Traci Lords liked dancing with death.
"I always had a fascination with death," said Lords, who made headlines at age 18 when it was revealed she had been starring in porn movies since she was 15. "I always wanted to die. I wondered what was there, what was real and what was not real."
Lords, now 24, has stepped back from the edge and is being taken seriously as a legitimate actor, the first porn star to develop a career as a mainstream actor. She can be seen starring in ABC's four-hour chiller Stephen King's The Tommyknockers, May 2 and 3.
"I am not self-destructive like I used to be," she said. In the film, which also stars Jimmy Smits and Marg Helgenberger, Lords runs a post office in a small town in Maine and becomes embroiled in an alien invasion. It's one more eerie role for a woman with an eerie past.
"I almost died several times on drugs but I never could quite do it," said Lords, whose favorite non-color is funereal black. "I guess I thought it was the ultimate statement, suicide. There came a time in my life when I thought being alive took more courage than dying and that is when I started to get my head together."
Lords was born Nora Louise Kuzuma in Steubenville, Ohio. Her parents divorced when she was in her early teens, and she moved to Los Angeles with her mother and three sisters. She found life difficult.
"I had no father in my life, my mother was doing the best she could," she said. "Basically we were latch-key kids. Somebody showed me a pot of gold and I believed it." That illusory pot of gold came when she answered an advertisement for "modeling" in a local newspaper. By age 15, this so-called modeling career led her to Penthouse magazine. Porn movies came next, and drugs followed.
In 1986, investigators from the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office knocked on her door. They were looking for a child pornographer. What they found was a frightened, strung-out teenager. "I was 18 and a burned-out porn queen," she said. "That was something difficult to deal with."
But she did. She got help, and a therapist suggested taking acting lessons.
"I vented some of my frustration, some of my anxiety to get rid of my demons," she said. Six months later, she got a real job as a model for jeans. Then came a cover for Muscle and Fitness magazine. "I was a recovering junkie and I was a depiction of health and fitness," she said, laughing. "It struck me as terribly ironic. It showed me anything can be done."
Lords kicked her habit, but almost went back to drugs after attending Hollywood's hip Cocaine and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
In Hollywood, having a reputation, even a sordid one, can be a valuable commodity. Lords doesn't think hers helped her acting career. "In some instances my past has slammed the door in my face," she said.
Judd Parkin, ABC vice president of movies and miniseries, said he has been impressed with her work since 1990's Cry-Baby. "This is not her first film and she's done a good job in moving her career into the mainstream."
But she doesn't do what she used to do anymore, that is, porn. Indeed, the last time she even did a nude scene was in 1986 for Roger Corman's Not of This World.
Since then, director John Waters put her in Cry-Baby, where she met her husband, prop master Brook Yeaton. There have been guest shots on TV series, such as Married . . . With Children, Wiseguy and MacGyver, Intent to Kill on HBO and now Tommyknockers.