The story of Traci Lords is by no means a typical Hollywood saga. And although it does take place over the hills in the San Fernando Valley – Hollywood’s dark shadow – Hollywood and the adult film industry (that Lords dominated in the mid – ‘80s) are more connected than you might think.
Lords was once the biggest star in the adult industry during the ‘80s. That is until a dramatic FBI raid revealed her true identity. After establishing herself as one of the biggest adult film stars in America in the mid-‘80s, in July of ’86, the FBI dramatically busted down Lords’ door — and it was then revealed that she had been underage for virtually her entire adult career.
Thanks to the authorities, it was finally revealed for the world to see that Lords was just 15 years when she got her start in the industry. And, therefore, her films were illegal. Lili Anolik, who started the podcast Once Upon a Time in the Valley, spoke with many people inside the adult film industry and learned along the way that Lords’ story was “the wound that refused to heal for the adult industry.”
According to Anolik, the adult film industry is… [Hollywood’s] movie industry without the pretense. Or the hypocrisy.” For Anolik, Lords’ story is one she’s “wanted to tell more than any other.” And that’s because it’s “fundamentally, a Hollywood story,” as atypical as it may seem at first glance.
But when it comes down to it, it’s all about sex, glamour, scandal, crime, and film – just a different kind of film. Not only that — it’s also a mystery that remained unsolved. The question remains unanswered: Who ratted out Traci Lords? Who told the FBI that she was underage?
It was a massive scandal. The way the press framed it, she scammed the adult industry with a fake ID, made an adult film after the age of 18 (which she owned the rights to), and then blew the whistle on herself to make more money and get even more famous. For the adult industry, it’s still a sensitive topic, even after all these years.
So, why was Traci Lords the wound that never healed? And who is this Traci Lords anyway? How did this teenaged girl single-handedly nearly take out an entire industry of professionals? Lords has a memoir, in which she wrote all about it.
Her version of the story was a nice mix between a “cautionary tale and a survival guide,” as Anolik put it. Lords was the innocent victim – the 15-year-old who got caught up in the scummy adult industry and happened to make it out alive, thanks to sheer luck. Lords made it clear: It definitely wasn’t her who tipped off the FBI.
Needless to say, her version and the industry’s version were not alike. So, who let the cat out of the bag? Lords’ story is complicated, and nothing this complicated gets resolved easily – or can be put into a neat compartment. Many Americans will agree that the age of consent is 18, and that’s just a fact.
Lords was under 18 when she entered the industry, which makes her a victim in many people’s eyes. But the thing is, she entered the industry with a fake ID. She had both a birth certificate and a California ID that stated she was over the age of consent. For her entire stint in porn, Lords was believed to be a legal adult.
Lords fooled them all. She was a 15-year-old strapped for cash, using a fake ID to work as a model, and posing as a 20-year-old. Before long, she was posing nude in magazines like Penthouse, Velvet, Juggs, and Club. But how did she get there? This is the point in the story where we start at the beginning.
Traci Lords was born Nora Louise Kuzma on May 7, 1968, in Steubenville, Ohio. Her parents, of Ukrainian and Irish descent, divorced when she was seven years old, after which she moved with her mother and three sisters to her great-grandmother’s house. Her father, an abusive alcoholic, got partial custody.
When Lords was 12, they moved to Redondo Beach, California, and didn’t see her father until many years later. “I never wanted to be like my mother. You know, kids at 16, a husband who drinks and beats you. When I hit L.A., I said, ‘There’s gonna be some changes here.’ I hated the world. I was hateful to my mother,” Lords said of those years.
During her early school years, Lords grew more and more rebellious. She resented her mother but found a father figure in her mother’s boyfriend, Roger Hayes. Unfortunately, though, Hayes was a drug abuser who molested Lords, as she pointed out in her memoir.
Her mother left him, only to start dating his friend. Lords then refused to follow them to a new apartment. When her mother and two younger sisters moved to another apartment, Lords was left with her older sister Lorraine.
