Traci Lords came to Cal State Fullerton on Thursday simply to give an old-fashioned testimony, a somber and carefully rehearsed account of her descent into drugs and pornography and eventual rise--to sobriety and a niche in legitimate Hollywood.
"Put your tongues back in your mouths, boys. I'm not going to pop out of a birthday cake," Lords told the raucous and heavily male crowd in the school's Titan Pavilion. If they were disappointed, they didn't show it at first, listening in polite attention during the 20-minute talk.
But when it came to question-and-answer time, things got randy fairly quickly. Inquiring minds wanted to know--about everything from the number of men she has slept with to the veracity of her on-screen orgasms in her days as an underage porn star.
Lords didn't shrink from the questions, sparring gamely with the crowd even when she sometimes took the Ronald Reagan defense on these specific questions (ages 15 to 18 are "still really hazy for me," she said). A few audience members expressed admiration for her strength in battling past addictions and in sharing her stories, while a couple of others were less than impressed with her tale of survival.
"I didn't exactly get the warm fuzzies from your speech," one man offered sarcastically.
Lords said in a brief interview afterward that she occasionally gives public talks at college campuses as a "personal hobby" and gets a wide range of responses.
"This one was pretty unruly," she said, although she declared herself unfazed: "They're just kids. Heck, so am I." Lords is now 24.
"I try to convey what I have to say, and if they like me they like me, and if they don't, they don't."
Lords, for those whose memories need refreshing, became the center of public controversy in 1986 after the disclosure that dozens of sexually explicit films she starred in had been made while she was underage. The controversy rocked the adult-film industry.
Since then, Lords has struggled to break into mainstream films, first landing a major role in Roger Corman's 1987 "Not of This Earth" and later appearing in a supporting role in John Waters' 1990 "Cry-Baby." She has appeared in several other movies, mostly B-level, along with a much-publicized onetime spot on the TV series "Married . . . With Children."
Upcoming are starring roles in the movie "Skinner," due to be released in April, and the ABC miniseries "Tommyknockers," based on a Stephen King novel, scheduled to air in May.
In her speech, Lords recounted her childhood in a small Ohio town, where she was a "shy, thoughtful" girl named Nora Kuzma whose " very early" physical development made her the object of unwanted attention.
"I became the school whore before I'd had my first kiss," Lords told the crowd. Later, "I discovered that the really bad girls were never harassed. On that day, I learned the art of manipulation."
She kept that persona when she moved with her family to California, but unlike the boys in Ohio, "the boys in California weren't scared." At 15, already an alcoholic, she became pregnant and had an abortion.
Not long after, she answered a "models wanted" ad, not realizing at first that it was for nude modeling. For a lonely, troubled girl, the temptations of money and lavish attention--and, eventually, drugs--were too much to resist.
"I walked into this world that embraced me," she said.
Claiming she was older, she was a Penthouse centerfold before her 16th birthday. The day it came out was the day she ran away from home, she said.
"I went from nude model to porn star overnight," Lords told the audience. "It was never about sex. Sex was just the result. . . . Cocaine was my only real lover."
She never felt a strong urge to leave the business, and she says it would have been difficult anyway.
"I became a pawn to some very important people," she said. "I was money to them, they were drugs to me."
It was a few days after her 18th birthday, at the tail end of a three-day solitary binge of drugs and alcohol, that the FBI appeared at her door and her case became a cause celebre. Lords found herself without money, without drugs and completely sober for the first time in three years.
At first, she went back to her given name and tried modeling but retained her stage name when some potential employers accused her of trying to deceive them. She went to acting school and "knocked on every door in town and had every one slammed in my face" before landing the role with Corman.
In the question-and-answer period, Lords said she has been concerned that she may have contracted the AIDS virus during her years in pornography, but she has been tested several times and came up negative. She has been married for three years.
She said she is not opposed to pornography but said tighter regulation of the industry is needed to ensure that her experience is not repeated.
"There are people in this world who take advantage of young women," she said.
When asked what might have happened to her if the FBI had not intervened suddenly in her porn career, she said she had no idea. But she wonders sometimes how she survived it all: "The fact that I'm standing up here today really does amaze me."
Lords offered to sign autographs after her talk, and was quickly mobbed by a large portion of the audience, which numbered about 250. She stayed for about 40 minutes, chatting amiably with her fans until all the autograph seekers went away with her signature.