Reborn Yesterday

updated 05/03/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE HOUSEWIFE PEEKS OUT HER WINDOW, glancing toward the picket fence that bounds the lush lawn. "I love to garden," she says with a giggle. "I like this suburban life. There are kids down the block, a paperboy who rides by. It's like living in Mayberry."

Except that this is no Aunt Bea speaking. Instead, the woman serving cookies is former child pornography star Traci Lords, 25 next week. Ariel if she is not careful—insisting, for instance, that the name of the middle-class San Fernando Valley, Calif., town she lives in not be printed—she fears that she and her husband, prop master Brook Yeaton, 25, will be harassed and driven from this home as they were from their last. Says Lords: "I just wanted to disappear a little."

Understandable—but unlikely. Seven years have passed since an FBI investigation revealed that the beautiful blond star of scores of adult films had been, legally, a child when she made them. Since then, the "legitimate" acting career she has sought has included appearances in Fox's Married ... with Children and John Water's 1990 film, Cry-Baby. On May 9 and 10 she has a featured role in the ABC miniseries Tommy knockers, based on a 1988 Stephen King novel. Once again, though, she is cast, she says, as "a saucy tart," a PG-rated version of the X-rated roles she seems unable to live down—or forget. That image, says Lords with a sigh, "will be on my tombstone."

The name on her birth certificate is Nora Louise Kuzma. Born in Steubenville, Ohio, the second of four daughters, Nora was shy and often unhappy as a child. Her steelworker father seemed uninterested in her, she says, and her mother, a housewife, was either unwilling or unable to talk about the young girl's problems—like the boys who taunted her for having "the body of a 16-year-old when I was 10." When Nora was 12, her parents split up, and she moved with her mother and sisters to Redondo Beach, Calif.—never to see her father again. (Lords doesn't know if he is alive, and though she is now close to her mother and sisters, they could not be reached to be interviewed.)

In California, where her mother worked odd jobs "to keep us off welfare," the latchkey teen found a titillating new life. "Suddenly I had new friends who accepted me because I was cute," she says. "They would say, 'Try these' "—meaning drugs. "I'd be like, 'Okay! Speed! It'll make me cool.' " To support her burgeoning drug habit, Lords answered a models wanted ad in the Los Angeles Times in 1983. "It's the same old story," Lords recalls. "The guy said, 'You know, Marilyn Monroe started out doing nudes, and you're as beautiful as she was.' I thought, 'Wow, I can be a star, and everybody will love me.' "

She dropped out of Redondo Union High, ran away from home to live in Hollywood and got a fake ID to pass as an adult. Before she turned 16, Nora Kuzma—now Traci Lords—had taken off her clothes for a Penthouse magazine centerfold. The next thing she knew, she says, between "parties and more dings" the cameras started rolling. Of her 70-plus titles, including New Wave Hooker and The Sex Goddess, Traci vehemently insists that she filmed only "a handful" and that subsequent movies were pieced together from old clips.

Lords estimates she made less than $50,000 from her porn work, and much of it went for drugs. "I lost three years of my life freebasing," she says. "I remember enough so that sometimes it makes me feel crazy."

What she will never forget is the May afternoon in 1986, just days after her 18th birthday, when FBI agents burst into her apartment and took Lords, a trembling 90-lb. coke-addicted wreck, into custody. She was never charged with a crime—though two producers and one agent were indicted for sexual exploitation of a minor (the charges were later dropped). But that day she became her own judge and jury. "I hit rock bottom," she says. "The reason I started doing what I was doing was to get attention, and then I was telling myself nobody would know. It was drunk logic." When she stared at herself in the bathroom mirror, she says, "I couldn't stand the sight of myself."

Determined to pull her life together, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. For a lime she kept finding herself on her dealer's doorstep, buying just one more gram to tuck in her dresser drawer. "I'll do it in five minutes if I want to," she told herself, but didn't. Today, she says, "Knowing it was that close and I could resist really helped. Eventually the desire passed."

Her drug habit in check, and feeling fortified by more regular contact with her mother and sisters, Lords enrolled in acting classes and supported herself modeling. In 1988, she got the lead in a cheesy sci-fi remake, Not of This Earth. Though she had to do two nude scenes—"The last time I ever did nudity on film," she says—it marked the beginning of a career renewal. " 'The answer is yes,' " she says, proudly quoting from an old Hollywood Reporter review. " 'She can act.' "

In 1989, on the set of Cry-Baby, Lords met Yeaton, the film's prop master. "He jumped my bones on our first date, and I showed him the door," she says. The second date went so much better that in 1990, Lords and Yeaton, who is John Waters's nephew and the godchild of the late transvestite superstar Divine, got married. "He's the only person who's ever really stirred me up inside," says Lords. As for Yeaton, his wife's past doesn't bother him. "I have calluses from growing up with Divine," he says. "I was brought up realizing that people are always misunderstood."

Yeaton and Lords plan to make a movie together (with him directing), but until then they are happily busy with gardening and housecleaning. "And Traci can cook like Betty Crocker," Yeaton says. They are postponing children, though Lords says she wants to be a mom "before I'm 30." She adds, "My kids will know about sex, about condoms, about AIDS."

Though deadly serious when regarding her past, the actress, who lectures on college campuses about drug abuse and volunteers at a shelter for runaway teens, has put self-recrimination behind her and learned to take whatever the world offers in stride. Like the day she was sunbathing in a bikini by the Jacuzzi—alone, she thought, but for the wooden ducks—when suddenly she noticed an elderly male admirer peeking over the fence. "I thought he was going to have a heart attack!" she says. "You have to laugh at yourself. If you can't do that, you just get beaten up."

TIM ALLIS
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in the San Fernando Valley

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