A Conversation With Lydia Criss
Lydia Criss is the former wife of Peter Criss, KISS’ original drummer, and she’s the author of the fabulous book Sealed With A KISS. Her book, which has received universal praise from fans, is a deluxe hardcover collection of more than 1,500 rare and unpublished photos, as well as fascinating stories and memories from Lydia about KISS’ early days and her life with Peter. It’s a beautifully crafted book that KISS fans should absolutely pick up, as it’s one of the most intimate and personal accounts by someone who was close to the band during its formative years. Lydia was kind enough to speak with me about her book, as well as her marriage to Peter, her career as a photographer, and more. I hope you enjoy our discussion.
You were on the KISS Kruise in 2017. What was that like?
I had a great time. And I hadn’t seen the guys in a long time, probably since the Reunion Tour. I saw Gene and Paul right before the Reunion Tour, when they did the KISS Konventions. I think it was 1995 or 1996 – more than 20 years ago. It was great seeing them on the kruise. Paul was a sweetheart. Gene was great. The other guys, Tommy and Eric, I see them at conventions from time to time. I only believe I’ve met Tommy once prior to the kruise. Eric I see a lot. I also see Bruce Kulick quite a bit.
How did it come about? Did Gene or Paul reach out to you about being on the KISS Kruise?
Actually, it was Keith Leroux, who works for KISS. He reached out to me around April of last year. He said they were doing something different for the kruise to make it more interesting. They had about five of us – Bruce Kulick, Bob Kulick, me, Michael James Jackson, who was a producer for KISS, and Big John Harte. We did a Q&A and we had two signings. That was it. We weren’t supposed to see KISS’ indoor performance because they didn’t have any tickets available. When I ran into Paul, I mentioned it to him. Paul said, “Keith, get over here. Make sure Lydia gets to see the show.” I went to the soundcheck, and I got to take pictures with them. And Paul showed up to one of my book signings. He was really sweet. I got to meet Paul’s family. However, I didn’t get to meet Gene’s son, Nicholas. He’s the only member of Gene’s family I haven’t met yet.
You mentioned the KISS Konventions. Did you see KISS during the Reunion Tour, when they put the makeup back on with Ace and Peter?
Yeah, I did get to see them. I saw them twice at Madison Square Garden. Once during the Reunion Tour and another time during the Psycho Circus Tour.
What was that experience like for you and how did it compare to seeing KISS in makeup in the 1970s?
It was great to see them together. It brought back a lot of memories. However, it didn’t seem quite as overwhelming as it used to be. Back in the 1970s, I’d say, “Oh my god. This is so amazing.” But the 3D part of the Psycho Circus tour was great. They gave us the 3D glasses. I was standing right in the aisle, all the way up in the front. Paul could see me, and Gene was sticking his tongue out at me. It was fun.
Have you and Peter reconnected at all since your divorce?
We did get together for dinner after Peter got arrested in 1995 at Kennedy Airport for having a gun in his luggage. My brothers worked in the courts. I called one of them and the other was on vacation. I said, “Is there anything you can do for Peter?” They said, “What do you want us to do? Do you want us to get him out?” I said, “Yeah.” I had no contact with Peter at the time but I felt bad. I knew the gun was his grandfather’s gun. My brother called up at the last minute and said that they’d release him. Around this time I had dinner with Peter, and it was the first time I’d had contact with him in so many years.
Have you stayed in touch with Peter at all since then? I assume his current wife might make that challenging.
Well, I did see Peter when Bill Aucoin passed away, about seven or eight years ago. I also got an email from his wife, Gigi, asking me if I wanted to go to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with them. I turned them down, for a couple reasons. First, I had just read Peter’s book and I was pissed off about that. The other reason was, I didn’t know how they were going to treat me because I know her reputation. I also didn’t want Gene and Paul to think I’m on Peter’s side. Gene and Paul were seated on one side of the venue, and Peter and Ace were on the other side. I didn’t want Gene and Paul to think I was buddies with Peter. The only one I’ve been friends with the entire time is Ace.
What are your thoughts on Peter’s wife, Gigi?
