How a Brakpan meisie launched Grace Jones


How a Brakpan meisie launched Grace Jones

The wild thing of the pop world in the 1970s and 1980s, Grace Jones, turns 76 on Sunday. HERMAN LATEGAN heard from former model Esti Mellet-Mass how she helped discover Jones when they worked together in Paris.


IN the 1980s and 1990s, urban nightlife all over the world was wild and liberating. Partygoers danced in cha-cha palaces until the sun came up. It wasn't dull like today.

Even in the Cape, international celebrities such as fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, model Naomi Campbell, singer Cliff Richard and actor Ian McKellen were often seen at Angels and Detour.

The music was wild and fresh, disruptive, loud. At Rita's, we were exposed to anarchists like Nina Hagen through our late-night romps.

One singer in particular developed a cult following: Jamaican Grace Jones, with her sexy, androgynous, I'm-gonna-fuck-you-up-now attitude. She undermined the whole idea of gender and race. Jones was non-binary before the term was even coined.

We danced to a lot of her music, especially I've Seen That Face Before, which captured the dark and lonely side of nocturnal Paris: that sinful kind of atmosphere of a sighing, melancholic yet creative nightlife.

The DJ and arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, Charles Leonard, says: “Her music is like her: sexy, liberated, chic, accessible but still full of innovation, intelligent, political, revolutionary, subversive, don't- give-a-fuck.

“It's meant for the dance floor, the brain, the heart. In terms of style, there are a lot of hyphens involved, because it spans different genres: dance, indie, post-punk, pop, rock, reggae, electronica.

“Grace makes so much sense in a world where music is forced into boxes and ‘composed' by marketing committees. She is still the OG — the original goddess. Listen to any of her records today and it still sounds as fresh as when it came out."

She later acted in films such as A View to a Kill and Vamp. She was a regular customer in nightclubs and was seen at New York's Studio 54 dancing with luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Bianca and Mick Jagger, Boy George, Madonna, Truman Capote and Princess Diane von Fürstenberg.

“I'm a vampire, I mostly go out at night. Today's young people are so boring, they go to bed at 11pm. No man," she told a magazine.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Grace Jones, femme fatale of nightlife.
Grace Jones, femme fatale of nightlife.

Grace is also known for her antics. When she once performed in Johannesburg, she lit a big spliff on the stage. This was when cannabis was still banned in South Africa.

She claims she had her first orgasm when she cut her hair to her scalp, completely bald. Speaking of nudity, she doesn't wear clothes at home and waltzes around naked.

She recounts: “At the time, I flew on the Concorde so many times that I knew the pilots. I knew their families. I could have flown the plane, except I wanted to do it naked, sprayed silver, in roller skates."

For every performance she has a contract. In her dressing room there must be two dozen fresh French Fine de Claire oysters. On ice.

Grace didn't take rubbish from chauvinistic deadbeats either. When she appeared on TV one day with the bland and boring Russell Harty, he sat with his back to her while talking to another guest. He didn't want to look at her. Jones gave him a few slaps in front of all the viewers.

When a diamond jubilee concert was held in front of Buckingham Palace in 2012 for Queen Elizabeth II, Grace was the diva who outshone other singers such as Tom Jones, Annie Lennox, Ed Sheeran and

She made an unforgettable entrance and started Hula-Hooping in front of the enormous crowd. Grace sang Slave to the Rhythm. The queen later told her that Charles was in love with her at one point.

Time magazine wrote afterwards: “The most interesting of all the performances was 64-year-old Grace Jones, who wore an incredibly unusual and revealing outfit — complete with high heels, elbow-length gloves and a very funky headpiece. After her performance, there wasn't much left to talk about."

Grace Jones was an institution at Studio 54 in New York. Clockwise from top left, she is pictured with Jerry Hall, Tina Turner, David Bowie, Madonna and Andy Warhol.
Grace Jones was an institution at Studio 54 in New York. Clockwise from top left, she is pictured with Jerry Hall, Tina Turner, David Bowie, Madonna and Andy Warhol.
Grace and one of the great loves of her life, the actor Dolph Lundgren.
Grace and one of the great loves of her life, the actor Dolph Lundgren.

