From a small town in Kansas to becoming a Gothic gay icon, Cassandra Peterson better known by her alter ego, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark has always played by her own rules.
With no signs of slowing down yet, she talks to Domenico Sansalone about starting out as a showgirl in Las Vegas, performing drag in Colorado and what it’s like to work every Halloween.
We were surprised to learn that you are originally from Kansas?
I was born in Manhattan, Kansas – The Little Apple. My family lived on a farm outside of a town of about 350 people. Then my family moved to Colorado and I stayed in Colorado from the time I was seven until I moved to Vegas at seventeen.
Growing up, would you say you had an average small town upbringing?
Pretty much… pretty normal. I was always around a lot of relatives and family. The only difference was that when I was seven my mom and my aunt decided to own a costume shop and my life became all about costumes and Halloween. Isn’t that bizarre that I ended up getting into this business? I spent my whole childhood wearing these wacky costumes, not even just on Halloween but whenever I felt like it. So I was really a weird, geek at school.
Did you have to work in the costume shop?
I worked at my mom’s costume shop at Halloween time because obviously that was the time of year when it went crazy. We got every relative that we had to work in the store. So Halloween’s always been the big holiday around my house and I’ve always been wearing a costume. I ended up in the perfect job.
So what were some of the costumes that you would wear?
It was so weird I would go to school actually dressed as I Dream of Genie and one of my favourites was dressing as Ginger from Gilligan’s Island. It’s so funny, I have pictures of me from the second grade on, winning every [costume] contest. I was in the newspapers and being filmed all the time wearing wacky costumes. I have pictures of me dressed as a Can Can girl in the second grade and I’m like all tarted up: I’ve got red lipstick and plume in my hair. I was kinda like those little geek kids that I see at conventions so I kinda relate to those kids. If there had been goth back then, I definitely would have been one.
You were ahead of your time…
I was, I was on the cutting edge
Speaking of cutting edge, as a teenager, you were worked as a Go Go dancer in a gay bar?
I know! It’s hard to believe isn’t it? It’s funny because working in the costume shop, I met a lot of gay men. They were always coming in for dresses. I was like wow, that’s so cool! These guys like to wear dresses. I won a Go Go contest when I was fourteen. This was when Go Go girls were wearing little fringy dresses and white Go Go boots. I have to explain that because Go Go girls now, you know…. Anyway, when I won this contest, I got a job in downtown Colorado Springs bar called Club A Go Go and I actually danced there for more than a year in a glass cage. Someone told me about a nightclub that was right outside Fort Carson and they had male Go Go dancers and I was like wow, that’s interesting. They actually hired me to Go Go dance at this bar. The whole thing was so confusing to me! It was all men and they were wearing dresses and they asked me to Go Go dance there. I guess they were trying to bring in a whiter demographic.
You must have met some interesting people?
There were two guys that I became really friendly with. One was a 6’8” black man named Tawny Tan and one was a white guy name Mister Bobby and another guy that I can’t even remember his name but they performed as The Supremes every night. One night one of the guys didn’t show up so they asked me to step in and be one of The Supremes. So there I was being a girl playing a guy being a girl and as if that wasn’t bad enough, I was in black face, under a black light and we just had white lipstick on, so our lips and our eyeballs just kinda showed and we had white gloves so that we could do all the moves together. So there I was performing for a while as a drag queen. By that time, I was probably fifteen or sixteen… I thought it was just fabulous! Tawny Tan became my Svengali or something. He started getting outfits for me to wear, told me how to do my hair and helped me with my makeup. He just became this mentor for me.
Was he your first drag momma?
I started learning a lot of stuff and he came to the costume shop and my mom and my aunt started making costumes for him. He found old stripper outfits of his that he gave me and then we adjusted them to fit me. It turned out to be a really good experience for me actually. You know, a drag queen coach… the first of so many others. I don’t know whatever happened to him, I wish I could find him. Someone told me one day that he was Whoopi Goldberg’s father, but you know, I don’t know?
I really, honest to God heard that her father’s name was Tawny Tan but anyway… that’s just a rumour.
So was it like the movie Showgirls? Did you ever push any of the other girls down the stairs?
It is so NOT like Showgirls. When I saw that movie (which I love) I was like, oh my God, this is so, so wrong. I can’t even begin to tell you…. Nothing like being a showgirl is like the movie Showgirls.
None the less, sounds like an amazing experience. Did you enjoy it?
It was good, it was freaky, it was amazing. The show that we were in, Vive Les Girls, was the top voted show in Vegas and we were invited to every celebrity party and show. Back then we were like celebrities. It was crazy, we got to meet Sammy Davis Junior, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin… this is how long ago it was!
Do you think that was Vegas’ golden age?
I swear to god, when you went to a show, women wore floor length gowns and men were in tuxedos or very fancy suits. You got a seven course dinner when you sat down and it was so classy. Being a showgirl was classy! Wow, you were treated like a celebrity. Now, my God, your dress code is like your T-shirt can’t have a hole in it or you wear flip flops and shorts as long as your butt crack doesn’t show. You go in the lobby and there’s a Burger King. It’s just like, yuck! The strip has become more like a giant mall or something. It went from really classy to really bleh.
From Vegas, you went straight to Europe. How did that happen?
