How did a sweet schoolgirl from Sussex become Vivienne Westwood’s chief mischief maker? She tells all to Julia Llewellyn Smith.
When Jordan Mooney used to travel from her home town of Seaford, East Sussex, to her job as a shop assistant in London’s King’s Road, fellow commuters were horrified. Often when the diminutive (she’s just 5ft 1in) 19-year-old stepped into a carriage everyone would move to another. Sometimes, to keep the peace, the guard put her in her own first-class carriage.
This was in the early 70s, when Jordan was one of the original and, to many, the most influential members of the new emerging style tribe known as punk rockers. She was at the heart of the music and fashion movement from its beginnings in 1974 until its death in the early 80s, and her bleached-blonde bouffant, thick black raccoon eye make-up, and outfits featuring chains, studs and rubber were designed to shock.
‘I never made eye contact with anyone, I just went my own sweet way,’ Jordan, now 63, recalls of those journeys, laughing. ‘Though sometimes I’d have arguments, particularly with women with children. They’d say things like, “Could you leave? You look obscene and you’re upsetting my child.” I’d say, “I was sitting here first.” Recently I saw an old schoolmate who told me her dad used to work for the railway. He’d come home and say, “That weirdo was on the train again today.”’
Although the Sex Pistols sang about anarchy in the UK, Jordan’s motivation wasn’t to overthrow the government but rather to shake up what she calls ‘a grey and beige and taupe time’ when London was in the throes of constant IRA bombings. It was the era of the three-day week and the oil crisis. ‘Everybody was fed up, the streets were full of rubbish, there were strikes, it was really dire,’ she says.
She worked at Sex, the rubber-filled King’s Road clothes store founded by anarchic designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, and quickly became a punk celebrity, fêted for her outlandish style and commitment to her look. ‘People who didn’t want to conform gravitated to that shop,’ says Jordan, whose friends included future Sex Pistols John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, and John Beverley, who would become Sid Vicious. She was close to Stuart Goddard, aka Adam Ant, who, as an unknown teenager, wrote her anonymous love letters after he spotted her scowling at 1976 a Pistols gig; she later briefly managed Adam and the Ants. Other members of her gang included future Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde and singers Siouxsie Sioux and Toyah Willcox (who would co star with Jordan in Derek Jarman’s 1978 punk film Jubilee).
Boy George, who visited the shop in his school uniform, has said that he found Jordan ‘very intimidating’. ‘I was!’ she agrees. ‘I’d never say, “Can I help you?” and I’d tell people who just wanted to spend money, “You can’t buy that, it’s not for you.” Coming into Sex was like running the gauntlet. But if people could prove to me they were worthy of buying the clothes I’d talk to them for a long time.’
How did a shop assistant become the queen of the punk scene? ‘For some reason, since I was a small child, I’ve had this feeling that I didn’t want to fit in,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t angry with the world. I just wanted to do things to the best of my ability. I had an eye for beautiful things and I wanted to be a living work of art.’
She flicks through her new memoir, Defying Gravity, to a picture of her walking down the King’s Road in a T-shirt scrawled with an expletive, and a net skirt over red tights, beneath which she’s clearly wearing no knickers. ‘Everyone stared at me,’ she says. ‘People say I must have been really brave or an exhibitionist, but I wasn’t either of those things. I just really didn’t care what anyone thought or if people looked at me or not. I was very comfortable being that person.’
Born Pamela Rooke (she changed her name at 18 in homage to Jordan Baker, a cool androgynous female character in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), Jordan was the daughter of a seamstress and a Second World War veteran, a member of the No 4 Commando unit. They were loving parents, who were baffled by their strong-willed daughter. ‘They had me late in life and came from a very different generation who’d lived through the war, which made me even more alien to them. Mum wanted me to be a cute, sweet little daughter, but it all went horribly wrong,’ she chuckles ruefully. ‘I was never nasty to people but I was always uncompromising – I would never go to bed when I was asked.’
As a schoolgirl, she studied ballet and competed in athletics to a high level, to the bemusement of her classmates. ‘I wanted to excel at something. The other girls didn’t want to stand out. They just wanted to wear short skirts, get married and not threaten the boys. I think it was partly the disappointment that so many women were a bit Stepford Wifey that motivated me to be different.’
But in 1970, aged 14, Jordan’s dancing dreams died after she was hit by a car, which broke several of her bones. She spent ten weeks lying in traction as her pelvis knitted back together. The only link to the outside world was her beloved music magazines, Sounds and NME. ‘When I came out of hospital I was even more determined to live my life,’ she says.
Inspired by the music stars of her teens, such as David Bowie and Rod Stewart, Jordan began dressing more and more outlandishly. Then, aged 17, she secretly visited a top London hairdresser to have her hair dyed with a red mohican down the middle and two pink stripes at the side, like Roxy Music saxophonist Andy Mackay. ‘I was in massive trouble. My teachers told me I had to change my hair or leave school,’ she says. ‘But even though my mother was pleading, I wouldn’t compromise.’ Eventually they agreed she could stay in school if she wore a headscarf in lessons. ‘My mother was mortified when we were out together. She made me walk several yards behind her. It was very important to Mum to keep up with the Joneses and I regret not realising that at the time.’