Connection with Brakpan

When I read Grace's book, I'll Never Write My Memoirs, a few years ago, I had to put it down on page 124 for a while. I couldn't believe what it said.

She writes about an Esti from South Africa who had heard her singing and told her she had a beautiful voice. It was the early 1970s in Paris and Grace was sharing rooms in a hotel with a young Jessica Lange (later an actor) and Jerry Hall (later an actor and wife of Mick Jagger and Rupert Murdoch).

They all modelled, she writes, and Esti introduced Grace to her boyfriend, Stephan Tabakov, who was looking for new talent in the music world and also owned a production company.

I immediately turned to Facebook to ask if anyone out there in the ether knew of an Esti who had modelled in Paris in the 1970s. Silence.

I gave up and was about to take down the post when the messages started pouring in. Yes, yes, they told me, there used to be an Esti Mellet who was a model in Paris and later married the racing driver Jochen Mass.

The chit-chat and messages continued for about half an hour when suddenly one appeared: “Hello, I'm Esti Mellet-Mass."

I told her that Grace Jones was writing about her and asked if she was the same person? “Yes," she replied. “It's me, I live in Cape Town."

As a Grace Jones groupie I couldn't believe my luck. After some research, I saw on Google that Esti is a native of Brakpan (hello Brakpanners, come in). From Brakpan to Paris to Grace Jones. Life writes its own scripts, you don't have to make them up.

Can we talk sometime? She agreed and I waited until I could link it to some event. Then I found out Grace turns 76 this Sunday.

We made an appointment.

Top left, Esti and I with the book that connected us. Top right, Grace's memoir, in which I read Esti's name. Bottom, Esti as a fiery young model in Paris.
Top left, Esti and I with the book that connected us. Top right, Grace's memoir, in which I read Esti's name. Bottom, Esti as a fiery young model in Paris.

Esti Mellet-Mass makes an appearance

It's a cool, sunny day at the top of Kloof Street. I sit and wait in the Italian restaurant Bacini's.

A beautiful, stately woman in a fashionable outfit in autumn colours enters, her body language still like that of a model, upright and elegant.

I immediately feel at home in her company. We are talking about mutual friends like the deceased photographer Vim Kruger, whom she loved very much.

We eat a light lunch. She orders bottled water. We share a focaccia.

I am now sitting with the woman I read about in Grace Jones' memoir. Out of breath like a schoolchild, I ask her to sign the book.

We start at the beginning. Yes, Esti was born in Brakpan where her father worked as a doctor and her mother as a nurse. Both parents were open-minded and not at all caught up in the dominant conservatism of the country.

She attended Afrikaans Hoër Meisieskool in Pretoria. After that, she studied art at Stellenbosch University with people like Louis Jansen van Vuuren and made friends with Lochner de Kock and Obie Oberholzer. Her first boyfriend was the artist Ryno Swart, now departed.

In her second year, she was crowned rag queen. For the first time she was vaguely aware of her beauty, but it wasn't exactly something she thought about every day.

She was young and curious, and after her studies she and a few friends headed to Europe with R500 each. The small parochial atmospheres in this country bored her.

“If you were progressive in your thinking during those times, you were called a traitor," she says.

Yes, who doesn't remember those long, quiet Sundays. Ooms who warned women against the sins of bikini swimsuits and played The Beatles' records backwards to see if the stories about Satan were true.

Europe further broadened her mind and made her feel at home. In London she started doing mannequin and catalogue work for extra pocket money. Luxury stores such as Selfridges wanted to market their clothing brands and models were used to display the clothes in front of customers.

She heard via the grapevine that the modelling agency Euro Planning was looking for brunettes — there was an oversupply of blondes. She signed up and left for Paris.

In the early 1970s, Paris was the centre of avant garde art, fiery romances, exotic clothes, lively nightlife, expansive literature and all that was beautiful and fast.

The measuring tapes fell in sweet places for her and soon she appeared in top glossy magazines and later on many covers. There were also fashion shows with the crème de la crème of photographers, designers and hotties in attendance.

Esti was youthful and fully enjoyed the nightlife. She worked hard and started making good money.

