Uncovered – the real Traci Lords

So the other day I was chatting with OR; and, as conversations I’m involved with seem want to do, the topic soon turned to porn and PVV. We were talking about some of the issues I had raised in my trifecta of posts about the sexual exploitation of minors (ASACP and the adult industry’s efforts to combat the sexual exploitation of underage persons and child generated porn) when he asked me – “What about Traci Lords? She was in porn and wasn’t she, like, fifteen?”

Yes. Back in the early 1980s, Traci Lords was in porn… when she was fifteen-to-eighteen years of age to be exact. OR, who is in his mid-30s, knew a little about Ms. Traci, but there were definitely some gaps in his understanding of her history.

It dawned on me then that others out there may be aware of Traci, but not knowledgable about circumstances surrounding her stint in the adult industry. It dawned on me that PVV might need to uncover this “Fallen Angel” some… so read on!

Nora Kuzma was born on May 7, 1968. According to her autobiography, she had a pretty hectic time growing up. Between her parents’ volatile relationship that eventually ended in divorce; lots of moving around from the Midwest to Florida to Southern California; being sexually assaulted by a sixteen-year-old when she was ten; and a creepy hippie lecherous mom’s boyfriend/stepfather-type hanging around, she was pretty much set up for greatness by the time she reached junior high.  Meh.

Stealing, smoking, and selling pot, drinking, and having sex with her seventeen-year-old boyfriend all amounted to Nora being knocked up at fifteen. With the baby daddy refusing to deal and her mother off… somewhere, she turned to the only adult she knew for help – Roger, the creepy hippie lecherous mom’s boyfriend/stepfather-type. Go ahead and add “abortion” to the list of things this little girl went though; and case you can’t tell, herein lies the beginning of the end of Nora Kuzma.

Nora was becoming increasingly self-reliant (read: neglected and unsupervised) and needed money, but there’re not many jobs one can get at age fifteen that pay worth a damn. So, with a borrowed birth certificate and a subsequently acquired legal California ID “proving” she was twenty-two year old Kristie Nussman, Nora found herself on a “figure modeling” audition (no portfolio necessary!!) at Jim South’s World Modeling. Roger, ever helpful, gave her a ride from the South Bay to Porn Valley.

So “Kristie” became Traci Lords, Roger became her chauffeur, and Nora became a nude figure model at age fifteen… a tenth grader in Penthouse. She was wildly popular, and shot her way all around print porn. Eventually though her images saturated that media, and the work began to dry up almost as quickly as it had come. Only difference now was that Nora was even more desperate for cash.

You see, in order to psych herself up all this naked “figure modeling,” Nora had acquired a sizable coke habit which she topped off with a little bit of a drinking problem. Although multiple industry insiders around her during these times report never having seen her use drugs on even one occasion, Kuzma has suggested that the need to manage her drug habit is what prompted her to make the jump from nude modeling to hard core.

By the end of 1984, at age sixteen, Kuzma had morphed into one of the most recognized and sought after women talent in the adult film industry. Over the course of the next year and a half-ish, Kuzma would star in over 70 adult films (according to iafd.com; not including comps, clips, and non-sex roles). In only one of those films, Traci I Love You, was she over eighteen.

(pictured: Traci Lords)

Kuzma’s true identity and age were revealed in May of 1986, just days after her eighteenth birthday. According to Kuzma’s autobiography, which she authored under the legally-adopted moniker Traci Elizabeth Lords (yes, Nora changed her name to Traci Lords in the aftermath of her whole underage performer/sex scandal thing), authorities had been aware of her case for three years – essentially, for the entire time she had been working in adult entertainment. Industry insiders reported being shown photographic documentation –as in “cops in the bushes taking pictures while scenes were being shot”-type photographic documentation— of Kuzma’s earliest adult work taken by investigators during courses of questioning. Law enforcement was presumably gathering information for something having to do with the Meese Commission, and they were watching underage Nora fuck and be fucked all along…

So authorities were apparently long aware of Kuzma’s deception; however, members of the industry reportedly were not. Upon learning her true age and identity, many members of the adult film industry reported feeling extremely guilty and foolish that they had not put two-and-two together earlier. A Polaroid photo serendipitously snapped by prolific industry photographer Suze Randall showing Kuzma with her Nussman identification was one of the only pieces of evidence that prevented the industry’s immediate shutdown for child porn production in 1986.

