Forever Nasty Nellie from the 'Prairie'

Posted: April 24, 2014

THE PUFF-SLEEVED dresses and frilly bonnets are long gone. Gone, too, are the blonde ringlets and poofy hair bows.

But, though 40 years have passed since Nasty Nellie Oleson first tormented Laura Ingalls on the popular TV show "Little House on the Prairie," some folks still can't imagine Alison Arngrim, the actress who played the pouty prima donna, as anything but evil.

"People are weirdly intimidated to even approach me, like I'm some Kardashian who's going to throw a diva fit," said Arngrim, now 52. "Being an ex-child star is weird, and being an ex-child star who was Nellie Oleson and hated all over the world is really weird."

Weird but not unwelcome.

While plenty of past child stars have faded into obscurity (remember Peter Ostrum, Andrea Barber or Harvey Stephens?), Arngrim learned to love being hated, and she has built her current life from her past.

She wrote a 2010 best-selling memoir packed with "Little House" secrets (Michael "Pa Ingalls" Landon wore no underwear beneath his breeches - and drank on the set! Melissa Sue Anderson, who played Laura's saintly sister Mary, was the real bitch!). She also gives Nasty Nellie driving tours of Hollywood, attends cast reunions and tributes, and travels the world doing stand-up comedy.

It's the latter that will bring her to Philadelphia this week. She'll perform her one-woman show, "Confessions of a Prairie Bitch," tomorrow at Voyeur, in Center City. It'll be her first time performing in Philly.

Showgoers will be able to buy autographed books and photos - and maybe even try on a Nellie wig. "I'm a full-service celebrity," Arngrim quipped.

An NC-17 show

With an unscripted Q&A and plenty of gossip from her Hollywood childhood and "surreal" life then and since, "Confessions" is not the wholesome family fare that made her famous in the 1970s. "I'd say NC-17, if not triple-X," she joked.

If that sounds unexpected, Arngrim's entire life has been an exercise in opposites.

Unlike the terror she played on TV, "Nasty Nellie" is actually nice. Arngrim and her "Little House" nemesis, Melissa Gilbert, became fast friends on the set and remain close today.

On "Little House," Nellie was a superficial snot with a spoiled, simple life. In reality, Arngrim's life was complicated, to put it mildly.

The daughter of Thor Arngrim - a talent manager whose clients included Liberace - and voice actress Norma MacMillan (Gumby, Casper the Friendly Ghost), she said she was raped by her older brother for years. Landing the "Little House" role at age 12 saved her, she said, by delivering her to the safety of a faraway set.

That abusive childhood drove her to an activist adulthood. Arngrim has lobbied on behalf of abused children for years as a volunteer for the National Association to Protect Children.

She also became an AIDS activist in the disease's earliest days, after her co-star and dear friend Steve Tracy, who played Nellie's beau, Percival Dalton, died of AIDS in 1986. She met Bob Schoonover, her husband of 21 years, through her AIDS work; he helmed an AIDS hotline where she'd volunteered.

She has a lot to talk about, but in her "Confessions" shows, the audience is always, at least at first, desperate for the dirt about Walnut Grove.

After all, "Little House," based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's books chronicling frontier life in the 1870s, is a show that has aired in 140 countries and still has fans so fervent, they have nicknames ("Housies" and "Bonnetheads").

Arngrim's fan site is bonnetheads.com.

"I used to do stand-up [on other subjects], and people would not hear what I'm saying. They'd be bursting with questions, waiting to go: 'SO, WAS THAT A WIG?!" Arngrim said.

(Yes, it was a wig, attached so tightly with hairpins and a metal comb that her scalp sometimes bled.)

"Once I flipped the whole thing and just said, 'Fine, let's talk about Nellie Oleson!' then everyone paid rapt attention. All roads lead to Nellie," said Arngrim, who's now writing a second memoir that she promises will expose more of life on "Little House."

Twitter Nellie Oleson Joffrey mashup

Gay fans, 'Game' fans

Arngrim has found an especially avid audience in the gay community. Voyeur, where she'll perform tomorrow, is a gay club. Her work with AIDS charities may have inspired some of that devotion. Another draw may be her dad, who was her manager as well as Liberace's, and gay.

But more likely, it's all Nellie: "She was the outsider, the diva, the one with perfect hair and good clothes," Arngrim said. "That's the full checklist for gay iconic figures."

And, apparently, Gallic ones.

France loves her so much, she learned the language and translated her show into French.

Then there's the "Game of Thrones" connection.

Fans so frequently post side-by-side pictures on social media of Nellie and actor Jack Gleeson as Prince Joffrey that Arngrim joked that she may dress up as the evil prince for Halloween.

"He is marvelous," she said of the character, who met what many have called a well-deserved death this season on the HBO show. "He's a miserable, unhappy teenage brat who kills people. He's just psychotic but also really pouty and petulant about it, which is totally Nellie Oleson."

Everything always comes back to Nellie, doesn't it?

In 1982, when she left the show after seven seasons over a pay dispute, Arngrim never dreamed she'd still be seen as the "Prairie Bitch" four decades later. (In one of her first post-prairie roles, trying to shed her innocent image, she played a prostitute on "Fantasy Island.")

"Did I have a fantasy that I would be beloved and be a sex symbol in my early 20s? Of course I did, and the Nellie thing blew that all to hell. It's like having a tattoo on my forehead," Arngrim said. "But on the upside, if you're going to get stuck being a character, getting stuck being Nellie Oleson is insanely awesome. It's funny. It's crazy. And it sort of weirdly works with my life."


Alison Arngrim, "Confessions of a Prairie Bitch," 8 p.m. tomorrow, Voyeur, 1221 St. James St., voyeurnightclub.com, 215-735-5772. Tickets $22-$40, 866-811-4111 or spincycle.nyc.com.


On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo

Blog: phillyconfidential.com

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