Elvira Mistress of the Dark Comes into the Light

Dani Morpurgo,

Death, sex, wit. Elvira came up with the best cocktail to attract an audience of thrill seekers who also have a well-developed sense of humor. Her lifelong career is unmistakable proof that she has tapped into a horrifically perfect trifecta. She is a living reminder that showing some cleavage is ok if it comes supported by humor and intelligence. But femmes fatales are like that, they use all those qualities to acquire and hold onto that most elusive title, and Elvira hasn’t given it up yet. Spooky, sexy and funny since 1981.

A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 14th issue of ODDA Magazine.


You have been around for more than 35 years and, for sure, you helped so many people, especially in their teenage years, in the most awkward and dark moments, to transition from childhood to adulthood. Meeting such an icon is always a privilege, but how have you been able to continue to connect and stay relevant over the years?

Wow, that’s a big question… I don’t know how that happened, just by chance, not like I had a grand master plan to become an icon, I’m lucky it went that way. I have such amazingly loyal fans that idolized the character. I kept the character in the public eye as much as possible, so that I don’t go away, but the main reason Elvira stays around is Halloween. You may not see her for months at a time, but when Halloween rolls around – I’m sure you know Halloween is a really big deal in the United States – Elvira is back and becomes a little like Santa Claus for Christmas, you know.

Gianni Versace has always said that he became a fashion designer because when he was a child he used to hang out at his mom’s atelier. Does Elvira owe her existence to her parents’ costume shop?

Well, I actually think it is not a coincidence, yeah, they ran a costume shop for many years and I helped out after school and especially during Halloween time, but the one thing I did most of all, because I don’t think I was really working that hard, was dressing up in costumes. It made me really love costumes, and I would wear them to school, or just around, even when you weren’t supposed to dress up. My parents didn’t really want me to wear them to school, but I did it anyway. I got a very odd reputation. But it would kind of make sense that I would grow up and end up wearing a costume in my daily life. So it really did tie together; again no plan, but when I look back on it I really think it had an influence on my career.


The movie genre you loved as a little girl was horror, and you are a mistress at commenting them. What has changed from then and now?

I see horror movies all the time and there are many out there that do work, but I think the majority don’t. I love the movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Hammer films, the Robert Corman’s films… maybe because I was young, but I have watched them again since I’ve been an adult and a lot of them really are scarier because they are more innocent, they don’t have all the CGI, they leave something to the imagination. It’s the bottom line; the imagination can think scarier things than what you can see with CGI. They don’t feed it all to you with a spoon. I preferred those movies and the more gothic genre with the spooky castle. Even Cries and Whispers, old movie by Ingmar Bergman, it’s not a horror movie, but I find it to be one of the creepiest, scariest movies I have ever seen. It is different what scares people, you can say that Jaws was the scariest movie ever, and that’s not really a horror movie, but I remember locking my door at night, afraid the shark was going to get in. It makes no sense, but it was such a visceral scare. I think horror movies are all about scaring you and a lot of them, nowadays, are just all blood and gore and forget the real scares. It is kind of like the stripper, if she started of completed naked, there would be nowhere to go, you see what I mean.

In 1988, you starred in Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, where your character comes for the first time face to face with a hostile, if not a bit exaggerated, side of American conformist society. Were you considered an outsider in real life, even before Elvira came around?

I was! As a child, I was burned and I had very serious burn scars on my neck and shoulders. I was teased a lot. Back then we used to call it “teasing”; nowadays, they would call it bullying. I did grow up feeling like an outcast and I did not feel like I could fit in anywhere, and that is actually one of the lines in the movie, one woman says to me: “You don’t fit in here and you certainly don’t fit in that dress”. When I started playing with horror model kits of Bela Lugosi and different characters from horror movies, while all my other friends where playing with Barbie dolls, then they really thought I was some kind of a freak. So, I have always felt like an outsider, a loner, and that probably comes through in Mistress of the Dark. I rued it with my partner, who also grew up in Colorado and he always felt the same way, too. He is gay and grew up having a hard time; he was bullied because he wasn’t masculine enough. I particularly felt that way in my childhood and teenage years.

The Eighties are the decade of the career woman wearing power suits with shoulders bigger than men’s. Your character’s wardrobe choice seems to be at the antipode. With the “Valley” accent and the revealing dress, do you want to prove the asexual businesswoman wrong?

Kind of. I didn’t set out to prove them wrong, but I don’t see why women in order to be successful in business or in their career have to pretend to be men. I don’t think they have to wear a toned down man’s suit, they could even wear a skirt. Why do they need to dress like men and wear a necktie? I don’t see why you can’t be a successful woman being who you are. Yes, Elvira may go a little over the top, I don’t think we want to see that dress in a work place anywhere. But it exaggerates a feeling: you don’t have to look like or act like a man to be successful. You are a woman. you need to use the assets you have as a female and create your own way. I think women are struggling to find that now, because it is difficult. You see what it is happening with all the harassments around here. Even though there is a line between sexual assault and guys rubbing against you. If I were upset about guys grabbing my ass, I would have had to sue a lot of men when I was in Italy in the ‘70s. But, back then, you would keep going.


