Eternal Beauty, Maila Nurmi
I must have been 10 years old when I saw her. Taller than a man, made out of glossy cardboard, promoting budweiser beer in all black with her massive pale chest popping out from the top of her dress. She was Elvira and I loved her instantly. I was actually upset that her image had been raffled off at the pool hall rather than going home with me where I was convinced she belonged.
I don’t even know what it was about the image of Elvira, even shilling shitty beer, that just hit me right at the core. She was the one big-busted beer model that my mother actually approved of always explaining to me that “Elvira was in on the joke.” There was a joke? I took this as one of those things I would understand better when I was older. I don’t think it really is out of place that I grew up to be the person I am today when I look back and trace my major influences and realize that I was drawn to so much of this from a very early age without any clear guide of what it meant or why I wanted it.
I never related to the more mainstream contemporary “beauties.” They always seemed to have something that I knew I would never possess. I had no idea what that was–maybe bubbliness, given my preference for the macabre and strange. The beer ads almost always had cheerleaders wearing sparkling outfits with tassels, tan midriffs, and an “all American” wholesome (if you will) sex appeal. We often associate women with life because of their ability to give birth but the gothic beauty embodying sex and death goes back to ancient mythology of goddesses like Kali or Ishtar.
Elvira was a badass bitch and I loved her. She was pale, she looked and talked like someone who didn’t give a fuck who won the game, and she had a sharp wit that was entirely unafraid of what anyone might have to say about her opinion or take on the situation. Cassandra Peterson was a force of nature as Elvira. Her clevage and personality busted the seams and she hosted one hell of a show. For awhile, she was my penultimate sexy lady. I loved her dry wit and successful command of irony when the so-called intellectuals, writers, and speakers were all fucking it up. Before long I understood what my mother meant about her being “in on the joke” and I respected her construction of the character in all of its tongue-in-cheek glory. Peterson may be remembered for the kitsch and tits but I think she has been a very underrated comedian. Her sense of timing and the bravado of her character are fantastic and I still love the Elvira persona to this day.
Elvira was deliberately campy and in times when I become self-aware of the show business aspects of my work I like to channel her to remind me to have a sense of humor about each and everything I do. The Elvira in me comes out because if she doesn’t, the cranky tired performer in me who can’t deal with another take or another set of uncomfortable bondage photos when I’ve been doing it sincerely for hours starts to get mean.
That said, I am also an ardent lover of the original “mistress of the dark.” Some say that Elvira was just a Vampira rip off. Well, that’s hard to say when the macabre pin up has been a staple for centuries. Every time we define what’s sexy in our cultures, someone will always apply that notion to death and the unknown. Elvira did have a nightshade wardrobe, oozing sex appeal, spooky antics, and a catalog of bad films to introduce but the way she crafted her persona is strikingly different from what the woman behind Vampira, Maila Nurmis, had in mind for her own creation.
Always a showgirl, Maila Nurmi danced with Lili St. Cyr and used to work for Mae West until she was fired for upstaging her. At the peak of her career in the 50s she was an A list celebrity who partied with Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, and Orson Welles. Before Morticia Adams was every seen on television in the 1960s she was a cartoon in the The New Yorker back in the 1930s. “Vampira” was born when Maila Nurmi won a costume contest in 1953 by taking an old (and eventually banned) cartoon and bringing it to life for the night. She was spotted by a television producer and her first husband (Dean Riesner, author of the screenplay for Dirty Harry) helped name her creation. In 1954, “The Vampira Show” debuted and the first in a continuing lineage of “late night horror hosts” was born.
Elvira is a gag but Vampira was pure drag. Watching those clips of a 1950s Vampira leaning back on a chaise lounge with a cocktail one can’t help but think of it as Tennessee Williams from beyond the grave.
Long before Vampira, Nurmi performed in another staged spook show in another guise entirely and she was spotted by director Howard Hawks. Hawks is one of my favorite directors. Whether it was comedy romance, noir, or sci fi, Hawks could make a movie that was a lot of fun to watch. He had plans to turn Nurmi into the next Lauren Bacall and cast her in one of his movies. Sadly, the film was delayed so many times that Nurmi gave up on waiting and began modeling for men’s magazines as a cheesecake pinup.
