How Elvira Went From ‘Virgin Groupie’ to Goth Queen
You’re sure to have heard of Elvira, mistress of the dark, but you may not know much about the woman behind the Halloween icon known as Elvira.
Her name is Cassandra Peterson, and she’s just as badass as the Elvira that the world has grown to love over the last 35 years.
You see, before Cassandra was Elvira, she was a Vegas showgirl who went on a date with Elvis and made out with Jimi Hendrix.
Fast forward to now, and Cassandra is still making money as Elvira. Just two years ago, she released a song where she quite literally compares her tits to pumpkins (video at the bottom of the page, don’t worry).
In honor of Halloween and Cassandra’s new photo book celebrating 35 years of Elvira, we talked with Cassandra about her days as the “virgin groupie,” what it was like being a model before photoshop existed, and why Elvira was kind of the first goth ever.
The book contains many older photos with no Photoshop, do you feel like celebrities and models these days have an unfair advantage?
I do, damn them [laughing]! It was so difficult back then, you would take a couple hundred photos and you would have to pick out the one where you face looked good, your hair looked good, the dress looked good, everything was working because if you wanted to actually have that photo retouched it was a fortune. It was several hundred dollars just to have someone go in and paint over a piece of hair. We were so cheap back then that either the photo was perfect and we use it, or we just don’t use it. So yeah, that was tough. Nowadays they photoshop everything and anything. I don’t know if that’s really a good thing, but it is what it is.
You’re way of making a career out of an alternate persona is similar to a drag queen, you even appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race as well.
I’ve been around drag queens all my life, oh my gosh. I learned everything I know from drag queens.
Do you feel like you took inspiration from them in creating the character?
Yeah, not just in creating the character, but when I was young I was actually working at a drag club by the time I was 14. Then I was in Vegas and I was in drag bars every night and I tell you when I say, it’s like my teachers were drag queens. For how to walk, how to do my makeup and my hair, what to wear, I got so much amazing advice from drag queens that I eventually turned into one! And now the awesome thing is that it’s like the circle of life, now drag queens are being me! You know? And I was being them and it’s come full circle.
It really is, there are no coincidences in life.
Was your natural style anything like Elvira’s? Did you ever have a goth phase?
I did kind of. It’s funny. Goth wasn’t invented when I was a teenager. I would’ve been one. I was very pasty and wore a lot of, well, white lipstick back then was really “in” in the 60s. I always wore black and I had long hair and was very morose. Not only that, but my mom owned a costume shop, so I was always dressing in ridiculous costumes just on normal days of the year to school and everything. I was dressing as like, my favorite television characters like Ginger from Gilligan’s Island or I Dream of Jeannie, it was ridiculous. I was very much a weird little misfit kind of kid. I only wish there would’ve been such a thing as goth so I would’ve at least fit in somewhere.
Elvira’s kind of the original goth in her own way.
Kind of, I’ve been called that, that’s for sure. Even when Elvira first started in 1981. I guess there was a goth movement that had sort of started going in the UK, but not over here in America, that’s for sure. So I think the timing was kind of simultaneous with the goth movement having an in with Elvira.
With your mom owning a costume shop, do you feel that Halloween has always been a big part of your life?
Yeah, huge because like, Halloween ever since I was a little kid was the biggest event of the year where all my relatives drove in from other states all to work in the costume shop with my mom and help her. After school I would be over there stuffing tiger tails and stuffing devil horns and stuff with foam rubber and helping iron the costumes. So Halloween was the biggest time of the year for my family. And I also was lucky enough to always get the most fabulous costume, even from the time I was little kid because my mom and my aunt were really great seamstresses. So instead of wearing one of those little plastic packaged numbers from Sears I would be in whatever was the hot TV show outfit and it would be made out of lace and velvet. My youngest one, I think when I was seven, I won a hundred dollar bond for dressing up as Miss Kitty from an old TV show, Gunsmoke. So I was already wearing high heels and garter belts and everything, so Halloween was my time of year, man. So again, I don’t think there are any coincidences. I was raised in the Halloween world.
I don’t know if you saw the book, but in the front of the book where I have the forward there’s this little picture of me in my very first Halloween costume and it’s a black and orange crepe paper dress that my mother made me with a crown and before the book was being published my mom said, “oh I found this picture of you” and I go, “oh my God, what was I supposed to be?” And she said, “you said you wanted to go as the queen of Halloween.” When I was five years old, hello? Pretty bizarre, right?
About how many Elvira costumes have you gone through in the past 35 years?
I think I still have them all, maybe some got lost or stolen, I don’t know how that happened. I got them made by the same costume company so I probably only really have about seven of the normal ones made. Some are a little longer, some are shorter. Then I have all these variations, there are pictures in the book, like I had a leather one made, I had a beaded gown made, I had, oh my gosh, just variations of the same dress. But the very same dress I had, maybe seven or eight, and I’m happy to say that they sent me my old measurements from my first dress and all the measurements are exactly the same. 35 years later, except my waist, when I had a baby that was the end of the tiny waist.
You look amazing though, you’ve stayed in amazing shape.
Oh thanks, once you have a child the waist never comes back I guess. But everything else is the same.
You’ve said that you used to be a groupie, and you even went on a date with Elvis, what’s your advice for other girls who are obsessed with music like you were?
Oh yeah, I was totally obsessed with music and followed bands around all over the country from the time I was 14 to…well I never stopped actually [laughing]. I was just so into music and musicians and wherever my favorite bands were I was there. There’s a chapter in Pamela Des Barres book, she wrote “I’m With The Band,” she was probably the preeminent groupie in the US. And she wrote a newer book and I have a chapter in it called the virgin groupie because I actually chased bands all over the country and I never actually… did anything too serious with them [laughing]. So I wasn’t a groupie in the sense of you know, just how some groupies are, but I followed bands. I was madly in love with them. I ended up in a trailer with Jimi Hendrix making out, that was probably one of my most awesome groupie moments. I chased a million and one bands all over the country. I still go see bands all the time, I’m still so into music.
What are some bands you’ve seen recently?
Well Jack White and everything he does is one of my favorite, favorite musicians of all time. Josh Homme I love, everything that he does, Queens of The Stone Age. God, who else am I really into lately? Arctic Monkeys, I don’t know, I love these bands. I’m just insane over music.
You’re 65 years old and you get paid to compare your boobs to pumpkins in song, how did you do this and how can I?
Oh yeah, oh golly, I wish there was an easy answer for that! Yeah, getting paid to compare your boobs to pumpkins is a pretty awesome thing. I have to really give my boobs credit. I have made a living on my boobs since I became 14 and went through puberty. I was a go-go dancer, then a show girl in Las Vegas, and finally Elvira. So if it wouldn’t have been for my boobs I don’t know where I’d be right now! So, I have to give them a big thank you!
All photos by David Goldner