Lance Loud

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Alanson Russell Loud, actor, performer and journalist: born La Jolla, California 1951; died Los Angeles 22 December 2001.

Reality television inherently breaks those participants it also makes, a sadistic voyeurism integral to its excitements, yet Lance Loud not only survived being the undoubted star of the first ever "reality" show, he also managed to turn this into an extended performance spectacle for the rest of his life.

The pleasure of any reality show is in watching its subjects fail dramatically but when Loud found fame in 1973 in the groundbreaking, 12-hour fly-on-the-wall PBS show An American Family, his stated ambition was to become a flamboyant homosexual Bohemian "character" and at this he succeeded, wildly. The fact the Loud was only a teenager at the time, and that he was a member of "Gay Lib", all conspired to launch him into instant stardom.

An American Family filmed for seven months a normal West Coast nuclear group, the Louds of Santa Barbara, and their daily life, then relayed this across the United States week by week. As the producers hoped, this standard suburban family with four children, swimming pool and four-car garage generated plenty of drama, not least when the unfaithful father was thrown out by his wife. But even more riveting was the outrageous appearance of their 14-year-old son, Lance, already a flaming homosexual militant with dyed white hair and blue lipstick, perfectly happy to ham it up and queen it out for the networks.

Inevitably Lance Loud became a gay icon as he steadily took over the series and practically made it a one-boy solo show. When the series was shown again in 1990 Loud commented, "I'm amused. It's no big deal. We have nothing to sell or promote because of it. We're still a very close family."

The show had actually been recorded in 1971, just a year after the Stonewall riot and Loud was the first person in the world ever to "come out" on television, whilst being watched by some 10 million viewers. Loud even appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1974, albeit when it was a far more radical publication than today.

That same year he appeared in concert in Tampa with Zappa's Mothers of Invention. As soon as he could Loud naturally lit out for Manhattan where he was already living by the time the television show was eventually aired. In New York Loud became a downtown local legend in that avant-garde scene between Warhol's Factory and the punk rockers of CBGB. Loud formed his own band, the Mumps, whose frenzied, wonky performances rocked the clubs, his charisma overcoming any vocal deficiencies.

He called himself "the Fred Astaire of Uncool" and thus defined his aesthetic:

My whole art is the art of clumsiness, of cosmic left-handedness . . . sticking your foot in your mouth so many times that you get athlete's foot between your teeth.

Or, as a reviewer put it: "Lance has star quality, which is not to be confused with talent."

The Mumps appeared on the first Max's Kansas City compilation, no small honour in itself, and in 1994 a full retrospective CD, Fatal Charm, was released which included classics like "Muscle Boys", "Awkward Age" and "Dance Tunes for the Underdogs". As Loud readily admitted on the sleeve notes, "We had a lead singer who could sweat better than he could stay in key."

Mumps songs can still be found on compilations such as The Great NY Singles or D.I.Y. Blank Generation: the NY scene 1975-78, which features their seminal semi-hit "Crocodile Tears" with its snappy refrain, "You bought the sofa that I wanted for me!"

Loud was joined in Manhattan by his now divorced mother and they moved in together to the notorious Chelsea Hotel. As the punk scene died Loud shifted to the new disco-celebrity culture embodied by Studio 54, where he managed to maintain his VIP status as "boy-toy" to the so-called "Velvet Mafia".

He also acted in a variety of independent films, including Amos Poe's Subway Rider (1981), where he starred with the likes of Robbie Coltrane, and the cult Inside Monkey Zetterland (1992), where he appeared amongst many other cameo roles of the LA set.

In 1981 Loud had moved back to his native California, working as a journalist for the hardcore political gay magazine The Advocate as well as for Interview, set up by his hero Warhol. Loud was a highly successful glossy journalist, mainly covering movies and music, whilst also playing the part-time rent boy and full-time underground eminence. He kept a secret journal of his assignations with high-power closeted Hollywood players and revelled in his clandestine life as a quasi-hooker.

Loud may have then termed himself "a gossipy old pencil pusher in the bloom of health" but his love of narcotic erotics was hardly healthy. He matched an addiction to gym body-building with a dedication to cocaine and became a full devotee of crystal meth, dangerous sex and Formula One fast living.

Now a fabled West Hollywood and Silver Lake eccentric, an animal activist living in a run-down Echo Park estate surrounded by hundreds of his adored stray cats, a gay diva version of Grey Gardens, he wrote gossip columns, reviewed films, interviewed the famous and pruned lime trees. He remained an ambiguous semi-star, unable to use his own name as AOL tag because some pop-culture fan had already taken it and regularly pestered to attend concerts by the San Francisco band "The Loud Family". He was even played several times as a character by other actors, not least in the experimental video work Gone (2000). Loud knew everyone, including the current gay pop hero Rufus Wainwright: "Do you know Lance Loud? He sort of chaperoned me into LA and when he first heard the song 'In My Arms' he said, 'Rufus, you're so butch.' "

Loud may have died relatively young, Aids-related hepatitis C claiming him aged 50, but he carried his alternative celebrity to the end, a revered performer of the act that was his own life. Days before he died in the Carl Bush Hospice he wrote for The Advocate about his imminent demise:

I've been sent on a journey to places even bleach can't reach. For years I had told myself that all my unbridled drinking, drugging and unsafe sex were going to lead exactly here. But I never really believed it.

All too appropriately, there was a television documentary crew recording his last hours. An American Family had by then become a staple of late-night re-runs and media-studies dissertations. Loud remained amused and resigned to the resilient power of the programme:

Maybe it will be viewed – maybe long after reality programming as a concept has bitten the dust – that what we did was noble. I guess I could drag out my favourite Leonard Cohen line and say, "And wasn't it a long way down and wasn't it a strange way down?"

Adrian Dannatt