Grace Jones: The Devil Wears Zebra-Striped Catsuits


At the start, there’s a two-minute ovation just for her posture. Grace Jones is a former model—though we’re all a model of something, aren’t we?—and the fashion-daft crowd at the Hammerstein Showroom Ballroom celebrates her for maintaining a regal mien at age 61, for returning after two absent decades, for being stepmother to Rihanna, Björk, and Lady Gaga. They also like her zebra-striped Eiko Ishioka catsuit with the matching white-wig headdress.

The set design bisects the stage lengthwise. In the rear, there’s a sunken moat for the band, who play loud enough to make the dub-style echo effects carry and pierce. Upstage is a kind of catwalk. “I said, Kill it,” Jones snaps at her lighting man in the midst of “Love Is the Drug,” while wearing a bodiced rhinestone pantsuit with Michelin-poufed legs and a matching bowler hat that reflects the overhead laser like a disco ball. (Costume descriptions are somewhat imprecise—your correspondent is straight.)

The music rampages from Jamaican funk to British chill-out, with bass swagger and drum spasms creating dynamics and theater; it’s a spot where slumming and jet-setting collide. “Just get the fucking shoes on,” she reprimands a dresser, chatting on a wireless mic while out of sight to change into another outlandish outfit from Oscar-winning costume designer Ishioka. Jones, who was raised by severe Pentecostal parents, emerges in an oversized A-line autumn-pageant dress the color of the Devil’s tail, with a matching headdress, gliding laterally on tiptoes as she sings. Eventually, she pirouettes: The frock appears to be backless, and the crowd—gay as a lottery winner—roars at this risqué glimpse of her sextegenarian haunches. (Though it spoils the illusion, some excellent photos published on show she was wearing a bronze leotard.)

Jones growls orders to the staff—her stage manager (“Turn the fan down”), her soundman (“Take my voice up”), her stage manager again (“Bring me a glass of red wine”), and her crowd (“Welcome me to New York”)—enacting a role of privilege and entitlement. And also of sexuality: In animal-print costumes, waving a prosthetic snake-whip tail like a cock, making unsubtle allusions to intercourse and oral sex, she teases primitivist fantasies of black voraciousness. But her haughtiest move is musical: She plays all nine songs from Hurricane, a reflective, humanizing, half-good album that came out last year but was not released in the U.S. That leaves only eight familiar songs, not including “Warm Leatherette,” “Walking in the Rain,” and other ’80s pinnacles that surpass most of her new songs. How plebeian to think a concert should be about songs. We’re here to be dazzled by size, to revere magnitude, to chuckle at innuendo, to recall what New York was like before downsizing scalped our budgets and expectations and portfolios. Grace Jones is as big as a September issue of Vogue, pre-recession.

Archive Highlights