From famous bedmates as a ’70s icon to her gay awakening on ‘The L Word,’ Pam Grier is still one foxy mama
MARK LOWRY | Special Contributor firstname.lastname@example.org
Leaders for Literary Luncheon
at Fort Worth Events Center
2100 Evans Ave., Fort Worth. July 30, Noon.
The Dock Bookstop
6637 Meadowbrook Drive,
Fort Worth. July 30, 7–9 p.m.
South Dallas Cultural Center
3400 Fitzhugh Ave.
July 31, Noon–2 p.m.
She might have kicked some drug-dealer booty as the title character in each of three iconic blaxploitation films of the 1970s — Coffy, Foxy Brown and Sheba, Baby — but Pam Grier wonders what might have happened had she picked a different career path.
“If I hadn’t done some nude scenes, I’d be running for president,” she said in a phone interview from her Colorado home. “And my black ass would win.”
She’s not kidding. Well, not that much. By the end of our hour-long conversation, which of course covered the films that made her a ‘70s icon, and her experience with the Showtime series The L Word, Grier is talking about sustainable farming, Wall Street corruption, Nietzsche, political analyst Fareed Zakaria, recently ousted Agriculture Department staffer Shirley Sherrod and her love of Thomas L. Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded.
In talking about America’s political climate, her passion is evident. “People ask me, ‘How do you know this stuff?’“ she says. “Because I read. I want to improve myself so I can vote better.”
She’s also hoping that in encouraging others to read, that their material includes her new memoir, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts. She’ll make three appearances in North Texas this weekend to sign and read excerpts from it, beginning with a speech at the Leaders for Literacy Luncheon in Fort Worth.
Grier has also become a fierce advocate for LGBT equality, thanks to her full run in the six seasons of The L Word, which she considers one of two major life-changing events in her life; the other was surviving cervical cancer.
“I loved doing that show,” she says. “It could have gone another two years, because we were just getting into the juicy meat of humanity.”
In her memoir, the chapter on The L Word discusses how the drama opened her eyes and heart to a community that she never knew much about, mainly because she didn’t have any gay people in her circle of friends or family. Although she, like Kit, her character on the show, is straight (she talks about her relationships with men, famous and not, in the book), she now sees the world through rainbow-colored glasses.
“I don’t gamble but I bet you the gay population in this world is one-third. OK? And in America, if there’s 300 million people, then it’s at least 100 million,” she says, no waver in her voice. “I’m not kidding. They might be in the closet or people who are out. When you see gay Pride week in San Francisco, and half a million people show up, that’s incredible.”
That she was never exposed to the gay community in this way is a bit of a surprise, considering that Foxy Brown is, by now, a gay heroine. In that role, as well as Coffy and Sheba, she karate-kicked her high-heeled gams through clusters of bad guys — and to a memorable backdrop of funk and soul music. She was, indeed, “a chick with drive who don’t take no jive!”
She also performed all of her own stunts (“I have the wounds and broken bones to prove it”), having always been a thrill-seeker. “They were surprised I could handle a gun. All the women in my family can shoot and bring home supper. We’re from Wyoming and Colorado — we have to. And you have to be able to change tires and get the tractor going, or you die.”
Grier is now acutely aware and appreciative of her gay following, who love her for that sexy, black and powerful vibe she sends out to the universe. “I love the emergence of the wonderful drag queens who look better than I did, who come to my book signings. When I see them I’m always like, ‘Wow, who does your hair, who does your makeup?’ It’s fabulous.”
But her book isn’t all about her time as a seminal ‘70s film star or her “comeback” as the title character in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (although she never stopped acting, in film and TV). In the memoir, she’s confessional, revisiting secrets in her life that took her years to face.
When she was 6, Grier was gang-raped by a cousin and his friends, and was rescued by a telephone repairman who just happened to show up at the right time. It caused her to be a shy kid with a stutter. She didn’t talk about that incident until the memoir.
“It took to me four years to come to the determination to write about it,” she says, “but I knew it would be very healing for my family and friends to know that there were certain things about me that weren’t just a phase. I see people passing on their abuse and dysfunction in their families from generation to generation, when it can be addressed. Now, because I talk about it around the country, men and women come forth and talk about their encounters and issues. They don’t feel alone, when there’s this strong, vibrant icon before them who’s not swimming so deeply in despair.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the book is that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as she had this bitchin’ Hollywood career and dated men with drug habits, including Richard Pryor, she never became involved in all those things that drag so many celebrities down.
“I was a good girl because I couldn’t afford to be a bad girl,” she says, laughing. “It costs to be a bad girl, to have expensive cars and wreck them, to go to jail. I had family to support, my mom was ill, I had relatives who needed water heaters and tires. I worked.”
Indeed, Pam Grier knows how to work and work it. If she ever appears on a political ballot, she has our vote.
The Tell-All Word
Pam Grier’s memoir is a breezy read, unfolding in short chapters that follow the chronology of Grier’s amazing career, beginning with surviving a car crash when she was only three weeks old. She doesn’t remember that, naturally, but considers it the reason she was able to do her own stunts.
Grier also discusses her romances with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (his conversion to Islam, with its treatment of women, was the reason that ended) and comic greats Freddy Prinze Sr. and Richard Pryor, and to a few not-famous men whom she wishes she could have held on to. The book is a fascinating look at black Hollywood in the ’70s and the blaxploitation movement, but more importantly, her search for love and her journey of self-discovery as a strong, black, woman.
— Mark Lowry
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 30, 2010.