By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
"Cue fog!" the director yells. The first take rolls around 12:30. Peterson has been there for two and a half hours, which is how long it takes her to become Elvira.
"It's kind of really slow and intense," Peterson says. "First I have to put on a lot of white makeup to cover all my body parts, all the parts that are showing — quite a large area," she chuckles. She does her own makeup ("I gotta do it myself 'cause people don't know how to do it!"), touching herself up with a hand mirror between takes. "The thing that takes me the longest is actually doing the eye makeup — there's a lot of shading. And there are a couple of wigs, lots of eyelashes; I think I wear four pairs now. And then, getting into the Dress."
The Dress is legend, a marvel of modern engineering. For nearly 30 years, Elvira has worn versions of the same slinky black gown, cut ridiculously low up top, slit unthinkably high on the thigh, cinched impossibly tight at the waist and held there by a girlish utility belt that, these days, she buckles with a petite dagger. The Elvira dress, or some variation of it, is one of the all-time top-selling Halloween costumes — the original and now-default slut-next-door look. But when Peterson wears it, the dress is more than simply sexy — and not just because of the secret-weapon push-up bra she sports underneath. That dress and that body, when paired with Elvira's over-the-top, hokey, rib-nudging humor, creates a creature that's at once sexy and a gloriously silly, over-the-top mockery of the notion that female sexuality could be threatening.
When she's off the clock and out of the Dress, Peterson wears her strawberry hair shoulder-length. Her skin is lightly freckled, age lines most visible around the mouth. If she's had work done, it's not obvious, though she is in great shape for her age — for any age. When we first meet for lunch at a café on Sawtelle in West L.A., she's dressed in a light green blazer and blue jeans. She peers at the menu through oversized sunglasses and frets over what to order. "I'm trying to lose weight for my show because of the Dress. I can still get in it, and I do it all the time, but I'm trying to look especially good." She orders the pasta anyway, and cleans her plate.
Two months later, on set, her figure is indistinguishable from the cardboard Elvira cutouts that Coors planted in 7-Elevens nationwide when Peterson was its spokeswoman in the late '80s to mid '90s. Peterson's comeback isn't a Betty White–esque embrace of age as kitsch; it's also not really about asking Elvira's original audience to tap into their nostalgia. Peterson hopes that by re-creating Elvira as she was — confirming the alter ego's status as a live-action cartoon character who rarely changes clothes and doesn't age — she can introduce Elvira to younger generations, and thereby lay the groundwork for Elvira to continue on without Peterson, indefinitely.
Elvira's beyond-iconic look wasn't Peterson's first choice for the character. Her longtime best friend Robert Redding, who died of AIDS in 1986, sketched the Morticia Addams–meets–Ronnie Spector template for Elvira when KHJ rejected Peterson's initial concept. "I had really long red hair and I loved that [Roman Polanski] movie Fearless Vampire Killers. I loved Sharon Tate. I wanted a really pale, ghostly look: big, dark eyes and white lips — like a dead girl. And they didn't like that at all. They said, 'No, it has to be black hair, you have to have a black dress.'
"It was a bummer because later, Vampira gets all geared about it. Like, excuse me, that's not even a costume I wanted to do."
By Vampira, Peterson means Maila Nurmi, the circa-1950s pinup model–turned–local TV horror host (and later, co-star of Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space), whose spooky sexpot shtick preceded Elvira's, although Peterson has always claimed that the similarities in the characters come from both actresses ripping off Charles Addams' Morticia. In 1987, the Los Angeles Times ran a story sympathetic to Nurmi's claims that she was forced to live on Social Security checks while Peterson made big bucks off a stolen act. Nurmi said KHJ had initially contacted her about doing a new show; they negotiated over specifics for three months, and when Nurmi declined to sign over the rights to the Vampira character, she was shut out and Peterson was brought in. Nurmi filed a lawsuit against the Elvira camp the following year.
"Boy, has the devil got that bitch — it's the devil in her blood," Nurmi said of Peterson in a 2005 interview with Bizarre Magazine. "She was in 51 markets at one time with 350 kinds of merchandise; milked my cupboard bare. Initially they wanted me. I wouldn't do it because I didn't want Vampira to be anything but perfect. I certainly didn't want her to be portrayed as a slut."
In August 1989, the Times reported that Nurmi's own lawyers had petitioned to withdraw from the appeal because Nurmi was no longer responding to attempts to contact her; a district court decided in favor of Peterson that same year. Nurmi died in 2008, and apparently remained bitter to the end.