A Porn Star's Suicide at 20 Leaves a Legacy of Shattered Innocence—and a Shattered Family
Even her parents, Karen and Phillip Applegate, don't know what really happened. They still find it difficult to reconcile the image of what Colleen was—a blond beguiler with Shirley Temple curls, freckled nose and a smile that clutched the heart—with what she became. Groping for explanations, they wonder if their emotional reticence and rigidity might have left them unequipped to deal with the eldest of their five children. "If I had to do it over, I'd try to understand what was going on," says Karen, 45, who divorced Phil a year ago. "I'd try to reason with her instead of criticizing her constantly, instead of making her go by my way."
"I wasn't an easy father," admits Phil, 45, an assistant manager of customer services with Cen'tel Telephone. "But I was the same with all the kids. I don't know if there is an answer."
If the Applegates don't know why things started to go wrong for Colleen, they do know when. During her senior year at Farmington High, she rapidly changed from a clean-cut kid into a moody, restive adolescent. She dropped her old friends and started dating a local boy, Mike Marcell, 19. Colleen began drinking, smoking marijuana and staying out late—all tokens of normal adolescent rebellion, the Applegates thought. But one summer night in 1981, just after she'd graduated, Colleen gave notice that something deeper was disturbing her. Following an argument with her mother, she gulped down a vial of prescription sinus pills. The dosage wasn't enough to kill her, but as an attempted suicide, Colleen started mandatory visits to a counseling center. The therapy might have helped her, especially the one required session with her parents, marking the first time Karen and Phil had ever sat down with Colleen to discuss her problems. But characteristically, remembers Karen, "nobody said much." Talking about emotional difficulties simply wasn't their way.
Colleen's boredom seemed to fester over the next half year. She took a job with the phone company, quit it months later and by March 1982 had decided to move to California. She was going to stay with the family's relatives, she announced, and, over her parents' objections, she was going with Mike Marcell.
A few weeks after leaving, Colleen called with an odd piece of good news: She was working as a model and earning $100 a day, more than her father was making. She didn't mention that she'd answered a newspaper ad for the World Modeling Agency in Van Nuys and had begun posing nude for magazine photographers.
Even so, the Applegates soon discovered the truth. After hearing from relatives that Colleen was baring all for skin mags, Phil and Karen flew to California and checked out World Modeling for themselves. Phil remembers feeling intense anger, mixed with helplessness, when he was shown his daughter's portfolio. "I was mad that they'd conned her, they'd used her," he says. "I think 18-year-old kids with stars in their eyes, if you flash enough money at them, there isn't too much they're not gonna do, or justify in their own mind that it's really not that wrong."
That's exactly what Colleen believed. The Applegates confronted her that night in her grandparents' Anaheim home, where Colleen (who'd split from Marcell) was then staying. They insisted she quit. She refused, stomped out of the house and dropped out of contact for two months.
By this time she was well on her way to becoming the hottest new commodity on the foldout-flesh circuit. What set Colleen apart from run-of-the-skin-mill models was precisely what made her such an unlikely candidate for sleaze: her aura of cornfield innocence. Photographers who free-lanced for Penthouse and Hustler loved her virginal look—to the tune of $2,000 a session.
Dazzled by the money and her idea of glamour, Colleen soon took the plunge into porn films. She made several hard-core shorts that caught the eye of a top porn producer, Bobby Hollander. He christened her Shauna Grant and in the fall of 1982 began managing her career. If her films (like Suzie Superstar and Flesh and Laces) betrayed a lack of emotion during on-camera sex, the pay and the perks—limos, first-class hotels and cocaine, especially cocaine—more than compensated. Over the next year Colleen made 30 X-rated movies, had film sex with 37 men, contracted herpes, had an abortion and earned more than $100,000—much of it spent on coke.
During this period Colleen was calling her family regularly. Grateful for the contact after two months of silence, Karen and Phil usually avoided the touchy subject of Colleen's work. They had no idea about the movies. It was bad enough that they suffered ridicule when Colleen's first Penthouse photos were published that fall.
Colleen phoned the following summer with unexpected news—she'd quit nude modeling. As she told it, she'd moved to Palm Springs with her new boyfriend, a slightly older man named Jake Ehrlich, and was running a leather-goods store she'd bought with her own earnings. As usual, the truth was heavily airbrushed. Ehrlich wasn't slightly older; he was 44. He was also a cocaine dealer whom she'd met through Bobby Hollander. And Colleen hadn't bought the shop with her money, because she didn't have any; Ehrlich had opened it for her. She'd sounded happy on the phone, but in fact was profoundly addicted to coke; the ravages could plainly be seen in her face.
Farmington's notorious citizen came home for a visit in the fall of 1983. The signs of cocaine addiction—her unkempt appearance, the blood on her hankie—were evident even to the Applegates, but Colleen denied using drugs. "I believed her," says Phil, "because she was my daughter. And because I wanted to believe her, I suppose."
Her final disintegration began on Feb. 21, 1984, when Ehrlich was arrested for violating probation on a previous drug charge. Left to her own devices, Colleen became depressed and disoriented, squandering Ehrlich's money on drugs. On March 14 she went to L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel for the Erotic Film Awards, the porn industry's version of the Oscars. It was her last taste of glamour—Francis Ford Coppola was among the guests at her table. During the night, she received a porn-movie offer and, with her cash dwindling, she accepted. Shooting was to start March 22. She never made it.
"Toward the end, her world fell apart," says Ehrlich. "Her security went down the drain. She just went crazy." On March 21, according to the police, Colleen got out the semiautomatic .22 caliber rifle that Ehrlich kept under the bed. By midnight Karen Applegate had been notified that her daughter had shot herself. Frantic, Karen phoned the hospital to ask about Colleen's condition. "Her condition," said a churlish nurse, "is that a bullet went in one side of her head and came out the other side. What do you want me to tell you?"
Two years to the month after she left Farmington, Colleen Applegate came home to be buried. Her parents still haven't come to grips with her death. They refuse to believe she killed herself, although police investigations have never produced any evidence of murder. And they can't account for her life. "I didn't look into finding help for myself about how to help her," says Karen. "Maybe it was pride, maybe I didn't want to admit she was in as deep as she was. But she knew we were here, and she knew we loved her."
The Applegates insist their divorce was not caused by Colleen's death. "It didn't help," says Karen. "It probably made it happen a little sooner, but it was coming anyway." Phil and Karen also agree on another point: Both deplore the way Shattered Innocence portrays pornographers. "It makes them look as if they're just running a business," says Phil, "and she got in trouble on her own."
"Colleen used them to get what she wanted," admits Karen, "but they used her. They're still using her." Phil now regrets selling the rights to Colleen's story, but at least the family has one consolation. They used part of the money to buy Colleen's headstone.
Karen keeps other mementos of Colleen—her first-communion photo, her class portraits—in an upstairs closet. Mixed among them are letters from women who say they knew Colleen in L.A. and quit the porn business when she died. One, handwritten on lined paper, reads: "She saved my life. I wish I could have been there to save hers."