“The Vampira Show” was indeed a massive hit. Nurmi received an Emmy nomination in 1954 for “Most Outstanding Female Personality,” which is notable for a freshmen television performance. Despite the show’s incredible success, it was cancelled in 1955. The studio attempted to buy the rights to “Vampira” and Nurmi refused. It is said that she was effectively blacklisted from studios for her obstinate refusal. She was only paid $75 a week for her work on the supremely successful show. Sadly, we have no tapes of her work because the shows were recorded live. A new digital archiving tactic has created an opportunity to recover some lost footage but most is gone forever. I mourn for the lost record of her work as an actress, especially since it was all recorded from her live performances.
One of her companions I failed to mention was James Dean, whose famous quote about her appears in many places, “I have a fairly adequate knowledge of satanic forces, and I was interested to find out if this girl was obsessed with such a force.” The friendship between Dean and Nurmi has been disputed by some biographers but bits of evidence are emerging from the sands of time that substantiate claims that they were quite close indeed. Some quick clips from home movies show James Dean playing around with Nurmi. Dean allegedly told friends not to call him when her program was on and in an unrelated quote he once mentioned a particular interest in the writings of the Marquis De Sade.
Although we may never see it, many remember a cameo that Dean made on “The Vampira Show” in which he appeared as a school boy and she rapped his knuckles with a ruler while calling him, “A naughty boy.” I hope that I am not alone in a sudden sense of personal satisfaction for having stumbled onto that piece of gossip because I’ve always prided myself in having finely tuned “kink-dar” to help me identify the subtle and intangible identifiers of salacious bedroom antics.
Nurmi still has the record in the Guinness Book for her tiny wasp-like waist. Officially measured at 17″ it has also been recorded at even smaller sizes. Nurmi was very fascinated by body modification and did attain that waist of hers through dedicated tight lacing and corsetry. Although her necklines are low cut and she did attempt to enhance her bosom with a self-made wonderbra, television codes and the slimming properties of black clothing made her breasts less visible. With the outrageous makeup and trailblazing use of spooky accessories, she does remind me of a drag queen.
In a retrospective interview, Nurmi credits the evil queen from Snow White, Greta Garbo, and “Norma Desmond” from Sunset Boulevard along with Charles Addams’ 1930s sketches as being the biggest influences on her work. Vampira is like the ghost of the silver screen silent film heroine in black and white. She smoked with a long and elegant cigarette holder and would take a smoking cocktail in her hand and say, “I need a cocktail. I need a vampire cocktail to settle my nerves. It will not only settle them, it will also petrify them.”
Nurmi talks about how she deliberately mixed the traditional cheesecake moves with the “bondage and discipline” aspect from her old modeling days (and probably personal life as it just may have been). Before her, no woman had been really putting this much time and effort creating a mainstream character that was anything like this at all. The sex was deliberately included and invited but Nurmi also maintained perpetual showmanship from the way she would move her entire body through the space and hold her posture along with the posing of her body. It was an act she invested herself in 100%.
People rarely, if ever, credit a “low brow” female model or performer doing genre work as artists or performers who contributed a great deal of creative and intellectual effort into their characters. Genre artists, especially female genre artists, have frequently been shafted over the rights and ownership to their work. We don’t have any certainty over whether or not Nurmi got fucked out of her show contract for asserting her own intellectual ownership over the character of Vampira or whether the studio fired her because they were worried that her screen antics were going too far, but much like her relationship with James Dean we have an increasing pool of evidence that suggests that there is an abundance of truth to her claims.
It’s strange how the drama of intellectual ownership plays out and just how often custody of an idea is given to the individual who financially backed an idea rather than the person or persons who actually brought it into the world.It’s very strange business, indeed.
Vampira exists in relative obscurity despite the massive impact on the culture she left behind when she passed away in her sleep at the age of 86 in 2008. She wasn’t afraid to work and she wasn’t ever ashamed of the work she did from nude modeling to installing linoleum for a living in the 60s when there was no one out there who wanted her or Vampira. When asked about her seeming fall from grace, she said that if installing linoleum dried up for her there would always be carpentry.
She appeared in a number of low budget films over the years and ultimately opened a Melrose boutique where she sold clothing and jewelry she made. It is said that her entirely mute cameo in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space came as a result of her opinion that the script was so bad it was entirely unutterable. She refused to say any of her lines. Never a wealthy woman, she died in a small apartment she called home in North Hollywood and is fondly remembered by close friends, fans, and colleagues for her wealth of interests, constant creative energy, love for animals, sense of humor, storytelling skills, and profound love of life.
