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Traci Lords Penthouse Confessions

Traci Lords’ memoir reveals life after her controversial underage pictures created a scandal when published in Penthouse magazine.

“I’d posed for every magazine on the rack by now, and the business was all about new meat. I pictured myself lying in the butcher’s case at the supermarket, the plastic wrap covering my body and a red ‘Reduced for Sale’ sign on my forehead. The image seemed very real. I was going off the deep end. I had to shake it before I ate a bottle of pills. I was thinking about death a lot lately, and that day I felt like I was daring God to strike me dead.”

This is Traci Lords speaking, in her 2003 memoir Underneath It All. (Her author credit at the bottom of the cover of the 2004 paperback edition is “Traci Elizabeth Lords,” reflecting her continued post-porn discomfort with the persona under which she achieved her first fame and then continued to be in movies such as Not Of This Earth and Intent To Kill.) In the passage, she’s describing the despairing emotions of what she was at the time: a teenage girl. A teenage girl who had left her home and was now, with the aid of a fake ID and a couple of unscrupulous but just as desperate friends, making money posing for nude photos. Having already endured a teen pregnancy and abortion, the limelight of lust within the world of show-biz erotica was both alluring and distressing to the untutored kid, who’d already developed a strong drug habit. But the afternoon in the summer of 1984 that she writes about here was going to end on more of an up note, or so she thought at the time. She had been modeling for months, and had signed a deal to appear in Penthouse—the check was for five grand, which for her at the time was excellent money. It was for the Penthouse contract that she invented the name “Traci Lords,” but at the time she signed and cashed the check she’d done so many shoots that, as she wrote, one bled into the other. Still. The Penthouse pictorial was going to make a difference when it appeared. Her speed-addicted twenty-something boyfriend of the time, Sonny, broke the news.

“I was finishing off a pitcher of Budweiser, grooving to the soothing sound of the Eagles and feeling like nothing really mattered, when Sonny came waltzing in. He picked me up out of my chair and wrapped me in a hug. He kissed me softly, singing ‘My angel is the centerfold’ loud enough for the whole bar to hear. In his hands, he had a copy of the most recent Penthouse with Vanessa Williams on the cover. I only knew who she was because a few weeks earlier all of Sonny’s friends wanted to check out the swimsuit competition of the Miss America pageant and her name had come up. But at that time, I had no idea how her girlie photos were going to affect my life. Now, there she was, Miss America, smiling with George Burns at her side, and while this normally wouldn’t have affected me at all, I was, in fact, the centerfold of that very issue. I flipped to the center of the magazine. It really was me, and I was shocked to see how pretty they made me look.”

“I couldn’t remember taking those photos,” Lords writes, “but I must have because there they were.”

The patrons at the bar where Lords and her buddies hung out were a little star struck. “Signing my very first autograph as ‘Traci Lords.’ I corrected the misspelled ‘y’ to an ‘I’ and felt important for the first time in my life, giggling about how they didn’t even spell my made-up name right. I was cocky and arrogant. […} I only knew that I was ‘Miss Tracy Lords, September 1984 Pet of the Month’ and it felt good to be Her.”

It was through the “Pet of the Month” positioning that Traci Lords became an in-demand performer for hardcore erotic movies. The drug-fueled porn career came to a finale with a calculated move on Lords’ part: the day after he 18th birthday, she began shooting her final erotic movie, the Paris-set, Traci I Love You. “Nothing made sense anymore, everything was twisted and surreal. Millions of fans would later mistake my guttural moans for pleasure.” Traci I Love You is the only Lords porno legally available.

The revelation that Traci Lords was underage when she did all of her still work, and all of her hardcore movies save one, had an unusual side effect as far as Penthouse is concerned. While the September 1984 edition of Penthouse has the best-single issue sales numbers in magazine publishing of all time, with over six million copies purchased from newsstands at the time, the revelation that its centerfold was underage rendered it contraband—child porn. This despite the fact that the issue’s initial notoriety derived not from its centerfold model but rather from the nude photos of then-Miss America Vanessa Williams.

As we’ve seen from movies like Boogie Nights, the porn industry, aside from being the red-headed stepchild of mainstream Hollywood, also has a lot of the distinguishing characteristics of a dysfunctional family, and for a long time, the Lords scandal was treated by insiders as the ultimate betrayal. Empty-headed cocksman James Deen had once characterized porn defector Sasha Grey as the “Voldemort” of adult entertainer, but Lords has been a magnet for worse resentment for years. In the early ‘aughts I interviewed a few Wicked Video contract girls for a piece in Premiere (never published) about the mainstreaming of an adult. Devinn Lane, herself only about four years’ Lords’ junior, launched into an angry diatribe about how Lords’ bamboozling of the industry had set it back badly. Before the end of the decade, Lane herself would be suing various entities to which she had lent her stage name, which is often how the cookie crumbles.

