Tabloid: The Honey Blonde and the ‘Manacled Mormon’

After Errol Morris's more sobering films, this larkish documentary about a beauty queen gone bad plays like a vacation at a seedy seaside resort

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A photo of Joyce McKinney, the subject of Tabloid, a documentary by Academy-award winner Errol Morris

Joyce McKinney, a North Carolina honey blonde with the gift of gab, loved Kirk Anderson. He may have liked her as well, but he left her to serve as a Mormon missionary. That might have been the end of it, except that Joyce had steely determination to match her brains (a self-proclaimed 168 IQ) and beauty (she won a pageant with the improbable name of “Miss Wyoming — World”). Accompanied by her friend Keith “KJ” May, Joyce tracked Kirk to London, spirited him off to a cottage in Devon, strapped him spread-eagled to the bed and had her way with him. She says it was his way too, but after three days he slipped off to phone the police, asserting she had kidnapped and raped him. When Joyce was arrested, and the particulars of her story and Kirk’s religion became known, the British tabloids erupted in a yellow-journalism Mor-gasm: “The Case of the Manacled Mormon,” the headlines giggled and brayed. “The Mormon Sex-in-Chains Case.”

This was in 1977-78, long before News of the World reporters discovered how to steal the phone messages of a dead 13-year-old girl. But McKinney didn’t need hacking. She was a tabloid dream, a gal who glowed in tawdry limelight. As the London police put her in a paddy wagon, she scrawled a “Help me!” note to place against the rear window. Before being incarcerated, she says, she had written two letters, to her parents and the press, and “I hate to sound gross, but I put one in my vagina and one in my rectum.” She gave exclusive interviews to the Daily Express, while decrying the nude photos of her that the Daily Mirror published. (She knew the pictures were doctored because her voluptuous bosom was shown as “flat-chested. Those were fried eggs.”) She says her celebrity brought her fan mail from men who pleaded, “Please come and kidnap and rape me.” To newsmen and judges, she kept on chatting. “I said to my lawyer, ‘If you can’t talk, would you let me, ’cause I can sure talk,'” she says today. “Thank God for all those years of drama school!”

And all these years later, McKinney talked, nonstop, to director Errol Morris. She’s front and center in the Oscar-winning documentarian’s Tabloid, which, after his sober docs about the Holocaust (Mr. Death), Vietnam (The Fog of War) and Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure), plays like a vacation at a seedy seaside resort. The issue at hand — whether McKinney engaged in criminal behavior with Anderson — is of little moment; what’s important is the personality of the lady in question. “I’m not a movie star,” she says, speaking into Morris’s “Interrotron” (a camera-mirror device that allows the interview subject to look at Morris off-screen while seeming to talk directly into the camera). “I’m just a person, a human being that was caught in extraordinary circumstances.” Yet she is the star of this movie — a natural performer, overweight but charismatic, a drawling, enthralling Southern belle (perhaps slightly cracked) who is ready for Morris’s film-long medium-closeup.

She instantly seizes attention as she recalls her early idyll with Anderson and his sudden transformation into a righteous Mormon: “Kirk No. 1 was the man I fell in love with, and Kirk No. 2 was Cult Kurt.” She claims that the Devon hideaway she spirited him away to was “kind of a honeymoon cottage” where she nonetheless intended to keep having sex with him until she missed her period, thereby certifying pregnancy. At first, she says, “He was sexually impotent because of this brainwashing…The Mormons were in my bedroom.” But the Kirk No. 1 somehow rematerialized, and McKinney turns teary when she describes their three days of possibly consensual lovemaking as “the melding of two souls.” As to the charge of raping a man, she smiles and says, “I think that’s like puttin’ a marshmallow in a parking meter.”

Who wants to be the subject of a documentary? The same sort of person who goes on reality TV: an exhibitionist. In that sense, Tabloid is like an episode of Jerry Springer or Maury, except that the tattler on-camera is not confronted halfway through the show by her adversary. (Anderson prudently declined to be interviewed; May died in 2004.) For almost 35 years, McKinney has planned to write a book about herself and Kirk, called A Very Special Love Story, but never quite finished it. Tabloid will do: it’s Joyce’s heavily edited autobiography, with her testimony occasionally challenged by one of the tabloid staffers — Peter Tory of the Daily Express, Kent Gavin of the Mirror — or by Jackson Shaw, a pilot who flew McKinney and May to a California nude beach before the big London caper.

Morris larkishly ornaments the narrative with clips from old TV shows, industrial films and movies like Caged and Brother Sun, Sister Moon. He also italicizes certain words of her testimony in sans-serif capital letters, like cheap-sheet headlines. Clearly, he is impressed by McKinney as a film subject with endless exploits: her escape from England disguised as an Indian woman in pancake makeup and a sari, and her reemergence into the tabs a few years ago, when she had her late pit bull Booger cloned into five puppies by a Korean doctor. “I mean, worms crawl out of the woodwork when you become famous,” she says of her early notoriety. “Worms! Cockroaches!” After seeing the film she may put Morris in the cockroach category: at a Manhattan screening last November she popped up and stormed the stage to denounce the director and the movie.

Chalk that up to another difference of opinion on the elusive nature of truth. McKinney calls herself “a normal, all-American kid.” Tory of the Express pegs Joyce as “just a bit crazy, eccentric, self-obsessed and self-involved and manipulative, and barking mad, probably.” One of those characterizations, or both, or neither, may be true. But people don’t go to a movie, even a documentary, for the truth, whatever that is. They want entertainment, diversion, the playful spin of a born storyteller. That’s Joyce, even if her stories are whoppers. Of Kirk, she says, “You can tell a lie long enough, ’til you believe it.” Does that judgment apply to McKinney as well?

For moviegoers, the question shouldn’t matter. She’s a great character — a fair-haired,Tarheel Megan Mullally imagining herself as Scarlett O’Hara — who deserves to share in the profits of this deadpan-delirious, funny-peculiar movie. Hell, let her host her own TV show, now that Oprah’s gone. She could offer the members of her audience a free car, then drive them to a Motel 6 and give them all a three-day honeymoon.