Where do models go when they die? People have to ask this question because unlike other artists who are allowed to continue working in their medium, many women are cast off to the side when their youth ends. They don’t get the same amount of work and often drift into obscurity. Marlene Dietrich, the Weimar Berlin cabaret dancer turned megastar (and major Mayhem influencer) said, “I vant to be alone!” in her husky German accent and lived as a social recluse. So many models do. Bettie Page refused to be photographed after she retired, convinced that it would be better for people to remember her for her “beauty.” It’s hard to imagine it went away.
I’m positively grateful for the fact that Maila Nurmi never went away willingly. She always there, prepared to share a story or offer up an “epitaph” to a fan (Vampira didn’t do autographs, she did epitaphs), and always ready for her closeup no matter how many wrinkles were there on her face. She kept wearing outrageous outfits and jewelry with an eye for creating fashion that never died or seemed unstylish. As much as I love Vampira I have to say that I admire and respect Maili Nurmi so much more. I can only hope that I have her work ethic throughout my life and a lack of shame for being a survivor.
So much as Nurmi did deserve far more credit and fame than she ever got I can only hope and dream that someday I have strange and wonderful friends who come to see me and visit a little boutique of my own somewhere that I find magical. I could only hope to be so lucky because I don’t think I have a fraction of the stage presence that she possessed. She knew her craft well and it’s still disappointing how little the world knows about her or recognizes the work and fortitude it took to build what she did.
Vampira was also “in on the joke” in many ways but she was also a consummate artist who knew how to bring in a little of this and a little of that to entertain a range of audiences all tuning in for slightly different reasons. She can be enjoyed for sexual and non-sexual reasons just as she can be admired for the raw skill and awareness she brought to performance.
Where do models go when they die? You get the constant message that you aren’t welcome on camera shortly after your 30th birthday. I’ve watched some of my modeling peers have genuine breakdowns around their 30th birthday and so many people recite, as if it were a fact of nature, that your career is over at that point. Not everyone wants to model forever and there are chosen retirements to get out of the limelight and the fast paced and insecure nature of entertainment work and there are some retirements that aren’t as welcomed by those who get up on camera.
It’s strange how our perceptions of others and our perceptions of ourselves change with time. We have ideas about what is appropriate to wear or do for certain genders across the timeline of a human life that aren’t about what someone wants to do for themselves. It all gets tangled up and it’s hard to say if anyone at all knows whether or not someone has dedicated their lives to speaking their own truth or to gain the love and acceptance of those around them by modifying that truth. To be fair, none among us is entirely on one side or the other. We all have our different faces and masks and we all have different sides of us that come out under different circumstances.
We are social creatures and being isolated from company and acceptance by other humans does have the ability to fuck with our heads. What does it mean to be yourself, sell yourself, or to sell yourself out? What are the differences between these ideas and how to they change the way we construct ourselves for the public with the way we are when no one is watching?
Looking at the stories of the people and ideas that went into my own “Recipe for Mayhem” I look for explanations, advice, and predictions. I make erotic art but I’m much more a loner in personality. The fame game intimidates me just as much now as it did when I was in junior high. I don’t have my finger on the American cultural pulse enough to know what to do in order to be successful or “make it.” I love to create and I want to spend my life creating. It’s what makes me happy. I don’t know what I’ll make in the future but I hope that I never stop because I felt as though I contributed everything I had to give so early in my life.
I wonder whether or not I’ll be shown the door in a few years when my body enters its 3rd decade on the planet and more importantly I wonder if I’ll listen. Should I want to quit, I certainly hope I do. No sense in hanging around in a situation that isn’t meeting your needs if you can avoid it. I wonder how many more wounds my career will take by expressing my rights as a creator and performer when I work with studios who have budgets and crafty lawyers. I wonder if I’ll still have fresh ideas and an urge to share them with anyone other than my close and personal friends. Strange thing is, I don’t spend much time thinking about how my body will change.
This is supposed to be what I worry about. When I turned 27, my birthday emails triggered an onslaught of Google ads for weight loss, skin cremes, and Acai diets. People made a million jokes about getting closer to 30. I don’t know. From my own point of view, I think I will be exceptionally lucky indeed if I grow into a face that has, literally, thousands of wrinkles. I hope that I do someday look back on a face full of wrinkles and white hair without having to bleach. I hope that this face still smiles, creates, and takes the occasional dirty picture even if the body doesn’t do that as a primary means of income anymore. I hope I still love doing something just for the hell of it and I wish that I will have the ability to do it well.