From The Underbelly to the Underground: Actress Debbie Rochon on Finding Salvation Through Cinema

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Legendary horror film actress Debbie Rochon turns in an intimate, uninhibited memoir about her early days on the streets and finding her calling in film.

By the end of an exceptionally humid summer my 35 year old leather jacket succumbed to a mild case of mold. As I was cleaning it my mind went right back to the moment of purchase. It was a gift I received from my first ‘love’ when I was living for a several months in England. This was the oldest item I own, not one I wear often at all, but one that finds its way into my suitcase with every move. Why? Sentimental reasons, though not all are twisted into artificial, Saccharin-like good ones but memories that are important and character defining enough to keep.

Before the 90s sonic boom of films and TV being shot in Vancouver, B.C., my hometown, there were few scattered films being shot there. Although what came to town was of a different more edgy type in the 70s and 80s.

In 1977 I was a fugitive of the foster care services. I ran away from a halfway house during a suicide discovery, which threw the building into complete chaos. It was the girl who showed me how she huffed Lysol through a paper towel tube stuffed with Kleenex in the middle to ‘filter’ the spray. She finally had enough I guess. While the run-a-way technicians handled the scene I slipped out the front door of the house and hitch-hiked back to the underbelly of the city. Back to the place where just 6 months earlier I was picked up and thrown into Juvenile Detention Center for a B&E charge. I figured this time I would be smarter. Not be found. Stay very low. And that’s what I did.

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In 1979 I had a friend by the name of Chrissy Warren. Chrissy was a transgender who made quite a splash as a female impersonator on stage taking on such personalities as Marilyn Monroe, Cher and Liza Minnelli. Now things were very lean for Chrissy. Money for designing stage shows, elaborate costumes and all the add-ons of being in the entertainment business had ebbed and flowed out the door and becoming a sex trade worker is what she now did to survive. The 70s were to transgender people what the 60s were to hippies. Just different music. A time to come out and dance to the beat in the disco heat. And boy was it hot. It was also a time where punk rock was exploding and changing the course of disgruntled youth, fashion and changing attitudes. Punk said what most throw-away youth were feeling: everything was not so fabulous.

And so it was mirrored in the movie productions that came to town. Word on the street meant something then, without FB, Twitter, Instagram and the like that was the social media of the time. Chrissy was tipped off about a film being shot in the area that was going to be directed by Dennis Hopper. It was then titled CEBE, but was later retitled for its very limited release OUT OF THE BLUE. Chrissy landed a featured extra role in the film and spent some quality time with Hopper and in the punk scene because of it. The movie was about a disenfranchised girl who became punk. The following year another punk film would come to town and this one would change my life.

When casting began for bit parts in ALL WASHED UP, I was one of the first signed on. I heard about the casting call that was happening at The Denman Inn and roller-skated (four wheels per shoe) down there. Casting agent Lynne Carrow took a Polaroid picture of me and asked if I was willing to dye my hair. I told her I would be happy to. When she asked if I was free for 3 months I told her that was not a problem either. Seeing I didn’t have a phone I took her number and was on my way.

It wasn’t long before I was in the company of Caroline Coon who worked as a creative consultant on the film. She escorted me to a salon where her friend and UK based, ultra-famous hairdresser ‘Shumi’ had flown in to design the hairstyles for the film. Before you could ponder the phrase “…because I’m worth it…” my hair was cut, dyed black with a bleached white stripe down the center, and backcombed into a Rockabilly style. It was a perfect punk bouffant. I was now ready for the shoot.

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On the first day of filming the make-up artist did a wonderful job with the lightning bolt eye shadow, severe eyeliner and bright red lipstick. Caroline told her it was too good, it looked exactly like the film’s star Diane Lane’s make up and that it needed to look more like a ‘home done’ job seeing I was to play one of her wanna-bes in the movie. The story was about a girl formed punk band based on the all-boy punk band in the movie called The Looters. The lead singer was played by actor Ray Winstone and his back up band was comprised of The Clash bassist Paul Simonon, The Sex Pistols lead guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook. I didn’t know who any of these people were when I started shooting. I had made a friend by the name of Susan who played another wanna-be in the film. We became fast friends and I often crashed at her house during the shoot. Her mom found out I was a street kid so forbade me to stay there. This didn’t stop us as I would just sneak in with her through the bedroom window and take cover under a pile of clothes in case her mom popped her head in the room.

