The documentary podcast Once Upon a Time...in the Valley, which follows the story of 1980s porn star Traci Lords and the bombshell news that she had been underage for the entirety of her career, begins with the same intro each episode. Veteran magazine journalist Lili Anolik reminds listeners that this story aims to be holistic. “There are some who view this as the story of a young girl who was taken advantage of by a brutal industry, there are others who view this as the story of a smart and resourceful young woman who, armed with a legitimate I.D., nearly took down said industry as well as the people in it,” she says. “All views will be discussed.”
But it isn’t that all views are discussed in Once Upon a Time...in the Valley, so much as the lead subject’s views are excitedly rejected episode after episode after episode. The series, co-hosted with The Deuce consultant and amateur porn historian Ashley West, makes over the true story of Traci Lords into a sultry true-crime mystery fit for a multi-episode prestige podcast that is still currently airing. “Just imagine Boogie Nights, if Boogie Nights had a three-way with Gone Girl and A Star Is Born—and it let Gone Girl be on top,” Anolik said in a press release for the series. Over the course of the eight episodes released so far, Once Upon a Time...in the Valley paints Lords as a sex-obsessed man-eater who knew exactly what she was doing when she tricked the industry. And though Anolik tries to frame Lords at times as an unlikely “feminist icon,” it doesn’t save the podcast’s crude rendering of a minor working in porn.
The mystery at the heart of Once Upon a Time...in the Valley is figuring out who exactly anonymously tipped off the FBI to the true age of Lords, real name Nora Kuzma, who then launched a Reagan-era investigation into the porn industry. It’s a mystery worth solving, considering Lords’s coworkers in porn say they had no idea she was underage since she had a legitimate California ID, procured using another woman’s birth certificate. The first episode begins with Lords’s side of the story, gleaned mostly from past interviews and her 2003 memoir Underneath It All. But her side, which includes being pushed unknowingly into nude modeling by a sexually abusive stepfather figure, then later unknowingly into sex on-screen in a porn shoot, is offered somewhat begrudgingly by the podcast’s hosts, who are far more interested in the dirt her former co-stars have to spill. “How about this, Traci gets first crack, the adult industry gets last word,” Anolik says.
Lords maintains to this day that she didn’t want to be in porn, that she was high on drugs for most of her time in the industry, but the rest of the podcast’s eight episodes are dedicated to poking holes in that story. The podcast claims it’s suspect that Lords wouldn’t have known that her first modeling job was for nude photography because the man who booked her for the job, Jim South, always explained to girls what the job was, according to audio taken from the documentary Fallen Angels. Her co-stars and colleagues further maintain that they never saw her as drugged-out as she claims to have been. She played her sexuality up, they say, she was an uppity “cunt” with a “regal attitude.”
There’s a sleazy sheen to Once Upon a Time...in the Valley and it’s not the fact that it’s about the porn industry, a legitimate industry with its own mundanities and exploitations as any other trade. The simple refutation of Lords’s story turns into something more vindictive. As the podcast turns over to its second chapter, the industry’s side of the story, Lords’s co-stars and co-workers—Christy Canyon, Ginger Lynn, and photographer Suze Randalls, among others—want to make it clear that Lords was sex-obsessed, cold to others in the industry, and totally in control of her career. “You hardly ever saw her, she was always having sex,” Christy Canyon says, describing catching Lords having sex with a variety of people off-screen. “She would have fucked them all,” Randalls sneers in one episode, refuting the idea that Lords was afraid of mobsters. “She’s not a victim, she’s an abuser,” she says. When the podcast quotes former porn star Sharon Mitchell remarking that she “couldn’t tell the difference between a 16-year-old tit and an 18-year-old tit, could you?” West and Anolik point out that it was a worthwhile question.
“I believe in the law. The age of consent is 18, and that’s that,” Lili Anolik said in an interview with Vanity Fair. “Traci was under the age of consent, which should make her case cut and dry: She’s the victim, full stop.” But Once Upon a Time...in the Valley revels in that gray area that finds Lords might legally be a minor but acted, and looked, far older. Even if her co-stars did not know Lords was underage, even if she enjoyed having sex with her co-stars and people off-screen, even if she reaped the financial benefits of porn and was cold to colleagues who treated each other like family, none of it justifies the portrait of Lords as the powerful scammer and even villain the podcast takes great pains to paint her as. The legitimate fake ID, a failure of California’s system, is enough to entertain the idea the industry didn’t know Lords was a minor. Do we really need the chorus of voices framing the teenager as a sexpot beyond her years?
There are moments in which Anolik attempts to frame Lords’s story as a feminist one, that her reported manipulation of the industry was something powerful and a sort of reclamation and weaponization of her sexuality considering the abuse she suffered as a child. And despite Anolik’s insistence that listeners will hear all sides, it’s hard to see how the podcast will correct its treatment of Lords’s career as a minor in future episodes. In our current true crime boom, it’s trendy to look back at past scandals and sensationalist news stories in search of the real story. The past few years have seen journalistic wins, like understanding Lorena Bobbit’s crime as one born from intimate partner violence, but also failures; Richard Simmons “disappearance” from public life was not actually cause for concern and a breathless podcast, and Serial did not successfully expose Adnan Syed’s case as a wrongful conviction. Podcasts can go a long way to correct the historical narrative and to solve bonafide mysteries, but Once Upon a Time...in the Valley plays too petty for the task.