Working in Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s Sex shop on King’s Road in London at the dawn of punk, Jordan helped change the look and attitude of an entire generation of British youth. Amy Haben talks to Pamela Rooke (aka Jordan) on the eve of the release of her memoir, Defying Gravity
The first punk rock images my teenage brain absorbed were found in my local public library. In one book, I found images shot by Bob Gruen of the Sex Pistols goofing around. In another photo book, I found this outrageous-looking woman with a blonde beehive and exotic, heavy-winged eye make-up. She wasn’t even in a band, yet she looked cooler than all of the musicians. Her went by the single name Jordan and she was a walking work of art. Her boldness cultivated an army of artsy individuals who were inspired to dress outside the box, even if the masses didn’t accept them. Before Madonna and Lady Gaga, there was Jordan. The former ballet dancer, born Pamela Rooke, took references from her childhood loves, frequently wearing ballet slippers and tutus. The Sussex-born badass walked down the street wearing a see-through plastic skirt with no knickers underneath. It was a silent roar which shook up the polyester-addicted natives and disgusted conservatives.
“The first week when we were in the shop, Gene (Krell who ran Granny Takes a Trip) came… and introduced himself. He became my best friend. One day, Mick Jagger was in his shop and he said, “Go down there and have a look in that shop.” Mick Jagger stood in the doorway and went back to Granny’s, just a block away from us. Gene said, “How was it?” And he said, “Oh, it’s great.” But he didn’t actually dare come in. It’s true, that.” – Vivienne Westwood (excerpt from Defying Gravity)
Jordan was the intimidating figure sitting behind the counter at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Sex shop on King’s Road. She wouldn’t ever ask a customer if they needed help. It was a test of the client’s bravery to come up and ask her for guidance. Most would just quietly set their piece down to be rung up. The Sex Pistols who were managed by Malcolm McLaren were famously formed at the Sex shop. Formerly, the store was called Let It Rock and sold to a new wave of 50’s lovers called Teddyboys. Two years later, a fashion forward Vivienne decided to change it to Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die, which catered to rockers with an abundance of leather and chains. A few years after that it changed to Sex and today it’s called World’s End. At Sex, the pillowy, pink letters which spelled S-E-X out front looked like a Claes Oldenburg sculpture and rubber and leather outfits were the dominant pieces. So instead of just rockers and punks, there were also customers in the fetish scene who were quite normal during the day. Even a prominent news anchor would wink at Jordan on TV as a secret code to indicate he had his rubber underwear on underneath his suit. The subversive shop attracted many young thieves including Johnny Thunders, who was caught stealing and given a verbal lashing by a male co-worker. Bianca Jagger was even escorted out of the shop for putting on airs. No divas allowed!
“The really important thing is that I wanted to appreciate the beauty of rubber and leather, not keep it behind closed doors. I wanted to treat it as normal, not a perversion – just an appreciation of the fabric itself.” – Jordan (from her memoir, Defying Gravity)
Jordan is a feminist icon. She frequently had her breasts on display, not in any way trying to attract sexual attention, but as a statement that she wouldn’t be censored. She found dating to be difficult at times since straight men seemed to be put off by her intelligence and humor. Strong women can be very intimidating. She always felt most comfortable in gay bars and even won a drag contest when she made an outfit mixed with a plastic lobster, seaweed, shells, fishing hooks and nets. The self-declared bi-sexual woman named her campy character for that evening, “The Dyke From The Deep.” People didn’t just come to the Sex shop to buy Vivienne’s creations, they also came to peer at Jordan in all of her unique glory. Lemmy from Motorhead once warned her to stay away from hard drugs, which she found quite ironic. The enigmatic speed- and alcohol-fueled singer was trying to save his young friend from the clutches of heroin. The hardrocking sage may have foresaw something, as Jordan would eventually battle with the evil drug.
