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"In those days, they had kind of a blacklist that put the kibosh on the whole thing," says Renay. "I was doing everything I could just to get back in the swing, even if it meant settling for independent movies."
Spies a Go-Go, The Thrill Killers, Lady Godiva Meets Tom Jones--most of the exploitation cheapies from Renay's mid-'60s oeuvre are remembered today, if at all, solely because of her pseudonymous appearances.
Realizing the fake name wasn't fooling anyone who mattered, Renay dropped the charade and concentrated on doing what she did best. Mainly, promoting Liz Renay, anywhere and anytime.
During the porn craze of the early '70s, she earned star billing in a string of X-rated pix like Refinements in Love, even though she refrained from actual nudity or participation in hard-core activity. "I was always the madam or the narrator," Renay hastens to add. "I'd talk about the ecstasy of love and how beautiful love was--then they'd cut away to that other stuff."
When blaxploitation was big, she did a cameo in Blackenstein; in her big scene, her nearly nude disemboweled body is found covered with entrails.
Several years later, the 46-year-old bombshell was wearing even less when she "streaked" Hollywood Boulevard to publicize a nude revue in which she was appearing, tying up traffic for blocks as thousands of onlookers poured into the street to cheer her on. Charged with indecent exposure in a circuslike trial that made headlines for a solid week, she was eventually cleared when the jury determined that she "was nude, but not lewd." Renay admits that it probably didn't hurt her case that her lawyer stood outside the courthouse, distributing souvenir "crime scene" photos of her scandalous run.
By the time the novelty of a "streaking grandmother" had worn thin on the burlesque circuit, Renay already had a new gimmick in the wings: a mother-daughter strip act featuring her 30-something daughter Brenda. Not nearly the exhibitionist her mom was, the younger Renay reportedly had to be shoved onstage on at least one occasion.
"I wanted to give my daughter a chance to be on the stage," says Renay. "We had identical costumes and hairdos. People thought we were sisters--or twins. You have to live out of a suitcase when you're going all over the country like that. I loved having her along."
The two became so close that when Renay moved to Las Vegas in the mid-'70s, her daughter bought a house right around the corner. After the strip act broke up, the pair worked together in several low-budget films, including an X-rated number in which they portrayed a madam and a hooker.
In 1982, on her 39th birthday, Renay's daughter unexpectedly committed suicide.
"That was the tragedy of my life," says Renay, who theorizes that her daughter, not thinking straight after an evening of cocktails and Quaaludes, shot herself because she hadn't received an expected phone call from a boyfriend in jail.
"Losing a child is something you don't get over," says Renay, whose son John owns a bottled-water company in Tucson. "Terminal Island was a drag, but it was nothing compared to this."
Four decades after her astral path jumped the tracks, Liz Renay still believes she could have been a contender.
"Cecil B. De Mille said I was the most exciting face he'd seen in 20 years," she says. "I think I would have had a career like Lana Turner or one of those other blond bombshells."
Not that Renay's complaining, mind you. Would John Waters have ever offered Lana Turner a role that required her to smother a baby sitter in a bowl of Alpo, strangle her husband in an electric car window, patch up a botched sex-change operation with a needle and thread, and address lines of dialogue to her breasts?
"At first, I hated the script; I thought it was ridiculous," says Renay of Desperate Living. "But I did it anyway and now I like it. John really knew what he was doing. Now it's a classic high-camp cult movie that's required viewing in some of the colleges."
An unintentional recruiting film for the Liz Renay fan club, Waters' 21-year-old black comedy is still popular on video and has inadvertently prompted a run on the actress's out-of-print literary efforts.
Tops on the list? Staying Young, a 1982 self-improvement tome in which Renay reveals how to get free face-lifts, rhapsodizes over the erotic joys of a shower massager and, in a chapter titled "How to Make Big Money Fast the Easy Way," suggests that readers supplement their income by working up strip acts or turning their homes into after-hours clubs.
"I'm always getting mail from college kids and a few of them even got my phone number somehow," says Renay, who seems genuinely amused by the attention from the younger set. "Someone's even selling damn Liz Renay tee shirts. You know that TV show--Everybody Loves Raymond? Well, it's like everybody loves Liz Renay."
Glancing at her watch, Renay realizes she's got a plane to catch if she wants to get back to Vegas in time for a date that night.