BEVERLY HILLS (WASHINGTON POST) - Grace Jones isn't saying that she's psychic, exactly. It's just that she can sometimes tell in advance what is going to happen. Like that time she was at a party in Mexico with Arnold (Schwarzenegger) and Maria (Shriver), waiting for an elevator. The elevator doors opened, and Jones thought, I'm not getting in there. She had a bad feeling.
"And they all got stuck," she says now, sounding pleased. People have told Jones she should study her psychic abilities to better understand them. "I'm like, 'Eh, it's OK.' You know it when you know it."
Grace Jones spent decades at the epicentre of everything, one of those people who has been famous for so long, it's easy to forget what she actually does. In the 1970s, she was a supermodel-turned-disco-singer. She posed for Helmut Newton, walked the runways of Paris, hung out with Andy Warhol at Studio 54. She was both stern and provocative, the glamorous embodiment of the hedonism of the decade.
In the 1980s, she became an action-movie star, with a stormy romantic life and a fondness for her bodyguards.
More recently, she has released both a memoir (I'll Never Write My Memoirs, in 2015) and a new documentary, Bloodlight And Bami, which opened in New York and Los Angeles and comes to Washington, D.C., on May 11. In an era of social-media oversharing, even divas can't be as impenetrable as they used to be. And besides, she's done everything else.
It's the documentary that brings her to the bar at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. Jones is smaller than her glamazon reputation would suggest, but still a formidable presence. She's interested and friendly, with an easy laugh and a halting Jamaican accent that can sound vaguely French or British. She looks serene and watchful, like the galaxy's most beautiful praying mantis, her face a collection of right angles. She terrifies the waitress.
Celebrities tend to appear more pedestrian in real life, but Jones seems even more like an alien cyborg who reluctantly came to earth for a visit. It's impossible to imagine her doing normal-person things, such as driving a car or eating a taco. There's a shield of mystery and myth that protects her, even in the middle of her very public self-reckoning. She tries to keep it that way.
"I tell a lot of untruths. My age is one. I always tell everyone only the FBI knows my age." To Jones, time is irrelevant. She sees herself as an entity that has always been and always will be. "I'm already 5,000," she figures. By more reliable estimates, she will turn 70 in a few weeks.
"I just leave it alone. I don't like to burst anybody's bubble." She shrugs. "Some people think I'm a man."
To make "Bloodlight and Bami," Jones spent a decade submitting to the ministrations of director Sophie Fiennes, whom she adores. Fiennes had previously made a documentary about Jones's brother Noel, who, like their father, is a preacher. Her cameras followed Jones to Jamaica, where she was born, and where she reminisced with family members about her fire and brimstone childhood."I grew up with fear," she says now. "Letting go of fear was the best thing that ever happened to me. Fear of God, fear of hell, fear of fire.
Jones, who would move with her parents to a town near Syracuse, New York, when she was a teenager, wasn't allowed to listen to records or the radio. She fled to Manhattan as soon as she could, and eventually to Paris. She became a model and a nightclub fixture, an androgynous, warrior-like figure of great fascination and novelty. Music seemed like a logical next step.
When she made her first official recordings in the mid-1970s, Jones, raised on church music, had no cultural reference points to navigate. She was so shy, she would only sing underneath a table. Her first hit was a 1977 cover of Edith Piaf's La Vie en Rose and she became a disco sensation in that genre's waning years, then a new wave singer. She released a series of albums that sold well enough, growled her way through a series of hits such as Slave To The Rhythm, and began to grow more confident.
"You learn and you better yourself, and you know what path you want to follow, and then you go at the speed of light," she says. "Then you do it better than anybody. It's like, 'OK, now I know!' Looking back at the people behind me like, 'Can you keep up?' "
It was around this time that Jones began a relationship with French photographer Jean-Paul Goude. She was his muse and he was her great love. The art they made was iconic, and occasionally problematic (on the cover of Goude's book Jungle Fever, there's a picture of Jones kneeling naked in a cage), and their relationship was fittingly turbulent. The documentary's most wrenching scene is a discussion between the two: "You're the only man that made me buckle at my knees," she tells an impassive Goude.
To Goude, Jones represented perfection. "He looked up to me, and I didn't realise," she says now. "Probably more than I was looking up to him. He put me on a pedestal, I found out later."
Jones felt as if she had to be fierce every moment of the day, in case Goude and his camera were watching. "I used to pose on the toilet. I wanted so much to please him, because I fell in love with his view of perfection."
Once, Jones had a knee infection while on the road. Goude, appalled, flew home immediately. "That's his way of dealing with imperfection," Jones says. "He never wanted me to be imperfect in any way."
Their relationship fell apart when Jones became pregnant with their son, Paulo, now 38. She was a transgressive star at the height of her fame during much of Paulo's childhood, but she tried hard to give him a normal upbringing. There were rules: She was careful not to use negative words like "no" or "don't" around him, and insisted that he bring any unfamiliar drugs home for her to test. Just to make sure.
"You have borders that you don't cross," Jones says. "You don't expose children to certain things. I mean, hello. I didn't have sex in front of him."
After acting in a string of forgettable films, Jones co-starred in the 1984 Schwarzenegger movie Conan The Destroyer, and in the Bond film A View To A Kill the following year. She was officially famous, and now with a famous boyfriend to match: Dolph Lundgren, Swedish and hapless, who was her equal in pure physical splendour. Lundgren was a part of Jones' security detail and landed a small part in A View to A Kill before going on to become an action star. One day, late in their disintegrating relationship, Jones pulled a gun on him in an aborted kidnapping attempt. They broke up, anyway.
The 1990s were even more difficult. In an era of grunge and supermodel waifs, her aesthetic wasn't in demand. Jones took a job in a touring production of The Wiz and married her Turkish bodyguard, who she alleges became abusive (they are still married, if only technically).
The past 15 years have been kinder: In 2008, Jones released Hurricane, her only album since 1989, though she's currently working on another, inspired by various forms of African music. Her work has served as a road map for artists such as Rihanna and Lady Gaga, though Jones cares little for either. She became a grandmother when Paulo had a daughter, Athena, and was even name-checked in Black Panther, which meant a great deal to her.
Bloodlight And Bami makes an argument for Jones's role as an artist, not just a provocateur. Her autobiography, though not a work of great introspection, charts her interior life from her fearful childhood to the not-quite serenity of her present day."It's a learning process," Jones says. "As you grow and pick up things like a rolling tumbleweed or something, you pick up stuff that you can identify and learn with, and you let go of stuff that's going to hold you back. If you keep fear, you're never free."