“I can remember the strippers turning up, and it was the time when you weren’t allowed to move, so they would stand there and pose, and then the curtains would close. Then about thirty seconds later they would open again and something would be missing. A glove, it always started with a glove. It was fantastic. Can you imagine, this keeps on happening until the strippers are down to their undies and then the curtain closes again. And next time it opens, The Sex Pistols are standing there. And it’s not professional rock lighting the shadows are all along the walls and John Rotten is just looming out at you – standing there all hunched with funny lighting on him. It was unbelievable.”
– Simon Barker on the El Paradiso club (Excerpt from Defying Gravity)
Jordan managed Adam and the Ants for a stretch and would even sing with them at times. Always eye-catching, she attracted the notice of director Derek Jarmon, who cast her as Amyl Nitrate in his 1978 film, Jubilee. The film featured Queen Elizabeth the First being flung into the future to witness a city in decay hoarding a bunch of aimless nihilists. The Slits and Siouxsie and the Banshees perform in it and the film was scored by Brian Eno. It’s now considered a cult movie.
Jordan has a new memoir called Defying Gravity, which has its U.S. debut this month. It’s full of quotes from Vivienne Westwood, Paul Cook, Derek Jarmon, Michael Collins, Sylvain Sylvain and many more. It’s an all-consuming blast into ‘70s London fashion and counterculture. It’s a must read for punk fans and should be required reading for students taking history of rock & roll and fashion classes. I chatted with her for a bit in a London cab. Read our conversation and watch my video of her book reading in the London member’s only haunt, The Crypt, below.
Before Madonna and Lady Gaga, there was Jordan.
Jordan: I have this earring that I made from feathers and pearls after my cat caught a starling in the garden. I went to see David Bowie and I got to the front of the stage where he was singing, “Ziggy Stardust,” and he bent over and asked if he could have my earring and I went… (shakes head no.)
PKM: Hahaha! You spent too much time on that to give it up.
Jordan: Years later, of course, I met David loads of times, but I never confessed to him that I was that girl.
PKM: You were the coolest kid. Most people would’ve ripped the shirt off their back to give to him. Where did you pick out your outfits in the beginning? Did you make them or find them at thrift stores?
Jordan: Both. So I went to secondhand stores. In Brighton, there were a load of really good things back then, not so much now. I used to D.I.Y…. sort of mess it around. I would sew little bows on these 1950s petticoats and I would wear loads of ballet wear.
PKM: Were your parents mad at first?
Jordan: Yeah. I used to walk down the path of my house the exact same as I would walk into the Sex shop on Kings Road. I don’t consider myself brave. When you feel comfortable and safe inside what you’re doing, you feel empowered, not brave.
PKM: I definitely understand you. I used to wear a polka-dotted Minnie Mouse costume with fishnets as a teen and I wasn’t embarrassed because I knew who I was.
Jordan: That’s exactly where I’m coming from.
PKM: How old were you when you started working at Vivienne’s shop.
Jordan: I was just 19. I got A levels in English and Law in school. Which is the highest you could get.
Bianca Jagger was even escorted out of the shop for putting on airs. No divas allowed!
PKM: Were you a social kid or shy?
Jordan: Anti-social. I always thought that people who were involved with me might get into trouble by being my friend. I was always getting into trouble because of how I looked. I was asked to leave while I was a prefect (hall monitor) at school.
PKM: You had the brains, but they threw you out anyway.
Jordan: I was a prefect on purpose because it gave me a position of power with the students. I could help them out without being nasty like the teachers.
PKM: I did the same thing as yearbook staff photographer. I was tired of my little punk friends not being acknowledged, so I became the person in power. At the end of that year, there were mohawks galore inside those pages. The parents were probably horrified.
Jordan: You subvert it by getting on the inside. What’s great is that the teachers weren’t cleaver enough to understand that. I was thrown out of school for how I looked. Then the teachers came to my house because they wanted me back, but they were asking me to change. My parents were on their side of course. I just wouldn’t change.
PKM: Were there uniforms at this school?
Jordan: It was uniforms. You couldn’t wear certain shoes. I had these beautiful black patent platforms with straps. My friend later told me she would see me walking into assembly with those shoes on and she would think, “Oh no, she’s going to get in trouble again.”
