Cassandra Peterson on Bears, Gay Men and the Legend of Elvira

We as bears tend to celebrate Halloween in different ways. For some of us its a quiet night at home handing out candy to trick or treaters. For others its a night to head out to the bars in harnesses and animal ears to party. And for some others still its a time to head off to Provincetown for Spooky Bear. No Matter what your particular preferences are, however, there are certain things that we all look towards during Spooky season and that’s horror movies and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Elvira, of course, is portrayed by legendary actress and comedienne Cassandra Peterson. Long hailed as a queer icon, she came out as queer herself when she revealed a nearly 20-year relationship with her partner Teresa “T” Wierson last year in her autobiography Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark. The book, now available in paperback, also discusses such things as: her time as a Las Vegas showgirl, intimate encounters with Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley, her time on the road with a gay troupe of comics/ musicians called Mamma’s Boys, her relationship with COLT Studio stud Bill Cable and of course her storied career as Elvira.

It wasn’t all fun and games for Peterson, however. She frankly addresses her emotionally abusive relationship with her mother, struggles with fertility, her painful divorce and an astounding number of setbacks throughout her career. She also bravely discusses two instances of sexual assault from her past. What remained consistent is that every time she was knocked down, she got back up. As with all of our divas, she displayed grit and determination and put all that energy into her art, in this case the beloved character of Elvira.

I had the distinct honor to sit down and talk with Cassandra about her book, her amazing career and her enchantment with gay men, which very much includes us bears!

Photo Credit: Alan Mercer

BWM: Hello Cassandra! Thank you so much for joining me. I’ve read Yours Cruelly and can say, in all honesty, that it was amazing. It’s got everything- drama, intrigue, 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.

BWM: 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.

BWM: 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 long-term 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.

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

BWM: I bet! I’m glad that overall, it’s been a good experience.

Switching gears a bit, I’m sure you know that lots of queer people are very drawn to the horror genre and since you are a horror icon, I wonder what fostered your initial connection to the genre and why you think the queer community has such a fondness for it?

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.

BWM: 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 bazoombas 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.

Transforming into Elvira. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Peterson

BWM: I think you’re onto something there! In the book you also mention your long-standing friendships with members of the LGBTQ community dating back to your gogo dancing days in the 60’s. What was it about gay men and drag queens that drew you to them?

Cassandra Peterson: What attracted me? Um, well, I mentioned in my book that I walked into a bar called The Purple Cow and there was the most beautiful, elegant, fancy woman I’d ever seen in my life performing on stage, and she was so big! I was like, I have to know this person and that was the first drag queen I ever met –Tawny Tann. He taught me how to wear makeup, how to dress, all these things, and I started looking at gay men and drag queens in particular as like life coaches.

Throughout my whole life I had so many gay men in my life. Even in Vegas my two best friends were gay, Buddy and Sterling, they were in my show, they were dances and singers, and I was only 17. They really guided me through, you know, “Do this, don’t do this, do that”. They were my teachers. And I just gravitated towards gay men from there on out.

I can’t tell you all the ways gay men have helped me. I mean, without my friend Robert Redding, who unfortunately passed away from AIDS, I probably wouldn’t be Elvira.  And without my friend John Paragon, who unfortunately also passed away, I wouldn’t be Elvira, because he was my writing partner for 27 years.  And without my friend Jerry Jackson who was my choreographer in Vegas and is still a great friend — thank God he is still alive; he choreographed a number in my movie Haunted Hills and guided my career so much.

I mean, all these gay men did so much for me, in every aspect of my life. So, I kind of always felt like I was a gay man, that’s the weird thing.

BWM: Well, like you said earlier, we’ve always been just as drawn to you Cassandra and we appreciate you always sticking by us, even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do.

Now, as we’ve seen, you clearly have a fondness for gay men in general, but what about bears, in particular? Do you know what bears are?

Cassandra Peterson: Are you kidding?? I love the Bears!!! I went to Provincetown for Bear Week, that’s how much I love Bears! Yeah, I have a million pictures with guys that I’ve met. It was so fun, and they didn’t know who I was [since I wasn’t dressed as Elvira], but I just loved being around them. I have so many friends who would consider themselves bears too. And I can’t get over calling them “Da Bears”. It’s like this 9-million-year-old Saturday Night Live bit.

BWM: Oh yes of course! Bill Swerski’s Superfans!! A classic. Plus, Chris Farley, George Wendt- bears! (Laughs) I love that you love “Da Bears” Cassandra because we sure love you.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Peterson

So, I guess my final question is do you have any plans for retiring Elvira?

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.

BWM: It definitely could and I’m so happy that Elvira will live on! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me Cassandra, it was an absolute pleasure and honor. 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.

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John Hernandez

John Hernandez is the Editor in Chief of Bear World Magazine. In addition to bear culture, he specializes in entertainment writing with a special focus on horror and genre films. He resides in New York City with his husband.