The two lead singers who had become my best friends, two gay guys of course, left the show and went to do the Lido in Paris. They asked me to come with them so they got me a job in the Lido. But when I went to rehearsals I had such a horrible, horrible experience there. I think it was because [the other showgirls] were French and I was American and about two decades younger than them. It was not a good experience, it was horrible and I was like I’m outta here. So I quit the show and the other American showgirl and I took off together and went to Italy and decided we were going to be a singing duo. We got this Brazilian guitar player and started playing clubs. Later, I met this guy who knew a band that was looking for a female singer and I got in the band and travelled all over Italy for about a year as the lead singer of an Italian rock group. It was so bizarre but I had a blast. I think I left in the middle of a set. We were on a break and I just walked out of a casino in San Remo. They’re probably still sitting there going, where did she go?
Such a rock star move. Then you came back to America?
One of my choreographers from my show in Vegas asked me to do a show at the Playboy Club in Miami Beach and I went out there to do a show, you’ll love this name, Fantasies of Love Au Naturel. It was the seventies, you know I really don’t remember much about the seventies; the seventies are a blur.
Do you remember anything at all?
Well, I got in this band called Mama’s Boys, it was me and seven gay men. We went on the road. I toured with Mama’s Boys for about a year when there was a really big gay disco scene. We played every gay disco from LA to New York. It was actually a really great show, it was a comedy, music and singing revue show and all the guys were hotter than hell.
Sounds like a party, do you all keep in touch still?
I am sad to say that all of them are now dead, except for one. They all died of AIDS. I gotta say, it was some kind of miracle that I didn’t get AIDS. I don’t know what happened there but I’m very lucky. Even my boyfriend was gay. Later he unfortunately died of AIDS, which was very sad. I even married a guy in Vegas who was gay, I just married him basically because I was at a gay bar and you know, you can go get married down the street so we got drunk and walked down the street and got married accidentally. He was gay but then he became sort of my boyfriend but then I don’t know he moved away and I didn’t see him for years and years and years and then one day when I really wanted to get married, I had to track him down to get a divorce. He was a really nice guy but that was just a little blip in the road there. I really have surrounded myself with the gay men for my whole life.
You credit the gay men in your life for helping you develop your most famous character, Elvira Mistress of the Dark!
My friend, Robert Reading who was one of the Mama’s Boys was an artist and he also designed the costumes. He designed the whole look for me, the hair, the makeup, so obviously he was very instrumental in creating that whole thing. Wow, I can’t even imagine what would have been different if he was still around because he was just a brilliant, brilliant, creative guy. He just kept encouraging me to do this and do that. [Elvira] was just a job. I thought, this is cool, one day a week I work and get three hundred bucks and nobody knows me because I wear a wacky getup so I can go out and do real acting jobs during the week and it just all of a sudden, boom, took over my life. Then I got invited on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which was a really big, hot show and so all of a sudden this has turned into something and I just kept going along. It got bigger and bigger and bigger, and here I am thirty-two years later.
You must have a busy month coming up! October must be your busy period?
Yes, it is! It already started back in September. It’s totally crazy!
We have some reader questions: Will come back to the UK and will you do a show here?
I would love nothing better than doing a show in the UK. I have tried a few times and it’s really, really hard because when you want to do a production there you have to be English or commit to staying some time or have a number of English actors in your production. I mean, there are a lot of hoops to jump through. For an American to do a show there, they make it very, very difficult which is such a bummer. I tried to get my most recent show over to England but I came up with all kinds of licensing problems from the movies. So I encourage all people from England to move to the US… The entire population!
You look incredible for sixty-one, what’s your secret?
God, I hate the Internet because of that age thing. You can’t hide it anymore! I would say good genes but my mom looks like she’s one hundred and eighty. I don’t know what my regiment is, I exercise a lot and I eat really healthy. It’s so boring but that’s what I do. I don’t smoke but I drink quite a bit, I’ve pickled myself in Vodka! I think the secret is really loving what you do and having fun doing it.
Has Halloween now just become work for you now?
That part is really sad because Halloween was always my favourite, favourite, favourite holiday since I was seven years old. It’s such a drag. I’ve always looked forward to Halloween with equal parts of excitement and dread, it’s like yay Halloween is coming but then it’s like I have to work everyday for a month.
If you could, what would you dress as for Halloween other than Elvira?
It is a bummer. I never get to wear anything but Elvira for Halloween. Maybe I would wear a ghost costume, a big sheet over my head with eyeballs. I then I could just not have to put on four pounds of makeup so that’s my idea of a dream Halloween costume now
You famously declared your candidacy for President twice in the past, so you’re not going to throw your hat in the ring this year?
This year I’m not running because I want Obama to win so I don’t want to up stage him. Not going to throw my bra in the ring!
What’s next for you? What projects do you have in the works?
I have an appearance on RuPaul’s Drag All Stars. I worship RuPaul. We have a mutual admiration going on; we love each other. I have my own reality show which I am busy out there pitching right now. I’m getting ready to do another year of Horror Hunt (searching for the best independent horror film) with my close pal Peaches Christ, an amazing San Francisco drag queen. I’m also working on a one-woman live Elvira show. It’s what I most love to do. I love performing live and I love getting out in front of crowds, not just taking pictures and signing autographs. I’m trying to put it together and get all the elements and all the money and everything else that goes into it. Keep me in mind for anything; if you hear of a job in the UK, I’ll be there!
So it sounds like you’re still surrounding yourself with a whole gaggle of gays just like the old days?
I don’t know where I would be without gay men. From the beginning until now, I don’t know what I would do. I would be back in Kansas milking cows right now. I can’t tell you the influence gay men have had on my life and still have. I still surround myself with gay men in every aspect of my life, personally and professionally.