe), she settled onto a twin bed to discuss her singular career as a style icon, disco queen, avant-garde rocker, Bond girl, provocateur and sphinx, all chronicled in her new autobiography, out Sept. 29.
The title is “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs,” a lyric from her 1981 song “Art Groupie.” Why the about-face?
“I’m allowed to change my mind, you know,” she said with a grin.
For fans who have relished her contradictory pronouncements, reinventions (though she hates the word) and blasphemies over the years, the book contains a bounty of hedonistic flashbacks from a woman whose greatest achievement has been remaining her defiantly idiosyncratic self.
From her breakout as a model in Paris in the early 1970s, where her roommates were Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange, her predatory, androgynous style subverted notions of race and gender. Embraced as a modern Josephine Baker, she relocated to New York and became a ribald disco sensation at Studio 54 and a habitué of Andy Warhol’s Factory.
When disco turned tacky, she abandoned it for reggae-inflected New Wave rock, sung in her signature deadpan purr. Between albums, she played off her savage persona in movies like “Vamp,” “Conan the Destroyer” and the Bond film “A View to a Kill.” more attention to another guest, or the time she was barred from a Grammy after-party and left the building screaming at the top of her lungs.
Nor does she hold back on her tempestuous love affairs. Her relationship with Dolph Lundgren, the Swedish security guard she helped transform into a big-screen hunk, ended after she showed up at his hotel room in Los Angeles waving a gun. Her marriage to a Turkish man in the ’90s broke up, she writes, after he held two butcher knives to her throat during a fight. (They never divorced because she lost track of his whereabouts.)
As if to burnish her over-the-top reputation, the book even contains a copy of her tour rider, which requires that her green room be furnished with two dozen oysters on ice, unopened because “Grace does her own shucking.”
But the memoir’s deepest revelations have to do with her repressive childhood in Jamaica, where she was born in May 1951. (Or so she says; some reports have her born earlier.) As part of a prominent family of clergy in the Pentecostal church, she and her five siblings were raised under strict religious supervision.
Her parents moved to upstate New York when she was small and left the children under the authority of their step-grandfather, Peart, known as Mas P, who Ms. Jones describes as a “ferocious disciplinarian.” For minor infractions, like doing a handstand in a dress, she would be whipped with a leather belt.
She coped through fantasy, the only thing she could control. “Grace lived in her own world, created her own space, created her own imaginative games,” said her brother Noel Jones, a megachurch pastor in California.
The young Grace imagined Mas P’s imperious stare as an “all-seeing eye,” following her even to the gully where she played after school. It wasn’t until years later, while taking lessons with the acting teacher Warren Robertson, that she realized she had unconsciously adopted Mas P’s glare in photo shoots and performances, turning the “all-seeing eye” back out onto the world.
She followed her parents to Syracuse as an adolescent and began the process of liberating herself. She lived as a nudist for a month, took mind-opening acid trips and worked as a go-go dancer with a whip, simultaneously aping her abuser and defying him.
“I’m always rebelling,” she said at the hotel. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop.”
Ms. Jones likes to say that she exists in several time zones at once, but most of the time you can find her in London or Jamaica. She had come to New York to headline the Afropunk Fest in Brooklyn, where she performed at Commodore Barry Park two nights in a row.
At both concerts, a billowing curtain fell away to reveal Ms. Jones covered head to toe in tribal body paint (a look Keith Haring created for her in the ’80s), wearing a feathered headdress adorned with a gold skull and a corset that ended just below her exposed breasts.
Donning a series of outrageous costumes, she sang raspy, raunchy versions of her hits, including the double-entendre-laden “Pull Up to the Bumper,” which was accompanied by a blast of bubbles. She performed her entire final song, “Slave to the Rhythm,” while hula hooping topless, betraying nothing of her 60-something years. (“I never remember how old I am,” she says. “I’m 5,000 years old.”)
If her mostly young spectators saw traces of pop music’s current crop of exhibitionists, they were not alone. Her name and her envelope-pushing influence are now commonplace in descriptions of such mass-marketed misfits as Miley Cyrus, Amber Rose and Nicki Minaj.
“They make it so obvious,” she said at the Mandarin. “But they don’t quite have the conviction. It’s always someone styling them, for example. It’s not coming from them.”
She added: “People say, ‘Well, you should be flattered.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m not.’ Because my whole view is being unique and finding yourself, from your own suffering or your own upbringing or your own happiness. For me, it’s all piggybacking.”
What about Lady Gaga?
“She is obsessed!” Ms. Jones said, laughing dismissively. “She’s been trying to get me to work with her forever. She’s even gone to my brother in L.A. to get him to try and talk me into it.”
(The brother, Noel, later said that he was never approached by Lady Gaga, but that he is friends with someone in her “inner circle” and they discussed the idea of a collaboration.)