The main page of Elvira Mistress Of The Dark’s Instagram feed.


This brings me to the social theme of gender disparity and injustice. I am talking about the equation miniskirt equal easy girl. Did you often face this kind of prejudices because of your character?

You know, it’s really funny, I went through all that when I was in ’60s and ‘70s, wearing miniskirts, being afraid to be alone and go out somewhere, because you were maybe showing too much. But, as Elvira, when I wear that dress and I am very tall in the heels and the hair – there is something about wearing a dagger on your belt – I have never really been molested. Maybe twice guys were inappropriate. I had motorcycle gangs come up and take autographs, and they look at me and all of a sudden they sound like little giggling girls. It is weird. Something about the outfit is intimidating to guys because, if I just have that problem, I can use that. I was so surprised that no one tried to catch me or grab me ever, and that one guy that did was a famous actor and he was drunk out of his mind, so he assumed that he could grab anything he wanted. So, in the end, I think Elvira comes out as tough and powerful and kind of crazy, as in “don’t touch me, you don’t know what it might happen.”

Ironic gags and double entendres do indeed downplay your enhanced femininity. What do you want to convey through your humor?

Well, ninety per cent of my jokes I think are about my boobs, which is so odd and old fashioned, but I want to take the seriousness off of things. So, that is how I started out hosting horror movies, making jokes about how scary the movie was, and people and kids who grew up with me, they still tell me now: “Do you know where I can watch a movie that you were hosting, because then you would come and make fun of the monster, what they were wearing, how stupid they look…” It is about taking the edge off that, and I think Elvira takes the edge off sexuality, too. You know, having breasts, and having them out there, showing them off , and if I joke about them, it is so deprecating and everybody can relax, like don’t get so freaked out that I have a lot of cleavage showing, because I am not serious about it and you shouldn’t be either.

Movie Macabre started in 1981 and later syndicated nationally, used to have the best TV records across the Bible Belt, in the heart of American puritanism. Why is that?

That was the strangest thing. They didn’t think they could syndicate the show in the Bible Belt, and actually it turned out to be the most popular audience and sold the most down there. I think that’s because the people who claim to be very religious are covering up a lot of feelings they really have and keep them under wrap, so they do weird things in private, watching my show being one of the weird things, which wasn’t that over the top. Still, repression creates a lot of interest in other things. A lot of other people don’t think it is such a big deal. I mean, I have always talked about Italy and I am not sure this is true anymore, but back in the day there was a lot of alcoholism here in the US, and I don’t think there was so much of it in Italy. I may be wrong, but people grew up drinking there, I saw babies drink little bits of wine.They were around it at dinner and nobody was getting wasted and falling down, it was just a daily thing. So, when you see it and you are around it every day, you don’t end up craving it and having to drink a ton.

Haters could call you misfit, freak or whichever names they come up with. What is the secret to stay rad without giving up your being different, your identity for the sake of tranquility?

I try to keep my character very separated from my personal life. I try not to put almost anything out there about my relationships and my child. So, you do have to live in a little bit of a bubble. I’d like to rant all day on my Twitter feed of politics, but I try to keep that out of it.

I am not sure this is exactly the answer, but I feel like I am a split personality: I have a character that goes out there and works and then I am lucky enough that I look so different.
I can really have a private life and be a separate person. Not many actors have that, so it’s not as hard for me as for someone who can’t take their makeup off. I can walk down the street anytime and rarely be recognized. But, as I get older, I am making more appearances as Cassandra, I am getting lazy, and now people are starting to recognize me.

Elvira meets a fan at a Comicon event as seen in this post on her Instagram feed.

About identity, you probably heard these questions billions of times, but I believe it is a must to ask someone like you: how much do you feel like yourself when you are Elvira? I mean, is some Elvira in Cassandra, or the other way around?

I used to think they were completely different, but a few of my friends finally woke me up to the fact that really there is a part of Elvira’s personality in me. What I finally figured out is that I think Elvira is me as a teenager. I think that was my personality if you can believe it or not, because first I was kind of a loner and then, later, when I was a teenager, I became a smartass, a know- it-all like “don’t mess with me” and it back fired. I was a tough kid and that is where I draw Elvira’s personality.

So, Cassandra and Elvira, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde?

It feels like that sometimes. I honestly went through a period where I thought I was a split personality. Sometimes, outwardly people seem so completely different and I do feel I have two different lives. I get treated completely different when I am Elvira as I do when I am Cassandra. So, I feel like I have lived two lives, which is nice.

Also drag queens are (or have) alter egos. What’s the difference between you and them? Apart from tucking…

I am a drag queen. I have worked with drag queens since I was 14 or 15 years old. I had friends who were drag queens working at drag bars. I have had so many of them throughout my life, I just feel a real connection with them because I am basically a drag queen. I put on the drag, the heels, the dress, the hair, I have all those snarky comebacks. Everything about being a drag queen is what I do. I grew up wanting to be these drag queens and it ends up they want to be like me now. It is funny, the circle of life.

