A cut-and-paste spoof photo of Prince in a Betsey Johnson cocktail dress has enraged his hardcore fans for years. A gollywog grin snickers above hairy legs, court heels and a Princess Diana-style mini: an alleged unveiling of his female alter ego, Camille. She supposedly was invented in the 80s, the Camille album recorded then shelved in 1986. But Camille had been around since before her songs ‘Feel U Up’ and ‘Strange Relationship’ were first tracked in 1981 & 1982, the latter finally appearing on Sign Of The Times, 1987. She’d lived inside Prince since at least his first falsetto-sung, role-blurring album as an 18 year old, For You, till he died, mid-tour, wearing kaftans, fringed leather, tie-dye and turquoise.
What I’m saying is what we all know: Prince was partly female. But Camille did not look like this:
“It makes me want to hurl,” typed one fan on the most popular Prince forum. Angry-face emoji at the Betsey Johnson photo! They were infuriated because Prince’s gender-blurring was rude but never crude. He was an apparently straight male who dressed like a woman and better than most men.
When I was a little girl, I didn’t know about Camille, or Prince. I wanted to slink like a bombshell and swagger like a man. I wanted to wear a codpiece and a frock coat. My first social obstacle to fashion, however, was my brown skin.
Attending nursery school in suburban Croydon, the racist jibes of fellow infants could, I believed, be circumvented if my mother dressed me in white polo necks. All that unfriendly summer, I sweltered.
By 9 or 10, I was wearing the hairnets bought by neighbourhood grandmas to set their curlers. I looked, I thought, like Maureen O’ Hara in The Wicked Lady, or like Blanche Ingram in Jane Eyre. I curled my fringe and Brylcreamed it into Nat King Cole’s quiff, infuriating my father by sucking on his cigar: “disgusting! So unfeminine!”
Then a creature boomed into my eye, houri-lashed, half-naked, curvaceous and taut. The song, ‘When Doves Cry’ was accompanied by a video of Prince, in studded black tweed, frills and eye-liner. Vrooming out of suburbia on a purple motorbike, his lover riding pillion, Prince was unmistakably masculine yet more feminine than the beauteous-breasted Apollonia, riding behind him. Tiny. Vast. Nose from the screen, I whispered, “I want to be you.”
In ‘When Doves Cry’, Prince’s sings of lovers flying from a pattern of inherited family abuse. His voice combines man, woman and animal. The lovers become birds, the percussive phrasing beating like wings, thunderously reverbed. “Maybe you’re just like my mother/She’s never satisfied/Why do we scream at each other/This is what it sounds like/When the Doves Cry.” I knew this home-life well; the violent father, the plaintive mother. The highest ranking world hit untethered from a bassline, the song smacks us along the dancefloor towards a tortured freedom that comes not from destroying the past but from recognising one’s roots and absolving them.
His clothes did the same. Accessorized with satin heels, Prince glowed like a girl in double-breasted jackets, macho cuffs, trench coats. He pastiched historical costumes as he cut the cords of Time. A yellow cut-out jumpsuit framing the golden globes of his ass sculpted Prince’s being into a self-twinned hermaphrodite making love to themselves. Pirate, French aristocracy, showgirl, whore, Prince implanted an arsenal of ruffles, faux fur, gauze, metallic, velvets and antique jackets in my wardrobe: a sartorial twinning of power and romance.
The bullying I’d experienced slid into a kind of horror that felt like awe. And if I was sent home from my holiday job selling Italian bedlinen in London’s Harvey Nichols for wearing my trademark white lace trousers, that only proved I was heading in the right direction.
Like so much of Prince’s music, ‘When Doves Cry’ suggests that sexual pain is inherited from the rigid, often violent, separation of mother and father. The shrieking woman, the growling man are both voiced by Prince. Lurking violence – pimps, a redeemed rape, the miserably “violent room” of a floundering relationship – animates Prince’s love songs. His oft-stated desire for the conventional family unit dissolves into one he provides for himself and his listener (“I wanna be your mother, your brother and your sister, too”). He burrowed through gender and beyond. Prince could mother – his music certainly mothered me – but he couldn’t give birth as a man. Though Prince allegedly possessed a mermaid-like dress/suit during the publicity for his film, Under The Cherry Moon, he does not seem to have worn a bell or full skirt. A full skirt might suggest a womb. His hermaphroditism combines slink and float; cloaks, tunics, cropped tops worn with flared leggings, trousers that appear buttoned up his muscular legs, like Marilyn being sewn into her dresses. Though Prince proposes having a baby in numerous soulful ballads, in order to be hermaphrodite, fe/male, children cannot be bred.
