Jennifer Grey Recalls When Madonna Told Her 'Express Yourself' Was Inspired By Her Love Life

The Dirty Dancing actress whose memoir Out of the Corner is out May 3, recalls her life in the late 80s as being right in the middle of red-hot Hollywood — and hearing songs about her love life

Jennifer Grey, Madonna
Photo: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic; Stephen Lovekin/Getty

Jennifer Grey rocketed to stardom with Dirty Dancing in 1987, starring as Baby alongside the late Patrick Swayze in the coming-of-age film still beloved by fans. Still quoted too, especially this line: "Nobody puts Baby in a corner."

Yet for years afterward, Grey, the daughter of Oscar-winning actor Joel Grey (Cabaret) and now 62, did feel put in a corner, never landing a role as high-profile as Baby and becoming nearly as famous for the two rhinoplasties that left her almost unrecognizable as she was for the movie that launched her. "I spent so much energy trying to figure out what I did wrong," she tells PEOPLE, "why I was banished from the kingdom. That's a lie. I banished myself. I hadn't seen the way in which I made choices."

In 1986 Grey was dating Matthew Broderick, whom she'd met on the set of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and auditioned for a movie to be called Dirty Dancing. She got cast—and so did Patrick Swayze. The pair had chemistry onscreen, just not off. "The same way Baby and Johnny were not supposed to be together, we weren't a natural match," Grey recalls. "And that created a tension which made the movie work." (I feel like if I could say anything to him now, I would say, 'I'm so sorry that I couldn't just appreciate and luxuriate in who you were.'")

That period for Grey put her right in the middle of young Hollywood. After about four years, she left Broderick (the two were engaged) and started dating Johnny Depp. "We were twinning, wearing matching leather jackets."

While Depp was on the cover of teen magazines because of 21 Jump Street, Grey just remembers him being beautiful. "Her relationship with Depp had heat, she remembers. "It was like a f---ing bonfire. But none of my friends knew who he was. We didn't watch that TV show. Madonna didn't watch 21 Jump Street!"

And, quite coincidentally, Grey was, at the time, living next door to Winona Ryder (whom Depp dated after her). "She was just a kid."

At the time, Grey was close friends with Madonna.

"We did Bloodhounds of Broadway together," she says of the 1989 film. The pop star threw her a 29th birthday party. "She told me she wrote 'Express Yourself' about me breaking up with Matthew," Grey remembers of the first time she heard the song. "She played it for me in her car. I was in my log cabin with Johnny and she said, 'Come into my car.' And I got in her Mercedes where she had a really good sound system and she was like, 'Listen to this song I just did. It's about you.'

When reading the song's lyrics, it makes sense. Even her character's name in Dirty Dancing may have a shout-out.

You deserve the best in life

So if the time isn't right, then move on

Second best is never enough

You'll do much better, baby, on your own

Of her past relationships, Grey says today, "What I've learned is that I demanded second best." And as for the inspiration for "Express Yourself," Grey reveals she contacted Madonna recently. "I wrote her an email where I asked, 'Did you just tell that to everyone?'"

For more about Grey, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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