Haji: Russ Meyer stalwart best known for her starring role in 'Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!'

 

The exotic-looking actress Haji appeared in five Russ Meyer movies, more than any of the other Amazonian stars associated with the bosom-fixated auteur. In Motorpsycho, her 1965 acting debut, she was the wonderfully named Ruby Bonner, a widow hellbent on avenging the murder of her husband by rampaging bikers.

The same year, she joined Tura Satana and Lori Williams – who both only made the one Meyer film – to form the trio of kick-ass go-go dancers wreaking havoc in the cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, "You just didn't see women taking over and beating up men in those days," Haji told the Meyer fansite Ultravixens. "Russ did something no one else had the imagination to do. And he was smart to use three bodied-up women, so whether the picture's good or not, you will sort of stare at it."

Indeed, Faster, Pussycat! has become a touchstone of popular culture, acclaimed by film-makers like John Waters and Quentin Tarantino, referenced in rock and pop by the Cramps, the Spice Girls and the Killers, and even hailed by some as a feminist tract. The movie also enjoys a big lesbian following. However, Haji admitted Meyer had kept her in the dark about the exact nature of her character Rosie's relationship with Varla, the lead portrayed by Satana.

"I didn't even know I was supposed to be a lesbian in the picture!" she said. "I never saw any indication in the script and I never played it like Tura and I were in love! When we came to that scene when I was crying because Tura was making out with that man, I didn't understand why I should be crying. As an actress, I just do as I'm directed. Russ should have told me that in the beginning, I might have played things a little differently. I thought she was just this tough chick that I didn't argue with, I felt she was more like my big sister."

Haji's unusual looks, her penchant for body-painting and her ability to adlib, along with the fact that she could do make-up, wardrobe and still photography, made her a Meyer favourite and she became an integral part of his small team. He cast her as Sorceress in Good Morning ... and Goodbye! (Confessions of a Sexy Supervixen in the UK) in 1967, and as Cat Woman in Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, the satirical, cautionary tale of a female rock group in Hollywood, his 1970 major studio debut co-written by the film critic Roger Ebert. Haji also discovered the buxom Shari Eubank in a Los Angeles night spot and in 1975 wound up alongside her playing SuperHaji, the waitress who wears little else but a smile and a few strategically placed stones, in SuperVixens, another of Meyer's most memorable movies.

Born Barbarella Catton in Quebec in 1946, she was, she said, the "love child" of a philandering Filipino father, who was married, and a mother of English and Irish ancestry. Nicknamed Haji by her uncle, the painter William Downes, she had no hang-ups about sex or nudity. "I was taught that the body is like a goddess. Nudity is beautiful," said the actress, who made the most of her other-worldly appearance. "I think I was sent here from another galaxy as an experiment, to observe you earthlings." After growing up in Washington and New York, she became a single mother at 15 and moved to California to bring up her daughter.

Like Meyer's subsequent leading ladies, Erica Gavin and Kitten Natividad, Haji was discovered by the "King of the Nudies" while working as a dancer alongside her Faster Pussycat co-star Satana in a swanky Los Angeles strip-club called the Losers. She had no acting experience and didn't mind the basic conditions and non-existent budgets on her first three Meyer movies. "We would sleep in tents, we used outhouses," she recalled. "I'd always have to watch for snakes and scorpions. We showered under a barrel of freezing water and we watched our own outfits every night by hand. I thought everyone did films this way. Then I went to 20th Century Fox to do Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and they did your hair and make-up, they feed you, they dress you. But I'm glad I learned from the Russ Meyer school. He taught me how to be a soldier."

Haji was not one for the casting couch and her career didn't progress beyond the schlock and sexploitation of Up Your Alley, Wham! Bam! Thank You, Spaceman! and The Amorous Adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, even if in 1976 she worked with John Cassavetes on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a gritty drama starring Ben Gazzara. In 2001 she teamed up with Natividad and Raven De La Croix, another Meyer alumna, in the straight-to-video The Double-D Avenger. She ran her fan club, made appearances at B-movie conventions and burlesque events and enjoyed looking after her granddaughter and rescuing greyhounds. She never married. "Men always seem to want to put you in cage. Or change you," she said.

Pierre Perrone

Barbarella Catton (Haji), actress: born Quebec City 24 January 1946; one daughter; died Oxnard, California 9 August 2013.

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