Meet the Sex Kitten With a Claws Clause

Meet the Sex Kitten With a Claws Clause
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Why you should care

Because weird and otherworldly charisma is a thing of lasting beauty to behold.

It was a high-wire act without the wire, and if you were fortunate enough to have witnessed her in Vegas or on not-so-rare TV appearances in the ’70s, the 5’5” Joey Heatherton was incandescent. Not the kind of incandescent that accompanies the endlessly talented, but one that definitely attends the limitlessly real. How real? Elvis Presley real. Ann-Margret real. Really a sort of Dean Martin real.

“The essence of Joey’s greatness,” says culture critic Judge Roy Bean, “was strangely enough captured in Catherine O’Hara’s take on her on SCTV. Comedy, but still — chills up the spine.” In the clip in question, O’Hara’s “Lola Heatherton” sings a mordant torch song that names the men she slept with who have drained her of love. On the slightly gone side of tipsy, she warbles through the song “No One Cares,” recounting grievances until she’s taken off, stage right.

This is the kind of car-crash reality that’s traditionally graced some of Hollywood’s edgier performers, but with Heatherton — Joey, not Lola — the genesis of her edge was and remained largely unnamed. And surprising when you consider her provenance.

She hit 40 at a time when no one in the entertainment industry knew what to do with an aging sex kitten.

Mick Edwards, former style editor

Children of a now-forgotten star Ray Heatherton and a dancer mother, Joey and her brother unsurprisingly went into the arts (broadly defined) — she as a dancer; her brother later as a DJ. But with four years under her belt studying with dancing great George Balanchine, beginning at age 6, Heatherton danced her way into film and TV roles. But by her teens, the pressure to grow up beyond bratty kid roles was real.

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Actress Joey Heatherton

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By way of a remedy, Heatherton, fresh out of her teens in the mid-’60s, recast herself, not unlike Miley Cyrus’ more recent transformation, as sexy dancing girl, and the world went mad. With the same kind of cathected madness that accompanied almost any consideration of a sex symbol both back then and even now — witness Gina Lollobrigida, Marilyn Monroe and Halle Berry — she was suddenly sitting on a rocket. Dean Martin had her join him and the totally un-PC “Goldiggers” on his TV show, and then Johnny Carson offered her a guest appearance. By the time she got to Tom Jones and Bob Hope’s USO tours, it was pretty clear that she wasn’t a kid anymore.

And though there was a passel of serious television and film work just on the other side of hot where things had started to cool … just slightly and just enough … Vegas waited. Which is when and where, if you were making a movie, you could say things started to go wrong. Her marriage to Dallas Cowboy Lance Rentzel bellied up when he got busted for showing a 10-year-old girl his penis. Then commercials for mattress companies, bit roles on TV shows and, in her last major accomplishment of the ’70s, playing hooker Xaviera Hollander in The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington. You’ve come a long way, baby, indeed.

So maybe no surprise then that this decline was followed by arrests for skipping out on hotel bills, slapping government officials, stabbing an ex in an argument and finally criminal possession for one of the drugs that might have fueled all of this antisocial activity: cocaine.

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Joey Heatherton, close-up, holding a flower; circa 1970; New York.

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“Well, I don’t think she was trying for the ‘girl next door’ of Eydie Gormé and in total had a higher comfort level with both her talent and her sexuality than Nancy [Sinatra],” says former style editor Mick Edwards. But not being able to control her man, embodied by Rentzel’s crime, could have made her seem less sexy, and “then she hit 40 at a time when no one in the entertainment industry knew what to do with an aging sex kitten.”

No one except, happily, outré film director John Waters, who cast her in the Johnny Depp vehicle Cry-Baby, and Playboy, which tapped her for a nude photo spread. Since then, the still-active 73-year-old has steered clear of stage, screen and scandal, unless you count a 2014 court appearance for using her high heels to silence a too-noisy neighbor. Or maybe the other way around. But watching her in her prime, there are few rivals for her ability to make you look and keep you looking, mostly, at her.

Not so much in her one bona fide hit — a cover of Ferlin Husky’s “Gone” — but in the still chills-up-the-spine-worthy “Look What They’ve Done to My Song,” where in addition to segueing into a French version, she included the ad-libbed line “look what they’ve done to my bbbb-rain” and dances through a hallucinatory op-art set. Reminding us that maybe she’s just what we need in 2018. Just maybe.

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