Elvira is letting it all hang out...more. The big news coinciding with this week’s release of Cassandra Peterson’s memoir, Yours Cruelly, Elvira Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark, is that she has been in a relationship with a woman (referred to in the book only as “T”) for the past 19 years. It’s incredible that she was able to keep it hidden for so long. “I’m a good secret-keeper,” Peterson told Jezebel in a conversation last week regarding her book and career.
She may be good at keeping secrets, but Yours Cruelly feels as full of a disclosure as you’re likely to encounter in a celebrity memoir. Peterson told me she’s an avid reader of the genre, and has encountered so many books that fail to deliver on their promises. In response, Yours Cruelly never stops delivering. It dishes on sex with famous men (Tom Jones, Robert De Niro, and Jon Voigt among them), chronicles her development in the entertainment industry which began when she was a 17-year-old Las Vegas showgirl, and delves into her childhood scars, both literal (via a pot of boiling water that fell on her at 18 months of age) and figurative (through a fraught relationship with her mother). Peterson describes the sexual harassment she’s experienced in her industry, and she writes about being raped, including by legendary basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, whom she considered a friend until, she writes, he forced oral sex on her.
Yours Cruelly also details the creation of Peterson’s pièce de résistance, her Elvira character. A collaboration with stylist Robert Redding and writer/performer John Paragon (who died earlier this year and is probably best known for playing the role of Jambi on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, a show he also wrote for), Elvira started as a horror movie host on Los Angeles station KHJ in 1981's Elvira’s Movie Macabre and went on to become a national sensation. Elvira’s loving mockery of the trashy flicks she presented provided a foundation for the snarky sensibility commonplace on the internet by the 2000s.
Peterson talked to Jezebel about her book and work last week on the eve of her 70th birthday. “This is my last interview being 69,” she said. Nice! An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
JEZEBEL: How long have you been considering writing a memoir?
CASSANDRA PETERSON: I have been thinking about it forever. [My life] was pretty bizarre before I was Elvira. I almost feel like when I became Elvira, that’s when my life calmed down and got normal. I started about 15 years ago, writing little essays and making notes and collecting pictures and doing that kind of stuff. And then the pandemic came along and gave me the time to really concentrate on doing it without having to run here and travel there.
Did you work with a co-writer?
No, I did it all myself. I went to a coffee shop near my house and sat in there four to eight hours a day, every day, even weekends. And I just wrote and wrote and wrote by myself. I went to different writing classes during that process and some editing classes. It was funny, the editing class I went to was called Frankenstein’s Lab, which is perfect.
More than half of the book is devoted to your pre-Elvira days. I wonder if this book is, then, an assertion of Cassandra, a way of showing your identity as a human being and not just a character/icon.
I never really sat down to really do that, but now that you mention it, it is kind of nice to come out from behind that drag. One of my worries was that when I came out with this book, it would be perceived as just about Elvira and only hardcore Elvira fans would be interested in it or want to read it. And my biggest hope is that just regular people will want to read it, because I have a lot of crap to say. It is kind of nice to not have to be in Elvira voice just be like, “Hey, this is me and this is what I did.” And I’ll be very happy if people find that interesting or helpful or inspirational or anything.
You refer to “Elvira drag” repeatedly in the book. Do you consider yourself a drag queen?
Oh, 100 percent. I am a drag queen. I have a lot of drag queen friends and we all are in the same boat. The only difference is I don’t have to tuck. I commiserate a lot with a lot of my drag queen friends about, “Oh, this is getting to be harder and harder the older you get.” You know, putting on all that drag, wearing those heels, staying in shape.
RuPaul has said that he counts very few people among his peers, and they include you and Paul Reubens. You all have a rare approach to celebrity. You often stay in character in public whether or not you’re performing on a show or movie. It’s almost like you’re building iconography in a way that goes kind of beyond whatever the particular piece of content is that you’re working on. Why this way?
I wish I could say I was so brilliant that I stepped out one day and decided to do all that, but it was really something that just slowly developed over time. Bit by bit, I started seeing, hey, this is a viable character that people like. In the beginning I was thinking, “Oh, I can do this character on Thursday, and then I can go look for real acting work.” You hear from other celebrities, “Oh, I don’t want to be pigeonholed as this character,” but for me and for Paul and for RuPaul, we own our characters. It’s a business. It behooves us to be those characters. We reap the rewards of the character being out there, not Universal or Paramount. When that really dawned on me that I own this character, I can continue to develop it, exploit it, if you will, and get it out there and benefit from it, I went in whole hog. I’m sure that at some point maybe Gene Simmons or Alice Cooper had the same kind of the same realization. It’s an awesome thing to do, but you can’t do it if you develop your character under the umbrella of a film or TV company.
Why do you think this character resonated so much with people? The one-two punch of boobs and brains?
I think there were different levels. The boobs really brought in all the dirty old men out there who love their boobs. But I think the appeal to other people was the humor. I call myself a comedian. I mean, that’s what I think I am. And so the comedy brought in a different group. And the kids really like the silliness. And obviously horror is another segment of the people who liked it. So I think there are many facets of it. I always describe the three qualities of the character as spooky, sexy, and funny. If you take away one of those, you don’t have Elvira anymore.
When you break down the character of Elvira, as she is portrayed in the 1988 movie Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, you write: “Regardless of her bodacious body, she never allows herself to become a sex object. She unapologetically flaunts her sexiness, but is also fiercely independent, strong and self empowered. If you reduce her to nothing more than a pair of boobs, you might miss that she’s intelligent, witty and altruistic.” Obviously, the idea of a woman being able to maintain sexual agency while also flaunting her assets was always right, but do you think it’s easier to have this conversation now than it was 20 or 30 years ago?