It’s very weird. I didn’t have much contact with Debbie, and Debbie’s the one that broke up my marriage with Peter. I don’t have anything against Gigi but she seems to have something against everybody. I very rarely get a good response from people when Gigi’s name is mentioned. Most people don’t like her, but it’s Peter’s choice. He chose to make her his manager, I think, and she’s a toughie. I’ve spoken with people that run events where Peter was a guest, and they’ve told me that they’ll never have him again because of her. One time I was at an event and a guy came over to me and said, “I was telling someone I was coming to say ‘hello’ to you and my friend responded with, ‘Oh, Peter’s wife is a bitch.’’ I said to him, “No, that’s his current wife.” (laughs) The fans don’t like Gigi and KISS doesn’t either.
What made you want to write a book about your time with Peter Criss?
I actually didn’t want to write it. It was never my dream in life. I had never done anything like this before. I didn’t major in English, and I didn’t have a publisher. What happened was I had done a few conventions where I brought my scrapbook and people went crazy over the photos. They would say, “When are you going to write a book?” They would hound me about it. Then, I was in Long Island on the train and I ran into a fan that asked me about doing a book because he was working with Barry Levine on one, and I love Barry. I started the manuscript in December 1997. I didn’t finish it until about a year-and-a-half later, around sometime in May 1999. At that point, the photos were being scanned by David Snowden. Then, around 2001 or 2002, I followed up with the publisher to see what was going on with the book. Well, it turned out that the publisher was going bankrupt, so I got all my stuff back and sat on it for a while. Then in 2004 fans kept asking about it, and I was approached by Ken Sharp. He told me it shouldn’t cost me more than $35,000 to do it by myself. To finance the book, I sold all of my KISS stuff in an auction. It actually wound up costing me closer to $90,000 or $100,000 to do the book. The cost of printing alone is astronomical. You gotta pay the lawyers, editors, my design guy, a publicist, the cost to license some photos. I didn’t know the first thing about doing anything. All the people that worked with me were KISS fans, which was good. However, they were all spread out throughout the country. Little by little I learned how to do everything.
What kind of feedback have you gotten on your book from Gene, Paul, Peter, and Ace? Have there been any complaints?
I gave Ace a copy. Of course, he loved it. He said, “Oh, it’s like a scrapbook. That’s great!” Peter said he saw the book but didn’t say anything about it. Paul bought the book because they were having a meeting about it and it was shipped overnight to California. I never heard anything, so I assume they were OK with it. Gene has never said anything about my book. Even when I was on the KISS Kruise selling the book, they didn’t say anything about it.
One thing I noticed is that whenever Peter is making public appearances, there’s always a note saying that he won’t sign your book or Ken Sharp’s book, Nothin’ To Lose. Why?
He started that about a year-and-a-half ago. I was once asked to sign his book, and I felt really uncomfortable about it. I don’t blame Peter for not wanting to sign mine. I don’t know why he doesn’t want to sign Ken Sharp’s book.
Have you read Gene, Paul, and Ace’s autobiographies? If so, what are your thoughts on them?
I read Ace’s, and I started Paul’s but I haven’t finished it. The only problem with Paul’s book is I like to read without the dust cover so no one knows what I’m reading. Well, if you take the dust cover off Paul’s book, his face is still there. Gene’s book, I never read. I once went to Barnes & Noble and looked at the index in his book to see if he wrote about me. I went to the spot in the book where I was featured, I read it and it wasn’t accurate. I said, “That is so Gene.” I had to correct him on the KISS Kruise. He said that the first check the band received was X amount of dollars and I told him, “No, Gene, you’re wrong.” I corrected him. I had the same issue with KISSTORY. There were mistakes in that book, and they get me annoyed so I stop reading.
How about Peter’s book? Were there a lot of mistakes in it?
With Peter’s book, I read the whole thing. I went through it with a highlighter (laughs) and I highlighted all his mistakes. I had to do that. One thing I noticed about Peter is he waited until my book came out to release his. Peter doesn’t have a great memory and he’s also an exaggerator. It’s clear that he copied stories straight out of my book, not word-for-word, and put them in his book.
I recommend listening to Paul’s audiobook because it’s excellent, and that might be a good way for you to complete it.
It’s funny. I’ve had other people mention that too.
What’s a favorite memory you have of being married to Peter?
