Monday, April 22, 2024
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Cassandra Peterson on love, life, labels and Elvira

Halloween is Queer Christmas, there’s no sense denying it; and as the calendar page flips from September to October, Spooky Season is officially in full effect! To commemorate this most special time of the year, we could think of no better person to celebrate with than Cassandra Peterson.

That’s right, the brilliant comedienne behind Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is our cover-ghoul for October, and we were recently given the opportunity to sit down with her for a most illuminating chat.

Peterson has been playing Elvira for over four decades now, since 1981. Just last year, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the character she hosted a four-movie marathon on the horror streaming network Shudder and appeared on Netflix & Chills, a series of videos for the streaming giant where she recommended horror films to her adoring public.

Besides that, and perhaps more poignant for Peterson herself, she also released her long-awaited autobiography last year entitled Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark. In the book she relays intimate details from her personal and professional lives including: her time as a Las Vegas showgirl, her encounters with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley, her time in Italy as part of a rock band, her time on the road with a troupe of gay sketch comics and musicians, her work with The Groundlings and of course her amazing career as Elvira.

At KHJ-TV during filming of Movie Macabre. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Peterson

The book also contained a few bombshell revelations from the star. She revealed the emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of both her mother and her ex-husband. She also bravely disclosed two instances of sexual assault from her past, in addition to the endless amount of sexual harassment and chauvinism she experienced throughout her career.

On a happier note, however, Peterson also took the opportunity to come out in the book by discussing her long-term relationship with Teresa Wierson, or “T” as she is affectionately known. The two have been together since after Peterson’s divorce, building a life and raising Cassandra’s child together.

The book, now available in paperback, contains all of these stories and so much more. It will also include some new material not released in the hardcover version.

We sat down with the legendary actress and performer to discuss the book, her story and life as a queer icon.  

Photo Credit: Pamela Littky

Q40: Hello Cassandra! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. I’ve read Yours Cruelly and can say, in all honesty, that it was amazing. It’s got everything- drama, intrigue, vulnerability and a whole lotta laughs! Can you tell me about the new material that will be included in the paperback release?

Cassandra Peterson: Yeah! It was a lot of fun because we got to add more photos, which I really wanted to do. I had millions of photos I wanted to put in at the beginning, and I had to narrow them down to just the top 30 or whatever it was.

We added 32 images, not just photos, but things like a poem that I wrote in junior high that happened to be about spiders– so it’s kind of appropriate. And a few other things.

Q40: Fabulous! And I hear there are two versions of the paperback being released with different covers?

Cassandra Peterson: Yes, one is for independent booksellers, with cover art that my fans voted for. I put three photos out on my social media, and it was the one fans liked the best, so we made it the cover for the limited-edition version of the book available exclusively at independent bookstores. The other paperback  cover will be similar to the hardback.

And then, we’re doing an alternate third cover that has my Funko pop on it, which will be sold at New York Comic Con and through my website.

Q40: Oh, wow! I didn’t know about the third version. That’s exciting!!

Now, one of the biggest revelations to come out of your book was your nearly 20-year relationship with your assistant Teresa “T” Wierson. What has changed for you since coming out last year and how has the reaction been from your fans and the public?

Cassandra Peterson: The reaction from my fans has been fantastic. In the very beginning a lot of people on my social media, I think something around 11,000 people dropped me because they said I was disingenuous, hypocritical, things like that. So, they said goodbye, but I gained 60,000 new people. And that was just in the span of about a week!  It was funny, my child said that would probably happen and it was true.

The fans are so great. They’re just like “we’re so happy that you’re together” and a lot of people go “I knew it! I knew it!”  People who’ve been around and been to the shows [horror conventions] before suspected it, but especially the people who were gay. They’re not stupid. So anyway, yeah, it’s been a real gigantic relief. It feels much better to be open with T and not have to act like she’s my assistant all the time, which is a typical thing that showbiz people do. So many people have “assistants” out there, let me tell you.

Transforming from Cassandra to Elvira. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Peterson

Q40: I’m happy to hear that. In the book you mention that you initially struggled coming to terms with your attraction towards T, given your history with men and you were struggling with the pressure that society puts on labeling things. I was wondering if you still felt that kind of pressure with regard to labels and how would you identify yourself now?

Yeah, it’s very difficult. People, in interviews have said to me when did you know you were gay? And I would say never. I didn’t know I was gay. I’ve loved to hang out with gay men my whole entire life. It’s all I’ve done, but I was definitely straight. I went through a lot of guys. When people that ask me “Why are you suddenly with a woman?” I go “Because I ran out of guys!”

It was just an attraction toward one person. I met her. I thought she was incredibly sexy and really kind, and the relationship just developed over several years. And then it was like, I don’t know, suddenly I was just attracted to her. I’m not attracted to other women. I like other women and I think they’re beautiful, but I’m not attracted to them. I don’t walk down the street and go “oh wow nice knockers!”. So, I don’t know what I am. I’m not sure.