Much easier. It was harder back then, but it’s still hard. The only way it can become easier for women is if men realize what they’re doing by treating women as sex objects. It’s something men have to do right now, not women so much. Men have to come to the realization that women, all women, are more than just a pair of boobs or whatever body parts. That they have humanity, that they’re intelligent, they can think, but it may not be exactly like them because they are not men.
I have that one chapter in my book about sexual harassment, going through all that for years and years and years. I mean, my God, as a go-go dancer and a showgirl, getting myself into those situations. Some people would say, ‘Oh you asked for it,’ and like: No. How did I ask for that unwanted attention? My whole life was headed in that path—sexy, flaunting my assets. I didn’t see anything wrong with it, and I just had to avoid the booby traps [laughs]. Persevering, that’s all I did different than anybody else. Just keep going. Get knocked down. Get back up again. Start again.
Reading your book, I didn’t get a sense that you ever looked back and regretted getting into seminude dancing in Vegas before you were 18.
I have no regrets about that. I was always proud of my body. I took good care of it. I am happy to show it off. And it’s very bizarre, though, because I was burned and I have all these burn scars, and I was exactly the opposite when I was a kid, so shy and so withdrawn. And then something happened, and I believe that was hormones. I just flipped the switch and was like, “I’m showing off everything I got.”
Was it difficult to write about the sexual assault that you describe?
It was one of the hardest things to write about in the book, because I really never told anybody about it. I was embarrassed and ashamed, which is so ridiculous. I didn’t do anything wrong. So how was I led to feel like I did something wrong and feel shame? It happens with women all the time, every day, on different levels, small to much larger than what happened to me. This realization really, really hit me with the MeToo movement. All that stuff kind of came flooding back. I had gone through it like, “Oh well, that’s just how it is. That’s normal.” And when MeToo came along, it was like, “That’s not normal. That’s bullshit.” That doesn’t happen to you and then you just forget about it. “Oh well, I guess I deserved it.” I don’t think I have a female friend who hasn’t told me stories like that.
I felt it was really heartbreaking when you finally write about your partner of 19 years [referred to in the book as “T”]. You write of your fear of disclosing that your partner is a woman, about wanting to protect Elvira and not have fans’ perceptions change. The idea that you feel sort of held captive by your public image is really sad.
It is really sad. You have an image to uphold. You have a character. It’s a separate entity from you. It has a particular audience. Doing something that might turn that audience off could impact your income. And it’s a career, a longtime career. You don’t want to just flush that down the toilet. And your chances of hitting that thing again are less than zero.
Do you consider this a coming out?
Well, it is like coming out. It’s mostly really for my partner because she’s had to live in the shadows. It’s embarrassing. It makes her feel bad. I was just reading this article about Danny Trejo and he said, “People are only as sick as their secrets.” Keeping these secrets really does suck the energy out of you. It’s not good. It’s not healthy. They impact your life. You know, if you hold it in too much, you’ll get gas. [laughs] It’s really a good feeling to just say, “I have enough money. I don’t have to worry about my job now.” I don’t have to worry about, oh, somebody thinks it’s not good for Elvira to represent Coors beer because she’s with a woman. I don’t give a shit now. I don’t care. Nobody can hurt me in that way financially. So that part is gone.
But yeah, it’s funny you say coming out. I say coming out, too. And this is so weird to say: I don’t believe that I’m gay. I mean, I lived my whole life straight. I’m attracted to men. I’m still attracted to men. My partner hates it when I walk down the street and a hot guy passes and my neck whips around. It’s this automatic response, I can’t help it. But I just fell in love. It’s kind of how the whole younger generation now is going, “Oh, you’re fluid. There’s no labels.” I just fell in love with somebody who happened to be a woman. That is all. So I don’t know what the hell to call myself, you know? I mean, am I gay? I don’t know. If I am: great. I don’t think anything’s wrong with being gay. I just don’t happen to be attracted in general to women.
You write about a lot of the celebrities that you slept with/were propositioned by. Did you have any trepidation to tell these stories?
No. I don’t know if they’ll come back at me. But it’s going to be a he said/she said thing. I just decided to put it all out there. It’s my story and tell everybody about everything.
I read autobiographies. I’m really especially hung up on autobiographies, especially of rock stars and so much of it, they gloss over the details. It just makes you want to take the book and thrown in the trash afterwards. I get so frustrated and angry. It’s like, you kind of promised these things, but you don’t deliver. Some friends told me, “Don’t do a tell-all—it’s so scuzzy.” I was like, “Why?” I mean if I said I slept with Jerry the accountant, would that make it any better? I don’t know. Would you have enjoyed it as much?
No. You didn’t print your child’s name. Why?
That’s their life. They can do what they want about that. It’s not my place to out them. I didn’t want to do that and I didn’t do it.
Tomorrow is your birthday.
Yes, this is my last interview being 69.
What an honor. In your book, you say you’re considering dropping acid for your 70th. Will you?
I had to do two things I was going to do: Either I was going to have a party or drop acid. But I am having a party—outdoors and everything. I’m definitely going to do the acid thing. I talked to John Waters about it so much, and I am in the middle of reading Michael Pollan’s book, How To Change Your Mind. I think under supervision, with somebody who knows what they’re doing, and doing the right dosage, that it could be an amazing, amazing thing. And I said in my book that who knows, without having dropped acid [in the past], if I would be where I am today. That and traveling to foreign countries changed my life in such a huge way. I think without either of those things, I would not be the same person at all.