Empty-headed cocksman James Deen had once characterized porn defector Sasha Grey as the “Voldemort” of adult entertainer, but Lords has been a magnet for worse resentment for years.

Traci Lords has stalwartly tried to navigate a mainstream career that’s not wholly dependent on her former notoriety, but it hasn’t been easy. Her fan and friend the director John Waters, who cast her in his 1990 musical-comedy Cry Baby, noted that her entire career outside of porn has to be predicated in some respects on her never baring herself in front of a camera again. This wasn’t entirely true, as her first post-porn picture, a remake of Roger Corman’s Not Of This Earth, featured some Lords topless shots and a tame love scene between her and future Blind Date host Roger Lodge (the DVD commentary for the movie has director Jim Wynorski laughing is up over Lodge’s squeamishness during this encounter). And her love scenes with Jeff Fahey in 1999’s Extramarital get pretty close to full-frontal, to the extent that the attempts to cover up crucial areas become…quizzical. And even the photo section of her memoir contains (clothed) photographs that date back to her porn period. But of all the performers who’ve made the transition aside from Grey, about whom the jury’s still out, she’s done it the most cleanly, and has achieved some peace in her personal life as well, becoming a new mom in 2007. The seeming paradox is that while many porn stars have bailed out of the biz only to make “cougar” comebacks, that option is not open to Traci Lords even if she wants it. Which it is pretty clear she never will.

The revelation that Traci Lords was underage when she did all of her still work, and all of her hardcore movies save one, had an unusual side effect as far as Penthouse is concerned. While the September 1984 edition of Penthouse has the best-single issue sales numbers in magazine publishing of all time, with over six million copies purchased from newsstands at the time, the revelation that its centerfold was underage rendered it contraband—child porn. This despite the fact that the issue’s initial notoriety derived not from its centerfold model but rather from the nude photos of then-Miss America Vanessa Williams.

As we’ve seen from movies like Boogie Nights, the porn industry, aside from being the red-headed stepchild of mainstream Hollywood, also has a lot of the distinguishing characteristics of a dysfunctional family, and for a long time, the Lords scandal was treated by insiders as the ultimate betrayal. Empty-headed cocksman James Deen had once characterized porn defector Sasha Grey as the “Voldemort” of adult entertainer, but Lords has been a magnet for worse resentment for years. In the early ‘aughts I interviewed a few Wicked Video contract girls for a piece in Premiere (never published) about the mainstreaming of an adult. Devinn Lane, herself only about four years’ Lords’ junior, launched into an angry diatribe about how Lords’ bamboozling of the industry had set it back badly. Before the end of the decade, Lane herself would be suing various entities to which she had lent her stage name, which is often how the cookie crumbles.

Empty-headed cocksman James Deen had once characterized porn defector Sasha Grey as the “Voldemort” of adult entertainer, but Lords has been a magnet for worse resentment for years.

Traci Lords has stalwartly tried to navigate a mainstream career that’s not wholly dependent on her former notoriety, but it hasn’t been easy. Her fan and friend the director John Waters, who cast her in his 1990 musical-comedy Cry Baby, noted that her entire career outside of porn has to be predicated in some respects on her never baring herself in front of a camera again. This wasn’t entirely true, as her first post-porn picture, a remake of Roger Corman’s Not Of This Earth, featured some Lords topless shots and a tame love scene between her and future Blind Date host Roger Lodge (the DVD commentary for the movie has director Jim Wynorski laughing is up over Lodge’s squeamishness during this encounter). And her love scenes with Jeff Fahey in 1999’s Extramarital get pretty close to full-frontal, to the extent that the attempts to cover up crucial areas become…quizzical. And even the photo section of her memoir contains (clothed) photographs that date back to her porn period. But of all the performers who’ve made the transition aside from Grey, about whom the jury’s still out, she’s done it the most cleanly, and has achieved some peace in her personal life as well, becoming a new mom in 2007. The seeming paradox is that while many porn stars have bailed out of the biz only to make “cougar” comebacks, that option is not open to Traci Lords even if she wants it. Which it is pretty clear she never will.

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Filthy Staff
Filthy Staff
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Filthy Staff

A group of inappropriate, unconventional & disruptive professionals. Some are women, some are men, some are straight, some are gay. All are Filthy.

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