>>Gabrielle Bluestone, The New York Times
Published: 2018-10-09 04:35:56 BdST
Electra isn’t often scared to try something new. In her impressive entertainment career spanning almost three decades, she’s racked up hundreds of IMDb credits and five Playboy covers, sang and danced on a stage in lingerie hundreds of times, launched a wildly successful aerobics video collection, and broadcast her courtship, engagement and wedding to rock star Dave Navarro on MTV years before that was a thing celebrities were really doing.
But her latest professional endeavour — a photo shoot with Eli Russell Linnetz, Kanye West’s preferred collaborator — stripped her down in a new way. He wanted her without shoes.
“At the last minute, I almost backed out. I was really nervous because you have to wear something. You know what I mean? Just a little something,” said Electra. “My publicist said, ‘No, you’re going to be barefoot.’ I go, ‘Barefoot and naked? I haven’t done that one.'”
“The way something like Playboy works, you would start off almost like a striptease, where you’re wearing stuff, and that gets you comfortable,” Electra said. “They would say, ‘OK, take off the corset.’ Then you’d be in little panties, or whatever, and a bra. One thing comes off — but I always had shoes.”
The photo shoot produced a series of frosty glamour shots that wouldn’t look out of place hanging on the wall of a body shop — but fashion. In some of them, she does wear shoes. The most striking images are the ones where she doesn’t. She says she loves the results.
Carmen Electra at her home in Los Angeles, Sept 26, 2018. Though Electra might have come to LA in the mid-90s, she’s only recently started to feel, in the second half of her career, that she’s arrived. (Sandy Kim/The New York Times)
“I guess I just wanted to seem like I couldn’t be hurt, wanted to seem almost like a character, those images of being a fighter,” Electra said, although she often felt defeated looking for ways to break into the industry. “I would literally walk into the auditions and see all these gorgeous, perfect women sitting there, and I’m looking, like, trying to make sure I have my lines, my dialogue memorised, and sometimes I’d just walk out.”
She was figuring out who she wanted to be after years of being told who she was. It was the artist formerly known as Prince who renamed Electra, the Ohio native formerly known as Tara Leigh Patrick, after he discovered her in 1991 auditioning for a girl group on his record label. She didn’t get the singing gig, but weeks later, he tracked her down to where she was staying at a Holiday Inn in Glendale, California, and offered to make her a solo star instead.
“Basically he said, ‘Well, I want to sign you to Paisley Park Records, but you have to come to Minneapolis. And your flight is leaving at 7am,'” Electra said. She got on the plane. “I remember landing in Minneapolis to a purple limousine, and it was just so strange, taking such a chance. It just seemed like a dream or something, like it wasn’t real.”
From Paisley Park, Prince produced her 1993 album, “Carmen Electra,” and took her on the road opening for him in Europe on his Diamonds and Pearls tour. He also helped Electra hone what would become her signature look at the time — big, Priscilla Presley-inspired eyelashes, a corset and hot pants under a cashmere coat, and heels — a mix of athletic street style dressed up under a veil of Hollywood glamour. “I remember him saying, “Are you a blonde or a brunette?” And I was so young that I’m like, ‘I’m a brunette,’ you know?” said Electra, who is now blonde.
But Prince never sugarcoated things for her, even as he moulded her into a star. She played him her first demo recordings for Capitol Records before he summoned her to Minneapolis. “He said, ‘I could use that as a coaster or a Frisbee.'”
“He’d call you out if you hit a wrong note — he’d bark, ‘Arf, arf,’ you know? And you’re just like, ‘Ah, don’t make me cry, I’m trying my best,'” Electra said. “But that was the genius in him. He had that. And I am forever grateful, because honestly, I learned so much from him, and it just gave me a little boost of confidence, to push. And I mean, that was really the beginning of getting over a lot of fears.”