In 1982, she started her high school path at Redondo Union High School but dropped out when she got pregnant by her high school boyfriend. She chose not to go through with the pregnancy and never bothered to tell her mother. She was in dire need of money, so she took up babysitting.
The woman Lords worked for offered her something that proved to be a real game-changer in the teenager’s life. The woman told her that if she wanted to improve her job prospects, she would need to be of age, so she gave her a fake ID card and birth certificate.
This woman provides the documents on the condition that if she were to ever get caught, she would say that she stole the phony identification. Lords agreed and thus became Kristie Elisabeth Nussman. She could now begin her modeling career.
In February 1984, she answered a newspaper ad for Jim South’s World Modeling Talent Agency. Pretending to be her stepfather, Hayes drove the teenager to the agency. After signing a contract, she started posing nude in adult magazines. In August, she was selected to model for Penthouse’s 15th-anniversary issue.
However, she needed a stage name. She settled on Traci Lords. According to a 1988 interview, she picked the name Traci because it was a popular name that she had always loved growing up. As for Lords, it was after the actor Jack Lord, as she was a fan of the series Hawaii Five-O.
In 1984, Lords appeared in her first adult film, What Gets Me Hot! Before long, Lords rose in popularity and became one of the highest-paid porn stars of the time. She was making over $1,000 a day. She was dubbed the “Princess of Porn” and continued making movies in 1985 when she was 17.
It was around then that she considered leaving the industry but was pulled back in by her boyfriend and manager. Then, three weeks after her 18th birthday, the FBI raided her home. And nothing stayed the same.
The FBI’s investigation cost the adult film industry millions as they had to destroy thousands of Lords’ tapes and magazines. Video stores across the country scrambled to remove any material involving the underage star to avoid any entanglement with the law.
The owners of the film agency that signed Lords were arrested. Only one film she performed in remained legal, as she had filmed it two days after her 18th birthday. According to the FBI, Lords was a victim of an exploitative industry which forced her to do drugs. Famous adult film star Ron Jeremy, however, claimed that Lords was aware of what she was doing, and he never witnessed her doing drugs.
Lords was never charged with a crime. While she did indeed lie about her age, it was framed as more of a “white lie.” What the scandal did, though, was bring the industry’s shady practices to the surface.
Luckily for Lords, the scandal didn’t ruin her career. In fact, it only made it better. After being exposed for her real age, she decided to reinvent herself, away from the adult film industry. She diversified and went mainstream, becoming a TV and B-Movie actress.
When Lords moved on to Hollywood, she told Inside Edition: “By the time I was 18, I had already gone through the whole thing with the X-rated films. The one thing I was certain of was that I wanted to be an actress.”
Geographically, Hollywood is only a short distance (about 10 miles) from the Valley. But it wasn’t about geography in this case. The Valley and Hollywood are as much a state of mind as they are locations. It may have been a close move, but it was a vastly different direction for the young woman.
After spending months in therapy, Lords changed directions. She wanted to try her hand at acting. First, she studied method acting for three months at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. After that, she placed an ad in The Hollywood Reporter looking for representation.
Lords started going on auditions and was offered a guest role in an episode of the TV series Wiseguy. She then met the director Jim Wynorski, who immediately cast the hopeful actress in the lead role of Nadine Story in 1988’s Not of This Earth. The movie marked her first mainstream film since her departure from the adult film industry.
The film didn’t do well at the box office, but it did in video sales. With that success, she was offered to appear in Wynorski’s next film, The Haunting of Morella. But since the role required a nude scene – and she was done with that chapter in her career – she declined the role.
She was now trying to establish herself as a serious actress, as difficult as it may have been. At the same time, Lords signed on to a modeling agency under her real name, Nora Kuzma, and was featured on two covers of Muscle & Fitness.