‘Erotic City’, the B-side to ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, also from the Purple Rain album, tries to solve this problem by severing the progress in sexual maturity between virginity and procreation. Prince proposes there might be a space, another place, between losing one’s cherry and “making babies”: “we could fuck into the dawn, making love till cherry’s gone… fuck so pretty you and me”. Fucking pretty is a way of butterflying into a two-halved creature. Speeding and delaying his voice, Prince here explores the beginnings of his female alter ego, Camille.
Camille loved having sex with boys (specifically, Prince) or girls. Or love-sex. More-than-sex.
Camille is most famously heard, perhaps, in Prince’s song, ‘If I was Your Girlfriend’, one I’d known for years but sadly failed to act on when I met Lola, just after college. It was the millennium and we were sliding towards apocalypse, just before the Twin Towers toppled everything.
Lola was an off-duty Venezuelan podium dancer. We met in an underground Soho club at 4am. Her silky small breasts were held by a white halter-neck. I wore midnight blue, a chiffon cerise sash worn like a tie. Having broken sartorial rules to attract boys, I was apprehensive about my effect on this coffee-breathed girl who swiveled her legs about my waist.
By 6am, the sounds of taxis and buses mingled with her heartbeat against mine as we danced in her bedsit to Camille’s ‘If I was Your Girlfriend’. Like me, Lola carried her scratched copy of Prince’s ‘Sign O’ The Times’, from one temporary London squat to another. She looked like Prince’s girls: the angelic eyes of Mayte, the mouth of Apollonia, the fragile skull of Vanity, a slight squint. “Sometimes, those are the things that being in love’s about,” she sang, as our hips undulated.
“This song makes me feel so good,” L told me. I loved it, too. But I did not kiss the mouth pressing against my cheek.
Sex and gender are narratives that Prince/Camille broke down. A trouser leg cut off, a seam slashed, stockings with an evening jacket, an identical female twin (the dancer Cat Glover) appearing on Sign Of The Times as Camille/Prince, weight-lifting a mirror to give her Prince’s biceps.
In ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’, one thing doesn’t follow another. We didn’t have to make love to have an orgasm. It was okay to laugh during sex (“For you naked I would dance a ballet. Would that get you off?”) – though it was a serious plea, too, since Lola was a trained ballet dancer and so was Susannah Melvoin, to whom Prince/Camille had originally addressed the song, over their unhappy love.
Electronic drums expand narcotically in this striptease of a song. Basso profundo demons underscore Camille’s falsetto cries, swiftly banishing the song’s city soundscape of traffic cop, salesman. Here is another world, another place. Drum and bass and jazz voodoo melt law, profit, and negotiation. Society can go hang: this is between two girls. Repeated questions interrogate our expectations of gender, as Camille begs to serve her girlfriend. Will the beloved let her/him dress her, wash her hair, make her breakfast? With each offer, the stereotypically demanding phallic lover disappears; heartbeats, kissed skin and mystical wailing enable Prince – and the listener – to become a woman, enfolded in another woman’s cunt, until we are drinking “every drop” of our girlfriend.
Prince was the only artist, in any genre, to invent a unisex word for our pleasure centre. ‘What’s it like inside your tambourine?’ he asks his girl in ‘Tambourine.’
I couldn’t give Lola what she wanted. I was scared. Like Prince in ‘When Doves Cry’, I was trembling from the unspent rage of my childhood. Unlike Prince, I was stuck in a trap of social ambition. Didn’t love mean marriage – and if I married a girl, what (as my mother loved to chant) would people say?
Over the years, as Prince travelled first into patriarchal tradition of The Jehovah’s Witnesses then returned to psychedelic-electro-jazz, I sank deeper into his velvet. His shocking death finally punctured the fabric of the heterosexual life I was leading. I’m more in love with my man through severing traditional bonds. Ours is an affair of cut-out lace, transparently neither straight nor gay, monogamous yet occasionally open to bathing in Camille.
Oh – and I’m still dressing like Prince.
By Soma Ghosh
I love Prince, and your writing. Great piece. Greeting from Italy, of all places.