In the mid 1980’s Traci Lords rose to the top of the adult film industry, starring in nearly 100 X-rated features. All before she turned 18. Once her secret was revealed, she was barred from the adult film industry and was forced into hiding. Deep down, all she really wanted was to act in legitimate film but who would hire her after such a scandal. It was horror, the genre that never passes judgement, embraces outsiders and celebrates infamy, that led her out from the shadows and gave her a second chance.
Today we celebrate the moxie and notoriety, fortitude and spunk of Traci Lords. And to pay tribute to this porn queen turned scream queen we take a look at her careers controversial beginnings as well as a few of her overlooked contributions to the horror genre.
Traci Lords was born Nora Louise Kuzma on May 7th, 1968 in Steubenville Ohio. She was the second of four daughters and was raised in a household filled with abuse. At the age of 7 her parents divorced and she and her sisters moved with their mother into their grandmothers’ house. Shortly after, she began being regularly molested by her mother’s boyfriend, referred to in Lords’ autobiography as “Roger”. When she was 12, her mother uprooted the family to live with her boyfriend Roger in Redondo Beach, California. Having only lived in California for two years, her mother ran off and abandoned the girls with Roger, Lords’ molester.
Lords was determined to break the cycle of poverty that affected her family. After a failed attempt to maintain a job in the fast food industry, she applied at a modelling agency. With a fake ID saying she was 22 years old and Roger vouching for her, the 15-year-old disrobed and took her first nude photos that day.
“Nobody becomes a porn star at that age because something GOOD happened to ‘em” – John Waters
Lords had naively thought nobody she knew would see her photos. This changed when she was awarded the coveted Penthouse Pet of the Month position in the infamous Vanessa Williams issue. After Williams was forced to return her Miss America crown for posing nude, the scandal made the issue one of the magazines best sellers of all time. Although her mother saw the issue and did confront Lords, she never reported it to authorities.
Her first adult film was a speaking role in What Gets Me Hot! but she soon began having sex on camera. Lords made nearly 100 X-rated films between 1984 and 1986. For her, porn was about rage, it was a way of venting. Having been a victim throughout much of her life, on camera she could be the aggressor. Her onscreen persona was powerful and in control. At the age of 17, Lords started the Traci Lords Company, or TLC. She began funding her own projects, producing her own scripts, and hiring her own actors. The company only made three films, the third of which was titled Traci I Love You. The film was shot in Paris on May 8th, the day after Lords’ 18th birthday. It’s the only pornographic video featuring Lords that is legal to view or own.
On July 11, 1986, shortly after Lords returned from Paris, the FBI kicked down the doors of her apartment. Her secret had been discovered.
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The agency that had discovered her and various distribution companies were accused of sexual exploitation of a minor but were all acquitted. The District Attorney established that nobody had knowingly hired a minor. What brought the court to this decision was Lords’ recent trip to Paris to shoot her final X-rated film. In order to fly to France, Lords needed a Passport. She acquired one from the U.S. Government using the same phony identification she had shown the adult film producers years earlier. If the government were unable to spot the forgery, how could you expect a pornographer to?
Lords ultimately cost the adult film industry millions. All of her movies previous films were considered child pornography and had to be destroyed. As Lords was a minor, the court recognized her as a victim and she was never charged with a crime. However, with the scandal came rumors. The most damning claimed she had turned herself in in an attempt to bankrupt the porn industry. Having taken all her previous videos off the market, only the one released through her own company would remain. Lords didn’t know where to turn and she went into hiding.
While Lords was hiding from the world, director Jim Wynorski (Chopping Mall) and Roger Corman were making a bet. Legend has it that Corman bet Wynorski that he couldn’t remake 1957’s Not of this Earth on the same 12 day shooting schedule and under the same budget. Wynorski took the bet and had an interesting idea to drum up publicity for the film. He would cast Traci Lords.
Not Of This Earth (1988)
Produced by Roger Corman and directed by Jim Wynorski, 1988’s remake of the 1957 film Not of this Earth was Traci Lords’ first legitimate film role. The film follows Lords’ character, Nurse Nadine, who is sent to live with a mysterious man who is in need of regular blood transfusions. Strange events in the home cause Nadine to grow increasingly suspicious. She soon learns that the man is an alien from the planet “Davanna” and his race needs human blood to survive.