By the late ‘80s, she was taking more acting classes and still looking for an agent. She auditioned for Breathless Mahoney’s role in 1990’s Dick Tracy, but the role famously went to Madonna. Lords would soon find her way into a movie that many people (who didn’t know her past) came to associate her with.
In 1989, John Waters auditioned Lords for his teen comedy musical Cry-Baby. She got the part and co-starred with Johnny Depp and Ricki Lake. The film was both a critical and box office success. Her role as the rebellious teenager Wanda Woodward was the role that cemented her as a legitimate actress.
On the set of Cry-Baby, she met a prop master named Brook Yeaton. They started dating and, by 1990, they were married. The couple divorced in 1995, and Lords went on to marry twice more. Her second husband was Ryan Granger, but their relationship only lasted a year, between 1999 and 2000.
For Lords, it seems like the third time is the charm, as her marriage to actor and producer Jeff Gruenewald is still intact. They walked down the aisle in 2002 and so far, so good since no scandalous headlines about the two have surfaced.
In 1990, the exercise video Warm Up With Traci Lords came out. Lords wrote in her autobiography that she was unsatisfied with the video. An extended version was made in 1993 under the title Traci Lords: Advanced Jazzthetics.
The early ‘90s were good to Lords, as she starred in both TV shows and movies. She was in the thriller Raw Nerve and the action film A Time to Die. She was also cast in the shows Roseanne, Married… with Children, MacGyver and Hercules. Meanwhile, she walked the runway for fashion designers like Janet Howard and Thierry Mugler.
With her acting career going well, Lords changed directions again. This time, she aimed for a singing career and tried to make it as a recording artist. She signed a development deal with Capitol Records.
She then met Rodney Bingenheimer at a birthday party, who recommended she see Jeff Jacklin. Jacklin hired Lords to record the song Love Never Dies for the 1992 movie Pet Sematary Two. The movie soundtrack’s producer Gary Kurfirst then signed her to his company, Radioactive Records. The ball was rolling, and things were happening for Lords in the music industry.
Lords can be heard on the songs Little Baby Nothing by Manic Street Preachers and the Ramones’ Somebody to Love. In 1994, she started working on her debut album. Radioactive Records flew her out to London to meet with producer Tom Bailey, with whom she recorded the album.
The album 1000 Fires was released in 1995 and received positive reviews. The single lead Control peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs. An instrumental version of the song can be heard on the soundtrack to Mortal Kombat (also in 1995).
In 1995, Lords appeared in four episodes of Melrose Place, where she played the part of Rikki Abbott. Apparently, she was quite body-conscious in her role. Series creator Darren Star knew Lords from her adult film past as well as from the movie Cry-Baby.
“Mostly, she looked like someone who actually lived in L.A. at that age,” he says. “She had that quality. Like she could recruit you into a cult.” In one scene, Lords’ character takes off her dress and whips it at the other actress. Star remembers her telling him that she “dieted all week so I could look great for that scene.”
After appearing in more shows and movies during the late ‘90s, she was cast in the action-horror Blade (1998), where she played the vampire seductress Racquel. She was then approached to appear in the 2002 sequel, Blade II as Racquel’s twin sister Valerine. But she turned down the offer due to scheduling conflicts.
At the premiere of Blade, Lords announced that she was finishing her second album with Radioactive, but it never came to fruition after she left the label. Later that year, Lords ended her two-year relationship with actor John Enos after getting into an argument. The fight was about the fact that her cat was killed by one of Enos’ dogs.
You might be wondering if she changed her career entirely and wanted to get rid of the shadow that lurked over her from her past, then why is she still going by the name Traci Lords – the name she chose for her porn career?
Well, it’s now her legal name. She explained: “I chose to stop running from it. Instead, I won it, legally changing my name to Traci Elizabeth Lords. That’s who I was, and that’s who I was going to be.” In an interview, she told Oprah Winfrey: “I found you can run, but you cannot hide.”
