A rare interview with Jordan Mooney, punk’s enigmatic frontwoman
In the wake of her tragic passing this week, we revisit a 2016 interview with the punk legend. Here, she talks working with Vivienne Westwood, performing with the Sex Pistols and acting for Derek Jarman
Still one of punk’s most-fetishised poster women, Jordan Mooney’s pivotal role at the nexus of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s riotous (Sex and Seditionaries-era) world was vital to the looks of bands like the Sex Pistols and Adam and the Ants. She’s often immortalised in grainy black-and-white photography, as a severe vision of bleach-blonde-beehived, Cleopatra-eyed, latex-sheathed, fuck-you defiance, yet, there is far more to her influence than straightforward anarchic provocation. Rebellion was actually something of a by-product. Art (“I often described myself as a living work of art”), personal expression and a militant desire to champion the outlier were all at the real crux of her infectious perspective. As punk celebrates turning 40 this year, Jordan revisits her iconoclastic life.
At 14 you changed your name – why?
Jordan Mooney: I truly felt like I’d been labelled the wrong thing, like a kind of name dysmorphia.
You were suspended from school for your haircut, and famously given your own spot in a first-class carriage on the train to avoid your outfits provoking outrage in fellow commuters – do you think dressing the way you did was an act of bravery?
Jordan Mooney: People often refer to the name and the things that I wore as demonstrating bravery and shaking things up, but while I showed off to the best of my ability it wasn’t about bravery because I didn’t care what people thought. I’ve always been extremely comfortable in my own skin. It’s like being in an art movement – someone has to start it.
What are your memories of first walking into SEX?
Jordan Mooney: It was incredibly dark at the time, having just changed from Let It Rock to SEX and there was graffiti sprayed all over the walls. It had that sort of feeling of foreboding when you dread the dentists, and you have to go to the room right at the end of the corridor but it was different for me – I didn’t dread it because I knew I was meant to be there. I knew I would be working there, without a doubt.
There was a lovely man there called Michael Collins who was the manager and a bed, a really old-fashioned hospital bed like you’d see in a sanatorium, but with pink latex sheets on it and I sat on that and we talked and talked for about three hours. I was wearing some kind of 1950s net skirt with a pair of stilettos and suspenders and a little basque top – all original vintage pieces. We really hit it off but there wasn’t a position at the time so I got a job in Harrods, on the third floor in a place called Way In, which was a play of the words way out (Harrods most progressive fashion department, renamed only in 2013 as The Fashion Lab). A few weeks later then got a call from Michael asking if I could come in…
“I think that punk is an attitude and if punk teaches us anything, it’s not to point the finger at anybody, and it’s to include people” – Jordan Mooney
What about first meeting Malcolm and Vivienne?
Jordan Mooney: Malcolm had been in New York with The New York Dolls when I was hired, so one of the first times I met him was when he brought the Dolls back to the shop, and they were all there, dressed entirely in their red vinyl. Michael simply said to me and Vivienne ‘Oh, she’s working for us’ and that was that. I don’t ever remember having an official interview with Vivienne, which is weird, isn’t it? But there was no grand meeting. It was all about the shop. It was a hub, a place that was meant to be as a catalyst for everything else. It’s never been an easy place to get to – it’s a long way from Sloane Square – so you had to really mean to want to go there.
At SEX, you acted as a kind of gatekeeper of the shop’s ideology…
Jordan Mooney: Some people would come in the shop and just want to grab something because they had money and I would say to people, ‘You can’t buy that. You shouldn’t buy that, it’s not for you’. Vivienne and Malcolm and I were very clear about that and we used to do it quite a bit. We’d really talk to people about why they wanted to buy something and did they think it looked good on them, then why? Essentially we wanted to know why they were really buying it. There was a clear ideology behind these clothes, which is why we were so strict about it. I wasn’t prepared to sell things that looked awful on people just because they had the money to buy it. It would have been bastardising something beautiful just for the money.
The clothes were really like works of art to me, to be cherished and taken care off. For instance, there were these incredible A-line skirts that I loved wearing the rubber suited the shape so well. It was a kind of legitimising of latex and not wearing it just because it was latex but it was a beautiful fashion item. And it wasn’t only the latex stuff. Having said that I did once have a skirt that literally melted off me!
What made someone worthy enough to buy something? Did you ever take pity on people?
Jordan Mooney: Sometimes people would say things like, ‘I’ve come down from Newcastle and I deserve these trousers and I want them’. If people stood their ground with me then fair enough.
I really don’t believe in giving things away. People have to work hard to be a genius, to make things like that, as Vivienne did. It’s not to be given away – it becomes meaningless if it is. But there’s been endless stories of me being kind to people in the shop when I worked at SEX, which is interesting because I had a reputation as being rather dour and unapproachable, and very much a dominatrix type of a person. There were also instances in which, if someone didn’t have enough money, I’d let them have some money off or even give them something under the table.
Were you able to help yourself to whatever you wanted to wear?
Jordan Mooney: I didn’t even get free clothes when I worked there – I had to pay! People are really shocked about that. I didn’t pay full price but on many occasions Malcolm made me take clothes off and sell them to people. There was a pair of vinyl trousers that somebody came in and wanted to buy and they didn’t have the size on the rack so he told me to take mine off and sell them to them. We had the hugest row about it. I mean, it wasn’t on – they were mine!
