It takes just three little words to drive Traci Lords completely crazy
''I hate the phrase former porn star,'' sniffs the, ah, onetime X-rated actress as she sips a cappuccino at Beverly Hills' trés trendy Peninsula Hotel. ''That part of my life was a long time ago. Think of something else to call me.''
How about Rikki, the name of her new Melrose Place character, a curvy but scary cult member who became Sydney's roommate in the Jan. 16 episode? ''It's a very cool part,'' she says. ''I start off being really nice, but you can see something lurking behind my eyes. I turn into a monster.'' The role is slated to run for only five weeks, but it's by far the biggest, most important gig of Lords' post-porn career. Along with a few other recent TV breaks including a recurring bit as the bodacious new bus-girl at the Lunch Box diner on Roseanne it may help Lords do what no other ex-X-rated actress has done before: become a star outside the boudoir.
Of course, porn stars have tried to cross over before (Marilyn Chambers stretched her talents as a bloodsucker in Rabid and Ginger Lynn Allen kept her clothes on as a saloon girl in Young Guns II), but Lords' infamous past puts her in an altogether different league. In 1986, shortly after her 18th birthday, it was disclosed that she had made most of her 100-plus hardcore films (including such classics as New Wave Hookers, Beverly Hills Copulator, and Lust in the Fast Lane) while still a minor, some even before she turned 16. The legal repercussions of that scandal reverberated for years, even reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, which last November upheld a child pornography law used to convict a distributor caught peddling tapes from Lords' early oeuvre (''A victory for children everywhere,'' Lords says of the decision).
Today, at 26, Lords has climbed the lowest rungs of legit Hollywood's evolutionary ladder, starring in B flicks (Roger Corman's Not of This Earth, Shock 'Em Dead, and Raw Nerve), taking bit parts on episodic TV (Wiseguy, MacGyver), landing a supporting role in a campy John Waters movie (Cry-Baby), before finally making a splash on prime time with a hefty part in 1993's Stephen King miniseries Tommyknockers. Lately, she's been dabbling in music as well: Next month, she'll release her first album, 1,000 Fires, a dance disc she describes as ''like Nine Inch Nails if its frontperson was a woman and it went techno.'' She has also settled down with Brook Yeaton, a prop master she met on the set of Cry-Baby. ''When I first saw him, he was carrying all this big, heavy equipment but he was wearing bright red lipstick, big fake eyelashes, and a feather boa. He was just goofing around on the set, but I thought, cool!'' A marriage made in Frederick's.
From the start, Lords has been unabashedly savvy about turning her past to her advantage: She still goes by her high-recognition nom de sleaze (her real name is Norma Kuzma), and even performed a brief porno parody on Roseanne last year. Still, she insists that her previous life in the sex biz has mostly been a drag on her current career. ''It's like being nine feet under, like crawling out of a grave,'' she says. ''I'm successful in spite of my past, not because of it.''
With Melrose Place, actually, it may be a bit of both. ''Yes, there is a promotional value in having Traci Lords on the show,'' admits Melrose creator and executive producer Darren Star. ''But that's not the essence of why she got the part. Traci is the only porn star to cross over, and there's a reason for that. She has talent. She's more than a gimmick. She delivers. If she couldn't act, she'd stand out like a sore thumb.''
Lords, for her part, isn't the slightest bit worried about turning in a perfect performance. ''Get real,'' she says. ''Nobody tunes in to Melrose Place for the acting.''