By Chris Azzopardi | photos courtesy of Cassandra Peterson.
Cassandra Peterson, famously known as pop culture Halloween icon Elvira, isn’t scared anymore — at least not when it comes to saying that, yes, she’s a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Peterson came out in September in her new tell-all book, “Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark,” where she writes about the relationship she’s been in with a woman, Teresa “T” Wierson, since 2002.
Now, Peterson says the reaction from queer and straight men alike has been immense and warm — a response she didn’t think would be quite this positive. “I am just so glad that so many people are interested, you know?” says Peterson, humbled, when we connected recently.
During our interview, Peterson spoke frankly about sharing the hardest, most intimate details of her tumultuous young life and extravagant career in the book, and by the end of the chat, said she was a fan of interviews like this, “where I don’t [go], ‘Yeah, so I began Elvira in 1981.’” Less thrilling for her? Having to recite the most basic elements of her Wiki page: “I want to say, ‘Read the freaking book!’”
And, well, now she can.
RuPaul was right — this memoir is juicy. You’ve spared no detail, it seems. Were you ever reluctant to include anything?
I mean, I thought about doing this book for like the last 15, 17 years, and as I went forward and kept getting closer to actually doing it, I really thought, “I’m gonna talk about everything.” I was most worried about the relationship between me and my mom. But my mom passed away and I felt [laughs] a lot better about exposing that because — that’s strange, you know, here I am protecting my mom who was abusive to me, but I thought if I came out with that book and she read all of that stuff, that would probably kill her, so I didn’t want to do that.
Until now, so much about your life and Elvira has been a mystery. Were you ever concerned that sharing your personal story might affect the overall mystique you’ve built around Elvira?
Oh, yeah. It was on my mind all the time. I mean, that is the main reason for hiding my relationships and my personal life and keeping it very private — that I own and run a business that is entirely dependent upon this one brand. [Laughs.] And if I tarnish that brand in any way, I may lose my livelihood. And I’m not going to start back at square one in show business. Mm, no, I’ve been doing that forever, you know? So I didn’t want to blow it. Finally, I just got to the point in my life when — I just turned 70 years old and I have enough money. I’m comfortable enough that I felt like, “OK, I can risk it now. If my brand does go to hell, I’m OK. I live in a nice place, and I have enough money to last me the rest of my life and be comfortable.”
Has the response to the book been what you expected?
It’s better than I expected. It’s better. I got so much wonderful support and love and comments from my fans and from people who weren’t even really fans. I had a straight guy run up to T at the farmers market a couple of days ago; a straight guy comes up and goes, “I just want you to tell Cassandra that her book completely changed my mind about what straight is, what gay is. It just completely changed the way I think. And please tell her thank you for that.”
I think you’ve addressed how you’ve had some regret for not coming out about your relationship sooner. Do stories like that make you think, “If I had done this 15 or 20 years ago, perhaps I could have changed more minds at a time when maybe it was more crucial”?
I don’t know. I’m afraid if I would’ve done it 15 or 20 years ago, I don’t think people would have been ready. I do think it would have very possibly damaged the character. I have a couple of friends — I will not name their names — and they are celebrities and 15, 20 years [ago] they both came out and they pretty much didn’t get any more acting work. Just spiraled down.
So people think that doesn’t happen anymore. But it does, and especially in Hollywood. I mean, one of them was a handsome leading man, and he kind of never got any of those roles again. I had gay male friends telling me, “If anybody asks about if you are in a relationship with T, you just deny, deny, deny.” I mean, it’s a horrible thing to say, and it makes me feel like a big hypocrite because I am so involved with the gay community, and I was very worried. I knew I was gonna have some straight guys go, you know, “Oh, she’s a big lesbo!”
One of my social media platforms, 11,000 people quit following me; most of the comments were like, “Hey, you were lying the whole time. I don’t like Elvira anymore. I used to be a fan but I’m done.” And I know those are straight guys thinking, “My chances of being with Elvira are all ruined now.” Anyway, I lost 11,000 people, but the good news was I gained 60,000 people.
And those are people you’d rather have as fans, I’m sure.
What has the support from the LGBTQ+ community been like?