Q40: We see that often at the magazine. We speak to lots of people who have a same sex partner later in life, but that attraction is based on that singular person and they similarly do not know how to describe it, nor do they need to frankly.

Cassandra Peterson: Well, it’s like people wanting to put a label on it, they don’t know what to call it. And I just, I don’t have a label for it. I don’t know, gay after 50? (Laughs)

Q40: It works just as well as any other! (laughs)

Chatting with Ann Margaret. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Peterson

So, I was wondering if there are any stories or any memories that you discussed in the book that now make you cringe?

Cassandra Peterson: You know what makes me cringe the most? It’s talking about my mom and how we had such a terrible relationship. I sometimes look at it and I know it’s an important part of the book, but I have a lot of people, family, friends, relatives who are no longer speaking to me because of that, and I feel really terrible about it.

I just told the truth. They, you know, loved my mom. I mean, my mom had a good side too, but unfortunately it wasn’t with her children so much. Her friends and family were very, very upset that I did that. So yeah, it’s a little painful because of their reactions.

Q40: I can imagine. In addition to the stuff with your mom, some other stories in the book blew my mind like the sexual assault you endured. It was very frank and extremely brave of you to discuss that so candidly.

Cassandra Peterson: Thank you. I’ll tell you, it’s really interesting, since the book came out, I’ve gotten so many letters from women who were also raped by Wilt Chamberlain.

I don’t know if you remember, but in my book I said he had bragged in his autobiography about having sex with, I don’t know, some insane number of women. It was like 32,000 or something. I don’t remember the number, but I really wonder how many of those were consensual.

Q40: Unbelievable! But it takes one brave person like yourself to come forward—to give other people courage and facilitate the healing process, hopefully.

Cassandra Peterson: I hope so. I hope they feel better just to know they weren’t the only one, you know? But there’s not much we can do about it now of course since he’s passed away.

Q40: Yeah, unfortunately. Thank you for your candor on the subject. It is so important to talk about sexual assault but it’s one of the hardest things to do.

A lot of people find catharsis and healing from trauma like that through horror. So, switching gears a bit, I’d like to ask what fostered your initial connection to horror and why do you think the queer community in general has such a fondness for the genre?

Cassandra Peterson: Yeah, isn’t that bizarre? I think about it once in a while and I think people who are really into horror, maybe not all of them, but a large number of them, grew up feeling like I did- feeling like an outcast, feeling like you had to hide the real you, feeling a little bit like a monster, you know?

I remember feeling like I’m not a normal person, I don’t fit in, and I think a lot of a lot of queer people grew up feeling that way, trying to hide who they really were. And that’s how I felt, not because I was gay, because I didn’t consider myself gay, for the first 50 years anyway– but that feeling of just being an outsider or kind of a geek, kind of a loser. I think that’s very common in queer culture, and for horror fans in general.

Performing at Knott’s Scary Farm. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Peterson

Q40: Why do you think Elvira became and continues to be such a queer icon, even before the book?

Cassandra Peterson: Yeah that’s another wacky thing. I mean here’s this sexy, dark woman with big basumbas and all these gay men love her. I cannot tell you how many gay men have said to me, “you saved me when I was a child because I had your poster up on my wall in the bedroom and my parents were like, oh, thank God he’s straight”. Which is so funny!

I think like me, there was Madonna, there was Cher– I think they’re gay icons because they’re women, but they’re not soft and squishy women. They’re kind of tough. They stand up for themselves. They don’t take any shit. I think that gives them a little bit of androgyny in a strange way. They are women but they act a little bit like men, so you know, they’re somewhere in the middle.

With horror royalty Vincent Price. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Peterson.

Q40: I think you’re onto something there! Do you have any plans for retiring Elvira anytime soon?

Cassandra Peterson: Oh, I was just thinking about that today. (Laughs) I think about it every day. It’s so funny, you know, I started Elvira when I was 30. I said I was gonna retire it when I was 40. Then I said 50, then I said 60, then I said 70. (Laughs) And now I’m really going, OK? This is going too far. I gotta calm down here, you know?

I really have been thinking about, maybe hanging it up, at least the dress and the wig, but I think I’ll still be involved in Elvira as far as doing projects, doing books. I would love to do a documentary based on my book– those types of projects, and of course merchandising and licensing, there’s so many Elvira items out there. I think that could all go on without me dressing up in drag.

Q40: For sure! I’m so glad Elvira will live on! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me Cassandra. Happy Halloween!!

To order your copy of Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark click here.
To keep up with all things Elvira head over to Elvira.com or follow her on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

John Hernandez

John A. Hernandez is a staff writer for Queer Forty with a focus on entertainment. He is also a writer for Vacationer Magazine and a contributor to Bear World Magazine and Gayming Magazine. He has a special love for all things horror and Halloween. He currently resides with his husband in New York City.

John Hernandez has 135 posts and counting. See all posts by John Hernandez

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