According to Ms. Jones: “I basically said: ‘Bring me something. Don’t just take something from me. If you want me to work with you, then come with an idea. Come with music. Dazzle me.’ People said, ‘Do you know how much money you can make working with her, collaborating with her?’ It’s never been about the money. And the fame, believe me, it’s a double-edged sword.”
In her memoir, she similarly criticizes the generation of young pop stars who “play the pioneer without taking the actual risk.”
With pride bordering on paranoia, she writes: “I have been so copied by those people who have made fortunes that people assume I am that rich. But I did things for the excitement, the dare, the fact that it was new, not for the money. And too many times I was the first, not the beneficiary.”
She names names, writing: “There’s a lot of that around at the moment. Be like Sasha Fierce. Be like Miley Cyrus. Be like Rihanna. Be like Lady Gaga. Be like Rita Ora and Sia. Be like Madonna. I cannot be like them, except to the extent that they are already being like me.”
Working with such megastars, she insists, would benefit them more than her. Not that she has gone out of her way to avoid the limelight. She tours frequently, though her appearances in New York are rare. During her shows at Afropunk, images of her hula-hooping flooded Instagram, signaling a wave of newfound appreciation from fans who were born long after disco died.
Still, she has been slow to release new material. Disillusioned by the music industry, she took a long break between albums starting in 1989. She was largely absent from the public eye in the ’90s, making money by appearing at corporate parties, where she would, say, pop out of a cake for a high fee.
In 2008, she put out her first new record in 19 years, “Hurricane,” the first sign of a resurgence. In 2012, she performed her hula-hooping number (more fully clothed) at Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee. She is working on a new Africa-themed album called “She” and starring in a coming documentary for BBC Films.
Meanwhile, she is planning to build a house on her grandfather’s land in Jamaica, and has a new beau there, a Rastafarian she met through a friend. She was traveling in New York with her and Mr. Goude’s son, Paulo, a tall, dreadlocked musician who tours as her percussionist, and her granddaughter, Athena, a pale 6-year-old with fiery red hair.
With her son, Paulo, watching whales off the California coast. Credit Grace Jones Private Life Collection
“Anytime I see a redhead, I go, ‘Was your granny black?’ ” she said, chuckling.
If she does not share Madonna’s penchant for inserting herself into trends, more often contemporary pop culture finds her. Last fall, Mr. Goude published an Internet-rocking photo shoot of Kim Kardashian in Paper magazine, including an anatomically impossible image of Ms. Kardashian balancing a Champagne glass on her derrière.
The photo was Mr. Goude’s homage to himself: A similar pose appears in his 1981 book, “Jungle Fever,” which also includes his most famous (and infamous) portraits of Ms. Jones. The cover image depicted Ms. Jones in a cage, naked and baring her teeth like a tigress.
When Ms. Jones saw the Kardashian photos, she had some words for her former collaborator. “I said, ‘Darling, what the hell were you thinking?’ ” she recalled. “I just asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ ”
The reason, she suggested, was Mr. Goude’s desire to make a splash in America after the controversy he and Ms. Jones caused in the ’80s.
“When we got attacked for me in the cage on the cover of his book and certain things, America basically didn’t understand him as an artist,” she said. “They thought of it as negative. I was attacked by the feminist groups. All this interference into art, you know?”
In the online frenzy that the Kardashian photos ignited, some observers questioned the racial undertones of the originals. What did it mean to have a white man photographing black women crawling in a cage, or enhancing their buttocks to cartoonish proportions? Was it objectifying? Exoticizing? Who was really in control?
Ms. Jones insisted that the photos were simply the product of her and Mr. Goude’s intensely personal connection. “We really were art soul mates,” she said. “We totally understood each other and were not afraid just to go for it. There was no fear. And if he was afraid, I made sure I wasn’t afraid.”
In any case, it is hard to imagine that Ms. Jones ever had anything less than total control over her image, which projects an almost superhuman self-possession. Though she was an object of fascination for designers (Issey Miyake), photographers (Helmut Newton) and artists (Mr. Haring), she does not consider herself a mere muse.
“As much as I was a muse, they were also muses for me,” she said.
She poured a second round of mimosas. Her irritation from the spa incident had melted into free-roaming (if opinionated) chattiness, covering everything from Kanye West, who she claims copied a video idea from her (“When I see him, honestly, I’m going to get in his face”), to her concept for a line of discontinued merchandise, though the details are sketchy.
“I hate that, when they discontinue something that’s really good,” she said, perhaps stumbling onto a metaphor for her own sporadic place in pop culture. “I don’t know, man, it’s so weird. If something is really good, why do you want to discontinue it?”
Someone knocked on the door. She had been talking for nearly two hours, and Paulo and Athena were waiting by the hotel pool.
Ms. Jones eyed the half-full bottle of Laurent-Perrier. “Do you think we can take the Champagne to the pool, or are they going to have some corporate law about it?” She grabbed it anyway and headed for the door.
“Well, let’s see. Let them try and stop me.”