But Electra, who was 18 when they met, felt too young, at least emotionally, for the romance that bloomed alongside their artistic partnership. It may have ended when she started dating someone in LA without Prince’s knowledge, but it was definitely over by the time he found out and summoned her to hear his new song, “Eye Hate U,” an ode to her infidelity.
“I understood where it was coming from. I think some people didn’t really understand it. He was a very private person, so I would never tell anything or talk about anything that was deeply private, but in a case where everyone knows he wrote ‘Eye Hate U’ about me, I’ll just say, I was young and naïve, and we were together, and I found out some things but really didn’t know how to communicate properly,” Electra said.
Carmen Electra at her home in Los Angeles, Sept. 26, 2018. Though Electra might have come to LA in the mid-90s, she’s only recently started to feel, in the second half of her career, that she’s arrived. (Sandy Kim/The New York Times)
“Now that I think about it, I would’ve handled it a completely different way. But at that age, I was hurt. It wasn’t the right thing to do. But I was naïve and hurt, and I just met someone, and kinda, that was it,” Electra said.
And that was it, until it wasn’t. At one point after Prince, she’s said previously, she became homeless, with not much more than a pair of Versace shoes to her name.
“I was struggling in Los Angeles, I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a credit card. I had $5,000 that I hid, and my boyfriend at the time stole it and gambled it away, so I got to the point where I was counting change, and had a shank in my back pocket, and a pager, because I wasn’t living in a good neighbourhood and I would have to walk to the pay phone,” Electra said. “I didn’t have a penny. I had a beautiful wardrobe and my makeup case, so people didn’t really understand or realise my living situation.”
At one point, she confided in Prince about how badly things were going, and he offered her a lifeline: a weekly dance show called Erotic City at his legendary club, Glam Slam LA.
“Then I had a check, it was like $100 or something, but every Friday we would put up a dance show. And that to me was like therapy. And we became friends, and we were cool,” Electra said. “I saw both sides of it, from being his main girlfriend, you know, and kind of being kept away from everything, to really hanging out and getting to know him on a different level.”
Electra appears to be on good terms with many of her famous bad-boy exes, a coterie that includes basketball player-turned-North Korean envoy Rodman, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and Navarro. (“I found that people that have walked on the edge of life, people that have gone through a lot, if they have gotten help and gotten therapy, whatever their system is, it’s a completely different type of relationship,” Electra says of her romantic ideal.) Not that all of her relationships ended well. Electra says one ex pointed a loaded gun at her head, and she and Rodman were both arrested in 1999 over a domestic incident, although the charges were later dropped.
But that all came later in her career, after Electra began drumming up press on her own, first by gonzo-infiltrating red carpets and later hosting MTV’s “Singled Out.”
In those days, Electra would take out what little cash she had from an ATM on Melrose and have eye-popping dresses custom-made for events. In a sea of stars in black, she tended to shine — regardless of the shock it caused to the sartorial nervous systems of People magazine editors. Not for nothing, the variety of dresses that reliably landed her on the “Worst Dressed” lists have recently been worn to much editorial acclaim by most members of the extended Kardashian-Jenner family. Electra remembers wearing one of those “Melrose outfits,” a long, shiny, tight number, to crash a red carpet event with her first publicist.
“I wasn’t invited, we just went, and literally he said my name, and they started taking photos of me, and so I walked the entire red carpet. And we didn’t even have tickets, and we just walked right in,” Electra said. A week later, she saw a picture of herself hanging in a window on Hollywood Boulevard.
Her handlers wanted her style to reflect the preferred look for young stars at the time — simple, covered-up and “blank, like a blank slate.” When she landed her first Maxim cover during the “Baywatch” years, she wore leather pants and a crop top because her publicist didn’t want her doing swimwear photos.
