Joyce Vincent was born in Hammersmith on 19 October 1965 and raised near Fulham Palace Road. Her parents had immigrated to London from the island country of Grenada; her father Lawrence was a carpenter of African descent and her mother Lyris was of Indian descent. Following an operation, her mother died when Vincent was eleven, and her four older sisters took responsibility for her upbringing. She had a strained relationship with her emotionally distant father, who she claimed had died in 2001 (he lived until 2004). She attended Melcombe Primary School and Fulham Gilliatt School for Girls, and left school at age sixteen with no qualifications.
In 1985, Vincent began working as a secretary at OCL in the City of London. She then worked at C.Itoh and Law Debenture before joining Ernst & Young. She worked in the treasury department of Ernst & Young for four years, but resigned in March 2001 for unknown reasons. Shortly afterwards, Vincent spent some time in a domestic abuse shelter in Haringey and worked as a cleaner in a budget hotel. During this period, she became estranged from her family. A source involved in the investigation said: "She detached herself from her family but there was no bust up. They are a really nice family. We understand she was in a relationship and there was a history of domestic violence." It has been speculated that she was ashamed to be a victim of domestic abuse or did not want to be traced by her abuser.
As a victim of domestic violence, Vincent was moved into a bedsit flat above Wood Green Shopping City in February 2003. The flat was owned by the Metropolitan Housing Trust and was used to house victims of abuse. In November 2003, after vomiting blood, she was hospitalised for two days due to a peptic ulcer.
Vincent died of unknown causes around December 2003. She was an asthma sufferer, and an asthma attack, or complications surrounding her recent peptic ulcer, have been suggested as a possible cause of death. Her remains were described as "mostly skeletal" according to the pathologist, and she was lying on her back, next to a shopping bag, surrounded by Christmas presents she had wrapped but never delivered. It is not known to whom the presents were addressed, and the police report regarding the case has been disposed of.
Neighbours had assumed the flat was unoccupied, and the odour of decomposing body tissue was attributed to nearby waste bins. The flat's windows did not allow direct sight into the accommodation. Drug addicts frequented the area, which may explain why no one questioned the constant noise from the television. Half of her rent was being automatically paid to Metropolitan Housing Trust by benefits agencies, leading officials to believe that she was still alive. However, over two years, £2,400 in unpaid rent accrued, and housing officials decided to repossess the property. Her corpse was discovered on 25 January 2006 when the bailiffs broke in. The television and heating were still running due to her bills being continually paid for by automatic debit payments and debt forgiveness.
The Metropolitan Housing Trust said that due to housing benefits covering the costs of rent for some period after Vincent's death, arrears had not been realised until much later. The Metropolitan Housing Trust said that no concerns were raised by neighbours or visitors at any time during the two years between her death and discovery of the body.
Vincent's remains were too badly decomposed to conduct a full post-mortem, and she had to be identified from dental records. Police ruled death by natural causes as there was nothing to suggest foul play: the front door was double locked and there was no sign of a break-in. At the time of her death she had a boyfriend, but the police were unable to trace him. Her sisters had hired a private detective to look for her and contacted the Salvation Army, but these attempts proved unsuccessful. The detective found the house where Vincent was living, and the family wrote letters to her. But as she was already dead by this time, they received no response, and the family assumed that she had deliberately broken ties with them.
The Glasgow Herald reported,
"...her friends noted her as someone who fled at signs of trouble, who walked out of jobs if she clashed with a colleague, and who moved from one flat to the next all over London. She didn't answer the phone to her sister and didn't appear to have her own circle of friends, instead relying on the company of relative strangers who came with the package of a new boyfriend, a colleague, or flatmate."
A film about Joyce, Dreams of a Life, written and directed by Carol Morley with Zawe Ashton playing Joyce, was released in 2011. Morley tracked down and interviewed people who had known Joyce. They described a beautiful, intelligent, socially active woman, "upwardly mobile" and "a high flyer", whom they assumed "was off somewhere having a better life than they were". During her life, she met figures such as Nelson Mandela, Ben E. King, Gil Scott-Heron, and Betty Wright, and had also been to dinner with Stevie Wonder. -
On 4 November 2014 English musician Steven Wilson announced that his fourth CD release, titled Hand. Cannot. Erase., would be based on the life of Vincent. According to Wilson, he was inspired to create a concept album after seeing Dreams of a Life. From the book that accompanied the deluxe release of the album it is clear that the central character is a highly fictionalised version of Vincent: she is born on 8 October 1978 to an Italian mother and dies or disappears 22 December 2014. Her only sister is a girl, 'J.', who was briefly fostered by her parents prior to their divorce. In the album and book the Christmas presents are intended for H.'s estranged brother and his family.
A book in Greek language written and published by music writer Anthony Petropoulos was released in August 2017. The book had the title "Mόνη μέσα στο πλήθος - Η ζωή και το τραγικό τέλος της Joyce Carol Vincent" ("Alone in the crowd - The life and the tragic death of Joyce Carol Vincent").