As recognizable as Jesus yet as wicked as Judas, Cassandra Peterson’s career spans several decades and includes a stint as a bit-part Bond girl and laughing it up with the Groundlings. The gorgeous gothic girl better known as Elvira took time off from her appearance at this weekend’s Ottawa Comiccon to speak with Xtra about doppelganger drag queens, gyrating as a go-go dancer and why being an awkward kid drew her to the wacky world of B-movie horror.
I’ve read that as a child, while other kids were playing with girly toys you were drawn to horror-themed playthings. What is it about horror and dark subject matter that has always appealed to you?
I went to see my first horror movie, it was House On Haunted Hill with Vincent Price, when I was in second or third grade. I don’t know what it was but I just loved it. It immediately clicked for me. After that I got hooked on seeing all the Vincent Price horror movies and the Roger Corman, Edgar Allan Poe-based horror movies. I started collecting all the Frankenstein and Dracula models I could paint and put them in my room. My favorite shows were The Twilight Zone and The Addams Family. I was kind of a geeky, loser, misfit kid. [laughs] I think horror appeals to those types; which is a compliment.
Is it true that as a teenager you worked as a go-go dancer at a gay bar?
I did. Is that weird? [laughs] I was a go-go dancer all over the place. One of my gigs was at a club called The Purple Cow. Not only was I a go-go dancer, I also ended up standing in for one of the drag queens because they lost one of their Supremes. So not only was I a woman playing a man playing a woman but I was in blackface which is really embarrassing.
I know you support gay rights and have a very large gay following. Why do you think gay men are enamoured with the Elvira persona? Do you think it’s the outsider quality or the sexuality Elvira embodies?
First of all I think gay men like one name wonders for some reason. They like Cher, Madonna, Elvira. Then I actually think it’s a strong woman. A woman who is sexual but strong, you know not a bimbo. I don’t think they feel the same way about say Britney Spears, or maybe they do. It’s intelligent, strong women but women who are sexy at the same time. If it was just intelligence and strength, they would like Margaret Thatcher.
Have you encountered any drag queens who have impersonated Elvira? If so what was your opinion of their interpretation of your character?
Oh Jesus, billions of them. I have seen one hundred thousand killer drag queens; some good, some bad, some ugly. Some have been fantastic, some look better than me which really pisses me off. I hate when a man can look better than me in my dress. I love it though; having a drag queen impersonate you is the sincerest form of flattery.
Some critics believe women can’t be sexy and funny concurrently, although I would say you have definitely shattered that myth. How would you respond to those claims that humour and sexuality are antithetical when it comes to women?
It is kind of a strange thing. Generally female comedians are not the sexiest looking women, although that’s changing. It’s something I’ve noticed over the years. They used to look like Roseanne Barr. [laughs] That’s not very nice, I love Roseanne. Sarah Silverman is someone who is sexy and really funny as hell. I think it’s more acceptable now. With all of those women, the key thing to being funny is having had a horrible physical attribute when you were a child. It’s really bizarre; you know she talks about being a bed wetter. I personally was burned so I have a lot of scars. A lot of people had really bad complexions or were really fat as a child. Then you grow up and you learn to make light of it and use your humour to detract from it. That’s how you transform into a comedian. Normally when you’re really sexy and hot looking you don’t grow up to be really funny because there is nothing for you to be funny about.
When you began Movie Macabre in the early ‘80s, did you ever fathom that it would become so popular?
No way in hell. I was thinking I’d just do this job and dress up in a really wacky costume. Hopefully nobody will see me. That was kind of my attitude. Then after a few weeks I realized I actually have something here. Now thirty years later, I’m here and still doing it.
Movie Macabre, including its recent rebirth, will forever be held up as the gold standard for B-movie mockery. What are some of your personal highlights from throughout Movie Macabre’s run?
Definitely having Vincent Price on the show; it was my dream come true. That’s how I met him. We just called him up while doing this stupid little local show in Hollywood. Strangely he was doing a play, The Life of Oscar Wilde, in a small theater in L.A. and he said if we would promote the play that he would come and do it. It was like meeting my hero. That was the super highlight. There was one time when I popped out of my dress and the crew didn’t say anything because it was an all-male crew. I don’t know if you would call that a highlight. That was more of a lowlight.
I imagine it may be difficult for some pop culture connoisseurs to separate Cassandra from the character of Elvira. How do you personally separate the two? Has this ever been an issue for you?
It’s not really an issue. I look so different. It really is very much like I’m schizophrenic. It’s like being two people but I don’t have an issue with that. Some people do and those people should take medication for it.
Are there any upcoming projects you’re excited by?
San Francisco-area drag queen Peaches Christ and I are doing Elvira’s Horror Hunt
. It’s a horror film festival and the winner gets to fly to Hollywood and have a big première for their film at the Vista Theater. They’ll also have a showing at the Comikaze Expo, which is the new, hot pop culture convention in L.A.
How are you finding Ottawa so far? Is this your first time in the city?
I have not been here before. I got to hang out here all day yesterday and I have to say it’s absolutley gorgeous, oh my god, such a beautiful town. The fans have been so nice. There are less freaky looking people here than I’m accustomed to.