Royalty in America? “Queen of Meth” Lori Arnold would rather abdicate that title.
She’s done her time and then some, and now stars in a three-part discovery+ docuseries along with her brothers Tom Arnold — the Hollywood actor — and Scott Arnold, recalling dysfunctional family history, their glory days, low points, and the dramatic twists and turns of a life that was tweaking at the speed of sound. For awhile, at least.
The setting, times and mood of America is as much a part of Lori’s story — of a meteoric rise and fall — as the ubiquitous crystalline drug itself.
Her coming of age era was a weird one. Lori was born in 1960, making her too old to be a true Baby Boomer, and too young to be considered Generation X.
This was pre-cell phones and computers, and culturally it was a fallow moment of American history. Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood B-actor, was elected president.
In those times, Lori’s entire small town was fired by the largest employer, Hormel, during the infamous 1985 strikes.
The Democratic party that counted on American workers lost these voters. They were the Reagan democrats, which are a large part (the living ones) of the MAGA army that we now see today.
So what has that got to do with meth? Everything
The hollow “War on Drugs,” coined by the Reagan administration, was a failure and a cruel joke. Locking up people for every conceivable drug offense, America’s prisons swelled. The corporatists took over the prison system.
But Lori Arnold, for one hot minute, was raking in mountains of cash, mostly by keeping her Ottumwa, Iowa, friends close and her enemies closer.
One thing her detractors and supporters agree on was that Lori had heart. She was taking care of people around her who needed help, and cutting them in on the drug money action when it made sense.
Now, cynics would say she was enabling and addicting her neighbors, but the entire country was awash in those drug-fueled times. She and everyone were getting high on this new poor man’s cocaine, making life in a bleak town less dreary.
She admits now it was so very wrong, but the hubris of youth and all the bad judgment calls are crystal clear in hindsight. Even her arresting Federal agent Art Vogel, interviewed in the docuseries, marveled at the web of loyalty that Arnold weaved around her operation to protect her anonymity. Her people had her back, for a spell.
Age has a funny way of making the ego soften. Years ago, her salacious rise to reigning Meth queen and riches story was recounted in a 2011 tabloid story by the Daily Mail.
Depicted as Scarface in a skirt, Lori was painted as a sexy Midwestern svengali whose ties to her famous brother Tom Arnold and his then wife Roseanne were the hook for the story.
These days, Lori is 60. She works all day in steel toe boots, drives a cherry picker, and is grateful for her 401K. For that, she wouldn’t trade it for all the money in the world.
Now discovery+ has taken a sober look at what a promising life, fully misdirected, actually looks like.
The docuseries looks back in time
Queen of Meth, which begins streaming on discovery+ on Friday, May 7, reveals a troubling family history that enrages Lori’s brother, Tom. An alcoholic mother — who left her three children to move on — facilitated a marriage for Lori when she was age 14 to a stone-cold pedophile.
Lori was an accelerated and gifted student, but later quit high school. Then, in a new relationship, she become a teen bride to a fearsome alpha 1%er biker with a seductive sheen of menace.
It took about five years after she snorted her first line of meth before she amassed millions, bought a bar, homes for single moms in her small town, fleets of sports cars and a few planes, a 170-acre horse ranch that served as a Breaking Bad-styled meth cooking lab, 14 houses, a used car lot, and a small fortune in jewelery as assets.
In one fateful 1991 day, it was all taken away from her. Now, Lori’s hopes are that younger people will watch, listen and learn from her mistakes. Her story will have you riveted to the screen.
Lori served eight years, leaving behind her young son Josh, just ten years old. She was released in 1999. Lori was not free for long, and still addicted to meth, she was later arrested in 2005, then released in 2008.
“We set out to tell the unexpected story of the ‘queenpin’ behind the 1980s Midwest meth explosion, but what we uncovered were hidden family secrets with a lineage of abuse and addiction, and exposed how one naïve entrepreneur is out from behind prison walls but will forever serve a life sentence for selling drugs,” says Julian P. Hobbs, the docuseries’ director and producer.
Scarface in a skirt? A real-life Walter White? No. Lori was a small-town Midwestern girl with naturally gifted business acumen, and a sense of doing right by her townie friends and family. Her story is a lesson for parents to see the grave effects of their actions, when a child’s true potential is squandered by selfishness and addiction.
What they got was a cautionary, all-American tale that Arnold was lucky to survive.
Exclusive interview with Lori Arnold
Monsters & Critics: You were a smart girl in a time of no internet, the mid 80s clampdown on American workers during the Hormel strike. You were not the child of well-heeled, important people. You were not going to the fancy schools, but yet you survived. What is your relationship now with brothers Tom and with Scott?
Lori Arnold: Well, they’re my brothers. Yes, it is the same as any other brothers and sisters, and we don’t always agree on everything. We have our little tiffs here and there, but I love them. They love me. And one of us calls the other, or if someone needs something or asks for something, we’re there. That’s what family is supposed to do.