It was in shrugging off those constraints — wearing cutouts on the red carpet, posing nude for Playboy, parodying herself in “Scary Movie” — that things started to feel authentic for her. Along the way, they started clicking. She spent a couple of years in the Pussycat Dolls, singing and dancing and generally elevating the performances of guest stars like Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani and Kelly Osbourne. She went from her Melrose outfits to Chanel couture. Roberto Cavalli took her under his wing, for which she says she’ll be forever grateful. (She keeps a set of limited-edition 2008 glass Coke bottles with Cavalli’s designs on display in her foyer, alongside a host of awards, a framed red “Baywatch” swimsuit, two copies of “I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie,” a drum set, and a glass-walled wine cellar she converted into a shoe closet, stocked with Louboutins of varying vintages.)
Once, she stumbled during a rehearsal in front of Gwen Stefani, an idol of hers. “She said, ‘Girl, don’t worry about it. Mistakes are punk rock,'” Electra recalled. “I just thought, how cool is that? It really is. We have to make mistakes. If you don’t push or try or at least do what you love or wear what you love, then you’re kind of getting stuck in a trap of really not being yourself. You can tell a lot about people by their style.”
But you can never fully inoculate yourself against criticism. Like, for example, in 2005, when Donald Trump told Howard Stern: “I think the boob job is terrible. They look like two light bulbs coming out of a body.”
“I literally had to call and tell everyone, like, ‘He said my breasts look like light bulbs, like do they? Do they? I don’t know,'” Electra said. “It was surreal, because it just came out of the blue. I need to really study a light bulb now, because, I don’t know, maybe he’s right, maybe ... who knows? It was odd, it came out of left field. And out of all these people, like why me?”
Nowadays, when not at home in the Hollywood Hills, she sits front row at New York Fashion Week, cheering on designers she cares about, like Christian Siriano and Naeem Khan. “It’s just so creative. I kind of laugh about it, because we spend three hours getting into hair and makeup, and then you go to the show. It’s a performance almost,” Electra said. She was at the Harper’s Bazaar Icons party this year, where Cardi B threw a shoe at Nicki Minaj, but left before the melee began. She’d rather be at home listening to motivational speaker Tony Robbins or watching documentaries about Nordic aliens than out in the club.
“I’m fascinated with human behaviour and psychology," Electra said, something she first noticed after her impromptu 1998 Las Vegas marriage to Rodman. The event took place just months after her mother died from brain cancer and her sister died from a heart attack.
“I didn’t really realise, when my mom was sick, what I was doing. I started drinking. I never was addicted to drinking, but I was trying to not feel anything. One of my girlfriends, she gave me a couple self-help books because I literally called her to say, ‘I just looked in the mirror and I don’t know who I am. I don’t even recognise myself — I’m looking into my eyes and I don’t know this person anymore,'” Electra said. “That was another turning point in my life. I have a huge collection of self-help books and books on spirituality, stuff like that.”
And although Electra might have come to LA in the mid-90s, she’s only recently started to feel, in the second half of her career, that she’s arrived. When her aerobic striptease DVDs became hugely popular in the early aughts, she knew she’d reached a turning point.
“I feel like my career has mostly been based off of men, which is great and fine, but that was the first time I really connected with women.” She recently debuted a new lingerie line based on the knowledge she gained dancing burlesque all those years, especially during her run at the Crazy Horse Paris revue. (“While I was performing in the show, there were very specific rules. Basically wearing your stockings, not over your knee, but all the way up, and it gives you a little more lift in the butt,” Electra said. She also strongly recommends corsets, especially “when I’m feeling bloated, or, for instance, we just had some cake because it’s a friend’s birthday — you have to live.”)
She’s still acting, and dancing, and hosting, and singing, just now it’s on her terms. In 2013, for example, she debuted new music at the Palm Springs White Party before a crowd of 30,000 people, and it ended up doing better on the charts than the singles she cut with Prince.
“That was major,” Electra said. “I actually cried at the end, because it was the first time where it wasn’t under Prince, and it wasn’t the Pussycat Dolls. It was me. It was me.”
© 2018 New York Times News Service