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American actress Cassandra Peterson became famous in the 1980s for her television role as the vampy Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
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Born in Kansas in 1951, Cassandra Peterson worked as a dancer in Las Vegas and a pop singer in Italy before she landed her most famous acting role. In the 1980s she began hosting a television series as the vampy character Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and has been known for the character ever since.
I like being two people. I like having a normal side and a weird side.
Cassandra Peterson was born in Manhattan, Kansas on September 17, 1951. As a toddler, she pulled a tub of boiling Easter eggs off of the stove, burning over a third of her body and leaving her visibly scarred. At age seven, her family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she was initially very shy and teased for her scarring. However, she later used her experiences as a child and teenager in Colorado Springs—a place she later claimed "all the freaks come from"—as inspiration for her most famous role as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
Cassandra Peterson's mother ran a costume shop and frequently used the youngster as a model. "I would pick out whatever was the hot costume that year—Ginger from Gilligan's Island, I Dream Of Jeanie, Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke—and my mom would make one in my size, so I would wear costumes to school all the time. Everyone thought I was a total freak. But I knew I would grow up and wear a costume one day, and that's exactly what happened."
While she had performed in local clubs as a dancer while still in high school, a trip to Las Vegas gave Peterson her first big break. After successfully auditioning for a show called Vive Les Girls at the Dunes Hotel during spring break 1969, she graduated from Palmer High School a few months later and moved to Las Vegas on the same day. Before she was even a legal adult, she became one of Las Vegas' youngest showgirls: "I was 17 and had to get a signed thing from my parents—it was pretty unbelievable that they did it. But that was under severe threats from me." While in Las Vegas, she briefly dated Elvis Presley, who encouraged her to become a singer.
Following Presley's advice, Peterson moved to Italy, where she sang in an Italian pop-rock band and had a small part in Federico Fellini's 1972 movie Roma. After she returned to the United States, she toured with seven gay men in a nightclub revue called "Mama's Boys": "I was Mama," she said. She also posed in nude photo shoots for Playboy magazine and may have posed for the cover of Tom Waits' 1976 album Small Change, although she's now uncertain: "I don't remember having done it. But of course, I don't remember a lot of stuff I did in the 70s. But it looks like me!"
Wanting to develop her acting and comedic skills, Peterson joined the Groundlings improv troupe in 1979, where she developed characters alongside soon-to-be-famous comedians like Paul Reubens and Phil Hartman. "The Groundlings were definitely responsible for me being Elvira because I learned to be fearless, basically.
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