It was during that interview with the TV host that Lords’ music video to her cover version of Missing Persons’ song Walking In L.A. premiered. By the end of 2004, she independently released the songs Sunshine, and You Burn Inside of Me.
Those two songs, as well as What Cha Gonna Do, were featured in the TV series Joan of Arcadia. It’s not every day that a former adult film star makes it into TV, film and becomes a recording artist – all rather successfully. So, you kind of gotta give it to her.
In early 2007, Lords became unexpectedly pregnant. The then-39-year-old announced it in June by saying, “I kind of thought the children thing was off the table. Now I’m expecting a boy! We’re stunned and thrilled.” She and her husband Jeff were excited.
On October 7, 2007, Lords gave birth to a son, Gunnar Lords Lee. In 2012, Lords publicly admitted that she still can’t believe she’s a mom, confessing that her son is the result of a drunken weekend in Las Vegas. “I wasn’t planning on it. I had fantasies of having a child with my husband, whom I’m celebrating ten years with next month,” Lords said.
In 2008, Lords was cast in Kevin Smith’s comedy Zack, and Miri Make a Porno. At first, she wanted to refuse the offer, but she changed her mind after reading the film’s script. “It was really great that in taking the movie because I didn’t plan on going back to work right away, but I was dying to work with Kevin.”
Lords went to Smith’s house to read the script, prepared all the while to say no. “I thought I have the perfect out. I just had a kid. No one is going to blame me if I say I just can’t do this right now.”
But once she started reading it, she found herself laughing out loud, and it made her cry. Initially, her character was supposed to have a topless scene, but Lords refused. “I’m done with all that,” she explained. As a new mom, she was breastfeeding her baby boy between takes.
The year after that, in 2009, Lords moved over to sci-fi. The direct-to-DVD movie, Princess of Mars, was a film she co-starred in with Antonio Sabàto Jr. The result was disappointing for her, though. She said she knew it would be “crummy.”
Lords has continued to make appearances in shows and movies. In 2015, Lords was in an episode of Celebrity Wife Swap (in the fourth season), where she swapped lives with Jackée Harry. In 2016, she co-starred in the TV thriller Nightmare Nurse, playing a psychopathic nurse looking for revenge.
Lords also voiced several characters in the video game Hitman after having already voiced Layla Stockton’s character in Hitman: Absolution. Aside from acting and singing, Lords got involved in fashion. She collaborated with Pinup Girl Clothing.
The Wanda Woodward character from Cry-Baby inspired the first pieces from her Pinup Girl collection. “John Waters wrote such strong characters in Cry-Baby,” she explained. “And in that rockabilly, punk rock, vintage pin-up girl kind of world, Wanda Woodward is pretty much a queen.”
She was also inspired by 1950s fashion. In 2017, Helmut Lang’s fashion campaign collection featuring Lords was unveiled. All the while, she was still recording music. In 2018, she released the single Come Alive as a “gift for her fans” in honor of her 50th birthday.
The fact that Lords has made it in Hollywood is quite remarkable. “Once you’ve done adult… you’ve got a black mark over your name,” adult actress Christy Canyon said. To give you an idea of just how difficult it can be, you can see what Ginger Lynn, a former porn star, had to deal with in her own journey to mainstream film.
Lynn recalled auditioning for a small part in a film by Tony Scott. Scott asked Lynn in her audition if they could “get a nude Polaroid.” She said no, after which he asked for “just” a topless photo. “No, I’m reading for the waitress,” she replied.
Even though Lynn felt like crying right then and there, she read her lines and nailed it, only to have Scott then say to her: “Now we want you to do this like you want to f*** everybody that you’ve ever looked at.” That’s when she started crying right then and there and walked out of the audition. That was Lynn’s first Hollywood audition.
“It was a humiliation,” Lynn stated. Tony Scott, this “movie-industry person,” was treating Ginger Lynn, a “porn-industry person,” as a less-than, a non-person. To Scott – and many others – the adult film industry was a sort-of funhouse mirror image of Hollywood.
