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Vanity’s legacy: from an underwear-clad Prince protege to children’s movie actor

Denise Katrina Matthews, also known as Denise Matthews Smith, also known as DD Winters and best known as Vanity, never felt obliged to stick to one identity. Matthews, who died on Monday at the age of 57, was christened Vanity by Prince when she became lead singer in his lingerie-clad girl group Vanity 6. On their self-titled 1982 album, she cooed not-even-double-entendre lines like “My lips start shaking when I see him walking down the street” on songs like Wet Dream. When she left the group, though, she put the provocative sex bomb persona aside, to star as the glamorous but sweet video DJ Laura Charles in the deliberately innocent 1985’s cult hit The Last Dragon.

Matthews’ reinvention of herself for the film is part of The Last Dragon’s considerable appeal. If you’ve heard Matthews’ enthusing about the joys of thePretty Mess on her dress, it’s hard not to laugh out loud at her demure-look-under-the-lashes coyness in the film, complete with Hallmark Card come-ons. “I know what it’s like to lose precious things … and then of course to find them again,” she tells Bruce Leroy Green (Taimak) after the two have been separated and reunited. It’s clumsy and ridiculous and sweet, not least because you can hear Prince emitting a pained soulful “ahhh!” at the Berry-Gordy produced PGMotownification of his R-rated fantasy.

The image switch is also satisfying because it fits so neatly into The Last Dragon’s joyful celebration of image switching. Leroy, the protagonist, is a young black man obsessed with Bruce Lee. Not only does he become an expert in martial arts, but he also dresses in Chinese garb like Lee, complete with a wide-brimmed hat. He even adopts careful, overly perfect English, which makes him sound like an (uptight) foreigner in his own city. “Those who are bound by desire see only that which can be held in their hands,” he declares with stilted calm. To which the evil but hip martial arts master Sho-nuff (Julius Carry III) responds, “See, now it is mumbo jumbo like that, and skinny little lizards like you thinkin’ they the last dragon that gives kung fu a bad name.”

Like Sho-nuff, the movie laughs at Leroy’s goofy effort to turn himself into someone he’s not. But it also loves him for it. In fact, in the world of The Last Dragon, everybody, just about, is engaged in cross-cultural appropriation. Sho-nuff may sneer at Leroy’s “mumbo-jumbo”, but he’s obsessed with kung fu action movies too. Despite the incredulousness of sceptics, Leroy’s African American father pursued his dream of owning a pizza place: his tagline is spoken with a faux Italian accent – “Just directa your feetsa to Daddy Green’s pizza.” Leroy also encounters a trio of Ebonics spouting Chinese Americans; one of them mocks him for his affectations by adopting an exaggerated Chinese dialect and telling him to “chop-chop out of this place!” In another encounter with them, Leroy himself imitates a hip, black lingo as a form of disguise – and the trio buy it so thoroughly that in their effort to copy his authenticity, they let him convince them that hopscotch is the true black form of craps.

On the one hand, the cross-cultural performances in The Last Dragon end up making all cultural expression seem like performance. Leroy’s brother Richie (Leo O’Brien) isn’t any more natural, or authentic, playing the role of cool street-smart black kid than Leroy is playing the role of Bruce Lee. His breakdancing escape from rope bonds is as much of a set-piece as Leroy’s Bruce Lee-inspired high-kicks. When everyone is picking up everyone else’s culture, every culture looks like an act, even your own.

But while the film teases Leroy for his pretense, it also honours him for his passion. His love for Bruce Lee means that Lee really is, authentically, his. In the movie, Leroy has to learn to dispense with his master, but that doesn’t mean that he needs to give up his love of kung fu. Rather, it means he needs to realize that the kung fu is really him. As Laura Charles tells him flirtatiously, “You look like a master to me.” And what he looks like, or pretends to be, he becomes. His true self, as a person, and a black person, is Bruce Lee – set to a Motown soundtrack.

Laura helps Leroy cross-culturally self-actualise, but she also gets to express scepticism. Her best moment in the film is probably when she rolls her eyes at some sad white folks trying to do soul. Matthews is for the most part a charmingly unconvincing actor, but she nails the exasperation when presented with a train wreck of a video in which aging would-be starlet Angela (Faith Prince) channels Cyndi Lauper with severe head trauma. “It’s not that I don’t like it …” Matthews as Laura says with barely contained disdain. It’s just that it’s not right for her show – because it’s too clunky, too painfully sexless, and too white. Sometimes self-reinvention works, and then sometimes not so much.

Angela eventually decides to give up on her dreams of stardom – which she realises were really in a lot of ways her wacky boyfriend’s dreams of stardom, not hers at all. Matthews abandoned her career in the limelight too. After a crack overdose in the mid-1990s, she experienced a religious conversion, and devoted her life to evangelicism. The last 20 years of her life had little to do with the singer who performed Nasty Girl – but perhaps more to do with her role in The Last Dragon. The film, at least, insists that people can find themselves in odd places, and that love chooses its own master, whether god or Bruce Lee.