Fashion icon Sandra-Lee’s life and legacy in dancehall
Should Sandra-Lee Smith enter a party and see someone wearing her ensemble, she’s leaving. Better yet, “If I travel or go to a store in Jamaica and there’s only two or three pieces (of something I love), I grab all of them because I want to have all of them,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.
It may sound extreme but it’s fitting for the dancehall stalwart who helped pioneer the ‘80s and ‘90s eras of dancehall fashion which was fiercely original, and never to be seen twice.
Some of her looks are documented throughout her St Andrew abode, and she describes a few before settling on a chaise lounge in her vintage Hollywood, French chic and Bohemian-styled living room.
There’s one particular photo that stands out: an almost ceiling-to-floor frame of Sandra-Lee in a silver gown at House of Leo, complete with her signature high-blushed, pale makeup and unibrow. The latter she inherited from her Maroon Rastafarian father who raised her in Rose Town, west Kingston, alongside her mother who was a dancehall promoter.
“While coming up, I always saw them keeping dances in the yard… After the party, we, the smaller ones, would pick up the bottles and this is how it becomes an integrated part in our lives, so I grow up using it as an income also,” she shared.
But before she would dominate the dancehall with fellow trendsetters Dancehall Queen Carlene, Pinky and The Ouch Crew, Sandra-Lee told her mother that she wanted to pursue cosmetology after completing third form at Ardenne High School. By 16, she opened her own salon downtown after being trained at the Leon School of Beauty Culture. She quickly became known as the go-to stylist for the hottest trends in dancehall, not only attracting foreigners who’d come down for events like Sting, but also public figures like Willie Haggart, Bogle and Scare Dem Crew.
“With Willie now, he loved that dancehall look so whenever I put out a hairstyle for the men, he was the first one to say, ‘I want it’, also Radigan… When Scare Dem came to me, I give them the colour-colour and it goes with their group and they love it. Sometimes I can’t find the colour that I want but I use kool-aid and try not to let rain catch them.”
But Sandra-Lee was shining, too. Her hairstyles and fashion became a way of marketing her business in the dance, which equally made her a video light sensation. Not relying on fashion magazines (and without the advent of social media), Sandra-Lee’s fashion inspiration drew on an affinity for name brands, delivered with what she described as originality and sophistication.
“I like to stand out and be different so whenever I turn up into a party, people are fascinated about my style and say, ‘Wow, how she do it?... I want that look’… I love name brands because our mom grows us up in good stuff. She never like see us in things that’s not proper so when you see us in something, it’s quality. You see it, you see money.”
She attributed the simultaneous reign and prominence of several fashionistas to their support for each other and understanding of dancehall as a “fashion show” that saw the most innovative, resourceful and exclusive being the eye candy for men and envy of women. She added that people had to pay to see them, but the scene has noticeably changed with “uniform clothes” culture.
“When this China thing comes in now, which is more of a cheaper fashion, it take it time and come in the dancehall which you can’t beat them down on it – it’s what they can afford – so, it cause name brand to kinda dress back a little, for some people, not for all who love the culture and want to shine in the culture.”
According to the 53-year-old fashionista, if she “doesn’t see anybody to take on, I will leave because that’s what dancehall is; you can’t test”.
She added, “If you have the garments, come and test. Nowadays, people looking at dancehall as if it’s a cheap thing. No, it’s not. We set it where it’s like a Grammy thing.”
Reflecting on her legacy in dancehall, her proudest moment is being included in US-based multidisciplinary artist Akeem Smith’s No Gyal Can Test exhibition, which premiered at Red Bull Arts in New York in 2020.
While she’s still a mainstay in the space, Sandra-Lee sees herself “passing on the baton” someday.
“There’s going to be sometimes when I’m in the church because I gravitate to my God so deeply and I’m scared of Him and I’m getting closer and closer to my God.”
Until then, she wants the Government to do more for the dancehall community.
“Japan sells their culture and China sells their culture. When you sell your culture, your country becomes rich but I’m not seeing them putting out the effort to sell dancehall, and people all over the world want to be in this dancehall… I just want the Government to respect dancehall and realise that it’s a culture. Whenever I see that come to pass, then I will say that the work is done.”