M&C: It’s interesting. You were all shortchanged in the parent department, your mom was too young to have you to begin with. And her addiction demons and lack of boundaries, she pointed you in the wrong direction from the get-go with regards to that first marriage. Have you forgiven your mother?
Lori Arnold: Yes, because I love my mom. She was cool. She was fun. She was more of a buddy type person because my step-mom and my dad actually raised us kids.
As a teenager, when I was rebelling against any rules in the world anyway, she was the cool one because I didn’t like following all the rules.
And I was raised right, my dad was a good, hardworking man. You couldn’t have found a better father than my dad and my step-mom, she raised us and made sure we did our studies, chores and made sure we were dressed right because of school.
She was a good person in my life because I took a lot from her, more than my mom on certain things. It was just kind of a weird thing because she was so opposite of my biological mom.
M&C: You have an adult son and you’re very emotional in the very first part of the docu-series. How are things with your son Josh?
Lori Arnold: Very good. He has turned into a good man. I’m very proud of him. I see myself as his mom, but I wasn’t very thoroughly that, either. I kind of understood my mom, I guess.
But we love each other. We talk, he calls and texts about this and that, we get along great. I’m glad of that because of what he went through.
M&C: One of the things I took away from this docuseries was it was also a historical American snapshot, the 1985 Hormel strike, the Reagan years, the war on drugs, and then all of a sudden hearing about this drug called meth in the news. It was not only a personal story and accounting of your life, but it was a snapshot of America. Talk about that a little bit.
Lori Arnold: Yes. Because growing up in the seventies and eighties were a lot different than things are nowadays. I mean, it was also a lot different from being in the 1960s, with the Woodstock scene, hippies and that type of thing.
In the seventies, and early to mid-eighties, we were still enjoying this freedom of being teenagers and doing crazy stuff, and everything like that.
But it was just such a different, simpler time. We didn’t have the internet, cell phones and computers. We played outside. We played kick the can. We had to be in when the street lights came on at night. We had to sit at the dinner table every night. If we weren’t there for supper, we didn’t eat. That sort of thing. That’s the way it was back then.
M&C: You said an interesting thing. People do drugs because they want to escape whatever it is, unhappiness or boredom. There was a lot of boredom in your little town.
Lori Arnold: Yes there was! There wasn’t a lot going on economically in Ottumwa. There weren’t a lot of job opportunities, and you had limited options unless you were smart in school and you were able to get to college, earn degrees and knew someone, that sort of thing.
So, we were just looking for something to do. I mean, there was nothing for teenagers and people in their young twenties. There was nothing for us to do. Except there were a lot of bars and lots of churches.
M&C: You met Floyd, a Grim Reaper chieftain. Were you happy that you married Floyd? How do you remember Floyd now?
Lori Arnold: Floyd was a good man. Everybody, I mean everybody, gravitated toward Floyd. He was very intimidating and he didn’t say much or talk a lot. He wasn’t socially oriented but he just exuded this presence, and when he came in the room he filled it, that type of thing.
And he had so much respect from his brothers in the Grim Reaper biker club, and that is what got me to start to notice him because it was like, everybody loved him. Everybody respected him, they want to protect him, but he was an original badass.
I was intrigued by the respect and fear that he generated without him even saying anything. I thought, well now, he had real power. He had charisma. He had something. It’s kind of hard to explain, but he was a good guy.
He got abusive in our marriage, but only when he drank. He served in Vietnam and he had the violent Vietnam flashbacks. If he drank hard liquor…and if someone brought up the war, all of a sudden it just was on. Something would change in him immediately.
His demeanor would go from night to day. And then the next day he wouldn’t remember anything. We’d be driving a car and all of a sudden he would just grab his head and hold it and take his hands off the wheel and everything.
He had these super headaches, it was crazy. But he didn’t drink a lot. He didn’t drink every day. It wasn’t like that type of thing. But when he did, I had to be careful of anything to do or say or anything like that. Other than that, he was a good guy. Everybody respected him. He had earned a lot of respect.
M&C: Your fiance Bill says in the docuseries that you were a gangster. Have you married, and what do you do for work now?
Lori Arnold: Nope. We’re just engaged. No date set or anything like that. I’ve been married four times.
Yes, I work a full-time job. I work in a place where we sell auto parts, power steering and transmission, Ford, Honda, loading heavy boxes off of shelves that are eight stories high and take them down so they get packed and shipped out.
And it’s very busy, work a lot of overtime. Steel toe shoes, all day long. It’s hard. It’s tiring. And it’s a good company. It is the first time I’ve ever had paid vacation, a 401k. Member of a union. It’s probably the most respectful job I ever had. It’s just hard. Now I’m 60 and I feel it when I go home after work.