I did a big book signing last night. I signed between 500 and 600 books and I think many, if not most of the people, were in the gay community. They were like, “Oh my god, we love you more than ever. I didn’t think it was possible to love you more. I love you so much now.” Everybody there — every single person — was so sweet, caring and loving. They gave me notes that I’ve been reading today that are just like, ah! Almost heart-wrenching, they’re so sweet and kind. The love last night was like I’ve never had before at any appearance that I’ve made with my fans. So I’m thrilled.
How did you manage to keep this relationship and your sexuality a secret for so long?
[Laughs.] I don’t know! I have this very inner circle of friends who I told, and they were shocked, but they quickly got over that and [are] very, very loving and accepting, of course. And then I have a little farther out circle of friends who I didn’t tell, and they are really good friends, but I never told [them]; I’m sure they all just suspected but didn’t say anything. Because T is always around me. You know, she’s fairly androgynous — some people might call her butch. I don’t really call her butch. I think she’s more androgynous. But we’re together all the time. It was funny: somebody was saying, “We were at dinner this time and I remember T reaching over and brushing some crumbs [off you]” — I always drop all my food on my chest, let me tell you — “and I thought, oh, that’s very friendly of her assistant.” But they said, “You know what? Yeah, we had our suspicions about it.” But I don’t know. She works with me as my assistant and has for all these years, and traveled with me on the road. It’s funny, before me, she used to travel as an assistant for Mickey Rourke a few years ago. That’s something nobody knows. She was even his sparring partner when he was boxing! [Laughs.] And now she’s my sparring partner. We don’t even box; we just spar.
But I don’t know how we managed to do it. Honest to God, when I go to signings or conventions and all of that stuff, she’s right next to me, working away. I don’t think anybody ever suspected ’cause they know, uh, what a gigantic horndog I am and Elvira is and they just thought, “No, that’s not possible.”
Now that you’re publicly out, does this mean that there are more lesbians lusting for Elvira than there were before?
Who knows? It’s so funny, I haven’t even thought about that. Maybe I’m gonna start getting tons of fan mail from lesbians. But you know, I always have. And I always have quite a large crowd of lesbians come to see me when I make appearances and stuff. Yeah, I don’t know if they’re going to think I’m available now, ’cause I’m not.
In a relationship!
What is it about your sexuality that led you to conclude that you’re pansexual or sexually fluid, as you’ve said?
Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, is it possible to just turn that way when you’re like 50 years old? I don’t know what happened. I certainly didn’t consider myself that my whole life. I was always with men. But I did have a penchant for gay men, I’ll tell you that. Most of my boyfriends throughout my life and most of my relationships were with gay men, and they were basically straight relationships.
I actually thought of myself as a gay man — I really did, my whole life. I swear. I feel like a gay man, and that’s why when I dress up as Elvira, I feel like I’m doing drag, which I absolutely am. There’s no difference between me and a drag queen, except for tucking. And I don’t do that. Saves me a lot of time and pain. But yeah, I hung out with so many gay men, that I finally just felt like I was one. So now, I’m a gay man in a relationship with a woman, so what does that make me?
I guess whatever you want it to make you.
Yeah. I know. I’m confused! [Laughs.]
The book beautifully explores these relationships that you had with gay men throughout your life. I mean, so much of it is devoted to those relationships, in fact. What was it like revisiting these special bonds you had with your gay friends?
Probably the closest and, you know, heaviest relationships I had in my life were with gay men. And probably still are. My closest friends in the world are gay men, and I love talking about it in the book because they were so, so dear to me. We were so close. I mean, my friend, John Paragon, who without him I would not be the Elvira I am. And my friend Robert [Redding]. John Paragon wrote everything with me for 27 years, and Robert Redding designed my look and my outfit, and he was my closest friend.
I mean, I just had gay men guiding me through my whole life, and writing about it was really, really fascinating. But the sad culmination of it was that almost all of them are dead, and mostly because of AIDS. That was one of the hardest things to write about in my book. It just crushed me. I couldn’t even get through a paragraph without sobbing and going outside and breathing, and then coming back in and sitting down and writing about it again. I mean, everybody I knew just died. Young, handsome, healthy guys. They were in the prime of their life. I just think young gay men — nobody understands what that time was like. I mean, imagine getting Covid and you are gonna die from it, period, end of story. There is no way to get better. You get it, it’s a death sentence, and you die within just a few weeks. People just can’t imagine what that was like. I was scared to death. I was so scared for every friend I had.