However, everything about your look is pumped up and it screams drag. Were queens ever an inspiration when Elvira came to life in 1981?

Oh, yeah. I wouldn’t look the way I do or act the way I do or anything without all the gay men in my life who were artists, designers and drag queens. They sculpted me, they made me, they taught me how to walk, talk, dress, do my makeup, and do my hair my whole life. My best friend at the time I became Elvira, the guy named Robert Redding who sadly passed away from AIDS, he is the one who came up with the idea of the dress, we talked about it and he drew a sketch of it. He came up with the hairstyle, because his favorite group was The Ronnettes and he wanted my hair to look like Ronnie Spector. So, ultimately, he designed the look. And over the years when I was a go-go dancer and a showgirl, I had so many gay men around me telling me what to wear and how to walk. It was kind of My Fair Lady with a tuck, taking the slow Midwest farmers’ daughter and turning her into a drag queen. And it doesn’t make a difference if you are male or female; we have so much in common. I don’t think there is a drag queen that I don’t know.

Pearly skin, red lips and extra-dark spooky eye shadow, huge hairdo. It is all very ‘80s, all very trendy, but that is a fierce contouring I am looking at. Don’t’ you think you should make Kardashians pay some copyright?

Oh, Kardashians. Yeah, I should have copyrighted my look. It’s funny I have had this look for so long that it has been in, then it goes out, then it comes back in. Now, I think it is here to stay but, yeah, I think a lot of people have been influenced by Elvira’s look. I know one thing, black nails: when I first started I couldn’t take the nail polish off because I was working everyday so, when I went out somewhere and people saw those black nails, they would be horrified, they would look at me as if I was crazy, and now it is totally normal. And, in the beginning of the ’80s, it was so crazy, there were so many weird fashion things going on then, but black nails was not one of them, I can guarantee it.


Photo courtesy of David Goldner

You say that your iconic hairstyle is not a beehive but a knowledge bump. Would you trade a queen bee’s crown for one of wisdom?

Well, I don’t know, I think I got to stick with the hair. I don’t know if I need wisdom being Elvira. That’s the one thing she doesn’t have. It is more about instinct, you know, not so much as smart. So, maybe I will just hang onto the hairdo, it has taken me a long way, so I shouldn’t give it up now.

You have something in common with Pierre Cardin: both of you licensed a humongous variety of products. Don’t you think that, like for Pierre Cardin, this could affect the authenticity perceived in your character?

I think I am in a different situation because I am making my license more in the toy market while I do have some clothing and dresses. I don’t know if I would compare myself to Barbie, or Star Wars, it just seems like the die-hard fans can’t get enough. I do honestly have very much control over every single product I put out. It goes through me, I change it, I tweak it. If I don’t like it, it doesn’t go out. I think in the pop culture world, where I am, instead of the fashion world, people just eat that stuff for breakfast. I don’t think you can ever have enough. Hopefully, I won’t be proven wrong, but I think it is more open. People are collectors and they want this stuff because of that. For fashion and for art it is much different, you have to be picky about what you do and what you put out there because you can’t spoil the entire thing by not knowing what to put out next.

You said that you don’t dress up as gladly as once in these last years. Is it the sign of a character that doesn’t work anymore or is it Cassandra who is evolving?

I would like to cut down on dressing up in that outfit as often as I do. I mean, ask any drag queen in the whole world, they will tell you they would like to cut it down, too. I do have enough to work as myself, so I would like to write an autobiography, I would like to have my character be in animation format.

There are many things I’d like to do that don’t entail me being in character and I am really lucky that way. I think it is probably a little easier for me to make the transition that a drag queen would make because, you know, I am a woman and I remain a woman even when I take off my dress. Maybe that doesn’t have to do with being a female or male, and it is a hard transition to make, but I can’t dress up forever looking like that. At some point, it is going to be scary and pathetic. I want to get out of it before it starts frightening people. Plus, unfortunately, in the US it is not like in Europe, here they are looking for the next young hot thing, they really don’t have much respect for older actors or queens. In Europe, they still retain that respect for women, they like them for whom they are.


Dani Morpurgo

Dani Morpurgo was born in Senigallia, a small town in Italy. After obtaining the classical studies high school diploma with the maximum grades, she attended the BA (hons) Fashion Styling at the Istituto Marangoni in Paris, where she graduated in 2016. During and after her college years she carried out personal projects as a freelance stylist and she collected work experience in showrooms such as 247 Showroom and Rick Owens and in fashion brands such as Dondup and Parakian, to finally land in the editorial staff of ODDA magazine, where she is currently working”.

the writer

Dani Morpurgo

Dani Morpurgo was born in Senigallia, a small town in Italy. After obtaining the classical studies high school diploma with the maximum grades, she attended the BA (hons) Fashion Styling at the Istituto Marangoni in Paris, where she graduated in 2016. During and after her college years she carried out personal projects as a freelance stylist and she collected work experience in showrooms such as 247 Showroom and Rick Owens and in fashion brands such as Dondup and Parakian, to finally land in the editorial staff of ODDA magazine, where she is currently working”.

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