Image: Vox Vodka And Out Magazine Honor Photographer Greg Gorman
Traci Lords in May in Los Angeles.
NBC News
updated 12/8/2003 2:34:27 PM ET 2003-12-08T19:34:27

She was a schoolgirl who came to California looking for a better life. What she found was stardom — fame, at the age of 15. But this is not some sunny Hollywood fairy tale. It is much darker story of a child caught in the very adult world of pornography. Her name is Traci Lords. And for the first time on television, she shares secrets about her struggle to overcome years of X-rated scandal. NBC’s Josh Mankiewicz reports.

She's a first-time author whose fans already love her work. Her name is Traci Lords, and she’s at her first-ever book signing. She’s written her life story: “Underneath It All.”

It wasn’t too long ago when no one thought of Traci Lords as much of a writer. Her creative talents seemed to lie elsewhere.

Nearly 20 years ago, Traci Lords was the hottest name in porn, starring in X-rated fare like “Beverly Hills Copulator,” “Porn in the U.S.A.” and “The Trouble with Traci.”

But in 1986 the real trouble with Traci came with the revelation that she’d made 19 porn films while she was under the legal age of 18, which is why we won’t be showing you any pictures from that time. In a legal instant, each of those 19 films became child pornography. It was a scandal that shocked an industry that had seemed unshockable.

Today, Traci Lords is telling her version of a story that isn’t as shocking as it is familiar: how a girl from the heartland took a wrong turn in Hollywood and found a life of drugs and despair, being paid to have sex on camera. This story, however, would have a different ending.

Born Nora Kuzma in Ohio in 1968, Traci grew up in poverty, the product of an absentee father and an inattentive mother. At the age of 10, she claims, she was sexually assaulted by a 16-year-old boy she had been seeing.

Traci Lords: “I was raped by this boy, an older boy in school that I was completely in love with. And it changed my life completely. It was the single most traumatizing thing that ever happened to me in my life.”

She told no one. And, she says, only a few years later, she was molested by one of her mother’s boyfriends.

Lords: “He was very, very nurturing. He was a confidante. I really trusted him. And ultimately, it was such a huge betrayal because this was somebody that I really loved and cared about as a father.”

Again she told no one. And soon, her family moved to California. But life there proved as sour as the one she’d left behind. As Traci tells it, her mother changed boyfriends, then ended up in a homeless shelter. At the age of 15, Traci, still known then as Nora Kuzma, decided she needed to find work.

Lords: “I was looking for a job. And I had lined up a couple of interviews. And I was very, very excited. I was, you know, desperate to take care of myself really.”

But no one would hire a 15-year-old. So, using someone else’s birth certificate, Traci got a California state ID that said she was 21.

Josh Mankiewicz: “Originally you got that fake ID not to work in porn but just to work?”

Lords: “That’s right.”

But when she didn’t get a job as a waitress, Traci says she answered an ad for models, and her mother’s boyfriend drove her to an office in the San Fernando Valley.

Lords: “I went into this modeling agency. And you know, there was this man there. And he had, you know, pictures on the walls of, you know, these beautiful sort of women in like slinky swimsuits and what have you, but these glamorous looking creatures. I’d never seen anything like it in my life.”

In her life story, she calls that man “Tim North.”

Jim South: “I’ve been called a lot of things. I’ve never been called Tim North before.”

Meet Jim South, the casting agent who discovered Traci Lords and countless other porn stars.

Mankiewicz: “Lots of girls walk in here. Lots of them are attractive. What made her different the day she walked in?”

South: “Well, it’s probably bad for me to say this because of her age, but Traci made-up, really good make-up job, fixed up, just reeked sex. She really did.”

South, who knew a winner when he saw one, knew his next star had just walked through his door. And he wanted test shots. In her book, Traci says she was so nervous about the pictures that South gave her both champagne and cocaine to calm her down. Then she took off her clothes and posed for some photos.

Mankiewicz: “You’d never posed naked for a photo before. What was it like? You take your clothes off and somebody starts clicking away?”

Lords: “What I really remember the most about that day, that afternoon, was the sensation of the cocaine. It was like courage.”

Jim South recalls that day somewhat differently.

Mankiewicz: “Did you give her cocaine to start her off?”

South: “Never. Never. No need. Absolutely not.”

Lords: “What do you think he’s going to say, ‘Oh yeah, I got her high all the time.’ Come on.”

South: “It was two pictures. Traci wasn’t nervous at all.”

But both agree that Traci deliberately and effectively fooled South with her state-issued proof that she was over 21, and that South then found her a lot of work, first as a nude model. Later, a Penthouse centerfold. Along the way Nora Kuzma became Traci Lords and soon made her way into hard-core pornography in films like “Sex Goddess.” Traci now says she went through with it reluctantly.

