From: Tim Evanson <email@example.com>
Below is a copy of an article on Robin Byrd which ran on March 27, 1997 on the front page of the Style section of the "Washington Post." Since Byrd herself is a former industry performer, and since her program showcases porn performers so often, I thought everyone might like reading this article.
"And Now for the Late-Night Nudes," by David Richards. "The Washington Post," Style section front page, March 27, 1997, p. B1.
To see "The Robin Byrd Show" is not to believe it.
Not at first.
After all, the host, a full-figured bleached blonde, wears only a crocheted string bikini and a dazzling smile. Her guests, exotic dancers and porn stars, strip to the buff. Then, toward the end of the hour, they all gather round the single camera, discuss their careers, plug their upcoming films and take phone calls from the public.
It's sort of like "The Tonight Show" with genitalia.
Robin Byrd likes to refer to herself as "New York's best-kept secret." Outside Manhattan, in fact, you can't even get her program. But on this isle of voyeurs, oddballs and insomniacs, she is a star--a Gypsy Rose Lee for the '90s. For two decades, "The Robin Byrd Show" has been a fixture, not to say the high point, of this city's quirky, often raunchy late-night cable landscape. So where, she has begun wondering of late, does she go from here? How does the nation's most ebullient nearly nude television personality top herself?
"I explain my show this way," she says. "When you have friends from out of town, you sit them down in front of 'The Robin Byrd Show,' and they go, 'Oh, my God! I can't believe this is on television!' They're watching with their hands over their eyes, peeking between their fingers. The second time your guests come back, they ask, 'Is that show still on?' The third time, they say, 'Let's watch that show.' And the fourth time, they call from their home town and say, 'Hey, would you tape that show and send it to us?' "
"Byrdwatchers," as she calls her viewers, may not always be willing to stand up and let themselves be counted. There are no reliable figures to indicate the size of her audience. But Byrd claims that her fans come from all walks of life--"doctors, lawyers, judges, congressmen, entertainers, up-and-comers" is how she puts it--and that word of mouth is the only advertising she has ever needed.
A year and a half ago Time Warner, which operates Channel 35, the leased-access channel that is Byrd's perch, announced its intention to scramble her show and other sexually candid fare. If cable subscribers wished to continue receiving the programming, they would have to request it in writing. Byrd joined with the American Civil Liberties Union and Al Goldstein (publisher of Screw magazine and host of his own cable TV show, "Midnight Blue") to combat the plan as an infringement of the First Amendment. A federal district court in Manhattan sided with them, but a later Supreme Court ruling in a related case has left the situation less clear, and the litigation continues.
Byrd has even come to see herself as a defender of free speech, although she draws a distinction between herself and, say, a Larry Flynt. "I'm not a man," she says. "I'm not exploitative. I just bring nudity and free sexual spirit to everyone. ... But when they go after those sex purveyors on the Internet and TV, they get me, too."
She lets out a protracted sigh. "I'm like the dolphin in the tuna net."
"There's no one like Robin," says Chris _____. Chris would prefer that you not use his last name, noting facetiously that he may run for mayor some day. Just call him, he says, "Mr. Control Room Man." That's what Robin called him when he was working at Metro Access Studios, the facility in Chelsea where Byrd tapes her programs.
"I'd direct 40 shows a week," says Mr. Control Room Man. "Robin was special. Her show was much better than the stock market show. I remember one girl with 80-inch breasts, who danced with a 25-foot snake. That kind of programming is not pornographic to me. It's like burlesque. It entertains a lot of people."
"What makes the show special is Robin's personality," observes Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, who has co-hosted the program several times. "She's so sweet and girl-next-doorish, and basically, people are getting naked all around her. That makes for a very amusing contrast."
Robert Peters, the president of Morality in Media, a New York-based media watchdog, remains unamused. Manhattan's late-night cable channels, he says, are "a forum for various types of exhibitionists and people who are infatuated with themselves. ... I think the average person would prefer that this type of programming not be on the air at all."
Byrd wrinkles up her girl-next-door nose at that one. "Know what I call those people? The immoral minority."