PKM: Since you were so different at a young age, was there somewhere you went to hang with your people?
Jordan: I would hang out in all male, gay clubs in Brighton in my early teens. They liked my look. It makes you more tolerant of everyone when you’ve been accepted. It’s a nice frame of mind to be in when you are completely accepted. We used to dance the night away. It was so fabulous. You mentioned you were bi-sexual, so am I. It’s so liberating when you can have great friendships with gay men. Miles better music than normal bars as well.
PKM: Did anyone ever give you guys grief about the name of the Sex shop?
Jordan: The Sex Shop was the same building as the current World’s End shop of Vivienne’s. We were never bothered by anyone about the name because it was located in a more rural part of town. Have you ever been there? If not, I’ll take you and introduce you to everyone.
PKM: Oh yeah I was at World’s End once. There was a very cute, quirky girl working.
Jordan: That was Lisa. Very pretty with loads of tattoos. One of the most famous photos of me is very funny. It was taken by the famous photographer, Sheila Rock. I’m outside the Sex shop and this businessman is walking by and looking at me like, “What the fuck?”
PKM: Haha. I love that photo.
Jordan: It’s a really good moment of time.
PKM: Were you into glam before the punk scene exploded?
Jordan: I was, but before that, The Velvet Underground. Iggy. These bands were re-established by David Bowie because he was a fan. It was a great tribute.
PKM: Is there anything funny that Iggy or Bowie ever said to you?
Jordan: I’ve never met Iggy, funny enough. It’s upsetting. He played a year ago at Hyde Park. I met his tour manager at this private Garden Party and he said, “Why didn’t you come backstage? Iggy would have loved to see you!”
PKM: Next time you have to go back.
Jordan: Oh, yeah. It’s a done deal. Bowie was a very clever man. I remember taking photos with him at Cannes and Live Aid.
PKM: There is a photo I saw of you singing.
Jordan: I would sing onstage with Adam Ant. I had one song. It’s such a powerful thing to sing onstage and then chuck the microphone and walk off.
PKM: I know Chris Constantinou from Adam and the Ants.
Jordan: Oh, he is lovely. I think Adam is still friends with him.
PKM: Chris talked about how he got a lot of groupies and that the Ants all had more make up on than the girls they got together with.
PKM: Did you style a lot of people back in the day?
Jordan: Only a few. Boy George (before he was famous) was a fan of the shop. People could come in with loads of money but they wouldn’t necessarily look good in those clothes. I would say, “What do you think you look like?”
Jordan: I would say, “How would you wear that?” “How would you adapt that?” Then some kid would travel for miles with no money and I’d give them a T-shirt for free. That kid would look better in that shirt than most of the customers. I’d never stop and say, “Can I help you?” People would just come in and look around.
PKM: I’m sure you were asked to be a model for loads of photographers.
Jordan: Yes, that happened. Do you remember the bum shot of Chrissie Hynde, Vivienne Westwood, and I? We had S -E- X written on our bums. Of course, mine was the biggest bum of them all! Haha!
PKM: Oh yeah, I love that shot.
Jordan: Chrissie is still a good friend as well. She’s very into ecology now and taking care of the planet.
PKM: I’m very inspired by her. As a young woman to come live all the way over here in England and start bands back then, very cool.
Jordan: She was intrepid. She never took no for an answer.
PKM: Were you friends with Poly Styrene?
Jordan: I was great friends with her!
PKM: I just interviewed her daughter.
Jordan: We have the same publisher. It’s a shame you won’t be here. We are doing a reading together at the British Library.
PKM: Who was your closest friend in the scene.
Jordan: I guess Adam. He was really sweet. We were very good friends. I managed him and he sent love letters. I have no sense when people like me. So it took two years for him to woo me. Adam liked a lot of women, so I never really was his girlfriend. We were more friends with benefits. Then I married the bass player.
PKM: The 18-year-old. Did you feel like it was love at first sight and a very magical connection?
Jordan: Yes. Yes, it was.