PUNK’S ICONIC POSTER GIRL JORDAN BLAZED A VIVID, INDELIBLE TRAIL ACROSS SEVENTIES LONDON AND LEFT A MARK ON POPULAR CULTURE THAT’S STILL FELT TO THIS DAY. MUSE TO ICONOCLASTS IN FASHION AND FILM, THE RECLUSIVE LEGEND GRANTS PIPPA BROOKS A RARE, REVEALING INTERVIEW
The first visual that springs to my mind at the mention of “Punk” is of an aggressively arresting woman, her face divided, Mondrian-like into pink geometric shapes outlined in black, with a blonde flame of hair, her body either clad or bound in rubber or leather bondage straps, perhaps offset with something incongruous like a string of pearls or a tutu. In the Seventies, female punks expressed a powerful new aesthetic and Jordan’s image has endured as the ultimate symbolic Punk totem. Add to that her historic status as shopgirl at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s SEX and Seditionaries shops – both at 430 King’s Road, London – and the legendary picture is complete.
In person, Jordan’s diminutive stature is at odds with my memory of Amyl Nitrite, the warrior woman she so memorably played in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1978). She gets that a lot. “Lauren Laverne said, ‘I can’t believe you’re not six feet tall!’” she laughs. Jordan laughs a lot, shattering another preconception, since, in most photographs of the Seventies and Eighties, she is fabulously fierce and unsmiling.
For many years, Jordan has been silent, apart from giving occasional, carefully chosen interviews. She melted back into obscurity by choice, becoming a Burmese cat breeder and veterinary nurse in Seaford, the Sussex town where she grew up. She’s spent years being badgered to tell her story, and I met her to ask why she has decided the time is now right to pen her autobiography…
Wylde: There have been some great accounts of the Punk years, especially Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys [Chapter 34 opens with Albertine describing SEX and meeting Jordan] and, of course, Patti Smith’s Just Kids is a fantastic telling of the early days of the New York Punk scene. But why now?
Jordan: The catalyst for the book was really finding all my old clothes in a room in my house. There’s a “kitten cupboard” in the room where I have my kittens and I opened it one day and thought: “Ooh look, there’s my Venus T-shirt! That’s looking a bit sad.” I took it out and it was hanging there, looking like an old drunk. It was on this old Seventies hanger, the old plastic, flat ones, like they would’ve used in Mary Quant, or something [laughing]. You could’ve put your finger through it, and it had dry mould on it. I took it out and put it on the washing line, got a J Cloth damp, and just really, really, gently rubbed it off. It had all the original badges that I’d put on it, like my Roxy Music badge, The Heartbreakers, The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre from when it first came out … so it got me thinking that these things might fall to bits. I got a few things together, and I thought I should do something to preserve these. I didn’t want to let it all disintegrate into nothing…
And at that point you decided to sell your clothing archive?
Yes, it started to weigh on me that all these things were of cultural importance and what would happen if something happened to the house? So I borrowed a massive suitcase and got them all together, from early days, like the Destroy T-shirt, right through to Venus, the Anarchy shirt that was on the Bill Grundy show – there are pictures of me wearing it with Dee Dee Ramone and David Bowie. They were all sold, and this weight that I’d had on my shoulders when I found them all had totally lifted, and it kind of liberated me and made me feel very comfortable.
So with the clothes going out into the world, did this free you up to think about getting your own story out there? You’re writing it with [crime writer] Cathi Unsworth, aren’t you? Why her? Did you know each other already?
It’s very fortuitous, really. I was at Sheila Rock’s photographic exhibition. Donald Smith had commissioned her to do this huge black-and-white portrait of me and I ran into Roger Burton from the Horse Hospital [members’ club and art space]. Roger said: “What about Cathi? She’d be perfect.” So I got into contact with her and it was perfect. Although she’s not done ghost-writing before, she’s really enjoying it. It’s a strange thing because I had been asked for some years to do a book and I thought it was so self-indulgent, and “Who’d want to read it?” was my honest opinion.