THE RERUNS CARRY ON
After doing "The Robin Byrd Show" live every Wednesday night for 20 years--in sickness and in health, "in snowstorms and in monsoon rainstorms"--Byrd says she had to take a breather.
"Each week," she notes, "people would tell me the show was better than the week before. Better, better, better! You get to a point where you can't make it any better. Give the Byrd a break!"
For the time being, Byrdwatchers have to be content with reruns. She keeps videocassettes of her shows--all 20 years' worth--in her one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side, and jokes that there's scarcely room now for the double bed. (The kitchen was turned into an editing room a long time ago.) Even if she never taped another show, she says, she has material to last well into the 21st century.
Her reruns, in fact, account for 15 hours of programming a week on Channel 35, making her as ubiquitous in her world as Dan Rather is in his. Tune in any night after 10:30 and you can see up to 150 minutes' worth of her and her flock--minus the commercials for telephone sex lines. (A proselytizer for safe sex, Byrd refuses to carry ads for escort services.)
Skin buffed, hair fluffed, lips glossed, her prerecorded self continues to cozy up to the camera. "Lie back, get comfortable, snuggle up to a loved one," she coos night after night. "And remember, if you haven't got a loved one, you've always got me...Robin Byrd."
DEBBIE DOES MANHATTAN
Her life, she insists, is an open book. Except for a few details.
The only age Byrd will admit to--with prodding--is 39. As for her mate, a former advertising art director who looks a little like the late actor Jack Gilford, she would prefer that you refer to him as "Mr. Head Gofer" and leave their 22-year relationship at that.
"I like to be a mystery," she explains. "People meet me and they say, 'Oh, you're taller than I thought, or younger.' I reply, 'I'm as tall or as young as your fantasy.' That's all we really have these days--our imagination.. If we lose our imagination, then we lose our drive to live."
Shortly after her birth, Byrd was adopted by a Manhattan antique dealer, now deceased, and his wife. Byrd claims to know who her biological mother is, although the woman, an Orthodox Jew living in Miami, denies the kinship. As for her adoptive mother, Byrd paints her as a less than encouraging presence. "She was always telling me, 'When we found you, you were the sickliest baby. You were so pitiful that we had to take you in.' Never 'You were the prettiest thing.' Or 'We fell in love with you right away.' "
Much of her life, Byrd speculates, has been a quest for the love and acceptance she never had while growing up. Starting in her early teens, she ran away from home repeatedly and drifted into several abusive relationships. She modeled nude for art classes. She won a Miss All Bare Contest, held in New York in the mid-1970s, graduated to the skin magazines and eventually ended up in the adult movie industry.
Her career as an adult movie star reached a climax, so to speak, with "Debbie Does Dallas," her most famous film. "Some historian of the adult industry said I made 39 films at last count. I didn't. I made 13. A baker's dozen," she says, "After a while I guess I didn't want to be treated like a piece of apple or fruit or an object any more. It gets to the libido sometimes."
The turning point came in October 1976, when she stepped in as a substitute host on "The Hot Legs Show," a primitive (even for its day) half-hour cable TV show here. Her duties were simple: introduce film clips of women cavorting in the nude, then take phone calls from home viewers, presumably aroused by what they'd seen. She says she was prepared for crude remarks and X-rated insults.
"After the first 20-minute film, I took a deep breath and answered the first call. This voice says, 'You are so beautiful. Are you going to be the host of the show from now on?' Then and there, I thought, 'Robin, you are not a bad person. This is the love that you have been looking for all your life.' "
"The Hot legs Show" was not fated to last long. Byrd was. Retaining the program's format, she changed the name to "The Robin Byrd Show" and set about conquering the city.
The idea of using live performers on the show struck her in the early 1980s. "When I was an adult star," she says, "it was a horrible thing. Please! You were no better than a prostitute. Never mind that you were an actor, playing a part! I wanted to show people that adult performers are human beings. ... I think I've done a lot to help change the image." For Portia Lynn, a professional dominatrix, former dancer and longtime friend of Byrd's, Byrd is nothing less than a trailblazer. "Some people see her as a dumb blonde with large breasts and don't get the deeper level of what she is doing," Lynn says. "But being a female on television, and promoting sexuality in all its aspects--gay, bi and hetero--I don't know that that's been done anyplace else. Maybe Amsterdam."
