Elvira, the Mistress of the Dark and undisputed queen of Halloween for four decades now, has always seemed comfortable showing skin — after all, she started her career as a go-go dancer and Vegas showgirl while still in her teens, and when she got her big break at age 30 hosting Elvira’s Movie Macabre, some viewers in conservative TV markets even protested her risqué image. “You can have slasher movies with the women getting offed… but do not show cleavage, because that’s not a good thing!” the comedic actress, whose real name is Cassandra Peterson, groans sarcastically.
But as Peterson surprisingly reveals in her best-selling autobiography, Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memories of the Mistress of the Dark, she was always secretly insecure about her appearance, due to a freak childhood accident that left her with severe burns and scarring on a third of her body. As it turns out, inhabiting the Elvira character was a way for her to escape from that real-life nightmare.
“When I was 18 months old, I lived on a farm with my family [in Kansas], and my mom and my cousin were out coloring Easter eggs,” Peterson tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I don’t know what I was doing in the house alone, but I climbed up on a chair and pulled a big, gigantic kettle of boiling water on top of myself that was boiling the eggs. And my mom grabbed me and ran me to the nearest hospital, which was 25 miles away, and everywhere she grabbed me, the skin came off in her hands — the skin on mostly my shoulders, my thighs, my back, my neck. Everywhere that she had to hold on to me, the skin came off. And after that, they didn’t think I was going to survive, because 35 percent of my body was third-degree burns. They didn’t think I was going to make it.”
Peterson survived the initial trauma, and was soon transferred to a burn center in Kansas City several hours away. “They said, ‘Rush her there. Maybe you can still save her.’ And they did, and they tried this new experimental drug — which was penicillin. …And they just pumped me full of that stuff. Penicillin has no effect on me to this day; it’s like water to me! They gave me so much that it saved my life.”
In the years that followed, Peterson had “many, many, many” skin-grafting surgeries to repair the extensive scarring, and she still admits, “I don’t know where my confidence came from, because I really suffered most of my life from having no confidence. Oh, my gosh. I was a really, really shy loner kind of kid, hanging out by myself.”
By the time she made it Las Vegas at age 17, Peterson was flashing a lot of flesh onstage, faking her body-confidence, but a “brutal” run-in with one of Sin City’s biggest stars (and her former lover) left her with scars of the emotional kind. “Yeah, I slept with Tom Jones. He was basically like the first guy I slept with, when I was about 19. I was a showgirl, and it didn’t go very well at all,” Peterson recalls. (She in fact had to get stitches after their one aggressive sexual encounter.) “But years later when I was an actress here in L.A., or trying to be an actress, a friend of mine and myself drove out to Vegas to see Tom Jones and I somehow wrangled myself backstage. And when I said, ‘Do you remember me?’ all he said was, ‘Yeah, you’re the one with the scars on your back.’ That was a bummer. That was like, ‘Oh, that hurt.’”
But Peterson persevered, and when she landed the role of Elvira in 1981, just as she was beginning to think her acting career would never take off, she had a different vision for her alter-ego, modeled after Sharon Tate’s redheaded character in Fearless Vampire Killers. When the Los Angeles television station that hired her, KHJ, rejected that concept, she and her artistic collaborator Robert Redding came up with an ‘80s punk take on the classic Vampira look — leather bracelets, black nail polish, a jaggedly torn dress hem — paired with a “fabulous hairdo” inspired by Redding’s favorite singer, Ronnie Spector. And that elaborate hairstyle was just the confidence-booster that Peterson needed.
“One thing that helped was my long hair — I could cover my scars. I mean, my whole life, that’s what I did. I was like, ‘Put my hair down, so nobody can see under my neck,’ you know? And I do that when I’m Elvira, when I’m myself — it’s a really weird habit,” says Peterson, as she reflexively pulls her own natural long auburn tresses in front of her shoulders. “But I’ve had enough surgeries now that I don’t think anybody could see it. If you stared straight at it, you could tell, but I’ve smoothed it all out.”
Ironically, Peterson — or specifically Elvira — eventually became known for her sexy image, and “there were a lot of stations that were like, ‘Whoa, this is much!’” she laughs. “There was one time, a billboard was put up just of me laying on my side and… they covered my cleavage with a giant banner, because they had like 12 complaints that I was showing too much cleavage. And [the billboard] was near a school, you know? So, they put this giant censor-banner across my chest on the billboard — and then they had hundreds and hundreds of complaints! I mean, it looked [worse], like I was wearing no top!
“But the strange thing was, the most popular audience for my show was happened to end up being the Bible Belt. Wouldn’t ya know, that was where I my TV show played the most and the best, and made the most money and had the most stations. So, go figure.”
Watch Yahoo Entertainment’s full, extended interview with Cassandra Peterson about Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memories of the Mistress of the Dark below:
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