It was the late 1980s, and “Bachelor Party” actress Tawny Kitaen wasn't necessarily looking for small-screen stardom. But the U.K. hard-rock band Whitesnake was shooting a promo, and its director decided it needed a star. Kitaen, who would later marry frontman David Coverdale, agreed to lend her fierce looks, fiery mane and sensual charisma to a now-classic series of rock music videos — and the rest is MTV history.
Electrifying videos starring Kitaen for "Still of the Night," "Is This Love," "The Deeper the Love" and "Here I Go Again" sealed her icon status in the hearts and fantasies of a generation of rock fans and propelled Whitesnake up the charts. Her music video moves — including an impromptu cartwheel atop two parked Jaguars at the start of "Here I Go Again" — made Kitaen an instant MTV star at the height of the network's cultural clout and ushered in a new era in rock iconography.
Those who knew her weren't surprised when the San Diego native landed movie roles and ended up in heavy rotation on television. The excitement of show business had always called to her.
"She didn’t have patience for the drudgery of life," her brother Jordan Kitaen told The Times. "Something had to be going on. She wanted life to be exciting, and when it wasn’t, she got bored."
Kitaen — who would go on to appear in films and TV shows such as "Seinfeld," "The New WKRP in Cincinnati" and "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," as well as the reality series "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew," addressing her battles with addiction — died Friday morning at her home in Newport Beach, according to the Orange County coroner's office. She was 59.
The cause of death was not yet determined. Kitaen's daughters Wynter and Raine Finley confirmed her death Saturday on social media.
"We are heartbroken and saddened to announce the death of our mom," they wrote. "We just want to say thank you for all of you, her fans and her friends, for always showing her such support and love. You gave her life everyday. We miss her and love her and we know her legacy will live on forever."
In a 2010 interview with Times Community News' Daily Pilot, Kitaen spoke openly about her rocky past. “I’ve been around the block a few times,” she said. “There is still a lot to learn, but I’ve learned a lot in my life through error.”
The oldest of three children, Kitaen was born Julie Kitaen in 1961 in San Diego.
"She was a precocious, special child," said her brother. "Wherever she was in a room, that’s where everyone was laughing."
In high school, she started dating Robbin Crosby, guitarist for the glam-metal band Ratt, leading to her appearance on the covers of the 1983 EP "Ratt" and the 1984 album "Out of the Cellar." Around the same time, she began her acting career with a small role in the 1983 ABC telefilm "Malibu," starring James Coburn and Kim Novak.
By 1984, she had a starring role in the French action comedy "Gwendoline" and appeared opposite Tom Hanks in the comedy "Bachelor Party." In 1986, she starred in the cult horror film "Witchboard" as a young woman who learns the hard way not to mess with a Ouija board. Kitaen would later put her comic sensibilities to use on ABC's "America's Funniest People," which she hosted from 1992 to 1994.
Kitaen's high-profile relationships often overshadowed her professional life in the media. Her marriage to Coverdale ended in 1991, and in 1997 she wed Angels pitcher Chuck Finley. After Kitaen was charged with domestic violence for allegedly striking Finley in 2002, the couple divorced, and she vowed to get treatment for substance dependency.
In 2006, she entered the world of reality TV, joining the cast of "The Surreal Life," and in 2008, she shed light on her personal struggles on the reality series "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew."
“Tawny has had an amazing journey since the first time I met her,” Finley told the Daily Pilot in 2010. “And though there have been bumps in the road, which we all experience, I could not be more proud of where and who she is today."
Meanwhile, the fans who had adored her since the ’80s still flocked to meet her at conventions. And over the years, industry figures increasingly recognized her contributions to rock history — celebrating, for starters, her famous "Here I Go Again" video.
“I don’t know a person in the universe who didn’t melt when Tawny got on top of that car," Lady Gaga told Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum in 2011's "I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution." "That was one of the greatest moments in video history. I mean, I wish I could steal that moment every day.”
In recent years, Kitaen connected with fans on social media, sharing candid musings. At the time of her death, she was working on wellness and spiritual growth, said Jordan Kitaen, "which doesn’t always happen living the life she lived when she was younger."
"I think people can relate to people who have been broken at times," said Jordan, who followed Tawny into the entertainment industry, co-founding L.A. based Quixote Studios. "She was a warrior. She had her demons, but she fought. It wasn’t easy sometimes to get through every day, but she kept fighting. We’re really proud of her."
Kitaen is survived by her daughters, Wynter and Raine Finley.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.