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“Adult Industry Icon” Robin Byrd Profiled by NY Times with Her New Weekly Show

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from ANYONE who has watched late-night television in Manhattan in the last 35 years has probably run across “The Robin Byrd Show,” the clothing-optional talk show and explicit striptease that, depending on your point of view, is either a testament to the wonders of sexual liberation or to the occasional perils of basic cable.

The star of the show, of course, was Ms. Byrd herself, the perma-tanned bottle blonde who scouted the city’s strip clubs and peep shows and gave their performers a televised platform for their usually dimly lighted acts.

These days, however, many of the more famous, seedier clubs that once populated Times Square have vanished, and Ms. Byrd has essentially been semi- retired since 1998, when she taped her last show (though reruns, with some short, newer segments inserted, can still be seen on leased-access channels at insomnia-friendly hours).

And so it is with a certain mischievous joy that Ms. Byrd has chosen this holiday season to re-emerge with a live stage show, an unscripted weekly event that she promises will be “full of surprises.”

“You never know what I’m going to do, because a lot of the time I never know what I’m going to do until I do it,” said Ms. Byrd during a recent, fully clothed interview. “There could be a couple of wardrobe malfunctions.”

That said, her Saturday night revue, “The Robin Byrd Show Live!” — starting this weekend at the Cutting Room on East 32nd Street in Manhattan — will not have any explicit sex acts or nudity, barring the aforementioned and utterly unplanned wardrobe issues.

(Performers will strip down to “G-strings and pasties only,” the show’s press representative said.)

And Ms. Byrd — a former porn actress who was famed for lounging around her cable show’s set in little more than a crocheted bikini — seemed decidedly modest when asked what she’ll wear onstage.

“I do not like to live up to anyone’s expectations,” she said. “Come see for yourself.”

Playing coy may seem a little strange for a woman who regularly offered up frank, sometimes rambling, sexual talk — and skin — on her television show, with patter that was often equal parts lurid and Yogi Berra-esque. (“The worst part of sexual education is being uneducated,” she once commented.)

But it was exactly that mix, and her embrace of lesbian and gay performers and a healthy — and safe — sex life, that earned her a passionate coterie of followers, many of whom describe her show as a weirdly charming trailblazer in a world now overrun by erotically charged programming.

“She brought it into everyone’s home and she put a girl-next-door face on it,” Michael Musto, the gossip columnist and an old friend of Ms. Byrd’s, said in an interview. “Her show never seemed the slightest bit dirty. It was a little like Mr. Rogers meets ‘Debbie Does Dallas.’ ”

And while that might be debatable — and hard to imagine — what is certain is that Ms. Byrd has a certain place in history as one of a group who sued Time Warner Cable as part of a federal free speech case in the 1990s, after the company sought to scramble the signals of racy shows like hers unless subscribers sent in written requests to see them. It was a move that pushed her buttons, she said, and not in a pleasant way.

“I did not feel that my show was indecent,” she said. “I felt that No. 1, I had nudity, and the human body is not indecent. And I had dancing, and that’s a freedom of expression. So if you put them two together, how do you find that indecent?”

The issues in the case were addressed by the United States Supreme Court in 1996, a decision that resulted in Time Warner’s allowing “The Robin Byrd Show” to run unscrambled. But it also left her exhausted. “It took the wind out of me,” she said.

Hence, she said, her winding down of the television show, though she has remained active on her Web site, which offers links to phone sex lines and other not-safe-for-work entertainments, services that are often advertised on her broadcasts. The site also shows that Ms. Byrd remains active on the social scene, with sightings with everyone from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to Penthouse models. (At different events, mind you.)

Now 55, Ms. Byrd is still sporting a tan; a wide, toothy smile; and dyed blond locks. She still regularly cackles with laughter. And she’s still got Shelly, her smiling, single-named companion, a gray-headed, bespectacled fellow who said he has known Ms. Byrd since she was a teenager.

“She was one wild bird,” he said.

Ms. Byrd insists she still is, though she admits to a more sedentary life, with a 9-year-old Yorkshire terrier named Om, and places in both Manhattan and on Fire Island, where Mr. Musto says she remains “the queen.” Her fingernails are painted gold, but her shoes are more sensible than the stripper pumps of yore.

And while “The Robin Byrd Show” used to go on cable live at midnight, her live show is at 10 p.m., when she said she was usually “pretty boring” at home.

“I’m putting my T-shirt on, my pajamas, I’m getting ready for the 10 o’clock news,” she said, adding, “I’m glad I don’t have to do it at midnight, because at midnight I’m really slap-happy.”

Whether her new show is a hot ticket or a hot mess remains to be seen, but Ms. Byrd’s ability to attract a diverse slice of the demimonde seems unchanged. The opening-night roster on Saturday includes a pornographic film star, a fetish model, a trio of burlesque performers and the cast of the show “Naked Holidays,” advertised as a “flesh-filled evening of nontraditional holiday mischief.” That show’s Web site features various young nudes wrapped in artfully arrayed tinsel and little else.

One of the opening-night performers is a dancer, Jo Weldon — her stage name is more evocative and less printable — the founder and headmistress of the New York School of Burlesque. Ms. Weldon said Ms. Byrd was an “adult industry icon.”

“Robin, for me, presented the right approach to it,” said Ms. Weldon, 50, a former centerfold who once appeared as a dancer on “The Robin Byrd Show.” “Being fun, being an entrepreneur, being herself.”

Ms. Byrd said she didn’t believe her own hype, but did allow compliments. “I was ahead of my time when I started the show,” she said. “And I don’t think I’ve caught up to myself.”

She says the impetus for doing the Cutting Room show was different from the one for her television show, which had its premiere in the mid-1970s. “I got tired of seeing what’s on television and I was tired of people putting down porn,” she said. “And putting down gay. Why? We’re human.”

The new show will be less graphic, she said, but added that she hoped that it would be as openly titillating, both for her audience and for her. “It’s a different chapter in my life,” she said. “Back then I was in my teens and 20s. I’m that much older now.”

And wiser?

No, she said. “Age actually led to complacency. And this is a nice little jolt. It’s a nice little jolt to see if I still have it. And I know I do.”

Then she added: “Who knows? Maybe I will come out in the crocheted bikini.”


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