Says Byrd, "People in the mainstream film business are trying to cross over into our world all the time with films like 'Striptease' and 'Showgirls.' I say that eventually the industry will come up to my level. television certainly has. Look at 'NYPD Blue'! You can see rear nudity, I hear."
She flings back her mane of hair.
"When they get frontal nudity, then I'll have to worry."
RIOT ON THE SET
Robin Byrd hasn't been back to Metro Access Studios in 10 months, but she wants a reporter and a photographer to see where "I perform the Byrd magic." All the props from her show--the heart-shaped neon sign, her canvas director's chair--are still stored there, along with the detritus from a hundred other fly-by-night cable shows.
As soon as she arrives with Mr. Head Gofer, the place comes alive. A couple of technicians kiss her on the cheek. A Hispanic psychic, who has just concluded her phone-in show, claps her hands in delight and says, "When you coming back? I miss you so much, Robin."
"Oh, no you don't," chides Byrd. "You just miss all the handsome men on my show."
Cheerful as Byrd is, the studio is, frankly, a dump. Actually it's two dumps, separated by a control room.
In the studio that was Byrd's for 20 years, someone has punched a hole in the cyclorama, and a once-spangled curtain sags from a track in the ceiling.
"Yuck!" exclaims Byrd. "The only time this place ever gets cleaned is when I am here. This shouldn't be my responsibility. Who knows if I even have a sign under this mess?" She struggles to dismantle a precarious tower of tables and chairs. "They probably broke my sign."
But no, when she plugs it in, the neon sign throws a comfortingly rosy glow over the studio. A paragon of industry, Byrd has quickly put some order into the surroundings. Then, with the efficiency of a surgeon preparing for the operating room, she peels off her clothes (keeping her cowboy boots and spurs on), dons the trademark string bikini, and scampers onto the set.
"This was never a good position," she says, alighting on the edge of a low platform. "Usually I sit like this. But it's not a good position either." Indeed, a few bulges are apparent about the waist. "There used to be a time when all this looked good."
But she is not one to let a little avoirdupois dampen her essential zest for life or posing.
She flops over on her stomach and kicks up a cowboy boot. "What about something like this?" she suggests. "Or this?"
"THE BYRD WILL BE BACK"
It is 6 o'clock on a midwinter Thursday, and the city is gray and chilly. Byrd is sipping bottled water in a trendy Upper East Side coffee-house when the subject of the future comes up. She's afraid to jinx it by saying too much, but lately she's been thinking about reviving her music career.
In 1980 she recorded her one and only single, "Bang Your Box." It was about a piano, of course, but the radio stations didn't think so, and Byrd could never get it played on the air. (The recording still marks the closing moments of every "Robin Byrd Show" and the accompanying ritual--Byrd dancing with her guests and fondling them gleefully.)
On a recent trip to Las Vegas, Byrd and Mr. Head Gofer were highly impressed with the Liberace Museum, and she wouldn't mind setting up a similar establishment for herself in Manhattan. "There would be TVs all over the place with my shows playing on them," she says, her eyes sparkling. "In glass cases, you'd have all the paraphernalia that goes with the shows. I save everything, even the feathers that come off the costumes. It could be a real touristy thing."
And sometimes--but only sometimes--Byrd pictures herself working for an honest-to-God network, where she could just interview people, and not have to round up the guests, scrub down the studio and operate the camera herself.
"I'm not saying 'The Robin Byrd Show' has died," she says. "But the way I present the show in the future will be different. I've always thought that if you don't like things about your life, you change them. All it takes is hard work. ... My whole life has been hard work, trying to get people to accept me for me and to accept what I do. You've got to remember, this is America."
The diva of late-night dishabille grows philosophic. "And sex in America is bad."