Regardless of the industry’s misinformation about Kuzma’s age, countless units of Traci Lords films –what were now known illegal child pornography— had to be pulled from producers’ warehouses and destroyed, and most persons immediately ceased any dealings in her products. Undercover investigators were able to find one person, Rubin “Ruby” Gottesman of X-Citement Video, who had learned of Kuzma’s true age and would still be willing to sell her films. Gottesman was subsequently convicted of knowingly trafficking child pornography to Hawaii in 1987. His conviction was appealed on the grounds of vague and overbroad wording present in the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act of 1977 (US Code, Title 18, Section 2252), however the original conviction was held by the United States v X-Citement Video (513 US 64; 1994) decision.

With the exception of Gottesman, not one member of the adult industry was convicted of producing, possessing, or trafficking child pornography in light of the Kuzma/Lords case. It is important to note that, in spite of the efforts of the Meese commission-sanctioned child pornography “witch hunts” that occurred in the late 1980s (and the occasional, federally sanctioned and unannounced 2257 records audits that occur today), only one other underage performer has ever been featured in professional US adult film production – Alexandra Quinn. Like Kuzma, Canadian immigrant Alexandra Quinn misrepresented her age with falsified identification. And like Kuzma’s films, Quinn’s were destroyed immediately upon identification. But unlike Kuzma, Quinn went back into the business when she was of age.

(pictured: Traci Lords)

Although the Nora Kuzma/Traci Lords “child pornography” case was not used as evidence in the Meese Commission, her case and Linda Boreman’s were invoked regularly in anti-pornography activism during the late 1980s. Presumably, women are systematically tortured and physically abused and children are sexually exploited in the adult film industry. These cases exemplify why conservative and feminist work done in opposition of the industry during the 1980s failed to shut down or even limit it: women were not being systematically abused by the industry, and the industry was not exploiting children. Although unquestionably tragic, both Boreman’s and Kuzma’s cases point to the wider social problems of partner and child abuse, child neglect, and interpersonal manipulation. These issues are not the “fault” of the adult film industry nor are they its sole responsibility to repair.

Since her in/famous adolescence, Traci Lords has done pretty ok for herself – she’s been in several mainstream movies, including John Waters’ Crybaby (1990), Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998), and Kevin Smith’s ridiculously stupid Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008); has done lots of TV including multiple episodes of “Melrose Place” and “Roseanne” in the mid 1990s and nineteen episodes of “Profiler” soon after; and even released a techno-ish album 1000 Fires in 1995, which I just LOVED in early college (*shame*) and includes the track “Fallen Angel.”

 

Traci Lords has gone from being Two Timing Traci (1985) to a solid B-level actress doing a helluva lot more with her career in front of the camera than I will ever do with mine. She’s been married a few times and has a son with the husband that, simply on the basis of years logged, seems to be the one she likes best. She’s incredibly beautiful and wrote a damn compelling account of her life thus far, Underneath it All, in 2003. (for more on accounts as a sociological tool, go here)

Traci is a survivor of reprehensible parenting and neglect. I cannot imagine the strength and tenacity it must have taken to move beyond the stigma she has certainly felt to cultivate the life and career she has. And because we as a culture are so hypocritical and judgmental, she likely still has to deal with her porn star past in some capacity every single day.

And yet, I still feel rather ambivalent about her…

In my opinion, children cannot be held accountable for their decisions in the same way that adults should be, especially if they have a parent figure and a series of adults encouraging the especially poor ones. But, at the same time, to assume that kids are too stupid or underdeveloped to understand even just the beginnings of the consequences of their actions in adolescence is presumptuous and problematic.

I don’t necessarily think Traci “blames” adult for her stint in the industry; and, by her own account, she knew what she was doing and she knew it was a less-than-good idea (or was it? I wonder where her career would be today without the fuel of her infamy?). I do know that her name still gets tossed around by scholars, commentators, and activists who don’t have a clear understanding of the facts. I also know that Traci cost a lot of working people and small business owners their livelihoods with her little scam.

I wonder – where is the book about them?

 

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PVVOnline’s feature Uncovered explains key dimensions of adult production and sheds some critical light on industry urban legends and myths.

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PVVOnline – Critical Commentary on Adult Production