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Paul Cook started to chat me up and being the extremely untrusting and savvy lost kid that I was just blew him off thinking he was another film scum trying to get over on me. This went on for a few weeks. Susan explained to me who all these guys were and it impressed me even less that he was after a ‘date’. I remember thinking to myself “OH! He’s some rock star guy who just wants to fuck around with some chick”. Needless to say even at such a young age I was suspicious of fame and all its sleazy trappings. You can’t really blame me too much; all I had seen so far in life were people on the take. After a couple more weeks of him trying to start conversations with me I agreed to meet him for tea. Yes, he did love tea. I met with him and he seemed really down to Earth considering all the stories Susan had told me about the band. He kept trying to ask me about my life and at that point I was quiet and rarely spoke. Speaking only tipped your hand as to how someone could manipulate you so my survival mechanism was to clam up. He really didn’t talk much about himself. He spoke about his mother, where he lived, his interests, things like that. Nothing that smacked “I am a powerful rock star baby” and this was really starting to gain points with me. He asked if he could see where I lived. I didn’t live anywhere so I took him over to North Vancouver where Susan lived with her mother and sister. You can well imagine Susan and her sister’s reaction when I walked in with him. To me he was just a guy and to them he was the guy whos records scattered the basement floor. So they jumped to it, made tea, sat dumb founded and barely blinked as they stared at him. He behaved normal and nice. I still didn’t see what the big deal was. After a couple of hours we walked all the way back to Vancouver hand in hand. I spent the next two months with him till the film ended. I’m not going to make like it was all tea and crumpets, he did introduce me to cocaine, which was a lot of fun at the time. Susan would come and hang out and she even got to ‘shag’ Steve Jones, which gave her something to talk about for the next few years.

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When the film left town Paul suggested I come and hang in England. So I made plans. Within a couple months I found myself at Heathrow airport. I had stayed in touch with Shumi and he asked me to be the next face for his chain of salons. He cut my hair and we did a number of photo shoots. I was in my first mag ever, 4 pictures of me advertising his salon in the UK publication Hairdresser’s Journal, full page that was published sometime in late 1980. I was also in his ad campaign that was featured in British Vogue – quarter page. Not bad for a street battered kid. Things were going really well with Paul too. We had a lot of fun, we even went to a Ramones concert where I slapped my backstage pass on my new leather jacket.

Then one day I felt really sick. I ended up going to a free clinic in London and found out I was pregnant. Holy Hell. I completely freaked out. I was not able to handle the news very well and with my inability to communicate my feeling or deliver such news to a male, I never told Paul. Caroline took me to see The Clash at Hammersmith Palais, it was a band she managed for a short time at one point early in their career, and that would be the last time I saw her. Within a week of that concert I flew back to Vancouver and terminated the pregnancy. I didn’t even tell Paul I was leaving. This was something I couldn’t face and it would be years before I would be able to face something head on without running. Running was what I was taught, it’s what I knew, it had always worked to survive. I couldn’t face the possibility of rejection yet again in my life so I ran back to my comfort zone. While I am still a pro-choice advocate, the procedure had a deep effect on me. I was relieved to have had it done, I was too young and had nothing to offer a baby at this stage in my life, but emotionally it devastated me. This would be the main reason I would never end up having children.

Chrissy picked me up at the clinic after it was over. I recovered at her house and we watched a lot of movies. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK played countless times. I loved that movie. The disposable anti-hero running for his life against the clock. Right up my alley. She had rented the VHS of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and we watched that a couple of times. I was in awe of this movie for two reasons. First it was widely ‘known’ that it was based on a true story so that made it even more frightening than it already was. Second, the performance by Marilyn Burns blew my mind. Between her acting and the experience I had making ALL WASHED UP, now titled LADIES AND GENTLEMAN: THE FABULOUS STAINS! I knew what I had to do. I had to get to New York and study acting. I had fallen in love with film, edgy film, and this was going to be my life from now on.

So as I cleaned my leather jacket and hung it back in the closet I realized why I kept it. It was a reminder; pain can be used in your art, it doesn’t have to destroy you.

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Weekend: Dec. 19, 2019, Dec. 22, 2019

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