Remembering the legendary star of Russ Meyer’s final films, burlesque shows, adult movies and cult classics, who has sadly passed away.
Francesca ‘Kitten’ Natividad, who died on September 24th 2022, is not quite the last link with Russ Meyer, though it does feel that way. As someone who was not only the last star of Meyer’s films but also someone who was his life partner for many years, her death feels like the end of an era. It’s also a terrible loss for fans of cult cinema, striptease, adult movies and vintage glamour. The great names of yesteryear are passing with indecent frequency – perhaps not surprisingly, but still it feels depressing.
Kitten rose to public fame as a go-go dancer at the end of the 1960s and then became Miss Nude World on a couple of occasions, helped by her surgically-enhanced breasts. She was made for Russ Meyer’s work, especially his increasingly cartoonish movies of the 1970s, and her presence in Up! and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens cannot be underestimated – in a cast of buxotic stars, she stood out as the liveliest, sexist and the most fun. Meyer’s struggle to get projects off the ground in the 1980s (many films announced, none actually made or – in the case of his magnum opus The Breast of Russ Meyer – completed) is a tragedy, not least because it probably robbed us of more impressive appearances by Kitten. Not that she stopped working. While Meyer was reluctant to move into shooting hardcore, Kitten was more pragmatic – she began with photo shoots and non-participatory roles in porn moves like Titillation before finally making the plunge into hardcore performance in the mid-1980s with films like Bodacious Ta Tas.
Her 1980s career was actually quite interesting – as well as the X-rated films, she made sex comedies like the popular video hit Takin’It Off (which spawned a number of sequels), horror films like The Tomb and small appearances in major movies like My Tutor, Another 48 Hours and Airplane! (where she provided the memorable jiggling bare breasts). She made the burlesque film An Evening with Kitten and became a successful live burlesque performer. Of course, the burlesque establishment and the neo-burlesque scene of years later tended to overlook her influence, shocked as they were by her porn work (these are people who still think that they are not strippers, for God’s sake, so you can imagine their snottiness) but who cares? The people that matter know how important a figure she was.
Kitten’s career continued through the 1990s and beyond, called in to make appearances in would-be cult films that fed on the Meyer influence like The Double-D Avenger and Christoph Schlingensief’s United Trash as well as porn movies where she was usually called on for non-sex cameos in films like Cafe Flesh 2.
In October 1999, she underwent a double mastectomy after developing breast cancer. It was discovered that the silicone used for the original surgery was industrial, rather than surgical grade – sadly not an unusual situation for early operations taking place in Mexico. Some critics have tried to place the blame for this situation on Meyer, who had encouraged her to have larger implants after Up! – but given that these were neither the medically faulty implants nor the cause of her cancer, it seems like a desperate attempt to slander him. While Kitten expressed some regret for the operations in later life, she never blamed Meyer for her own choices. She would subsequently undergo reconstructive surgery to return to the breast size that fans were familiar with.
In the early 2000s, Kitten appeared at various fan events and after a successful European tour was brought to the UK – which is where I met her. Brought over by Baz Barrett’s Blah Blah Blah Tours and the original Dutch promoter Surfing Airlines, it has to be said that this was not a well-promoted show. Attendances were generally low, with most people seeming to think that it was either an obscure band or a film show thanks to some ambiguous poster designs and venues that were perhaps more suitable for such events than for cult movie star appearances. Certainly, the Rescue Rooms in Nottingham was a fairly rundown affair – despite not having been open for that long when she appeared there in 2003. I almost missed it myself and my video interview with her was a very last-minute, ad-hoc affair with a basic camcorder and a 500-watt security light for illumination that almost set a table on fire at one point. Before shooting the interview, we met up with Kitten in the bar, and if she was disappointed by the low turnout for the shows, she certainly hid it well, being in fine fettle. I got her to sign a few Meyer VHS sleeves and the UK poster for Up! (which Russ had also signed some years earlier – how’s that for collectability?) and she was fun, friendly and even flirty.
The show itself, with a surf guitar band and go-go dancer, was good fun for those who had bothered to come along and Kitten’s on-stage interview was fun, is a little sad at times – she revealed that Meyer, in the grip of dementia, no longer recognised his girls and that they had been banned from visiting him – an early sign of the controlling nature of those who now own his estate and are allowing his work and his archive to slowly decay and slip into obscurity.
Kitten died aged 74, having slipped out of the limelight to a large degree but still remembered fondly by her fans. A long-awaited documentary about her amazing life has been in production and close to completion for some time now – let’s hope that it finally appears and will be a suitable tribute to a remarkable star.
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