Lords was excited for the opportunity and eager to put her past behind her but she found that some habits don’t die easy. She was expected to appear nude and do a sex scene. She was apparently incredibly nervous to do the nude scenes but was embarrassed to say anything because of her past. According to Wynorski, just before the shower scene she turned to the cast and crew and said “Alright fellas, take a good look because this is the last time I’m gonna do this.” It turned out she wasn’t lying. Lords never appeared nude in a film again.
Wynorski had chosen Lords as his lead for the publicity but soon realized that she could act. Not only was she good, but as shooting continued she only got better. After Wynorski won the bet, finishing shooting one day ahead of schedule, he used the extra day to re-shoot some of Lords’ earlier scenes.
Although the film was met with mixed reviews, VHS sales exceeded expectations. Notorious penny-pincher Roger Corman was happy and Lords’ first legitimate film was a success. While Not of this Earth showed the world that Traci could act, it was her appearance in the John Waters film Cry Baby that gave her work true legitimacy.
Cry Baby (1990)
John Waters knew that no other Hollywood directors at the time would be willing to put Lords in a movie but thought maybe with his reputation he could get away with it. On the set of Cry Baby, Lords fit in immediately with the ragtag crew of misfits that included Johnny Depp, Iggy Pop, and Patty Hearst. After being issued a subpoena by the FBI on the set, Waters and the cast did their best to make her feel comfortable. They played a game where all the cast members told stories about times they had been arrested.
Lords met her first husband on the set of Cry Baby. Her new fiance wanted to get married in a church, but she had some concerns. Lords was worried that a women of ill repute, such as herself, wouldn’t be welcome in a house of worship. Once again Waters was there to support her in his own strange way. As an ordained minister, Waters baptized Lords. He decorated the baptismal ceremony with black lilies and played recordings of castrated choir boys chanting to enhance the ambiance.
The 90’s was Traci Lords’ decade. In addition to appearing on popular sitcoms such as Roseanne and Married with Children, Lords also found a role in the Stephen King mini series The Tommyknockers as Nancy Voss. She worked with John Waters once again in Serial Mom and received top billing in the cult hair metal horror comedy Shock ‘em Dead.
Shock ‘Em Dead (1990)
Written and directed by Mark Freed, 1990’s Shock ‘Em Dead follows on the heels of hair metal horror films like 1986’s Trick or Treat and 1987’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare.
Spastique Kolon need a new guitarist before they hit the road as main support for Creeping Flesh. Martin, a down on luck pizza boy wants desperately to get the gig. So he does what anyone would do, he makes a deal with a local voodoo priestess and sells his soul for rock ‘n’ roll. The downside is that his dark overlord demands more souls and Martin must kill.
Lords received top billing in the film and could be said to be the “final girl” but she is hardly the star of the movie. She plays Lindsay Roberts, Spastic Colon’s manager and love interest of the band’s new murderous hair metal guitarist. Shock ‘em Dead is far from Lords’ best work but the film’s time capsule quality has helped turn this straight to video dud into a cult classic. Think Saved by the Bell if there was a Halloween episode where Kelly Kapowski walked around topless.
The 90’s eventually came to an end and with a full decade between her and her troubled past, Lords continued moving forward making regular appearances in television and film. In 2012 she was reunited with her old friend and mentor, John Waters in the film Excision.
Written and Directed by Richard Bates Jr. (Suburban Gothic), the film stars Anna-Lynne McCord, Traci Lords, Malcolm McDowell, and John Waters. Excision follows Pauline, a disturbed teenager with dreams of becoming a surgeon as she navigates high school life. Her future aspirations and budding sexuality blend in fantasies of blood soaked sexual encounters and necrophilia. She’s torn between seeking her mother’s approval and bringing these twisted fantasies to life.
Lords plays Pauline’s controlling mother, Phyllis, who lives by staunch Christian values and is unable to empathize with her struggling daughter. A role that, along with John Waters as a minister, recalls the beginnings of the two’s friendship. The film attempts to blend grotesque surrealism with a psychopathic coming of age story. While it doesn’t entirely hit its mark, Excision is still definitely worth watching.
From a past beset with adversity, Lords has risen to become the darling of cult and horror as well as successfully making the leap from X-rated films into mainstream culture. In addition to her work as an actor, Lords is also a successful electronic musician with her first single appearing on the soundtrack for 1995’s Mortal Kombat. She also does work for the charitable organization Children of the Night helping teen runaways and prostitutes get off the streets.