Through some bohemians and other models, she met a woman called Grace, one of the only black models in Paris at the time. She was tall, fiery-tempered and great fun.

Jerry Hall was part of that circle; she was discovered by a photographer on a beach at a ridiculously young age and had just arrived. “We were somewhat worried about her," says Esti, “because we saw what a big city like Paris could do to young girls."

Grace hung out a lot with Jessica Lange and Hall, but Grace and Esti were close clubmates. Loved to visit, chat, dance and party.

“But we also had to be reliable and work hard," says Esti. “Grace loved singing Dirty Ol' Man by the Three Degrees. Just like that in the nightclubs. She imagined she was part of this group. I always thought, yo, but you can sing, hey!”

Esti often told her she could sing but Grace would have none of it. “Oh, she was stubborn," Esti remembers. “You could never prescribe to her, and if certain men got too gropy she gave them hell. People didn't easily try to mess with her, they were too scared."

Esti as a model during her time in Europe.
Esti as a model during her time in Europe.

Meanwhile, Esti met a man, Stephan Tabakov. “Very attractive," she says, widening her eyes. He was searching for new talent in the music world and produced records.

“Then one day I told him about this Grace Jones woman I go dancing and hanging out with and when she sings, you almost can't believe it. Yes, then he wants to meet her," she says.

Grace writes in her memoirs: “Esti told her boyfriend, ‘Oh, Grace knows how to sing'. I was beating her up in a state of alarm when she told him in front of me.”

She yelled at Esti and asked why she had been stupid enough to tell him. But Esti begged her to please, please, please sing Dirty Ol' Man by the Three Degrees.

Reluctantly she did so, and Stephan asked her then and there to go to his studio the next day. When she started singing there, those present were impressed but Stephan suggested she go for singing lessons before they made a record.

She left highly the hell in, thick-lipped and in no mood for such talk. Esti offered to pay for the classes. So she went.

At some point, Grace decided she was going to quit the singing lessons. When she heard Stephan declare that they should drop the whole thing then, Grace was taken aback.

“I pulled myself together. This was my chance. I had to push through," she writes. When she looked at early versions of La Vie En Rose, she realised that sometimes she was unable to hit the right notes, she later elaborated.

Stephan opened doors for Grace and produced some of her first music, and this was indirectly thanks to Esti. But remember, it wouldn't have happened had Grace not been hardworking, imaginative and talented.

Over the decades, she became one of the most recognisable pop divas who got away from the generic mainstream and vanilla music one so often has to listen to today.

What about Esti? She stayed in Europe for another 15 years and continued to work as an international model.

The rest of her life, dear readers, remains secret, as she is currently working on her own memoirs. Who would have thought? A mademoiselle from Brakpan who conquered Paris and indirectly turned a certain Grace of the fashion world into an unforgettable Grace Jones for music lovers.

Grace, congratulations on your 76th birthday on Sunday.

Esti took dance classes before going overseas to work as a model.
Esti took dance classes before going overseas to work as a model.

Last word

The writer, poet and artist Louis Jansen Van Vuuren, remembers: “Esthéa Mellet (Esti Mellet-Mass) and I are of the same vintage: well invested, with a hefty shot of je ne sais quoi. It was the second half of the swinging Sixties when I saw her walk through Stellenbosch art department's two glass doors. Walking in is an inadequate word to describe her arrival in the art history hall. ‘Floating' is the word I'm looking for. Something like a vision in white patent leather boots.

“If AI had already existed then, I would have sworn the image had been doctored. But it was the time of The Beatles and Carnaby Street and, of course, Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. Esti, as we call her, is simply ravishing. One of the older male students literally walked into the glass door because he was tortoise-twisting his neck to get a closer look at the dream image.

“What catches one off guard is that she is simply comfortable in her divine body. Without sights, my grandmother would say."

Esti was in numerous glossy magazines, her name on every fashionista's lips. Huisgenoot wrote about her when her marriage to racing driver Jochen Mass ended. More about that in the memoir she is writing.
Esti was in numerous glossy magazines, her name on every fashionista's lips. Huisgenoot wrote about her when her marriage to racing driver Jochen Mass ended. More about that in the memoir she is writing.

♦ VWB ♦

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