Are you enjoying the process? How’s your memory for detail?
I have a really shit memory! Usually, it’s clothes that make me remember. If I remember what I was wearing that day or night it’s easier. I want to make it fun, I want to have some input from other people because I think you kind of live in a bubble in the situation I did. I was very standoffish and had very few friends; I picked them very carefully.
You were part of a very tight group, and meeting Westwood and McLaren was a perfect collision of minds, aesthetics and location. You were their muse, with a very strong sense of your own style.
A lot of people have noted the fact, even though it’s quite corny, that it was like a perfect storm. Where everything came together in that one place and then a lot of things followed.
In 1978 you served as muse again, for Derek Jarman in probably his most notorious film, Jubilee. Your character Amyl Nitrite was such a revelation! The ballet you dance by the bonfire is timeless, beautiful, apocalyptic and exquisite, but what a surprise that you could dance like that!
I just made that up on the day! Apparently, it was his favourite bit of the film. The Super 8 was just great, the graininess – you see those embers coming from the fire. I’d sewn those feathers on my tutu myself.
But you can tell that you knew how to dance.
I did ballet when I was young, I competed from when I was seven to 14 . Then I had a massive road accident when I was 15, smashed my pelvis in three places and had to learn how to walk again. I was in hospital for 10 months. My friends say that that was a turning point. Actually, I had kind of a waking dream of it the other night, I can remember every second. It’s amazing how things can happen, but it also teaches you the strength to come back. I went straight back to dancing after that. Started all over again. I don’t want a medal for it, but it gave me a sense of mortality.
Were you friends with Jarman already? How did he come to ask you to be Amyl Nitrite?
Derek saw me walking across Victoria Station and asked me if I would help do a documentary on the King’s Road and Punk, and I said I’d help. We were just going to do a Super 8 hand-held documentary. Then, a few weeks later, he got in touch with me and said he’d changed his mind and was going to write a script and would I be in it? So I just said: “Yes!”
There’s that fabulous scene later, with your hair and make-up as you would expect from Jordan, but wearing a twinset and pearls… so fantastic!
Lots of people have said that years later Vivienne took that look.
You were expressing yourself through clothing way before you met McLaren and Westwood, though, weren’t you? You seemed so ahead of your time. In the Seventies, fashion was obsessed with the Twenties and Thirties (think Biba), and yet, with your adaptation of the beehive, the net skirts and the stilettos, you were fucking with the Fifties a whole decade before Flip and Fiorucci and all the other Eighties brands started “doing” the Fifties.
Yes, well, if you look at that picture of me outside 430 King’s Road when it was SEX, I’m just wearing ballet tights, a leotard and a pair of stilettos and my hair up – absolutely nothing from the shop.
I love that picture! Such an image of female strength and defiance. I don’t think enough is made of the fact that Punk was so much about equality of the sexes and, especially with you and Siouxsie Sioux, that dominatrix-type strength.
Your point about equality is extremely important. Men cared about what they looked like, too! Shared their girlfriends’ and mates’ make-up. We hung out in Louise’s, which was a lesbian club. The whole point is that you don’t have to conform – and people eased into that and felt comfortable.
You took the name Jordan for yourself at 14. Was it important to you to choose a gender-fluid name? [Jordan was christened Pamela Rooke.]
Yes, it was important. I wanted something that was just very concise and strong. It was really a man’s name, but there’s a female character in The Great Gatsby called Jordan. She’s a golf hustler, a very strong woman, very jolly hockey sticks, but quite tough.
Particularly when you read Viv Albertine’s book, it’s clear that not all women had such an empowering experience of the Seventies and Punk; the band were physically attacked a lot.
Somebody tried to rob me in New York once. It was a really cold evening, there were warnings not to go out but, being a Brit, on my first time in New York, I didn’t realise you could die of the cold out there. I was walking from the Chelsea Hotel down this frozen street and this guy jumped out of a doorway with intent either to rob or rape me and I had this big rubber coat on and big beehive and I, out of fear, looked at him with flashing eyes and his eyes just said: “Shit!” and he didn’t bother, and ran off! I’ve never been so relieved in my life!