There’s a few. Going to Japan, twice, was a great memory. And traveling afterward was great too. We circled the globe on our last trip together. It was a whirlwind trip. Playing Madison Square Garden was a great memory. The day we bought our house in Connecticut, we also bought an English sheep dog, and a Mercedes, all in the same day! Those were three big ones: Japan, The Garden, and the house.
Describe for me one of the most difficult times for you while being married to Peter?
Before he was with KISS, Peter would play clubs every weekend. He’d go to Albany and play clubs, and I’d stay at home and work because I paid the bills. It was very hard. Also, when we got divorced, it was very traumatic for me.
Were you on the road with KISS all the time in the 1970s? If so, what was that like?
I’d only join them for the good shows – the bigger events. If they were going to Hawaii, I’d go to California with them and go to a few shows, and then we’d fly to Hawaii. I’d see some of the small towns in between the big cities. When I was still working, I’d only go out with them on the road for a weekend so I could go back to work on Monday.
What was it like being on the road with such a big rock and roll band? I imagine it was surreal.
It was pretty crazy. I worked for a multimillionaire in a very straight office. I did bookkeeping for this philanthropist. He’d keep investing money and giving it away. I was always late for work. I was always the last one in, five or 10 minutes late.
One time, Peter was freaking out and he wanted me to join him on the road. He wanted me to go to a show where KISS was playing with Uriah Heep – it was around Thanksgiving. I told my boss I needed the time off and he said “No.” So, I went home and thought to myself, “What’s more important – my job or my husband?” I decided it was my husband and joined Peter on the road. About a year later I was fired the day after my birthday, which was the same day Alive went Gold. I was talking to Paul Stanley’s girlfriend at the time and I said, “I got fired today.” She said, “Don’t feel bad. Alive went Gold.” (laughs)
You were with Peter before KISS took off. How did that compare to when the band became famous? What changed?
When I first met him, he was working in clubs. He was a lot more down-to-Earth and easier to talk to before he became famous. What really screwed him up was drugs. Also, he wanted fame and success so badly, yet he was afraid of being famous. He was paranoid about it. He didn’t know how to deal with it. I’d always have to help Peter feel better about it. He wouldn’t want to sign autographs and I’d have to plead with him, “Do it for the fans.” I’d have to coax him into it. Then he started doing drugs and that made him even more paranoid.
Prior to your divorce from Peter, did you know it was coming? Was it clear that things were falling apart?
It took me by surprise. We had just come back from that trip I mentioned earlier, where we traveled the world. I was ready to settle down, move into the house in Connecticut and have a baby with Peter. I knew something was wrong once I spoke with him, but the whole thing caught me by surprise. When Peter left New York to go to California to do his solo album, I knew something was wrong because he never treated me the same after that. He used call me a certain amount of times but then he stopped calling me, so I knew something was up. I tried calling him once, and he was nowhere to be found.
How did your divorce from Peter have an impact on any career aspirations you had?
I had the perspective that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want. My book is proof of that. (laughs) I had always liked taking pictures, and I took them of KISS. When we went to Japan, Peter asked me what I wanted for my birthday in Japan. I told him I wanted a camera. So, I started taking photography lessons in New York. I had a Nikon camera and Peter gave me a telephoto lense, which came in handy. I had all these photos I took of Rod Stewart, KISS, and others, and I met Bob Gruen and I asked him what I should do with them. He connected me with a friend who started a photo agency, and that’s how I got started as a photo agent. We were Getty Images’ competition. All the magazines and TV shows would call us. We’d only get paid for the photos that were sold. One thing I never got to do was be in the photo pit for KISS. Peter didn’t want me in there because he thought it was too dangerous for me. That’s a shame because I’d have a lot more photos of KISS, if I were allowed to be in there. I photographed everything: movie stars, athletes, musicians. I was with the photo agency for 16 years.
You’re a huge fan of Rod Stewart. When did you first meet him, and what’s he like?
Rod’s my favorite. I’ve met him a few times. He’s a little standoffish. He’s not overly friendly like the guys in KISS are. He was nice. The first time I met him was backstage with Peter. That was at the Nassau Coliseum, back when he was still in The Faces. Another time I met Rod at a record signing and I brought a photo with me that I took of him that I wanted Rod to sign, but the security guy took it away. I told Rod this when I got to the front of the line and he said, “Bring me that photo!” The security guard brought it to him and he signed it for me, so he was very nice then.