How Elvira Became An Unlikely Beauty Icon

Cassandra Peterson is a very powerful witch. And not just because she’s played the character of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, for 40 years. Peterson has an innate ability to manifest in a magically cinematic way, like the time she grew the exact same beauty mark next to her eye as her childhood icon, fellow redhead Ginger Grant from Gilligan’s Island. “My whole life has been like the law of attraction — you know, thinking and obsessing about things and then feeling like I have them and that they’ll happen, and they do,” explains Peterson during our recent Zoom interview. “The amount of things that have happened to me, just out of the blue, that shouldn't be happening to a farm girl from Kansas from a low-income family… it just all happened.”
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In her recently released autobiography, "Yours Cruelly, Elvira," Peterson recounts the serendipitous moments that led to her becoming a beauty and style icon herself, although it’s more in the category of Morticia Addams than Marilyn Monroe. But the road to becoming a legend like Elvira wasn’t easy. When she was only 18 months old, a pot of boiling water spilled on her, resulting in third-degree burns on more than a third of her body. The burns healed into red and purple raised scars that made her feel insecure for years. “I covered them by wearing long sleeves and sometimes a turtleneck, but it just made me feel like a misfit. People made fun of me, kids called me a monster, so I felt very much like an outcast,” says Peterson. When she entered teenhood, Peterson’s scars began to smooth out and fade, which helped raise her confidence, and she became interested in makeup (“Yay, Pan Stik!” she writes in the book) and clothes (“the shortest miniskirts and tightest, lowest-cut tops I could lay my hands on”). Peterson’s mother was verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive: “She always told me no one will ever love me and I'd never be able to do anything with my life because I was ugly and scarred. But instead of caving in, something happened, and I don't know what, but it made me go, ‘Oh, yeah, you want to see what I'll do now?' And the next thing I know, I'm go-go dancing and becoming a showgirl.”
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Becoming a showgirl was another one of Peterson’s magic spells. At thirteen, she watched Viva Las Vegas for the first time, which starred Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret and introduced her to the concept of showgirls. During her senior year of high school, when her art teacher asked what she wanted to do with her life, she exclaimed that her goal was to be a Las Vegas showgirl. After a chance encounter, Peterson became a showgirl at just 17, in a show called Vive Les Girls. (She also later met Ann-Margret, as well as Elvis Presley, who was apparently really into astrology and numerology.) Being a showgirl was Peterson’s first real experience with stage makeup. “You wouldn't believe how much makeup I wore back then: three layers of eyelashes on top, two on bottom, and we would glue them on a little above the eye. It's kind of how I learned to do my Elvira eyelashes,” explains Peterson. She also learned how to contour in order to enhance the appearance of cheekbones (“I was only 17 then and my face was like a little round butterball”) and properly trim her bikini line. (“I experimented with Nair…don’t ever do that.)
At some point, Peterson took the advice Elvis had given her about leaving Vegas. She'd continue to work as a performer, touring nightclubs with her musical-comedy show, Mama’s Boys, and singing lead for an Italian funk band. By the time she landed the gig as the host of Elvira’s Movie Macabre exactly 40 years ago, she’d become a pro at stage makeup. But she still needed help putting together what would become the iconic Elvira look, and enlisted her best friend, Robert Redding, who she worked with during Mama’s Boys. “We didn't want to go with the typical Vampira, Morticia Addams, with all black and black hair. We wanted to make it look different, unique, so we came in with this Sharon Tate from The Fearless Vampire Killers-kind of look, which was a sheer, pink tattered gown and more like a dead girl look,” says Peterson. While it would have been less trouble to do, since Peterson would wear her own red hair, she’s happy that the show’s producers rejected it and demanded her to wear all black. "Thank you, lord, that didn't happen because I have this thing that almost no celebrity has in the world, and that is total anonymity,” she explains. “I'm getting recognized more lately, but for the first 30 years of being Elvira, I had a completely double life, which was fantastic for raising my child. It was amazing because we had a pretty normal home life.”
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At first, Peterson and Redding were “frustrated” that Elvira had to look like a quintessential goth beauty, but Redding managed to give it a cooler twist, inspired by his role as drag witch Hecate in a production of Macbeth. “He had found his makeup in a Kabuki makeup book, and so he basically did that on me and I loved it. I thought it was so awesome. I didn't think I'd ever be able to do it on myself. It took a lot of practice,” she says. “He just had all these ideas. He cut that wig. He did my makeup. He sewed that dress, which we both agreed should just be as tight and sexy as humanly possible. You know, because they're looking for ratings, right?” Peterson says the look ended up being a winner off the bat. “It made a look that has endured for 40 years.”