“Some people would want to (buy) something because they had money and I would say, ‘You can’t buy that. You shouldn’t buy that, it’s not for you’. Vivienne and Malcolm and I were very clear about that” – Jordan Mooney
Through Malcolm, you began working with the Sex Pistols. What stands out in particular from that period?
Jordan Mooney: A really big standout moment was So It Goes with (then-presenter) Tony Wilson in Manchester, at Granada TV, because it was obviously an enormous turning point for the Pistols. Tony Wilson was essentially very avant-garde – he was using the TV programme to showcase bands that hadn’t got signed or that radio stations wouldn’t play – but he looked like a hippie. Malcolm and Nils Stevenson, who was the manager of Siouxsie and The Banshees, asked me to go to lend some weight to the performance, to cause a bit of shit, to mash things up a bit. We turned up and Tony Wilson was there in clogs and flares and the minute we clapped eyes on him we were really rude to him. Plus there were two bands before Sex Pistols, both dire to our minds, so we all sat in the dressing room thinking ‘What the fuck have we got ourselves into’, which got worse because of my wearing the Anarchy shirt…
What trouble did that cause?
Jordan Mooney: The ‘Anarchy’ shirt includes a swastika armband, which triggered a very serious argument. I was taken downstairs into the bowels of Granada TV to discuss it – I think it all happened in the Coronation Street dressing room, with all the clothes around us! The Sex Pistols wouldn’t go on stage unless I was there. I wouldn’t take the armband off; Malcolm wouldn’t let me take the armband off; The Pistols wouldn’t let me take the armband off, so there was a total impasse for a couple of hours. I wouldn’t take it off because it was part of the make-up of the shirt, and I’ve always seen it as (a radical art statement) a desensitisation of the swastika as an emblem. It should be remembered that there was Karl Marx on one side and the swastika on the other.
How did the crowd respond?
Jordan Mooney: When that show went out it would have been the first time you could see the Pistols in colour (on TV) and if you look at the stills from it, it’s really vivid, it almost feels overly coloured. Which is brilliant because it accentuates the fact that, as I think I said at the time, and which I was later quoted in the book I Swear I Was There, the audience looked like they were on death row, waiting to die. They didn’t move a muscle, they just sat stock-still and all those great looks that Johnny Rotten gave that day were out of total amazement that people could just sit, mannequin-like.
“In the punk movement in the 70s there was also a real equality between the men and women. Also, punk didn’t put any perimeters on you in terms of your size, how tall or how beautiful you were” – Jordan Mooney
When do you feel that everything really came together for you?
Jordan Mooney: For me, the time when it felt like everything really converged was that one song with Adam and the Ants (Jordan managed an early reincarnation of the band after McLaren had signed it, then cannibalised its initial format) that I sang on stage for about a year. It was called “Lou” and it gave me a total sense of being in control of everything for that short time – being able to sing that song but then being able to walk away and get off stage, to leave it behind when I wanted to. It was very powerful. It’s the sort of power that bands don’t have when they have to do gigs over and over again when they have 25 songs in a set. I had the luxury of walking on and storming it and then walking off again.
What do you think of Joe Corré burning his archive of punk memorabilia – the ultimate statement?
Jordan Mooney: I’m sure it was a joke that’s gone horribly wrong and as such, as a token, it will be a few bits of crap – anything that mattered to him he wouldn’t burn. It’s not going to happen. It would be missing the point – punk is an attitude, not a collection. But I don’t think that that’s relevant because I don’t believe he ever meant it.
What do you think the legacy of punk is?
Jordan Mooney: I think that punk is an attitude and if punk teaches us anything, it’s not to point the finger at anybody, and it’s to include people, and it’s to include the sexes as equals, and it’s to make people feel that those who are feeling like they’re outsiders feel comfortable. That’s the legacy of punk if anything, and it’s not necessarily an image legacy. Because I don’t think you can ever revisit things in a purist way again, and that’s the beauty of it, otherwise you’re just rehashing history or getting into some kind of nostalgia loop, which is awful. I think that if anything punk tells you that history is to be used to recreate something but not in a nostalgic way. Not to copy. And I think that’s a great attitude that’s still strong in many people.
How do you see that legacy continuing today?
Jordan Mooney: It’s to do with equality and people feeling free. People have more freedom to dress how they want now than they ever have. I can’t say that the general public are any less shockable now. For instance I was just wearing the simple ‘tits’ t-shirt (a repro of the original World’s End t-shirt) somewhere and I didn’t know about breastfeeding in public and there were people putting their arms up and saying ‘woah’. They weren’t aggressive but they were still surprised. In the punk movement in the 70s there was also a real equality between the men and women. It’s very rare because usually the spotlight is on one or the other. Also, punk didn’t put any perimeters on you in terms of your size, how tall or how beautiful you were.
What do you think of your own reputation as an icon?
Jordan Mooney: I’ve sometimes felt uncomfortable with looking at myself in that way but sometimes also very touched, deeply touched, actually, in terms of how people have considered me to have helped them with in their lives in some way; people that have been genuinely very grateful for someone that they perceive as having been there at a time in their lives when they needed someone to bolster their confidence.
There was a great story of a man who came into the shop with his sister who didn’t know he was gay and I kitted him out in some really nice drop down ‘Squiggle’ stockings, with culottes and the whole outfit. Apparently, in front of his sister, I said ‘Well you can pull that off, obviously, you know you can pull that off, being gay,’ and his sister really hadn’t realised it until that point. So I effectively ‘outed’ him in the shop. The guy came up to only just recently, so years later, and said to me ‘You have no idea how much of a weight off my shoulders it was’.