Erstwhile porn wunderkind Traci Lords’s fuzzy new memoir brings to mind a remark from her fellow Cry-Baby thespian Patty Hearst: “I consider myself incredibly fortunate, even if I had to get kidnapped by terrorists to get my break.” Like Hearst, who garnered cult pinup status under the nom de guerre Tania, high school sophomore Nora Kuzma fell into the clutches of sleazoid lowlifes who went about imposing a new name and persona on her. But instead of posing for bank surveillance cameras, at 15 she became a Penthouse centerfold, and by 16 had become the first true star of the video porn era, only to be arrested by the FBI shortly after turning 18. She reinvented herself as a modestly successful mainstream actress-singer, with a little help from John Waters—your basic rags-to-bondage-to-B-movies-and-miniseries saga.
Underneath It All combines minor celebrity autobio with recovery narrative and de facto parental advice. Mothers, don’t let your underage daughter stay with a drug-dealing, child-molesting ex-boyfriend, get a fake ID, do nude modeling, score a ton of coke with the fees, move in with her own abusive leech of a boyfriend, drift into hardcore (“It just kind of happened,” which I can believe, though I’m less convinced she didn’t realize they were filming her first sex scene—the lights, camera, and boom mic should have been giveaways), score even more coke, or form her own X-rated production company at 17 with her next suitcase pimp boyfriend. Life lesson: “I never once contemplated the price I would ultimately pay for giving false information to the DMV.” Yet while the book fudges the details (like how many pornos she made), its rudimentary psychology comes off as truthful. Her girlhood was a regular Larry Clark movie, with broken home life and rape by an older boy at age 10, but the most vivid parts here evoke a Rust Belt poverty she earnestly dreamed of escaping at all costs.
“I was a sexual terrorist,” Lords writes of her savage, power-tripping porn self, and though she’s appalled by it all now, there remains a trace of egotism in her claim. As much as she’d like to be remembered as the competent, innocuous actor she is now, Lords made her tiny, vengefully indelible mark on American culture using sex as a weapon—the hate-fuck as primal performance art. The irony of Underneath It All is that by putting all that bitter, twisted intensity safely behind her, she misplaced the one quality that might have made her second career something to reckon with.