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Sexploitation Star Kitten Natividad on Russ Meyer, Roger Ebert, Porn and the Hot Docs-premiering League of Exotique Dancers

Kitten Natividad

Rama Rau’s League of Exotique Dancers is an absolutely delightful and lovingly crafted doc structured around a group of legendary striptease artists as they prepare to return to the stage for the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend in Las Vegas — a trip which becomes merely an excuse for the filmmaker to delve deeply into the extraordinary lives of some truly groundbreaking women. Among the timelessly sexy inductees is none other than Kitten Natividad, best known as cult director Russ Meyer’s buxom muse. Prior to the film’s Hot Docs premiere, Filmmaker was fortunate enough to catch up with the Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens star to discuss everything from drinking with Meyer and Roger Ebert, to surviving breast cancer and losing her Mexican accent.

Filmmaker: You’ve led such an amazing life in your own right, yet I think most people still associate you with your longtime partner, cult director Russ Meyer. Did your feminist side ever bristle at being “upstaged” by such a larger-than-life man?

Natividad: Oh, you know what? I was so proud of him. If you think he was upstaging me, I didn’t think of it like that. I thought he deserved all the credit that he got. He was the producer, director, cameraman and scriptwriter. He was my lover. I wanted the best for him, and he wanted the best for me. He always made me feel very secure, so, no, none of that was happening. No! I never felt that way.

Let me give you an example. When we would go to Chastened — it’s not here anymore, but all the movie stars went there — we’re talking everybody in that place was a big star. I was his arm candy, and I didn’t mind ‘cause I was in my prime. After we’d be sitting down and we ordered and stuff, he says “O.K. baby, go to the bathroom and shake it!” And I said, “Why?” And he says, “I enjoy all these people eye-googling you.” So I would do it. He always made me feel like I was his star. I was his type o’ woman, which would be perfection. So no, we never competed that way. In an interview, if they asked him more questions, I liked it ‘cause I would learn from it. And most of it, the questions they would ask would be very technical about his lighting and things like that. It was very interesting. I never felt like he was upstaging me. I felt like he was the man that made me. You know, like you would look up to your parents, you don’t compete with them. I was his baby. He made me honey.

Filmmaker: You seem to be one of the few “erotica legends” to have gone on to do porn. So was this a natural transition from the sexploitation films? A means to generate more income? Both?

Natividad: You know what? Let me go back to Canada. When I was in Canada, and I was the big feature, I was making good money, but then I discovered the girls in porn were making even more money! So I went ahead and did it. It was all about getting, competing and stuff. And also, maybe it was a poor choice. I don’t know, and I don’t care. I did it! Porn back then was a big deal — now nobody gives a crap about it — but at that time it was. And they were making [films] very much like Hollywood movies. We had scripts and lots and lots of lines and all that BS. And they paid very well. And I could go on the road, they’d show the film, and then I’d do an act and a question and answer. I did it! So what? It’s over. Thank God I didn’t get AIDS or anything like that. I’m so glad it’s over.

Because of that people try to put me down, and you know what? Let them suck high tits, because it doesn’t bother me. They probably were jacking off it to it. I don’t care. I’ve had to fight a lot of battles in my life, and you have to believe in yourself. First I had to fight the battle of being a Mexican and going in with all those rednecks, and they said, “You can’t have Natividad. They won’t know how to pronounce it.” I said, “I don’t care as long as they dream about me, that’s all I care.” Men went nuts for me. They love big tits and a tight pussy, honey. I’m very honest, and I’m very proud of myself, who I am. If I’m not proud of myself, nobody will be.

Filmmaker: For the cinephiles, I have to ask, what was it like working, or socializing, with Roger Ebert?