M&C: If this was ever made into a dramatized biopic, who would you cast as you as a young Lori?
Lori Arnold: I don’t know. It would have to be somebody good looking that doesn’t walk like me [laughs]. I can’t really think of anyone.
In the past I joked about Angelina Jolie only because you know that she wouldn’t fit the part. I mean, nowadays I would say, you mentioned Sons of Anarchy, and Gemma.
“I wasn’t bad looking or anything like that, but I was a tomboy, and I was tough. I wanted people to know I was badass if they tried to mess with me and my friends. I wasn’t afraid of anybody.
M&C: Confidence is one of the keys to life. It can carry you just about anywhere and gets you through any door.
Lori Arnold: It really is. Yes.
M&C: Do you ever look at your brother, Tom, and say, we married the same type of person. Did you ever think it was curious that you both gravitated towards these 800-pound gorillas?
Lori Arnold: Yes, right…I was raised in this household, I have Tom and Scott, and we had the same mom and dad, and then I have step-brothers and sisters and two half-brothers. And we are all raised together, but Tom and I ended up a lot of like.
We got into the addiction part. We both married four times. We were quite a bit alike. And sometimes you wonder if it is hereditary, because my mom was married six times [laughs] so, I don’t know.
M&C: Have you watched the docuseries?
Lori Arnold: Yes. They sent it to me and I watched it and they did a good job because there wasn’t… a lot of times people don’t want to watch a drug movie unless there’s killing and this and that and it just wasn’t like that back then.
And that’s what I stressed to the producer, I asked that you tell the truth, so it’s depicted the way it really was. Maybe it would attract more viewers if there was killing and mayhem and all that stuff, but it wasn’t like that back then.
M&C: One of the things I noticed was your lifelong friends, they didn’t blame you for their using drugs, it was part of the fun times fabric of the town. I would have thought some people would hold it against you.
Lori Arnold: The only people that would actually hold it against me or something like that are some friends’ kids, and what’s going on now nowadays. I’m getting blamed for stuff going on nowadays. And this is nothing like what was going on back then.
But no, I’m still friends with all my co-defendants, all my friends from back then. I’m still friends with them now because it was all in fun. There wasn’t any… I mean the money that came in, it was shared.
I helped them out and donated charities and helped the economy of the town, I bought a bar in the town. It was just so different than what’s going on nowadays.
M&C: Anyone watching this docuseries who’s really young. What would you say to them with regards to drug use and drugs and alcohol?
Lori Arnold: Well, I’ve been asked to talk at schools and things like that. I turned it down because my story would make them think, oh, that looks like fun. I don’t want to do that because things have changed so much drastically over the years and everything is different today.
The drug dealers are selling lethal stuff out there. They’re putting weird stuff in it and it’s killing people. You could do drugs one time and it’ll kill you nowadays. You know what I mean? It’s sad.
There are so many overdoses because people don’t care about other people anymore. The drug dealers, they don’t care about their friends. They don’t have friends, all their interest is in making a quick dollar here and there, so they’re going to sell anything they can.
And any kid can come up and say, ‘Oh, I want to get high’ or whatever. It could be the first and last time they ever do it, you know?
The thing with me is, the tough part was I got arrested and everything that happened afterwards because of that. I lost my home, I left my family. I never came back for nearly 20 years. I lost everything that this [meth] money was buying. It’s all gone. So, I mean, it didn’t count. It was gone. It doesn’t mean anything.
Working a full-time job and saving up to buy a lamp, new kitchen towels or whatever. It means more now because I work for it and nobody can take it away from me.
I didn’t get to raise my son. I didn’t get to have family dinner every night, and that type of thing. That’s hard because being an addict and everything else that comes with it, it’s something you live with the rest of your life.
I’ll never get over being the Queen of Meth because people consider me that no matter how old I am, or how long I’ve been off the drugs, that’s what I’m known for. So it’s almost a shame to me too, especially if someone says they saw me in such and such, and then I have to explain it, and it’s embarrassing.
I just don’t hang out anymore. I’m in Ohio now. I don’t know a lot of people, except for the people I work with. None of them were drug users or anything like that. It’s a whole different world and everything, but [this kind of fame] you’re almost in a prison for the rest of your life.
M&C: If anything, this docuseries presents as an honest look back. Your second act is honorable and you survived. You could have easily been killed. You made good to society as a whole.
Lori Arnold: Yes. It’s important to me in letting people know that this was the way life was back then. I didn’t mean harm. We didn’t want anybody to get hurt. We’re weren’t trying to do that. And that wasn’t the way it was.
That was why I wanted to do this and I want to do it the right way, the truthful way, you know, don’t make up the stories. Tell it exactly the way is was, and I’ll be happy with that.
The three-hour docuseries Queen of Meth begins streaming on discovery+ on Friday, May 7.