Colman Domingo
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Cassandra Peterson, Elvira, Talks About Identity, Status as LGBTQ Icon

cassandra Peterson and yours cruelly, Elvira cover

This year, Cassandra Peterson — best known to the world as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark — did three amazing things: she turned 70, released her memoir Yours Cruelly, Elvira, and has come out about her 19-year relationship with another woman.

“Yes, I was married for 25 years to a man. And after I was divorced, I fell in love with a woman,” she revealed during a call with the press to discuss the book. “I’d never had any inclinations that I was gay. I don’t. And honestly, to tell you truth. I don't think I’m gay. I’m attracted to men. But I felt for this woman.”

The two began as friends after meeting at the gym. Teresa Wierson (or T, as Peterson refers to her) was a trainer who caught her eye right away.

“We were good friends for six years. She was in a relationship. I was in a relationship and there was no interest in being with her. She just became a very good friend. I don't know what happened, she was just a very special person — special and unique. And we fell in love,” Peterson said during the recent call.

After nearly 20 years together, Peterson said she couldn’t hide their relationship anymore. “It feels so hypocritical. I just hate that,” she admitted. The reason it took so long, she explains, was simply out of fear around what it would mean for her career. “I do have a character, a brand, and a business that I was protecting. I mean, Elvira’s a giant horndog, you know, she chases men, she loves men. All of a sudden to be with a woman was shocking to me. More shocking to me, I think, than anyone else,” she explained. “I didn’t want to flush it all down the toilet. So I hung on to that secret for way too long. But now I feel like I can talk about it. And, you know, if some company doesn’t want to hire me to host their television show? Well, you know, screw them. I’ve made enough money. I’m doing well. I don’t need them,” she laughed.

“I’m so happy that I’m talking to people about it now and they can find out about it now because having secrets is not good. It’s like holding it in, you know, gives you gas. It really drains your energy.”

Cassandra Peterson as Elvira

Cassandra Peterson's first day on the job as Elvira in 1981.

Along with sharing her love story, the book reveals what a one-of-a-kind life Peterson has led, from becoming the youngest showgirl in Las Vegas — but leaving Sin City after advice from (and a bit of making out with) Elvis — to being sexually harassed by Frank Sinatra.

“I had the most embarrassing moment in my life perhaps with Frank Sinatra. I met him at a party. [I was on a date with] one of the Osmond brothers and their parents were with us too,” she recalled. They were at Caesars Palace for Nancy Sinatra’s show when Frank took a moment to chat with her and the Osmonds. “He came up and shook all of the Osmonds’ hands. And then when I put my hand out to shake [his], he leaned back, put his hands in his pockets, and said, ‘Nice tits’ in front of everybody. The Osmonds were so religious... I just wanted to die.”

Years later, however, she got a little payback. “I was working as a hat check girl at a restaurant in Hollywood, and he came in and checked his hat — and I spit in it,” she said.  

Peterson also opened up for the first time about her own “me too” experience with basketball star Wilt Chamberlain. “I knew him for many years before that happened. And so it was just shocking,” she began. “We were friends. He was dating a girlfriend of mine, my roommate in Vegas at the time, and I had met him and seen him over the years, many, many times. We were very friendly. I called him ‘Uncle Wiltie.’ And I liked him very much. And one day at his house, I was at a party and he sexually assaulted me.”

Peterson said she had no choice but to keep it to herself. “I never told anybody my whole life. I told my ex-husband and I kind of just crammed it down. People say why didn’t you go to the police? OK, he is a giant sports legend. I am an out-of-work ex-showgirl. Who were they going to believe back then? That thought would never enter your mind to go and report somebody like that,” she explained. “I mean, you can see what has happened with other women who have reported rape or sexual abuse from famous people, they pretty much get trashed. They get death threats. They get called crazy and the celebrity or the athlete goes on to have a happy life.”

cassandra peterso and Vincent price

Cassandra Peterson with her hero, Vincent Price. 

If there’s one through-line to all of Peterson’s stories, it’s that she’s a survivor who remains resilient no matter what comes her way. That in part is what’s made her an LGBTQ+ icon. It’s that toughness Peterson credits to her loyal queer following. “I think Elvira resonates with them. Believe it or not, she’s a little bit androgynous, In that she’s a very sexy woman showing a lot of cleavage and all that, but then her male side is that she’s strong, tough, determined, doesn't take any crap, and that is something that I think people align with,” she explained. “Cher and Madonna, for example, have that same thing going on. They’re both super sexy [and] they’re both tough, strong. [They] don’t take any crap. And I think that appeals to gay men and women.”

The same is true now for Peterson herself, but it’s taken a long and fascinating road to get to where she is today — and her story has to be read to be believed. While she’s been thinking about writing the book for years, she said now was a perfect time to actually do it. “I just turned 70 years old. It’s like, if not now, when? And the other reason is, the pandemic honestly gave me the time to sit down and write it without all these other distractions, because normally, I’m touring and touring and doing, you know, showing up at places and doing other productions. And now I actually had this big chunk of time to really sit down and concentrate on it,” she shared. “So I was able to do it and get it done. And of course, I went out and got a book deal, and then I got a deadline. And that’ll make me sit down and do it right.”

yours cruelly, Elvira book cover

Peterson said she ultimately hopes her story inspires people to find strength in their own adversity. “The thing I really, really want people to take away from it is to let…whatever curse you’re born with the scars or whatever, let them become a blessing, not a curse,” she stressed. “If you have something bad that happened to you, or are trying to break away from bad things in your childhood, you can use them as a blessing to get you through it. And I hope people pick that up from the book, that no matter what's wrong with you, how you look, or whatever, you can still be successful and accomplish your dream if you want to.”

Yours Cruelly, Elvira is out now

 

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