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Homeless days helped shape Carmen Electra

Carmen Electra is "very shy" ("I truly am"), but she’s conquered timidity. She sang and danced with Prince, starred on MTV and in "Baywatch," posed in Playboy five times, helped launch the Pussycat Dolls and acted in "Scary Movie."

Wanna-be celebrities may envy the niche she’s carved. In Las Vegas, Electra has banked $100,000 appearance fees merely for walking into nightclubs and twinkling for stargazers.

Starting Wednesday, shy Electra, 37, goes almost all-nude to dance for two shows a night in "MGM Grand’s Crazy Horse Paris," the boutique and artsy nearly nude revue. (That’s July 8-13; tickets cost $75-$125.)

But even as Carmen Electra has revealed herself so physically over the years, she reveals to me something she’s never detailed so publicly:

"You know, I had a couple of years of being homeless in Hollywood," Electra tells me. "A lot of people don’t even know this."

She was in her early 20s back then. Her life was a whirl. She had grown up as a ballerina in conservative Cincinnati, cut an album for Prince, toured with him, and danced at his Glam Slam club in Los Angeles.

But the Prince gig ended. A boyfriend stole her slim savings. All of that led to this:

"I remember sitting on a park bench in the valley," she says. "I was crying because I was stranded. It was over 100 degrees outside.

"I was sitting there with a pocketknife and a pager and some change in my pocket, and a really nice pair of high heels," she says and laughs. "Versace heels, because I had a few pieces of my amazing clothes I’d gotten along the way.

"And big hair, of course. I had teased hair and lashes on, because I had my little makeup case.

"I remember crying and watching cars drive by and thinking, ‘I would do anything just to be able to get from here to there — to get down the block!’ I was, like, ‘I can’t walk anymore.’"

Plenty of stars have survived homeless youths. Halle Berry lived in a shelter at age 21, because her mom wouldn’t support her. But how is it possible Electra went broke so fast after striking initial success?

For one thing, she had paid off debt she accrued to record her first solo album. (This August, she finally releases a second album, of electronic dance songs, for Sony.)

She didn’t manage her money well back then. She didn’t even have a bank account.

And oh, by the way, she was sore.

"I still have injuries that I have to deal with from my ballet years."

Her neck hurt. Her knees hurt. While working for Prince, she had "thrashed" her body around for the Glam Slam club’s show, "Erotic City," choreographed by Jamie King.

"For me, it was a spiritual experience, a very passionate time," she says. "I put my heart and soul into the dancing. And with Jamie’s choreography, you give it 150 percent. … We all walked away limping a little bit from that show," she says. "But it was worth it."

Anyway, after Prince and Glam Slam and sore knees, there she was in the street.

"I had," she says, "$5,000 in cash. That’s all I had. And then my boyfriend at the time stole that. So … that’s why I was counting change," while wearing Versace heels without a home, she says and laughs.

"I had moments where I almost gave up and went home to Cincinnati," she says. "I thought to myself, ‘I either need to make it on my own, or I need to go back.’"

She stayed. She reached out to King the choreographer, who introduced her to a publicist, who got her a manager.

"I started going to auditions, and they would [drive] me, because I didn’t have a car."

Then came "Baywatch" and MTV’s "Singled Out," which really launched her career. She became a sex symbol, known both for her work and her personal life, marrying and divorcing extroverts Dennis Rodman (they married at Vegas’ Little Chapel of the Flowers) and Dave Navarro.

In 2003, she was staying at the MGM, making the DVD "Carmen Electra’s Aerobic Striptease: Vegas Strip," when she first saw "MGM Grand’s Crazy Horse Paris." She thought, "Wow."

"I said, ‘I want to be one of those girls," she says. "The girls are truly trained professional dancers.

"I was so blown away. It’s so visual. I felt like, outside, obviously it’s cabaret, it’s French, it’s classic, it’s got that timeless celebration of women. But it really felt like performance art, with the light show and everything."

(She’s correct on all accounts, plus, it’s maybe the only revue in Vegas with great European sexiness.)

Not long ago, Electra’s manager called with the offer to dance at "Crazy Horse." She said "yes" immediately but with a caveat.

"There may be some scenes where the girls are bottomless, and some scenes where the girls are in G-strings. I’m definitely going to be covered, but hardly with anything," she says. "I’m thinking a couple of shows, I may get up the nerve to go without the pasties. … We’ll see."

As for her upcoming album, it’s mostly uptempo and sexy, she says. She’s still inspired by Prince, not just musically.

"To this day, if I get nervous or insecure about something," she says, "I take myself back to that time, and it really helps me to think that Prince believes in me. He actually has my back.

"I’m really sensitive, and this is a really hard business to be in when you’re sensitive. So I go back to those times and think about having someone like him completely support you and believe in you, and that’s helped me get through a lot."

A few of her new songs are heavy, including one song about … ?

"… about a girl trying to make it in Hollywood," she says. "So many young girls do have big dreams, and come to Hollywood, and get caught up in the wrong crowd, and never get a chance to make it, because they’ve ended up with the wrong people. It can happen so easy."

Electra doesn’t cry or whine while telling her own homeless story. To the contrary, as you can tell, she laughs at the memories. Why?

"I love it, because you know what?" she says. "Maybe that’s what gave me the drive to be in this business, and stick it out, and really push myself and make it happen.

"I made a decision to do it on my own … and to be an independent woman, and I’m proud of that.

"Situations like that really bring you down to earth," she says. "I’m so grateful. I’m grateful for everything that I have and everything I’ve been able to accomplish."

Doug Elfman’s column appears on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 383-0391 or e-mail him at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He also blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.

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