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The Surprising Lives of Famous Pitchmen: Ivory Snow's Marilyn Chambers


The face of nearly "pure" soap became the face of the "porn chic" movement.

Considering Procter & Gamble (PG) hired a Waspy blonde to invoke an image of purity for its Ivory soap brand, perhaps it was the company's comeuppance to discover, in 1972, that its All-American cover girl had made a name for herself in the dirty business of adult entertainment. In fairness to Marilyn Chambers, the soapbox she found herself plastered on wasn't her own and its tagline read only "99 and 44/100 percent pure."

In interviews, Chambers -- who died last April at age 56, reportedly of complications from heart disease -- would sometimes recount how her career began. She was born in Rhode Island but grew up in suburban Westport, Connecticut, where she said she had a happy childhood. In one low-budget cable interview, she recounted qualifying as a junior Olympic diver and junior Olympic gymnast; she was also a cheerleader and was elected Homecoming Queen.

But Chambers was also known to skip school and sneak into New York City to audition for advertising and modeling jobs, much to her parents' chagrin. She had some early success, booking modeling gigs for Clairol, Coca Cola (KO), and at age 17 for Ivory soap, though the ad wouldn't come out until a couple years later. She also landed a bit part in the The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), which starred Barbra Streisand. Invited on a tour to promote the film out west, Chambers discovered San Francisco, a city she liked so much that she chose to pick up and move there rather than return to college.

In San Francisco, Chambers worked at odd jobs during the day and took a night job as a topless dancer, something that got her arrested more than once. One day she responded to a movie audition ad listed in the San Francisco Chronicle. The ad made no mention of pornography, according to Chambers' recollections. She booked the part for what was the leading role, albeit with no lines, in Behind the Green Door, released in 1972.

Before agreeing to make the movie, Chambers deftly negotiated a contract for herself, demanding a substantial base salary of $25,000. She was savvy enough to ask for a percentage of the profits, too. That moved paid off: The film that cost $60,000 to make grossed $50 million dollars in revenue.

The film debuted at Cannes Film Festival to a standing ovation. Her work in Behind the Green Door broke norms, most notably it presented the first interracial sex scene on screen. (Chambers was paired with Johnny Keyes). Unlike even very recent feature films, such as Monster's Ball, the interracial sex scene didn't involve an undertone of violence, coercion, or peer pressure.

Unbeknownst to Ivory, Chambers embraced the irony of her having modeled a wholesome mom after making it big in the porn business. The producers of the movie successfully used the Ivory slogan to drum up publicity, while Procter & Gamble pulled the Ivory Snow boxes with Chambers' face off store shelves.

Behind the Green Door's success catapulted Chambers into what would be considered the "Golden Age" of the porn industry of the 1970s and 1980s. Along with peers Linda Lovelace and Nina Hartley, Chambers embodied a generational shift, one that had taken the hedonistic elements of the Sexual Revolution and fused it with market capitalism. The adult entertainment industry was peaking in Southern California, and Chambers rode the tide.

By the late '70s, however, Chambers had publicly announced her retirement several times over. She recorded a disco single, "Benihana," wrote a couple books, and made her interest in pursuing mainstream films known.

In 1977, producer Ivan Reitman tried to capitalize on Chambers' success as a porn star by casting her as the lead in the horror film Rabid (1977). He vetoed director David Cronenberg's wish to cast Sissy Spacek. The 1976 horror movie Carrie, which starred Spacek, proved a massive success. Rabid flopped.

In 1980, Chambers was in the sex film Insatiable, a hit in the burgeoning home-video market. She rode that wave until another technology changed the industry again, the Internet. As Chambers aged, she still appeared in films -- in all, her career lasted for more than four decades -- but she complained that the sex industry, "chewed up women and spit them out."

Her home life reads like a roman à clef: She had three marriages, including one to the producer of Deep Throat and another to a trucking executive; she battled a drug habit in the '80s; and, in 2004, made a run for vice president of the Personal Choice Party, a Libertarian political group. Her campaign promotion highlighted the longevity of her career in porn and stated she ran a gun shop. Chambers' naked ambition, political ideology, and confidence are reminiscent of a conservative politician who ran for vice president four years later.

The actress was living in a mobile home in Santa Clarita, California, at the time of her death, just 10 days before her 57th birthday. A working woman up until the end, she had been scheduled to do a live show with "The Hedgehog", porn legend Ron Jeremy.

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