Natividad: He was a really, really cool guy. I just felt very at home with him. When we went to Chicago he had a great house, so many floors. He had books from floor to ceiling, and I said, “Have you read them?” and he goes, “Every one of them – that’s why they’re here. I buy ‘em and I read ‘em and they get stacked.” He read a lot. He loved to drink. We would go to all the jazz bars. He was fabulous, an arty guy. [He and Russ] loved to drink, and that’s when I became also an alcoholic. Trying to keep up with the boys! But, what was really interesting about them was they tried to outdo themselves with vocabulary. They had big books that had all these words that nobody ever, ever uses, and I never even knew they were in the English language. And, then they would carry on conversations to see who could top each other. It was fabulous. This could go on all night. Russ was a very intelligent man. It wasn’t just entertaining — it was very knowledgeable and educational for me. I’m not just tits, baby. I have a brain, too. To survive in this? You gotta have a brain, honey.

Filmmaker: You’ve also experienced some truly painful times, from breast cancer as a result of your silicone implants to Russ Meyer’s death from Alzheimer’s. What did you learn from these life-changing events?

Natividad: To tell you the truth, the breast cancer, that’s life or death, you’re going to be scared. Tits don’t mean shit when your life is at stake. But, I mean, I beat it, I got tits again and life goes on. Like I said, I am not just a pair of tits, honey. I’m a human being with a brain, so everything’s fine.

I’ll move on the other question about Russ. It’s the most painful thing to see a genius deteriorate in his mind. It’s just very sad. It was O.K. when he went in a wheelchair. We went on long walks, and I could communicate and talk to him. But then it was like talking to a zombie. It was horrible. It was sad. And his mother had it, too. And I took care of his mom, too. And every so often she’d say, “Oh, you’re the redheaded lady, you’re nice.” And I’d go months without her saying anything to me, and then she’d say something. So I know every so often, their brain clicks. That was the most painful part. Some of the most intelligent people get Alzheimer’s. It’s really sad. Maybe they burn their brains to death, I have no clue. But I was glad to be there for him at the end as a friend – ‘cause he had a girlfriend – but I was there for him as a friend.

When you love somebody, and they didn’t fuck you over, they’re going to be your friend forever. And I didn’t fuck him over. I never used him, and I didn’t feel used by him. Every so often I would call him to see how he was doing and we’d go to dinner. Even though he had a girlfriend, she didn’t want to go to London with him to do publicity, but I went. And she was O.K. with that. She encouraged that. Russ had a way of making women — when you were his woman — feel very secure. So she didn’t think anything was going on, and believe me, nothing was going on with Russ and I towards the end. When I had the breast cancer, he came up and gave me a lot of money, ‘cause I didn’t have the money. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, baby.

Filmmaker: In the film you spoke briefly about the prejudice you encountered as a Mexican-American, and I read on your Wikipedia page that you didn’t even speak English until you were 10. I have to admit that learning that the voice lessons you took had wiped away all traces of a Spanish accent made me incredibly sad. Does any part of you regret feeling pressured to downplay your heritage, especially now that some of Hollywood’s most bankable stars are Latinas?

Natividad: I didn’t care if I lost it or not, but when I would go and do shows, they would always want to meet and buy pictures and they would tell me, “Oh, God! I miss your accent!” I would say in my accent, “Oh, are you going to buy this picture and it’s going to be your divorce picture?” They’re the ones that missed it. But I had to lose it. I wanted to go into mainstream and do other films. I didn’t want to be classified as Latina. I don’t really look Latina. I look something. I don’t look classic American. I mean, I’m proud to be one. I shout it out. I kept the last name so everybody would know I was south of the border, and that I was born and raised there.

Filmmaker: Anything else you’d like to add about the doc or your career?

Natividad: Women now are so afraid of being called strippers. They want to be called “burlesque.” Shows back then would have magicians, and then real dancers, and then the strippers. To tell you the truth, if you end up with pasties and a g-string, you’re a stripper. And they go, “Oh no, I’m not a stripper! I’m a burlesque dancer.” It’s the same thing! That’s all I would say. They took it off, baby! They’re strippers. (laughs) Be proud of it! You guys are strippers whether you like it or not!

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