In Memoriam: Tawny Kitaen

“She was gonna be an actress
She was gonna be a star
She was gonna shake her ass
on the hood of Whitesnake’s car.”

— Bowling for Soup, “1985”

I don’t know whether you could legitimately say that Tawny Kitaen — who died unexpectedly last weekend at only 59 years old — was any kind of actual star. She was indeed a model and an actress who worked pretty steadily in the ’80s and ’90s, enough for her face to have become familiar, but she never appeared in anything really significant. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a guest shot on Seinfeld as one of Jerry’s never-ending rotation of girlfriends, and she was a series regular on the short-lived attempt to revive WKRP in Cincinnati for the syndication market. (Her character was somewhat analogous to Loni Anderson’s role on the original series, a DJ whose intelligence is constantly underestimated by those around her because of her looks.) Sadly, she was probably as infamous for her domestic problems — she was once arrested and charged with assaulting her second husband, baseball player Chuck Finley — as she was famous for any of her work. Well, aside from those Whitesnake videos that the Bowling for Soup song refers to; for better or worse, doing the splits on the hood of a Jaguar for a heavy metal band really is her claim to fame.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here; it’s not my intention to disparage her. The truth is, Ms. Kitaen’s sudden demise has troubled me far more than I would have expected, and I’m trying to sort out in my own head exactly why. I’m not sure if I feel bad that a woman who had a tumultuous life died relatively young, or if it’s because I associate her so strongly with a particular time and place, and with the person I used to be in that moment, that her death feels like another totem of my youth toppling.

Like most everybody else, I suppose, I first became aware of her in the fall of 1987, when the video for “Here I Go Again” was in heavy rotation. It was my first quarter as a freshman at the University of Utah. I had a screwy schedule those first few months, with a big block of empty time between my morning classes and one that I could only take in the evening. I probably should’ve spent those unscheduled hours studying or writing my first novel or doing something productive, but I had just turned 18 and I was feeling more than a little overwhelmed by life at that that point, so productivity wasn’t really in the cards. I ended up killing most of that free time in the student union, either playing Gauntlet or parked near a giant projection TV that more often than not was set to MTV. I must’ve seen that Whitesnake clip a hundred times in the three-month period before Christmas break. I already knew the song from hearing it on the radio earlier that summer, and I liked it quite a bit — the lonely romanticism of the lyrics appealed to my budding self-image as a brooding loner in the Byronic mold, and I dug the heavy guitar-based sound of it — but the visual element provided by the video, i.e., the gymnastic lady in the flowing white gown… well. That appealed to me on, shall we say, an entirely different level.

She was beautiful, yes, but in an unconventional way that started with a great mass of shaggy red hair that begged to have the wind blowing through it… or your hands buried in it. Her mouth was a bit too large, but her smile was dazzling… and contagious. (She actually presaged the coming of Julia Roberts, who had a similar energy with her mass of unruly red hair and her too-large-but-delicious megawatt smile.) The thing that really struck me about this girl, though, was her eyes in a shot toward the end of the video. She’s now in the car with Whitesnake’s lead singer (and Tawny’s future husband #1) David Coverdale, and she gives the camera a sideways glance as she sings along to the chorus. Her expression is playful and sly, intelligent and forward all at the same time. She knew exactly what she was doing with that expression, and it was sexy as hell. And yes, I developed an instant crush on her. Just like a lot of other young people watching MTV in 1987.

In those days when I had no love interest of my own and desperately wanted one, I dreamed that I might find someone like her (or hell, maybe even the actual her, because if you can’t aim high in your fantasies, where can you?). She became an aspirational figure to my 18-year-old self, a rock-and-roll goddess who felt like someone you might actually know. That image was reinforced by her part on The New WKRP, where I at last heard her voice and learned her name.

Later on, when stories came out about her whaling on Chuck Finley with a high-heeled shoe, she became less aspirational than a cautionary tale. So she was one of the crazy ones, it now seemed, the sort of unstable woman you heard about in skeezy movies that often starred Michael Douglas and that I now most definitely did not want to find. The very energy that had made her so damn sexy a decade earlier had curdled into something dangerous.

A few years after that, there were stories of her struggles with drugs, an arrest for possession and then another for DUI. Rehab, followed by appearances on reality TV, plastic surgery, a face that no longer looked quite like the same person, a downhill trajectory that was all the more depressing for its utter familiarity. We’d seen it before, hadn’t we? Nothing special here, just another fading starlet turned trainwreck. But I am a sentimental slob and seeing my old crush brought low like that stirred up my protective instincts. Whenever I’ve thought about her in the last 15 years — which admittedly hasn’t been too often — I thought I’d like to put my arm around her and somehow make everything all right for her. Condescending? Paternalistic? Yeah, maybe. But I remembered the playful rock-and-roll girl with the megawatt smile and I wanted to somehow put her back together. I don’t apologize for my feelings.

And then… she died.

A rumor went around Twitter on Friday night that something had happened to her, and I felt a pang in my gut. Anne and I had just seen that Whitesnake video a few days priorĀ  and I’d wondered what Tawny Kitaen was up to these days. I hoped that her fall from grace hadn’t finally ended in the way those falls so often do: an OD, a suicide, perhaps a body pushed beyond its limit by years of bad choices just… stopping. But there didn’t seem to be any corroboration of the rumor, and if it wasn’t on TMZ, it wasn’t for real right?

Confirmation came Saturday afternoon when I took a break from a landscaping project to glance at social media on my phone. It was true; she was gone. Cause is yet to be determined, but when it is, I won’t be at all surprised if it’s one of the possibilities I just mentioned. Standing there in the yard, leaning on my shovel, I found myself thinking about the warm golden light of a fall afternoon slanting through the wall of windows on the south side of the union, and about the sheltered dark corner where the big TV was set up; I thought about the drama that had been going on at home at the time, how school was an escape for me; and I thought about the endless stream of three-minute musical fantasies that had filled my downtime with dreams of sex and glamour and fast cars and a world where wind and smoke machines made everything look so much cooler than my mundane existence. I thought about being 18 and lonely and, yes, horny, and how anything seemed possible and how it felt like there would always be time for everything. And I thought about a woman only a few years older than myself who I’d always hoped might actually like me if our paths had crossed. A woman for whom time ran out too soon, whose big claim to fame is one of those three-minute fantasies she made decades ago, and I thought about how damned awful it is that life is a process of everything you love gradually diminishing.

And then I put my phone down and went back to work because I had a project to finish, and the daylight was fading. And I found myself humming a song from 17 years ago that’s about missing a time that had been 19 years before that, an unlikely hit from a band with the unlikely name of Bowling for Soup…