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"Porn made me the kind of girl who people both condemned and paid attention to, and that's what it was all about."

This is Traci Lords reflecting in her 2004 memoir Traci Lords: Underneath It All, and the paradox still applies.

Although she left the adult-film industry to study with Lee Strasberg more than 25 years ago, Lords is largely still remembered as an underaged 1980s porn star, but she has maintained a certain cachet. And lately she has been making the rounds at Sundance to talk about her about-face role in Richard Bates Jr.'s gore-fest, Excision.

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It's her first major lead and, as a repressive fanatic, she is playing, slyly, way off type. She portrays Phyllis, a pathologically religious mother of two troubled daughters (one is a homely, tormented teen), her trademark blond hair dyed red for the role, in honour of all the blood in the film – and, it seems, in homage to Piper Laurie, a spectacular redhead who played the arch-religious mother of the disturbed girl in Carrie.

While Excision is reported to have made large numbers of people rush out of screenings because of its grotesque images, the film is being discussed by various news media as Lords's re-entry into the world of legitimate film.

Her acting work has been sparse: Her most famous role is in John Waters's 1990 film Cry-Baby (she remains friends with Waters, who appears as a reverend in Excision); most recently, she appeared, sheepishly, in the mawkish Kevin Smith 2008 film Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

Excision is being viewed as a breakthrough for Lords, and she is generating still more heat with her dance-club hit Last Drag, a catchy pop song about bad boys and hot girls. "Who doesn't like pretty girls?" the actress asked an enchanted interviewer.

Like Jenna Jameson, Lords is a mother and is tough and explicit about events in her life that preceded her porn career.

Like Jameson, she was raped before working in the skin trade – and Lords was raped at the age of 10. "Were you overdeveloped at 10?" Larry King asked her, astonishingly, in 2003.

She describes this crime as someone having taken her "power away," and she says she took this power back through what Waters calls "sexual terrorism" – a wild, risky girl, she dramatized the rape by becoming a sexual powerhouse.

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Still, as Lords recently revealed, "as free and loose as I might have been with my body, and as destructive as I might have been, my soul was where the pain was."

Here is a more profound paradox: If porn stars are both reviled and loved, how does their own self-image operate in this continuum?

And how do we, as modern observers of the porn industry, of the "pretty girl" category, view the female subject?

During the second-wave feminist movement, pornography was attacked by women (and some men) who viewed the form as a meat cleaver hovering over women, reduced, in this analogy, to mere flesh.

To comprehend how women were thinking then, one merely needs to watch Bonnie Sherr Klein's 1981 documentary Not A Love Story, a dated yet hotly passionate political attack that liberated so many women anxious to confront the glossy image of the pornographic female as someone Other, and deadly to the feminist cause.

In 10 years or so, feminism would spin again, and embrace "sex workers" as women who owned and rejoiced in their sexuality (especially as more and more women began seizing the means of production).

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And now, no one really talks about women's issues, or feminism, at all.

Yet the buzz around Lords is meaningful. We are still fascinated by the adult-film legends who survived, thrived even, and who are living proof that making triple-X films is not the catastrophic life choice it appears to be. Good news for porn fans!

The bad news? The legends always speak of sexual abuse in and out of the industry; of addiction, abuse or exploitation.

If feminism is dead in the water, women like Lords pick up its cause by speaking of having a sense of shame so profound that it made her want to "crawl out of [her]skin;" by reminding us how fluid and treacherous sexual power can be.

In Not A Love Story, activist Susan Griffin observes that the lesson of pornography is that "you can't suppress the feelings of the heart, you can't suppress the spirit in flesh. … because these things aren't separable."

Traci Lords and other great adult stars have been able to make this split in their porn work, and more impressively, have come to fuse themselves, as speaking subjects, as sexual free agents.

It is exciting to witness Lords – who has done so much pragmatic and emotional legwork, so to speak – return in the far more comfortable paradox of a creepy zealot (in Excision) and insouciantly sexy singer.

Her only legal porno, filmed when she was 18, is called Traci, I Love You. It's so good to see the feeling come back.

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