Elvira, the Mistress of the Dark and undisputed Halloween queen for four decades, has always seemed comfortable showing skin — after all, she began 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 women getting offed… but don’t show cleavage, because that’s not a good thing!” groans the comedic actress Cassandra Peterson sarcastically.However, as Peterson reveals in her best-selling autobiography, Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memories of the Mistress of the Dark, she was always secretly insecure about her appearance because of a childhood accident that left her with severe burns and scarring on a third of her body.
As it turns out, playing Elvira was a way for her to escape from her real-life nightmare.”I lived on a farm with my family [in Kansas] when I was 18 months old, and my mom and cousin were out colouring Easter eggs,” Peterson tells Yahoo Entertainment.
“I’m not sure what I was doing alone in the house, but I climbed up on a chair and dragged a big, gigantic kettle of boiling water on top of myself, which was boiling the eggs.” And my mother grabbed me and dragged me to the nearest hospital, which was 25 miles away, and everywhere she grabbed me, the skin came off in her hands — mostly the skin on my shoulders, thighs, back, and neck.
The skin peeled off everywhere she had to hold on to me. After that, they didn’t think I’d make it because I had third-degree burns on 35% of my body. They didn’t think I’d be able to make it.” In the years since, Peterson has undergone “many, many, many” skin-grafting surgeries to repair the extensive scarring, and she still says, “I don’t know where my confidence came from, because I really suffered most of my life from not having confidence.” Oh, my goodness. I was a really shy loner kid who liked to hang out by myself.”When Peterson arrived in Las Vegas at the age of 17, she 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 emotional scars. “Yeah, I had an affair with Tom Jones.” He was the first guy I slept with when I was about 19 years old. “I was a showgirl, and it didn’t work out,” Peterson recalls. (She did, in fact, require stitches following their one aggressive sexual encounter.) “However, years later, when I was an actress in Los Angeles, or trying to be an actress, a friend of mine and I drove out to Vegas to see Tom Jones, and I somehow wrangled myself backstage.
” And when I asked him if he remembered me, he just said, ‘Yeah, you’re the one with the scars on your back.’ That was unfortunate. ‘Oh, that hurt,’ I thought.But Peterson persisted, and when she landed the role of Elvira in 1981, just as she was starting to believe her acting career would never take off, she had a different vision for her alter-ego, modelled after Sharon Tate’s redheaded character in Fearless Vampire Killers. When the Los Angeles television station that hired her, KHJ, rejected the idea, she and her artistic collaborator Robert Redding devised a ’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 favourite singer, Ronnie Spector. And Peterson’s elaborate hairstyle was just what he needed to boost his confidence.
“My long hair helped a lot because it allowed me to hide my scars.” That’s what I’ve done my entire life. ‘Put my hair down so no one can see under my neck,’ you know? And I do it when I’m Elvira, when I’m myself — it’s a really strange habit,” Peterson says, pulling her own natural long auburn tresses in front of her shoulders. “But I’ve had so many surgeries that I don’t think anyone could see it anymore.” You could tell if you looked at it straight in the eyes, but I’ve smoothed it all out.
“Ironically, Peterson — or, more specifically, Elvira — became known for her sexy image, and “a lot of stations were like, ‘Whoa, this is much!'” she laughs. “There was one time when they put up a billboard 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, you know, [the billboard] was near a school.
So they put this huge censor-banner across my chest on a billboard, and they got hundreds and hundreds of complaints! I mean, it looked [worse] than if I wasn’t wearing a top!”However, the strange thing was that the Bible Belt ended up being the most popular audience for my show.” Wouldn’t you know, that’s where my TV show got the most and best ratings, made the most money, and had the most stations? So there you have it.”
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