Russ Meyer’s Leading Lady Dead at 67

In the barren desert landscape of Southern California awash with long silences and stunning high contrast, a muscle-car gang headed by pants-wearing women, barely contained by their maxed-out, low-cut tops, wreaks surprise and havoc. The leading member is Varla: a go go girl with nothing but mean in her soul who’s “cute like a velvet glove cast in iron.” Her partners in crime are two other stacked go go girls called Billie and Rosie, her implied lover. Rosie, the sexually charged amazon whose black jeans are cut within an inch of her life, is one of the most memorable characters from Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill Kill! She was played by an actress known simply as Haji, who passed quietly away this morning.

Haji’s life brought her to the inimitable 1965 role via an unconventional route, without which, surely a cult icon would be missing from humanity’s annals. She was born in Quebec as Barbarella Catton (or Baby Girl Downes, or Haji Catton, etc.) in 1946. She claimed to have had no formal education past kindergarten and professed a love of nature and woodlands.

She began work as an exotic dancer at the age of fourteen and confessed to her fear of arrest for doing such work underage. Shortly after moving to California (she had a passion for Malibu), she was discovered working in a topless bar by the former Playboy photographer Russ Meyer. He quickly cast her in his film Motor Psycho with a small speaking role. Soon after, he offered her a leading role in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and she eventually began working with Meyer in a casting capacity, finding several of his trademark buxom ladies.

Haji retold the story of working with Meyer, laughing at the memory of the spartan conditions. As someone who had never planned on being an actress, she was unaware that it’s not typical to have to wash your own clothes, sleep in tents, use outhouses, and be on the lookout for scorpions and snakes. It wasn’t until working at a Fox studio on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls that she understood why anyone would want to be an actress in the first place.

She’s appeared more in Russ Meyer films than any other of his leading ladies and, as a result, has become something of a cult icon. She reportedly was unaware until fairly recently of her own fame. Known to be rather shy and reserved in her personal life, she never married or had children and lived a quiet, secluded existence near the beach in Malibu. Her deep reverence for nature and interest in mysticism influenced the roles the played for Meyer and beyond and helped introduce a sub-species of psychedelia in ’70s cult classics. Her shameless and confident female sexuality that so shocked audiences in the mid-century, her unmatched interpretation of the femme fatale, and her influence on the later wave of psychedelic sub-culture have had far-reaching effects that will carry on beyond her departure.

Written By: Gabriel Rodenborn
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