'Once Upon a Time... in the Valley' Podcast Revisits the Controversial Traci Lords Story

'Once Upon a Time... in the Valley' Podcast Revisits the Controversial Traci Lords Story

LOS ANGELES — A new podcast series released today, “Once Upon a Time… in the Valley,” explores the controversial story of 1980s adult performer Traci Lords.

The series, released by podcast company Cadence13, is billed as “a real-life noir” from acclaimed writer and culture journalist Lili Anolik — a contributing editor at Vanity Fair — with the collaboration of one of the preeminent historians and archivists of the adult industry, The Rialto Report’s Ashley West.

“It’s the story I’ve wanted to tell more than any other,” Anolik told the Hollywood Reporter earlier this week. “Just imagine ‘Boogie Nights,’ if ‘Boogie Nights’ had a threeway with ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘A Star Is Born’ — and it let ‘Gone Girl’ be on top.”

The first three episodes of the series were released today on all podcast platforms, with new episodes dropping every Tuesday.

The O.G. Hardcore since ’84

Series creator Lili Anolik spoke with XBIZ exclusively about the podcast, which once again shines a light, Rashomon-style, on the divergent versions of the story of how a secretly underage girl rose to become one of America’s — and the world’s — top porn stars during the golden age of VHS, and how it all came crashing down.

For Anolik, Lords is significant as a forerunner to sexualized celebrity culture. “This is our tagline,” she told XBIZ. “‘Before there were sex tapes, there were sex tapes. Before there was Paris or Kim, there was Traci. The first, the best, the O.G. Hardcore since ’84.’”

“And we're serious about it,” Anolik continued. “Traci Lords is, we believe, the original. She did it first. She did it best. She is the key to late 20th-century/early 21st-century popular culture.”

Anolik usually writes for Vanity Fair about non-adult subjects, and she’s also the author of a fascinating biography of cult Los Angeles writer Eve Babitz. But the article with which she broke into writing for print was about Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw magazine.

“He was a real cultural powerhouse back in the day,” Anolik explained. “I knew Al at the end of his life. He used to leave me these voicemails that were a crazy cross between grandfatherly — him talking about his latest doctor appointment, his Costco card — and black-hole depravity — him talking about, I don't even want to say,” she laughed.

During that period, around 2011-2012, Anolik felt that, through her unlikely friendship with the old New York smut peddler, she was “lurking on the edges of that world, the 1970s and 1980s adult world.”

The Wound That Refused to Heal

One afternoon, Anolik went to lunch in the Valley, at a Hamburger Hamlet, with Bill “Papa Bear” Margold and Jim South, Traci Lords’ former agent.

“Traci, and what she may or may not have done in the mid 1980s, was the topic of conversation among these guys,” she said. “Not for some of the lunch — for all of lunch. And this was in 2012 — so more than 25 years after the scandal. But their anger was still hot to the touch. And by dessert, it dawned on me that under their anger was hurt. They felt betrayed by Traci. And I left that meal with the strong sense that Traci was, for the adult industry, the wound that refused to heal.”

Anolik decided she wanted to find out why. After exploring possible mediums to tell the story, she settled on that currently popular (and inescapable) form of nonfiction: the mystery-based podcast.

“There's no replicating these voices on the page,” Anolik told XBIZ. “Not without flattening them, neutering them, squeezing the juice out of them.”

To illustrate, she quoted adult star Christy Canyon: “I thought Traci was fucking phenomenal. She just owned those sets. I'll never forget, in 1985, she said to me, ‘Christy, don't ever let them use you. Don't ever be a fuck doll.’”

“Would you rather hear Christy tell the ‘fuck doll’ story, or read my transcription of Christy telling the ‘fuck doll’ story?” Anolik demands. “It's a no-brainer!”

In the process of researching the podcast, Anolik — known for her keen eye for the surprising detail — developed a nuanced picture of the 1980s porn milieu.

“I was surprised about how often Buck Henry — the eggheady-looking writer of ‘The Graduate’ — figured in 1980s porn stories,” Anolik says about the late humor writer and performer. “Not that he was moonlighting as a porn stud, but he was on a lot of porn sets. Like, a lot.”

This dive into the history of porn placed Anolik in the sphere of The Rialto Report and Ashley West, who are the unofficial record-keepers of an industry that rarely stays still long enough to develop official institutional memories.

“I knew Ashley before the Rialto Report, believe it or not,” Anolik revealed. “He got in touch with me after one of those early porn pieces — I think it was the one I wrote [about] the time Pulitzer Prize-winner Norman Mailer came this close to making the ‘Gone With the Wind of fuck films.’ At that time, Ashley was working on a documentary about the golden age of porn. And we connected over Traci, and what happened back in 1986. She was a shared obsession. We've been tight ever since.”

The Sights, the Sounds, the Smells

Podcast company Cadence13 then came to Anolik looking for suitable topics for development and she said she “pitched one story — this story — because it's the story I always wanted to tell. But it isn't a magazine story. To do it right, you need to get the world, the people, the atmosphere, the sights, the sounds, the smells. Plus, the plot has a lot of twists. In short, this is a story that requires space, which is why podcast is the ideal medium for it.”

One of the difficulties with telling the Traci Lords saga in a way that does not replicate the usual stigmatizing of adult, though, is the split between her own negative take and the industry’s take — also negative, but towards her.

“At the start of this project, before Ashley was even involved, I approached Traci through her manager and her PR representative,” said Anolik. “I even tried to go through a mutual friend — to let her know about this podcast and to see if she wanted to participate. She politely yet firmly declined. Which, frankly, was okay with me. And it was okay with Ashley, too. We had to go to her as a gesture of journalistic good faith, but we felt that we knew what she had to say because she’d said it in her memoir, ‘Underneath It All’ and in her many talk show appearances.”

And so we arrive at “Once Upon a Time… in the Valley,” a mirror house of stories about a time long before tube sites and premium sites, before Snap, TikTok or Switch, before watching celebrity porn or making porn starlets into household names.

“Traci is the O.G.,” Anolik told XBIZ. “She's Paris and Kim before there was Paris and Kim. And she's Marilyn Monroe after Marilyn Monroe. She's the classic Hollywood story, only she goes deeper and darker than any of them.”

Anolik also hopes the current crop of talent can appreciate the lessons of performers past.

“It's adult fairy-tale time, camgirls and boys. Listen up," she said. "You might learn something."

To listen to the first three episodes of “Once Upon a Time… in the Valley,” click here.

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