Grace Jones, dressed in a cotton-print robe with black eyeliner in hand, has a request about the air-conditioning. “Can that come down just a tiny bit? It’s blowing in my eye, and I can see it’s starting to cry already,” she says, more cajole than command. This is a woman who occupies a microclimate of her own—supremely cool, eternally hot—and she doesn’t need a jet stream disturbing her slow-fade cat eye in the making. It’s Wednesday evening, on the cusp of New York Fashion Week, and Jones is camped out in the green room of the Public Hotel’s lower-level event space, a ten-minute walk from her late friend Keith Haring’s former studio. Soon, the first guests to the Boy Smells launch party will make their way down a staircase lined with the new Grace candles, the scent simulating a rainy Jamaican landscape. “I’m sorry—we are making up at the same time,” Jones says of the necessary multitasking, as if this weren’t the beauty tutorial to end them all.
For Boy Smells, a six-year-old fragrance brand that rallies behind the term genderful (as opposed to the neutered genderless), Jones is a surreally perfect partner. In her half-century in the public eye—lighting up catwalks and gay clubs and sold-out concert venues, creating culture-defining images with the likes of Antonio Lopez, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Paul Goude—the musician has defied the usual constraints. Geometric haircuts and high-beam blush have proved her fluency in, and disregard for, masculine and feminine codes. Stage costumes (she is slated to perform in Seattle, Oakland, and Los Angeles later this month) lay bare her gleeful celebration of skin, never mind the matter of age. “She’s so unapologetically and ruthlessly authentic to herself and just doesn’t give a fuck,” Boy Smells cofounder Matthew Herman says, under the lilac-tinged glow of a disco ball. “And that’s a big part of queerism.”
Even with all the projects that have floated Jones’s way—she has turned down makeup opportunities, and, famously, Lady Gaga—it was Boy Smells’s perspective that clicked. In an early conversation with Jones, Herman pulled out a musical analogy to explain the layered construction of modern perfumery. “I was like, ‘Top notes are treble, and base notes are bass.’” She cooed in response, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, baby.” Working with an icon means speaking her language: ’80s leather Alaia, marine notes from the Caribbean, the old-world opulence of a once-beloved Norman Norell scent. “Every time I wore this perfume when I was filming, I would be asked to come and look behind the camera,” Jones tells me. No one else was being summoned; was it the fragrance? That’s why her character, Helen Strangé, is so outrageously delicious in 1992’s Boomerang: The fictional model—who demands that her celebrity perfume capture the “essence of sex,” offering her freshly removed underwear as inspiration and tossing out possible names like Love Puss and Afterbirth—was written as a camp homage to Jones.
The new candle, Grace, conveys that sensuality entwined with place, as translated by perfumer Jérôme Epinette. “He kept dipping into my brain to provoke what smells I remember,” Jones says. “After it rains in Jamaica, there’s a smell that is just so, ah! It just brings everything back from my childhood.” Alongside that wet-stone accord (a hard-to-pinpoint phenomenon known as petrichor), there are musky notes that evoke salt on skin. I tell Jones I’ve just finished reading a forthcoming book on butts—a subject that brings to mind her song, “Pull Up to the Bumper,” off the 1981 album Nightclubbing. “Who doesn’t like a nice ass?” she reasons, as she sweeps burnt red eye shadow across her lids. “I mean, a nice dick to go with it is also good.” (A limousine is in fact what pulls up in her lyrics.) “Pussy is also pretty,” she adds, in a genderful spirit. “I think God was an artist, if you want to put it that way.”
Whence this exuberant, full-bodied liberation? Jones grew up in a strict religious household in Spanish Town, Jamaica, as she recounts in the subversively titled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. The hula hoop offered a playful release (it memorably accompanied her onstage in 2012 for the queen’s Diamond Jubilee); on the punishing end, her siblings at times had to root through foliage to choose their own switch. At age 12 Jones rejoined her parents in Syracuse, New York, where life as a pastor’s daughter imposed a morally high standard. What sparked the turn toward becoming practically a nudist, as she has put it? “Hippie acid love—that was it,” Jones tells me. “And I went all the way in, 110%.” She recalls one surprise birthday in Los Angeles, with a crowd that included Timothy Leary, Sarah Douglas, and her then-boyfriend Sven-Ole Thorsen. “It was like a Last Supper kind of table,” she says of the tequila-fueled outing to a Grace Jones drag show. The Boy Smells party would have its own tribute an hour later, with Symone of RuPaul’s Drag Race performing “Slave to the Rhythm.” When a cultural icon is so known to straddle the masculine-feminine space, is the word drag even necessary?
Above all, Jones is most dismissive about the constraints around age. “This society dwells too much on that,” she chides. “It becomes like a brainwashing for people.” Her voice slips into the register of a pharma ad on network TV: “If you’re over this [age], you should call your doctor and ask for that.” Numbers aside, what is the qualitative experience of being Grace Jones right now? “My body feels—I mean, I became a helicopter not that long ago,” she says obliquely. “If that makes any sense to you. It makes sense to me.” She gives a wide smile familiar to anyone who grew up on the canon of Goude images. Under her headscarf, she explains, are a set of long locs, grown out over the pandemic. During a recent birthday in Jamaica, “I danced and literally became a helicopter.” Jones exists in space, outside the chronological plane. But if pressed, she adds, “I just say I’m 5,000 years old.”
It’s true that she’s lived a totemic life, with a cast of equally singular characters. In 1979, Warhol and Debbie Harry threw her a disco baby shower at Manhattan’s Paradise Garage; later this month, she’ll be back in body paint, a continuation of the collaboration with Haring, who was “like a godfather to my son.” Echoes of her paradigm-shifting Goude images have turned up in internet-breaking ways. There’s the recent Renaissance moment too, with Jones’s cameo on the track “Move,” alongside Tems. “I know Beyoncé from many years ago, so it’s coming from a church place,” Jones says, mentioning her brother who’s a bishop in L.A. This wasn’t a case of magnified star power. “It was like, ‘Will you bless me with your voice on this?’ She’s a beautiful person, a beautiful talent.”
By now, Jones has nearly completed the two-tone wing extending to her temples—a look that transforms her from undercover helicopter to full-throttled hot rod. The makeup artist at her side has been passing along palettes and brushes; Jones describes the process as a collaboration, but her know-how is baked in, dating to her days working with artist Antonio Lopez. “We basically had to do our own makeup, me and Jerry Hall. We were like two peas in the pod.” It’s about time for her to slip into the evening’s look: a trompe-l’oeil Gautier dress, capped off by a feather-duster headpiece. Just before I slip out, I hear Jones’s voice call out, more command than cajole: “Let’s see that butt!” I tip my blousy The Row pants in her direction, and she laughs. “Okay!”