Scott’s contempt for Lynn is much more widespread in Hollywood than people know. It’s basically the reason why hardly any porn stars have ever successfully transitioned to the mainstream. “There’s a slur against you,” Christy Canyon explained.
Canyon noted actresses like Traci Lords — Ginger Lynn, Jenna Jameson, Sasha Grey – to name a few that she said, “did a few little meaty roles, I’ll give them that.” But, in her eyes, they were never really accepted. “It’s always like, ‘Oh, and it’s starring that porn star.’” Canyon also noted that Lords both did and didn’t make it to Hollywood…
As Canyon sees it, the reason is that for the movie industry to genuinely let a former porn star in would be to admit that a resemblance exists between the industries. But Hollywood isn’t willing to do that – “no way, no how.”
Canyon isn’t upset about it, though. As she pointed out, they “eventually got their revenge” and are still getting it. In late 2003, Paris Hilton’s tape broke the Internet. After that, her reality show, The Simple Life, premiered on Fox. And just like that, Paris was suddenly the most famous person in the world.
And why was she famous? Because she “did the deed” on camera. She was also, of course, the heir to the Hilton empire. Paris herself said, “I am not a dumb blonde. I’m just very good at pretending to be one.” Paris was then displaced in 2007 by Kim Kardashian, who used to arrange Paris’ closet.
Kim, as we know, grasped the sex tape idea and rolled with it. But Paris was basically her generation’s Marilyn Monroe. And the link between Marilyn Monroe and Paris Hilton is Traci Lords. As Lili Anolik put it, “she’s the post-Marilyn Marilyn and the pre-Paris Paris…. simultaneously out of the past and ahead of her time.”
In an interview with Larry King, Lords herself said she’s a “serial monogamist” and is happily married to Jeff. So, how did they meet? Well, it’s all thanks to her best friend John Tierney, who she talked about in her book – the “fun half,” as she calls it. It’s the second half of her book that she “really enjoyed talking about.”
Tierney used to own a restaurant on Beverly Boulevard called Muse. In the 90s, Lords lived right around the corner, and after work, she would go in and say hello to Tierney.
The two would have dinner, and Jeff was there on a few occasions. “He was moonlighting as a bartender on Friday and Saturday nights,” she recalled. She also remembered how she and Jeff would chat – he was a “really, really nice man.”
The way Jeff himself tells the story, he says that she didn’t know that he existed because she was so busy caught up with “the bad boys.” Lords noted that she was only in her 20s and “wasn’t really a bad girl anymore.” But she was trying to figure out who she was.
She said it herself: “Jeff was this nice guy that I kind of ignored for a while.” She explained to King that she thought to herself, ‘here’s this great-looking guy, and he must be gay.’ She admitted that it’s what she actually thought. (I’m sure Jeff got a kick out of that).
Of course, he wasn’t, and years later, Lords went up to Canada to do a show called First Wave. She had taken “a break from guys” at that point. It was 1999/2000 when she came back home after being gone for about a year.
Lords remembers walking back into Tierney’s bar two days before Christmas, and Jeff was there. They started talking, and it was as if she never saw him before – like something changed. The pair started dating about three months later and “had this amazing relationship.”
So what did Jeff think about her past? Lords explained that she and Jeff were friends for seven years before they ever dated. During that period, they had conversations about everything. “He’s not somebody that has ever, ever said to me, Oh, I can’t believe you did that,” she clarified.
In fact, as Lords mentioned, it was quite the opposite. She said that she thinks his view on her past is that nothing she has done in her life that other people – he included – hasn’t had experiences with.
As she pointed it out, her experiences just so happen to be on film. “So that’s pretty much where he stands. And if he didn’t, I don’t know that I could be with him.”
Fun fact: at one point, Lords dated guitarist Slash, whom she met at the MTV Video Music Awards. They were both presenters and, after meeting backstage, started dating immediately.