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“I’ll never tell;” replied Vanity when first asked about her birth date. “There’s many rumors. I’m as old as you want me to be.”

Sleuth doesn’t do rumors: She was born on January 4, 1959 in Niagara Falls, Ontario—as People put it, “the illegitimate child of a black father and a white mother”: James Levia Matthews from Thailand and Helga Senyk from Germany. They never married {hence the name ‘Baby Matthews’ on her birth certificate, above left}, yet the later-christened Denise Katrina Matthews and her two sisters wound up in the custody of their construction worker father {“There was child abuse in our family,” she sighed}.

Dad died when Denise was 15…and she immediately seized the chance to run away from home—earning money by, in her words, “selling vacuum cleaners, throwing raincoats over tourists viewing nearby Niagara Falls, and eventually landing a commercial for Pearl Drops Tooth Polish.”

“She had perfect teeth,” noted Toronto Weekly, “and perfect everything else—which won her the beauty title of Miss Niagara Hospitality of 1977 {“My mom was also feeling like a queen that day,” Denise declared}.

“She was very beautiful and talented,” recalls her Niagara Falls high school classmate (and now city councilor) Joyce Morocco. “When she started doing the modeling, you knew she was going to go places.”

Such as Japan…where she modeled and sang under the name Denise Sonic. “I was too short (5-foot-6) and there are a thousand pretty faces,” she explained after returning to Toronto to try acting.

That’s when her “fairy tale” began: “Even in the age of cynicism, Cinderella survives,” the Toronto Star gushed in 1979. “It was a matter of combining a sultry, sexy, exotic look with a bit of luck and one incrediblecoincidence and suddenly a failed Toronto model is the star of a new Canadian film.” Fledgling film producer Pierre Broussard—who’d made money by importing the softcore smash Emmanuelle to Montreal—wanted to make a movie about “an everyday eternal triangle—a guy, a girl and a gorilla—on a desert island.”

With a “modest budget of just over $1 million,” Broussard {looking back below at age 70} felt all he needed “was an actress (an unknown – they’re cheaper), correctly proportioned, with the sultry look of a Eurasian.” He happened to open a copy of Canadian Maclean’s magazine and saw a pinup photo of Denise publicizing her bit part as a saloon girl in the forthcoming film Klondike Fever. “That’s her!” the producer exclaimed to his wife. “I wonder how we can find her?”

An hour later, he “wandered into The Coffee Mill on Bloor Street”—where the 20-year-old beauty happened to be sitting after another failed modeling audition. Broussard “whipped out the photo he had saved in his briefcase, asked if she was the one and announced he wanted her for the film,” saying: “Give me 15 minutes and I’ll change your life.” Recalled the aspiring actress: “I know it sounds like an incredible coincidence. But it really happened.”

The persuasive producer got Denise to drop out of Klondike Fever, whisked her off to the Academy Awards (where she met Sammy Davis Jr.), changed her name to D.D. Winters (to contrast with the island heat) and promoted the steamy flick at Cannes: “If you loved Emmanuelle,” proclaimed its poster, “you’ll go APE with D.D. Winters on Tanya’s Island.”

“It wasn’t porno, it was R rated,” Vanity made clear after her 1984 debut solo album Wild Animal (above right) rekindled interest in her 1979 dirty debut film (bringing out the beast in her co-star, above left). “I was very young and just getting into the business. And these people told me I wouldn’t be naked. They didn’t say anything about nudity in the film. But when I got to the island, I was very naïve and yeah, they wanted me to take my clothes off. It was a split second decision and I decided to do it.”

So much so that one reviewer raved: “You’ll be happy to know she’s completely naked before the openingcredits have even finished (above) and remains half or wholly bare through much of the film.” For a reason: “A lot of actresses who want to do something start out doing nude scenes,” D.D. declared at the time. “I want to make a better movie than Tanya’s Island but I think I pulled it off and handled myself well (as her sexy sasquatch did her, below left). Not everybody gets the opportunity at a leading part in their first film, and I haven’t got a rotten body so I don’t feel ashamed of it or anything” (any re•butt•al?).

Nor was she ashamed to have dumped her live-in lover, French fotog Daniel Poulin, to pursue fame and foreplay. “In real life, she had to choose between her career and her boyfriend,” wrote the Toronto Sun in June 1979. “All I know,” they quoted Denise, “is that my career is more important than anything else. It’s all I want. And I know it will satisfy me completely.” Concluded the reporter: “She’s Cinderella come to life—except for one thing. She’s left her Prince behind.” Not entirely …

Next: “To Heaven from Hell”