Back then, Peterson used all theatrical makeup to get Elvira’s look, which consisted of ghostly white foundation, purple and blue exaggerated eyeshadow, overdrawn jet-black eyeliner, sky-high lashes, and blood-red lips. Since then, she has since switched over to regular products, including a lot of MAC. Her current product lineup is Make Up For Ever Ultra HD Foundation in Pink Porcelain, Inglot AMC Gel Eyeliner 77, Jeffree Star Velour Liquid Lipstick in Wifey, and a drop of Chantecaille Brilliant Gloss in Enchant in the middle of her bottom lip. She also swears by KVD Beauty Tattoo Eyeliner: “Oh my god, that is such a lifesaver. I gotta tell you when you're hot and sweaty, you end up looking like Alice Cooper, or Giuliani. But that KVD eyeliner, the pen is fantastic. I was working the other day in 102 degrees, no air conditioning, and my eye makeup was all over my face. And I switched and got the pen and that stuff did not move, man. It was on for the whole day. 12 hours.”
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Peterson laments a certain beauty conundrum that happens to the best of us: when products get discontinued and she has to hunt for a proper replacement. “I made the mistake once of buying 20 of my lipsticks, not realizing that a year later, they're dry as a bone and horrible. It’s not worth stocking up on it,” she says. As for Elvira's bouffant hair, it was based on Ronnie Spector’s “knowledge bump,” which Peterson specifies is not the same as a beehive. "My hair started out kind of low and it kept getting higher and higher and higher. It got to a point where it looked like Marge Simpson,” she explains. “It was so high, it was ridiculous, so we had to bring it down. I always say I can tell the year by the height of my hair.”
Elvira is the queen of cleavage as much as she is the Queen of Halloween, so if anyone needs boob styling tips, she’s the one to ask. Hint: It’s not boob tape. “People always wonder, how do you keep them in there? It’s just my amazing, magical Elvira bra, the same one I've had since I started,” says Peterson. The bra was from a now-defunct Los Angeles lingerie store that belonged to the burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr. It was going out of business, so Peterson bought out every single one of their deep plunge bras. She also puts “tons of pads” in there. “Sometimes people wonder why I look like I have super tons of cleavage and sometimes not so much. It's basically just how much stuff I stuck in there," she says. "I did that when I was a kid; I was stuffing Kleenex in there and everything. And I still do it. Everything but the kitchen sink. That's how you get cleavage. A really old trick from the ‘50s.”
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As for skin care, Peterson swears by a daily dose of SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic serum. “My skin has kind of hung in there, which is a miracle. I wear more makeup than anybody on earth except maybe RuPaul and I've been around longer,” she says. Peterson also uses SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore moisturizer and COOLA Classic Organic body and face sunscreen — which she uses “by the gallon for that deadly pale skin.” Her everyday makeup is a stark contrast to Elvira’s, consisting of Bare Minerals Complexion Rescue Tinted Hydrating Gel Cream, Lancome Maquicomplet Wand for under-eyes, Blinc Mascara (which she loves because it doesn’t require makeup remover and just washes off), and Johnny Concert Maudit Timeless Liquid Lipstick in Le Beige. As for treatments, Peterson isn’t a fan of Botox because she needs to be able to readily express emotion with her eyes as Elvira. She does use a little bit of filler, though. (There was no mention of vampire facials, in case anyone was wondering.)
While “Elvira” turned 40 this September, Peterson herself celebrated her 70th birthday. Since Elvira has such an eternal look, you have to wonder if being the character has alleviated any of the pressure that society puts on women as we age. “Unfortunately, I don't think so. I mean, Every time I see myself as Elvira, I go, I can't keep doing this. It’s gonna be pathetic any minute now,” she admits. Peterson says that it’s easier to “look younger” with the makeup, the dress, and good lighting, but that she’s “struggling with trying to stay Elvira” as long as she can. “I really think this is probably going to be my last Halloween season of doing the character,” she says. “But I said that I was quitting when I was 40, and when I was 40, I said 50, so now I’m 70, and I don't know. My manager’s already got plans to have me stuffed with an automatic arm that signs autographs at conventions. He's already got that all worked out so you can see ‘Elvira on ice.’”
Looking back, she’s happy that Elvira’s signature look has inspired people, and has maybe even helped to normalize that type of dress. “When I first started Elvira, it was considered so weird and freaky, with the red lips, and tons of black eyeliner, and all of that. People weren't doing that at that time,” she says. “Nobody had even seen black nails. Now everybody has that makeup. You look at the Grammys and every single woman on there has that same kind of [plunging] neckline. Back then, I was really like a freak when I went somewhere; it kind of stopped traffic. Now it's just like an everyday look. So I do think I inspired a lot of women to kind of go with that whole kind of goth look. Sexy and gothic at the same time.”

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