There are certain beauty and style badges that will forever be inextricably linked to the cultural icons who popularized them: a high, braid-wrapped pony and underwear-as-outerwear will always call to mind Madonna; skinny brows, red lips, and a platinum ’40s pin curl is the epitome of Gwen Stefani; while a flat-topped crew cut and a wardrobe that’s a pitch-perfect mash-up of sexy and strange are Grace Jones calling cards. And then there are the many signatures birthed by Janet Jackson: the key-strung hoop earring from her Control days; Poetic Justice’s long box braids, white head-wrap, and paperbag-waisted jeans; or the rusted red halo of curls circa Velvet Rope. Though Madonna is often bestowed with the chameleon label for her ever-evolving look, Jackson would be just as worthy of the characterization.
The youngest of nine children born into what is quite possibly the most notorious show biz family of all time, the public first caught a glimpse of Janet at age eight, when she joined her brothers on stage in Las Vegas for a 1974 appearance; with that, the seed was planted. Janet started acting, appearing on Good Times, Different Strokes, and Fame, and, in 1982, released her self-titled debut album. But it would be her third effort, 1986’s Control, produced by power duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, that really broke through both musically (it earned three Grammy and nine American Music Award nominations and bestowed women of the world with the anthem, “What Have You Done for Me Lately?”) and stylistically. Suddenly, the soft-spoken, cherub-faced beauty had a powerful sense of self-assurance, a strong look (a mountain of curls, red lips, and, of course, that key earring), and killer moves (courtesy of choreographer Paula Abdul).
The innovative spirit continued on Janet’s next album, 1989’s landmark Rhythm Nation 1814, which set, and still holds, Billboard records (the only album to produce number one hits in three calendar years and have seven singles in the top five), and whose cultural significance has been compared by music journalist David Ritz to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On for its similarly bold approach to social issues like drug abuse, racism, and poverty. Just as Rhythm Nation’s lyrics and synchronized militaristic dance routines telecasted a sense of power to the world, so too did Janet’s look: slicked-back hair tucked into a baseball cap, sharply contoured cheeks, red lips, and a head-to-toe structured black ensemble with jagged metallic accents.
Janet’s music and style (and personal) transformations have never stopped and, as her audience, we’ve always been rapt: from that simple tied black tee in “Pleasure Principle” to the tailored menswear pieces and hat wardrobe she favored in the early aughts; the Bardot-esque updo and high-waisted Levi’s of the Herb Ritts-directed “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” to the belly chain and cascade of waves in “Again”; from the spiky sweater and shiny leather pants of “Scream” to that most famous televised wardrobe malfunction of all time. The gravity-defying cheekbones, that sparkling smile, and, of course, those legendary abs will always be pure Janet. In describing her 1993 album janet., the cultural critic Camille Paglia wrote: “Janet’s unique persona combines bold, brash power with quiet sensitivity and womanly mystery. Her latest music is lightning and moonglow.” She herself is that too. While Jackson credited at least some of her success at the 1994 MTV Movie Awards to her glam squad (which included her makeup artist, the late Kevyn Aucoin, hairstylist Janet Zeitoun, and trainer Tony Cortes), there’s no denying her raw talent and beauty, both of which fans new and old will be able to witness IRL during her 56 city State of the World Tour that kicked off in September. She had to postpone her Unbreakable tour after becoming pregnant with her first child (son Eissa Al Mana) at age 50, but there’s no denying this hot mama is back on the road and better than ever.