Canadian-born Prince protege Denise Matthews, known as Vanity, dies at age 57
In this March 22, 1985 file photo, actor Taimak, left, and Vanity arrive at the Century Plitt Theater for the premiere of their film 'The Last Dragon,' in Los Angeles. Vanity, a Prince protege who renounced her sexy stage persona to become a Christian minister, has died at age 57. (AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing, File)
Jesse J. Holland, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, February 17, 2016 7:21AM EST
Denise Matthews, a Canadian-born Prince protege who renounced her sexy stage persona known as Vanity to become a Christian minister, has died. She was 57.
The singer and actress died Monday at a hospital in Fremont, Calif., said Gisela Hernandez, a spokeswoman for Washington Hospital Health Care System. Hernandez did not give a cause of death.
Matthews' sister Renay said the death was from complications over longstanding kidney issues.
She said Denise Matthews was happy in recent years. "She loved her time in the '80s, but I think she loved her recent time more, because she had been at peace," Renay Matthews said.
A native of Niagara Falls, Ont., Denise Matthews got her start in beauty pageants and modelling. She rocketed to stardom through her association with Prince and fronting the '80s girl group Vanity 6, which had the hit "Nasty Girl."
During her time in music, Vanity released four albums with Motown and Warner Brothers and was known for her sultry appearance and sexually themed music. She also appeared in films in the late 1980s and early '90s, including "The Last Dragon," "52 Pick-Up" and "Action Jackson."
"When she walked into the room everyone knew she was something very special," Craig R. Baxley, who directed "Action Jackson," told The Canadian Press in an email Tuesday.
"She was gorgeous, smart and sassy, by sassy I mean she was a free spirit, she was fresh and independent. She had such a presence without saying a word. With Sharon Stone and Vanity on set most of the crew loved every minute of it."
Matthews' health took a turn for the worse in 1992 and she was hospitalized for kidney failure, which she attributed to cocaine and other drug use. She detailed her life in her 1999 autobiography, "Blame It On Vanity."
"I was sick inside. I was a crack cocaine addict and didn't even know how to wake up in the morning without some smoke," she said in an Associated Press story in '99.
She renounced her Hollywood lifestyle and became a Christian minister. She married former Oakland Raider Anthony Smith in 1995 and they divorced the next year.
On a GoFundMe page aimed at helping her pay her medical bills, Matthews said four months ago she had gone through 23 surgeries and was on dialysis three times a week. She said she was also diagnosed with sclerosing encapsulating peritonitis, a rare benign cause of small bowel obstruction.
Matthews said she had no regrets about leaving her celebrity lifestyle behind.
"When I was Vanity, it was all about me," she said in 1999. "But when I'm preaching the word of God, it's Jesus Christ speaking through me. I don't want people to know who I was back then, but the new creature that God has made me."
Musicians around the world expressed sorrow at Matthews' death.
Prince, who was touring in Australia, dedicated several songs to Matthews during a show, according to the Herald Sun newspaper. They "used to love each other deeply," Prince said, according to the newspaper. "She loved me for the artist I was. I loved her for the artist she was trying to be."
Berry Gordy, who served as executive producer for "The Last Dragon," called Matthews "a talented natural beauty, inside and out."
"I just cannot believe Vanity is gone," Gordy said. "She was such a vibrant human being."
"Miss you dearly. U are in his arms now, no pain," tweeted drummer Sheila E., who also worked with Prince.
Rapper MC Hammer tweeted that he had just attended church with Matthews on Saturday.
"Vanity left church after giving a beautiful testimony of appreciation for her Pastors & Thanks to her saviour Jesus, I was there," he tweeted. "I was looking for her Sunday and the announcement came that she fell ill during the night."
Prince had set up Vanity 6 and made Matthews the lead singer. He also wrote and produced "Nasty Girl" for their self-titled 1982 album and took the group on tour with him.
Model-actress Devin DeVasquez, who was also managed by Prince's people at the start of her career, told The Canadian Press she and Matthews "were all in that circle of Prince's girls, so to speak."
"He went for the same type of girls," said DeVasquez, who dated Prince from 1985 to '86 and knew Matthews.
"All of the girls that Prince liked seemed to have that exotic, erotic type of look, like Vanity, Apollonia, Sheila E."
Apollonia Kotero starred alongside Prince in "Purple Rain," but it was Matthews who was originally cast in the role, DeVasquez said from Los Angeles.
"They had a falling out because they dated, and she left the project and they had to find someone to take her place."
-- With files from The Canadian Press.