Looking back at the rise and fall of the Playboy Playmate and KISS muse.
When it comes to murdered Playboy centrefolds, Dorothy Stratten is the name that will always come to mind – her death at the hands of her jealous, estranged husband just as she was on the verge of movie stardom after being catapulted to fame as the Playmate of the Year in 1980 is the stuff that moralising and salacious dramas are made of, after all. But there is another story, perhaps even more shocking and sensational, that is less well known. This story involves a rise from small-town obscurity to success as a model, rock and roll excess and fall from grace, culminating in violent and unsolved death that might be the work of a serial killer. As fall from grace stories go, it’s up there with the best. Yet Star Stowe seems almost entirely forgotten, at best a bit part in the stories of other, more successful people.
Ellen Louise Stowe was born March 19th, 1956 in Little Rock, Arkansas, and like many a starry-eyed and open-minded girl in the mid-1970s, made her way to Las Vegas and then Los Angeles, where she would find work in strip clubs, dancing nude under the name ‘Star’, which she adopted because of a fascination with the night sky, and the presence of a blue star tattoo in her pubic region. While dancing, Star was spotted by a Playboy talent agent – unsurprisingly, as she was a slim, blonde and beautiful woman, and had a mix of the innocent and the sexually provocative that would have immediately caught the attention of the magazine. Playboy was, at the time, the top of the tree – the most respectable of the men’s magazines, and posing nude for the publication was still seen as a way into bigger and better things for many models in a way that seems unthinkable now. Star was photographed by Pompeo Posar and was the Playmate of the Month in February 1977. She was the first Playmate with a visible tattoo.
Around this time, Star became involved with Gene Simmons and Kiss. The notoriously womanising rock star seemed to take a particular shine to her, and for a while, the two were romantically linked. Around this time, Star posed for various publicity shots with the band, and although not of the raunchy nature of some earlier Kiss photo shoots, there is a knowing sense in these images that suggests that this is just the prelude to sexual misadventures to come.
While the Playboy model and rock star couple would become a cliché in later years, back in 1977 it was still somewhat unusual, and the Simmons-Stowe relationship was the very height of rock ‘n’ roll decadence – and in truth, Star had something of the rock muse about her. As both a Playmate and a rock star girlfriend, Star found herself moving in celebrity circles for a while, but it wasn’t to last. Simmons’ ambitions were set higher in the celebrity ladder, and Kiss was about to become the biggest band in America – before long, Star was out and the demon was in a long-term relationship with Cher, before dropping her for Diana Ross (and then, of course, eventually returning to the Playboy world with Shannon Tweed).
Star ultimately failed to capitalise on either her Playboy appearance or rock star relationship – perhaps, in the end, she was just another pretty girl in a town of pretty girls who were willing to take their clothes off. Perhaps she had no ambition, or no talent or simply no luck. She eventually married and had a son, but the relationship fizzled out, and by 1986, she was in Fort Lauderdale, again working as an exotic dancer, where her Playboy credentials at least ensured that she was not short of work. However, by all accounts, Star liked to party a little too much, and a taste for drink and drugs led her downhill, with predictable unreliability and physical wear and tear – not helped by competition from younger, healthier dancers – saw the strip work drying up. By the early 1990s, Star was apparently working as a prostitute to make ends meet. It’s unlikely that any of her punters even knew who she was, let alone her brief brush with celebrity. It was a sad decline, but worse was to come.
In 1997, Star Stowe was found murdered – she’s been strangled and left behind a pharmacy. Another prostitute, Sandra Kay Walters, had been found dead under similar circumstances a couple of weeks earlier, and by the end of the year, two more women had been killed, leading police to conclude that a serial killer was at work. There were more victims by 1999, but then the murders stopped and the trail dried up. It’s sobering to note that, for every famous serial killer case where the murderer is apprehended, there are others who are unapprehended – wither they die, they are imprisoned for unrelated crimes or they simply stop, having burned through the rage that caused them to begin killing in the first place. Star Stowe’s murder remains unsolved.
It’s easy to try and read Star Stowe’s life as some sort of morality tale – a finger-wagging warning against loose living and high ambition. Whenever a Playmate comes to a sticky end – and given how long the magazine has existed for, it would seem odd if no one had – there are those who will eagerly blame the magazine, no matter how much time has passed between their appearance and their death. It’s unlikely that such moral tut-tutting would take place if Stowe had been a fashion model, although of course her life could well have followed a very similar decline. In the end, the rise and fall of Star Stowe is nothing more than a small-scale tragedy – terrible for those who loved and knew her, but ultimately no one’s fault, not even hers – I doubt very much that she planned for things to go so badly wrong, or had any control over the spiralling of events that can overwhelm any of us. And she certainly did nothing to deserve her untimely and unpleasant death.
In any case, it’s surely better to look back on the days when she almost had it all – the Playboy fame, the rock star boyfriend – and regret that things didn’t work out for her in the way that they did for many another model in similar circumstances – the countless Playmates who have had their moment in the sun, before going back to their normal lives and are now happy, healthy and without shame.