What did you make of the NY Punk scene?
Johnny Thunders came to stay with us in Buckingham Gate; I saw them play a lot. That first time I went to New York, I ended up, in 1977, dumped in the Chelsea and I went to Max’s Kansas City and was so relieved to see the friendly face of Sylvain Sylvain: “Jordan, come over here!” We had a great night dancing, and stuff.
Was that when Debbie Harry worked at Max’s?
[Jordan covers her eyes when I mention Harry.] I was really mean to Debbie Harry! She came over to London and she really wanted to meet me, and I said: “No, she’s not a Punk!” I saw them last year, we had a great time. It was the first time we’d ever met, because I’d said “No” all those years ago! Maybe she doesn’t remember – I’m hoping she doesn’t, or I hope she thought I was joking!
Another interesting group of outsiders who were welcomed into the Punk “family” were the rubber and leather fetish dressers, who, until then, had been very underground. McLaren and Westwood famously sold fetishwear alongside their own creations. John Samson’s Dressing For Pleasure  is such an underrated film. You, layering up in a rubber ensemble in the heatwave summer of ’76, is unforgettable. I love it when you say: “What a day to choose to put rubber clothes on – we’re having a heatwave!”
It is underrated! I went to the Cannes Film Festival in 1976 in a rubber skirt and it melted off me! I wore a fucking rubber skirt to Cannes in May! I had no knickers on, nothing! I had to get out of the restaurant with no clothes on!
I love the story of News At Ten’s Reginald Bosanquet buying rubber knickers from SEX, and telling you all to watch the News, as he’d be wearing them!
He did come in, quite a lot. There was a beautiful florist’s just around the corner from the shop, a beautiful double-fronted florist’s, and Reginald once walked in there with a much younger lady, rolling drunk, about 10 in the morning and I was walking by to work, and he went: “Come in!” and with this great voice of his, said to the florist: “This is Jordan, she works up there… get her whatever she wants!” And he just got this massive bouquet made for me, he was so sweet!
Punk burned bright for a very short time, but has had such a powerful effect on pop culture since then. And the DIY culture that it encouraged, be that in terms of music, fashion or art, is still going strong. What, for you, is the legacy of Punk?
If there’s a meaningful legacy, it would be to accept people as they are. I use myself as a really good example of this: I’ve always been short, never been slim, I’ve always been, I would say, plain. I’ve created something of myself. And I would say that, because I was never that sort of model-looking person, what I did with myself empowered other people. Maybe if I had been beautiful, things would have been different.
THE WYLDE QUESTIONNAIRE: JORDAN
Can clothes still shock?
Nothing has shocked me in a long time.
First thing you do in the morning?
After having a wee, you mean?
Have you ever broken the law?
Yes. Whether I was ever caught is another thing!
What’s your earliest memory?
Looking at a big old pram in the hallway, so I must’ve been a toddler.
Who’s your favourite performer of all time?
First record you ever bought?
Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite.
Should we suffer for fashion?
Yeah! Always did, and still do.
Well, up there has got to be Leonard Cohen about four years ago. Other than that, maybe the Ramones at the Roundhouse, 4 July 1976 – they were supporting.
First role model?
Leather or rubber?
Leather. I used to wear both, but rubber doesn’t last.
Favourite outfit you ever wore?
My Venus T-shirt, with the studs on, the top of my sister’s wedding dress underneath it. A pair of black tights with white knickers over the top, black patent stiletto court shoes.
When or where are you happiest?
Amongst my friends, as simple as that.
Favourite recreational drug?
I don’t take any drugs now but it would be heroin. Although I wouldn’t say it’s recreational; it’s very enjoyable but I think it stops you from doing things.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
One of Malcolm and Vivienne’s shirts said: “Don’t dream it, be it”.