As I was reading the book, I was thinking to myself how hard it must’ve been to go back through the grief and trauma of that.
Oh, just gut wrenching. Barely could get through it, really. People have asked questions about the book and go … then the AIDS epidemic came along. I can’t even talk about it, I start sobbing. When I read for the audio tape for my book, when I got to the part about AIDS, I couldn’t get through it. I started sobbing my eyes out. I had all these people [in the studio] waiting on me, I couldn’t get through it. I had to leave. I had to go in the bathroom and cry for about 30 minutes non-stop, sobbing my brains out, and then pull myself back together and go in and try to read it again. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Talking about it, I couldn’t handle it.
What’s next for you? Any interest in another sitcom?
Oh, I wish. I would love to. My next steps that I really wanna concentrate on are three things: I want to do a documentary, kind of based on the book, and I would love to do a biopic with another actress playing me. Maybe a six-episode thing, or a film.
I’m thinking about who might play you. Can we get Dolly Parton?
Ah! You stole my joke, man! [Laughs.]
Oh my god, we’re all on the same wavelength here. Everybody used to say to me, “If there was a biopic of your book, who would you want to play you?” And I go: “Dolly Parton.”
I mean, there’s really nobody else.
I know, right? And the third thing that I would really love to do, and I’ve thought about this for so many years, is a Broadway play of “Mistress of the Dark,” the movie. I just think it would be so awesome. Kind of along the lines of “Hairspray” or “Legally Blonde,” the Broadway plays of those. And have it be a musical, and obviously somebody else would play me, but I just think it would be a really uplifting, really fun musical for Broadway. So I’m gonna start working on all of those projects. I actually have a meeting today already for the documentary. I actually have so many production companies coming to me right now asking to do the documentary.
I have to ask you about Halloween, obviously.
Oh, god, yes. Halloween is coming up. I mean, I think this has been the busiest Halloween I’ve ever had. I’ve been booked up, and basically have done my Halloween projects for TV and stuff — those are all in the can and finished. So who knows, I might get to stay home on Halloween.
Please tell me you’ll pass out candy as Elvira then. Or that you have before!
One time I did it. It was the weirdest thing. I have never, never, never been home at Halloween in 40 years, but one night in the mid ’80s I went home. I think I did “The Tonight Show” with Joan Rivers. I ran home and stopped there for a few minutes to do something before I headed out to Knott’s Berry Farm where I do my live show for Halloween, and I forgot it was Halloween night and the doorbell rang. I just ran over to the door and threw it open and there are these stunned little trick-or-treaters. And more stunned than them were their dads who were standing behind them. You should’ve seen their faces. I had no idea it was Halloween night because, yeah, obviously in October, every night is like Halloween to me. So I was like, “What are they doing there?” But the kids were in costumes, so I’m like, “Is it Halloween? Oh my god.” And I didn’t have anything for them, so I ran to my purse and I gave them dollar bills. So stupid.
As the Queen of Halloween and now an out member of the LGBTQ+ community, what kind of light can you shed on why you think Halloween is so popular among queer people?
It is, and let me tell you, the gay community obviously had a huge, huge influence on taking Halloween from a pretty much strictly kids’ holiday, which it was when I was a kid, to an adult holiday. I mean, I used to go to Santa Monica Boulevard on Halloween night in Boystown every single year and have this huge party with everybody in costume. But I think it’s a little bit like getting in drag. It’s so fun, and you can be somebody else for a night, and it’s OK. It’s so freeing, and you know, the gays, they love to dress up in costumes. And there’s nothing like a gigantic gay party on Halloween night. No other straight parties come close to that.
And I just think that gay people are more open to dressing up and being somebody else and looking fabulous than your general straight crowd, you know? Everything there is — the masquerade balls, the carnivals — the gays are the ones who are the heads of it. They’re the ones who are the leaders; they’re the ones who do the best costumes and have the best time. It’s just a born-in thing. [Laughs.]
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.