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In 'Rollergirls,' drama queens take reality for a spin

Andrew Lloyd Webber it's not, ''Starlight Express" notwithstanding. Roller derby isn't choreographed, the bruises aren't painted on, and there are no blue hairs in the audience, just a bunch of blue collars and Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys.

But still, roller derby is theater. Its fabulous divas wear costumes that rival the loud plumage of ''Cats," with tight fishnet stockings, spiky collars, red hair piled way up, and crosses hanging way down into cleavage. They've taken stage names such as Miss Conduct and Punky Bruiser. And they're all raging drama queens competing for applause as they elbow one another out of the limelight. In A&E's lively new reality series, ''Rollergirls," the fur flies furiously as the girls on the track go round and round.

The show, premiering tonight at 10, is set in Austin, Texas, where derby bouts are held in a cavernous rink called the Thunderdome. As the ladies circle viciously, they instigate fistfights, pileups, and cat-scratches; they yell trash-talk at their competitors; and they flaunt their booties, which are generally wrapped in skimpy plaid Catholic schoolgirl skirts. It's like the WWE, with its cocky poses and tattoo-twisting brawls, but roller derby has more breakneck speed, more anarchy. It's more spontaneous.

And the crowd goes wild.

But skating is the least of the action in ''Rollergirls," as the cameras follow the ladies out of the Thunderdome and into their daily and nightly adventures. After all, the series is produced by Gary and Julie Auerbach, whose ''Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County" on MTV excels in chronicling lives that don't exactly revolve around work. On skates, the rollergirls cultivate superheroic personas. But who is Jailbait when she's just a mere mortal in heels? And how do Cha Cha and Lux get their extracurricular kicks?

The answers to those questions involve both a surprising amount of conventionality, as many of the girls have low-key relationships and ordinary jobs, and a surprising amount of boozing. There's snuggling up with boyfriends in ''Rollergirls," and then there's snuggling up with shots of tequila on girls' nights out -- one of which involves the late-night toilet-papering of competitors' homes. None of the skaters are easy to pigeonhole.

Tonight's episode, called ''The Rookie," shows us how newcomer Venis Envy fits in with a team called Putas Del Fuegos. Venis is an earthy, sensitive woman who lives with her boyfriend, Palmer, in an RV. She's a nervous mess when she learns her mother will be attending her first match, and she warmly thinks of her roller buddies as her family. But when she's on the track, Venis is a driving powerhouse who is a favorite for newcomer of the year. Lux of the Rhinestone Cowgirls is eager to smack down Venis during her first bout: ''I would definitely exploit Venis's virginity," Lux admits.

Next week, we get to know Catalac of the Hellcats, a mother who has survived ovarian cancer, and Sister Mary Jane of the Holy Rollers, a special education teacher.

''Rollergirls" is a colorful piece of reality TV, and indeed the show would have to work hard to be otherwise. From the campy costumes to the skater whose team name is tattooed inside her mouth, the subject matter is extremely telegenic. And the series succeeds in exposing the dichotomies in these women's lives. Even the quieter ones turn into exhibitionists in the rink, most obviously Venis.

But ''Rollergirls" is not a documentary, and it doesn't offer insight into why these women have chosen such an unusual route. After all, they could have just joined a local production of ''Starlight Express" and called it a day.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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