After leaving school with two A-levels, Jordan headed to London where she started work at Harrods for its Way In youth fashion department, before getting a job at Sex. And it was there, selling fetish-wear, mohair jumpers and Westwood’s designs (many of which she helped to sew) that she witnessed McLaren put the Sex Pistols together. While Jordan and Rotten became partners in crime – egging each other on to commit pranks, such as setting off the fire alarms during a fashion event – her friendship with Vicious had a more maternal element. In her book she recalls: ‘When I first met him he was pretty conservative. He worried about his exams, things you might not believe now.’ Today he is more famous for being accused of murdering his girlfriend Nancy Spungen during a heroin binge, but Jordan remembers him before the drugs took hold, when he ‘liked a natter’ and ‘laughing and joking’. The pair even went for horse rides across Hyde Park, both refusing to wear helmets in case they would crush their artfully sculpted hair.
As the Sex Pistols’ unofficial mascot, Jordan often appeared on stage with them, either having her clothes ripped off by Rotten as performance art, or throwing chairs into the audience. (Westwood also got stuck in, sparking a fight at a Sex Pistols show, then getting arrested when a brawl broke out after the band’s Thames riverboat gig to launch their single ‘God Save the Queen’ in 1977, which provocatively coincided with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations.)
In 1981 Westwood sacked Jordan for ‘betraying her’ by marrying Kevin Mooney, the Ants’ bassist – because to her marriage was a conformist act. Jordan went on to manage Mooney’s new band Wide Boy Awake, but by now the couple were addicted to heroin, the drug that killed many of their friends, including Vicious in 1979.
During their marriage, Jordan had one miscarriage, brought on by her drug habit, and terminated another pregnancy. ‘I had to be really strong, but I thought I couldn’t bring a child into a music-business environment, with a lot of drugs and partying. I know I made the right decision.’ Things were tumultuous, but when Mooney hit their cat, giving it brain damage, Jordan left him. ‘There’s no way back from something like that,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t unsee what Kevin had done, it was the moment I fell out of love.’
She returned home. ‘My parents knew nothing about the heroin, I pretended to them I had flu, locked myself in my bedroom and came off it, cold turkey. There were a few days of agony, physically and mentally, but I didn’t want to live that life any more, controlled by drugs. If I had stayed in it I would have died.’
Determined to stay clean, Jordan remained in Seaford, caring for her parents (her mother died suddenly just four months later – ‘I’m so glad I was there for her’, she says) and helping on her brother-in-law’s farm. In 1993, she found a job as a receptionist and nurse at her local vet’s, where she still works. ‘I wanted to do something that could make a difference,’ she says. ‘It’s meaningful work – not everyone is lucky enough to have that.’
She lives alone with four Burmese cats, which she shows in competitions. She’s not tempted to remarry. ‘I find it difficult to live with people – I’m a bit of a lone wolf. I’m a fan of living on an edge but I’m not so good at the mundane things in life or sharing them.’
Today, sitting in a friend’s art gallery in Brighton, in a leather jacket, metal chains and spiky purple hair, Jordan insists, ‘I’ll always be a punk. It’s a state of mind that has nothing to do with image. Punks have always existed, long before the label. They’re anyone who dares to push the envelope in an arts-based way, even if it doesn’t make them popular.’ Yet she’s not intimidating; she’s warm and engaging. ‘I’m not judgmental and I’d never try to force my look on anybody, but I do still feel disappointed in people who follow fashion without any passion,’ she says.
She still goes to punk gigs. She’s lost touch with John Lydon but still speaks regularly to Stuart Goddard (‘a massive friend’) and has reconciled with Westwood. ‘We had a great catch-up interviewing her for the book.’ She was devastated by the death last year of another Sex regular, Buzzcocks singer Pete Shelley, aged 63. ‘I saw him a couple of years ago at a gig and we ended up showing each other pictures of cats on our phones,’ she smiles.
Jordan is no fan of nostalgia (‘it keeps things static’), but she does believe in documenting punk’s place in history, ‘because we can learn from it’. Unlike McLaren and Westwood’s son Joe Corré, who burned £5 million-worth of punk memorabilia, Jordan auctioned off most of her old wardrobe on her 60th birthday, with some pieces fetching thousands of pounds. (Kate Moss has been pictured modelling her Westwood studded ‘Venus’ T-shirt.) Most were bought by private collectors. ‘Now they are taking care of them and it’s a huge weight off my shoulders. Otherwise the clothes would have all fallen to pieces,’ she says.
Women often approach her, thanking her for the influence she had on their lives. ‘They say punk allowed them to be individuals, unafraid of expressing themselves,’ Jordan says. ‘It’s so sweet, it sometimes brings me to tears.’ As I said, she’s not really scary at all.
Defying Gravity: Jordan’s Story by Jordan Mooney and Cathi Unsworth is published by Omnibus, price £20.