Mankiewicz: “The first time you went to an X-rated set, you panicked and got in your car and drove off.”

Lords: “Yeah, it was scary. It was very scary. I was really young, and I was really inexperienced sexually.”

But she says South talked her into going back and finishing the job. She ended up shooting 20 X-rated films over about three years — all but one made when she was underage. And all of them now banned.

Those films made her a huge success in a business Traci says attracts people exactly like the girl she was: vulnerable, naïve, unprotected.

Lords: “You know, I can tell you from my personal experience that I’ve never met a happy porn star.”

This book, she hopes, will set the record straight. She was more victim than perpetrator even though she says it’s hard to recall what she did in porn because of all the drugs she took. But is she writing her history, or rewriting it? Is Traci Lords remembering her X-rated career as she wishes it were, not as it really was?

Mankiewicz: “Traci Lords says she’s never met a happy porn star.”

Nina Hartley: “Well, I would invite her to come have lunch with me.”

Nina Hartley entered the porn industry just as Traci’s career was taking off. Seven hundred films and 20 years later, Nina’s still working.

Hartley: “I was that new girl Nina, and she was that new girl Traci who was so amazingly hot. She was quickly shooting up the star ladder.”

Even though Nina didn’t know Traci well, she does not remember a Traci Lords who was uncomfortable, reluctant or drugged on the set.

Hartley: “She was good. She was vocal. She was active. She was participatory. She seemed to know exactly what to do to have a good time.”

Nina says Traci looked young but didn’t act young. At the same time, Traci says that inside she remained a hurting teenager, but because of that ID, no one asked her if she was underage.

Mankiewicz: “You had an ID and said you were 21. Did you look 21?”

Lords: “Well, I didn’t look old enough to get a job at Bob’s Big Boy. The manager there didn’t think so.”

Mankiewicz: “But adult film sets, they didn’t care? They didn’t look?”

Lords: “You know, I’m not a mind reader. I can’t tell you what they knew or what they didn’t knew. They didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell.”

Mankiewicz: “Do you blame the agent, other people for not knowing that you weren’t 21?”

Lords: “I was a victim of some really, really odd circumstances, you know? Where my life had led me took me right to that agency and made me a perfect target really for that kind of exploitation.”

But her former agent Jim South says Traci was a partner in that exploitation, so much so that she was the first X-rated performer to demand and get a fee of $1,000 per day. According to South, Traci knew the score all along.

Mankiewicz: “He also says as do a number of other people in that business that you know, you weren’t just sort of this passenger, this sort of innocent passenger on your journey from unknown to X-rated star. You were a shrewd, calculating businesswoman. And you still are.”

Lords: “I was incredibly rebellious, very, very aggressive, wild, confused, angry, young girl. I was not an unwilling participant. I was acting out. I had a lot of damage. And I was spewing that all over the place.”

Mankiewicz: “And someone should have protected you. And no one did?”

Lords: “I wish someone had, yes. Absolutely. Absolutely.”

The closest she got to protection was a knock on the door in the middle of the night in 1986 when the police told her they knew who she really was and that she’d been too young to make those movies.

With that, Traci Lords was permanently separated from the adult industry, with two important consequences. The porn industry is now forced by law to be much more careful about who gets hired and what kind of documentation they have. it also made the name Traci Lords even more valuable.

With the name, but without the X rating, she broke into legitimate entertainment in 1987, playing a call girl on the hit series of the moment, “Wiseguy.” Other roles followed. Most recently she starred in “Deathlands,” on the Sci-Fi Channel. She posed for a series of sexy swimsuit calendars. And she has a new music video coming out. It’s all part of leaving porn behind — except for the name that made her famous.

Mankiewicz: “Why not go back to being Nora or change it to something else? Why stay Traci Lords?”

Lords: “It was, wow, this is chasing me. So, either I’m going to continue to run from it and I’m going to have no life. Or I’m going to stand still and let it hit me and deal with it.”

That name also gives her credibility with the girls at Children Of The Night, a school for teens who have escaped prostitution, where Traci helps out and says she sees herself in these young girls.

Lords: “My damage drove me into porn. I mean, I was a little girl. And I had like all of this stuff. I’d been raped. I’d been molested. I’d been abused. I was messed up. And I was angry. And the same thing that later helped me to change my life when I was 18 and out of that world that helped me to get sober and helped me to gather the courage to go and do the work I needed to do, to look at some things in my life that were so ugly.”

Now at 35, happily married, Traci Lords has seen more than a lot of people twice her age have.

Lords: “I’m very, very, very lucky.”

Mankiewicz: “A survivor?”

Lords: “Yes, and a thriver.”

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