Prince's Women and Me: The Collaborators Who Inspired a Generation

Prince's Women and Me: The Collaborators Who Inspired a Generation (3)
Illustration by Kyle Baker

The first lyrics I can remember ever singing came in 1984, when I was six: "I'm not a woman. I'm not a man. I am something that you will never understand." They were words I practiced into the mirror dozens and dozens of times with a nearly religious dolefulness, as if I were waiting for the Bloody Mary of Gender Identity to show herself. Back then English was a new language for me, learned largely from MTV, and the only way I made it through school was through recess's most universal form of bonding: music, meaning someone's boombox, our main source of play being dance routines and lip syncs, all moves and manners cribbed from Star Search, Solid Gold, and American Bandstand. Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince were everything, but Prince ruled my heart not just for his sound but for his paraphernalia, his look, all that he carried, all that came with him.

Part of that image was his relation to women — and beyond that, the women themselves. The first magazine I ever bought (or, rather, had bought for me) was a Rolling Stone in 1986. The cover said it all: "Prince's Women." I was eight. These weren't women as I saw them all over that era's hair metal or even hip-hop — accessories in the forms of dates or flings, burdens ranging from fiancée to divorcée. What I saw was Prince seeing women as collaborators, co-workers; they were essential in art and life, and creators in every sense of the word.

That Rolling Stone cover says more to me now than I might have realized then. It featured Prince in all his Princely glory — the sunglasses, the midriff-bearing, courtesan-in-pajamas getup you had to imagine was of the finest silk — while there were Wendy and Lisa, no sunglasses, no midriff in sight, wearing those resolutely unsexy, big, shapeless smock-jacket-dress things from the Eighties, on either side of him, hanging out casually as though for a yearbook candid. These women were not arm candy. They weren't draped over him; they weren't flanking him like magician's girls. If anything, Prince was the sex object, the candy. The women were something else, and I — a girl who fit in with few American girls, who often felt relegated to a tomboy-or-die existence in order to be heard in a rather patriarchal home-country culture — wanted to be them.

After that, I studied Prince's women, sculpting myself from child to teen to adult in their image. Prince didn't really champion Eighties blondes; he loved women of color especially, or women who looked like women of color, and they were just about the only women in the public eye who looked anything like me, who was always passing for just about anything other than the Southern California sun-worshipping white girls around me. There was biracial beauty Denise Matthews, or "Vanity," who I still haven't finished mourning (she died just two months ago, same age as Prince, 57, of kidney problems, in relative obscurity and devastating illness, her GoFundMe for "Sclerosis Encapsulating Peritonitis" only yielding $6,709 of her $50,000 goal). She was the first icon of complete sexual liberation I ever encountered, her hair always sprayed into an electrified mane, snake brooches around her neck, and doorknockers as punk as they were hip-hop, always bound in satins and spikes, the rawest of the Prince's Woman aesthetic. (The first time I became aware of the word "vagina" came from a 1984 interview with People, during which she noted Prince "wanted me to call myself 'Vagina.' He said people would know me nationwide. I said, 'No kidding.' ")

And who could forget my first favorite movie Purple Rain's ultra-heroine Apollonia, who made me feel so much better about my name, and was a sort of good-girl Lace to Vanity's bad-girl Leather. She was the daughter of Mexican immigrants and my first concept of an ingénue. I'll never forget being six and running around our apartment, chanting "A-P-O-L-L-O-N-I-A" and then taunting my parents with "No girl's body can compete with mine/No girl's rap can top my lines/No girl's kiss can ring your chimes" (with the first part eventually, inevitably turning to "P-O-R-O-C-H-I-S-T-A"). I was a year in to learning English and always practicing spelling, so you might say Apollonia taught me to spell like I meant it.

Prince's Women and Me: The Collaborators Who Inspired a Generation (2)EXPAND
Illustration by Molly Crabapple

Then there were the women of that magazine cover: Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. Prince's The Revolution was the first time I can remember seeing women do what looked like all the work, a whole lot of work — Lisa jamming on keyboards and Wendy rocking out on the guitar, their instruments badly behaved beasts that only their fancy finger-work could tame. Best friends, I always said to my best friend, like Wendy and Lisa, but what I didn't realize was that the intimacy they projected, this inseparable cult of two, was also a result of their being not just genuine music nerds but also a lesbian couple (they came out to OUT magazine in 2009). Wendy and Lisa were my first encounter with lesbians, before I could put together all the logistics of possibility there; what I did know is that I saw industry plus female intimacy in its most absolute, enviable form.

They were among the few of Prince's Women who never dated him, but make no mistake: Two of his wives also obsessed me. There was Mayte, his petite Puerto Rican belly-dancing goddess who hit me hard in 1994, and the Egyptian-Italian beauty Manuela Testolini, a Middle Eastern (at least, partly) woman icon at a time when I had none.

No one quite lasted with him; the wives got some years, the bandmates dropped in and then dropped out, though all of them seemed to look back fondly on him. The one who never completely left was my favorite of all, his everything girl Sheila E., who seemed to bring it all together: brainy musician, sex symbol, muse, protégée, girlfriend, and equal for nearly four decades. The Prince-composed "Glamorous Life," which she sang on her debut solo album, was for me the ultimate immigrant anthem as well as a sort of American feminist spell: "Boys with small talk and small minds/Really don't impress me in bed.... She wants to lead the glamorous life/She don't need a man's touch." Sure, her beauty inspired like the rest of them, but she was the one who wouldn't stay in any shadows, should there be any — the drummer, writer on his records, his musical director, a star who could rock vocals as well as handle any and all beats.

I considered all these women from my particular vantage point, a place America hadn't discovered yet, a land of women whose girls reluctantly lived with the shorthand descriptive "exotic" because nobody had bothered to look into them yet. Unlike Prince. Between 1984 and 1992, my coming-of-age years, he put out an album a year, all of them with women front and center, not to mention women whose visual identities pressed up against the boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality — sometimes all at once. It was a time when mixed messages about gender and sexuality were as prevalent as they are now. But Prince's principles of gender parity still feel a little extraordinary: Love and work were not in conflict, sex and art were not opposing forces, beauty and intelligence did not have to be at odds.

"Let a woman be a woman and a man be a man," Prince sings in one of his most thrillingly nasty sex anthems, "Get Off"; for me, it's probably his most winky lyric of all time. Because, forget men — what were women to Prince if not absolutely everything? What were the limits of being a woman anyway? Women were the gloss and the sweat, the silk and the suede, the skin and the muscle, the brain and the brawn, the heart and the soul. Without his women, there was no Prince. And through them I learned the everything — ups, downs, ins, outs, rights, lefts, blacks, whites, browns, and blues, all the many blues — of being a woman.

The only thing is, even now, three decades since I first encountered Prince's Women, I wasn't done learning.

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