We'd heard she was on a whirlwind tour without a schedule, so we flew into Los Angeles International Airport and stepped right into her contrail. We tracked her to Beverly Hills, then followed her down the Pacific Coast Highway to San Diego. From there, the trail led to Ramona, which sits in a cluster of hills under stars that seem too clear for Southern California, and from there to a vacated motel room in Escondido. We found her, at last, at the bottom of a ski slope in Lake Tahoe. Tahoe was where she lived. For then, anyway.
"I moved up here last September just to be in the snow. There's not much to do but ski and party," she says. "Everyone goes to a Mexican / Irish restaurant called Carlos Murphy's - when somebody scores a touchdown on Monday Night Football, they serve 50-cent kamikazes. The limit's five. I never know who won or what the score was, but it's good to be away from the city."
She's not a great deal taller than a ski pole. She weighs 98 pounds. Her young girl's face and fast smile draw stares whether she is at the top of a slope at Tahoe or on the streets of Los Angeles - a previous stop on her staccato agenda.
"I'm an experimenter. I can't judge anything without trying it," she asserts. "One time, my mom went on vacation, and I was about the age where I wanted to get out on my own. So I took my chance while she was gone and moved to L.A. with $50 in my pocket. I was 19. I stayed with a second cousin - a woman I'd never met - for a couple of months. My $50 ran out fast."
In Los Angeles, $50 isn't enough to get an introduction to the better class of muggers. She did find work as a waitress at Cable's Restaurant in Woodland Hills but soon grew weary of serving patty melts to unemployed screenwriters. When her cousin decided to leave town and Linda had to move out, she was home-free again. What to do?
"I had been dating a young actor, who said I could move in with him. I'd never lived with a guy before, but there was no other choice," she recalls. She found herself living in North Hollywood with that young actor, who belonged to the legion of Thespians Who Can't Find Work. Linda would come home from a job, when she had one, to find him still lounging in his underwear. She decided to get out and spent the next day carrying her cardboard suitcases toward Canoga Park.
There was an elderly man there who wanted someone to show his house to prospective buyers. He offered Linda a place to stay in exchange for her giving an occasional tour of the home. She accepted without knowing there was already another girl being kept there.
"The man was weird," she says now. "He had sexual ideas. I was naïve and trusted everybody. In Ramona, where I grew up, you can do that. Pretty soon, I just felt I had to leave.
"I moved back to Ramona and found a good job in San Diego. I was feeling confident, so I called Playboy. That's when everything started rolling."
Linda Rhys Vaughn is now the Playmate of the Month, looking forward to the promotions entailed in the title, using the money she has already earned to move back to Los Angeles - into an apartment of her own. She plans to attend cinema school at the University of Southern California. She has thrown away the cardboard suitcases.
"The past year has made all the difference in the world," she says. "Now I may get to act or to work behind the cameras. The parts I'd really like to play are like my centerfold - romantic period pieces. My gatefold is almost Victorian. It's everything I wanted. The feeling is pure."
Linda carries a good-luck charm with her all the time. A turquoise-and-silver bear claw, it is both a talisman and a reminder of a father she hardly knew.
"The bear claw is sacred to the Navaho. My father gave me this one before he died. He was killed by the Mexican Mafia. Nobody ever imagines a cowboy's being into drugs, but he was. In the Sixties, cowboys were just like everybody else. Eventually, he got completely out of cowboying and into drug running. He double-crossed somebody and they just blew him away. It affects me. I don't want to waste my life like that.
"So I keep the bear claw. And sometimes I get feelings."
Maybe the touch of superstition is what has kept Linda moving forward. She still visits her mother's house in Ramona to ride her horses and wrestle with her two buoyant Saint Bernards. But she remembers pounding the pavement in L.A., looking for a job or a friendly face, as the most important time in her life:
"Feelings are the most important thing - to act on them. My mother told me that if you don't follow up on your dreams, you'll wind up desperate and frustrated. Well, I've been able to make some of mine come true. It's better to go for it, to give a dream 100 percent, than to live your life kicking yourself for never having had the guts to try."
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