The honor, named after the late Vincent Price, a friend of Peterson’s, is bestowed upon an artist “whose work has achieved equally iconic status.” And the legendary Mistress of the Dark couldn’t be more appreciative ― or deserving.
Peterson, who created her equal parts spooky, sexy and goofy character in 1981 when she was hired to host a local Los Angeles TV station’s weekly horror movie series, has spent the last 37 years titillating viewers with her trademark mix of wit, camp and humor.
To celebrate her achievement, HuffPost chatted with Peterson about her character’s unlikely origin, the life-changing advice she got from Elvis when she was 17, and how she got the last laugh when her bosses refused to pay her what she was worth.
“When people say to me, 'Don’t you feel typecast? Don’t you want to stop playing Elvira?' I say, 'Hell to the no! Are you out of your mind?'”
On getting bit by the horror movie bug as a child:
My first entrée into horror was my cousin Danny taking me downtown to the Chief Theatre in Colorado Springs to see “The House On Haunted Hill” starring Vincent Price. I had a love/hate obsession with the movie and with Vincent Price. I was in second or third grade and I came home from that movie and had nightmares every night for a month. But at the same time, I was obsessed with it.
I begged Danny to take me to other horror movies, but he had to take me without my parents knowing because they didn’t want the nightmares to continue. I started looking around newsstands for magazines like Famous Monsters, and pretty soon, when my sisters were begging for Barbies for Christmas, I was begging for model kits of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Frankenstein and Dracula.
On how she created the Elvira character:
I was in The Groundlings [theater group] in the mid-70s with Paul Reuben, who plays Peewee Herman, and Phil Hartman and many other really great actors. I went on auditions every day ― I considered myself a comedy actress, but I wasn’t working. I was working as a hostess at a restaurant and going on auditions. I did bit parts on TV shows like “Fantasy Island” and “Happy Days,” and a friend of mine told me about an audition for a horror host on a local TV station. It didn’t pay anything because it was local TV, but I thought, I love horror. That’d be awesome.
The director came and saw me at The Groundlings, where I was doing a Valley girl character. Moon Zappa’s song “Valley Girl” had just come out and I had a character that was [in a Valley girl voice] kinda sexy and an actress looking for work and she talked like this all the time.
The director wanted me to do that character when I came to the audition and I said, “OK? I mean, it’s not very spooky, but it’s up to you.” So I did that character and everybody there loved it and they hired me.
They said, “Come up with a spooky costume,” and I said “Wait. I’m going to do that character but with a spooky costume? Uhh...” It didn’t make any sense to me, but they were going to pay me $350 bucks a week so I was pretty damn happy. That was my whole rent for the month at the time!
I got together with my best friend, a guy named Robert Redding ― who sadly died not long after in the AIDS epidemic, but he was an artist ― and I started coming up with all kinds of sketches and thoughts about what the character could look like. Our first character looked kind of like Sharon Tate looked in “The Fearless Vampire Killers” ― a sheer, long, tattered dress and kind of a ghost girl with long red curly hair. The local station said, “You have to be in all black,” so we went back to the drawing board.
And we came up with this dress ― we wanted to go with something as low-cut and sexy as possible, and I think we hit that on the mark ― and then he got the makeup out of a Kabuki theater makeup book. The wig was inspired by Robert’s favorite girl group of all time, The Ronettes. He based the wig on Ronnie Spector. Then, since it was the ’80s, we threw a little leather and some studs on the belt and around the wrists. It was a combination of a lot of things that were going on at that time. It created a unique character that I would not have done if somebody had just said, “Hey, you need to look like a female vampire.”
On forging a career with the help of her trademark cleavage:
The funny thing was I basically had always made a career with my cleavage [laughs], so doing it with Elvira was no different. I started out as a go-go dancer when I was 14 years old and I did that until I was 17 and I moved to Las Vegas and became the youngest showgirl in Las Vegas history. I think I still hold that record. I started at a club in downtown Colorado Springs called Club A Go Go and then I danced at EM [enlisted members] clubs at Fort Carson and NORAD Air Force Base and all the different Army bases.
When you say ‘go-go dancer,’ people think topless, but it wasn’t. Back then, it involved short, fringy dresses and white go-go boots. Then I started driving ― before I even had my license ― to places like North Dakota and Wyoming and Nebraska on my breaks from school and I would go-go dance at Holiday Inns or wherever and I did that until I landed this job at 17 at The Dunes Hotel in Vegas.
On Elvis Presley and the life-changing advice he gave her:
He came to see me dance in “Vive Les Girls” at The Dunes Hotel in 1969 or 1970. He invited all of the showgirls back to his hotel room, which was the entire top floor of the International Hotel. There was a big party ― he was so famous he couldn’t go out anywhere or do anything, so he just had in-house entertainment. Since I was the youngest of the showgirls ― I was 17, and I think the next-youngest dancer was 28 or 29 ― he instantly glommed on to me.
I think he liked ’em young, judging by Priscilla [Presley], right? He was going through a divorce with her at the time, and everyone wonders what happened between him and me, but you have to remember, I was underage. So nothing did go on, except some kissing.
He was very innocent. He was surrounded by all of his handlers every second ― he was never alone. We talked all night. He played the piano and we sang together. He had just gotten this belt from the president of the United States, so he was showing me that. We were talking about numerology and astrology and psychic stuff ― he was really into it. I have a bunch of notes that he wrote for me on the back of an envelope that’s addressed to Vernon Presley ― his father.
We talked about everything from about 4 in the morning until 11 or 12 the next day, when I finally made him go to bed.
My first gift ever was a copy of “Hound Dog” when I was just a few years old. So, Elvis had had a big impact on my life already, and the reason I had gone to Vegas was because I saw his film “Viva Las Vegas” and I decided that being a showgirl was a really awesome job.
So there I was in Vegas, meeting Elvis, and he went into lecture mode and he said, “Let me tell you, Vegas is no place for a young girl like you. You need to get the hell out of here. You do not want to stay here and be like all these other girls and end up in your 30s and doing god knows what or just working at the blackjack table.”
He said, “If you really want to be in showbiz, you’ve got to get out of this town.” And I was like, “What? I just got here and I love it!” And he said, “No. No. No. You just sang with me and you’ve got a really nice voice. You should get voice lessons and go into singing. When you’re 24 or 25, you’re going to be too old to dance. You need to start thinking about a different career path if you want to stay in show business.”
So I did exactly that. I went out and got a singing coach the next day, and within a month, I got a singing gig in my show. I was still a showgirl, but I sang one number a night ― “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” It was really sexy and really racy and it was called the “lesbian number” because all the girls were wearing men’s suits and they danced with this other girl and I was singing.
Elvis and I only hung out that one time. I didn’t get a Cadillac or anything else from him, but I did get the best advice I’ve ever gotten. He was wonderful and intelligent and fun and naive but he was so interesting ― a really amazing, amazing person. You could tell you were in the presence of somebody very, very special when you were with him.
“Elvis was going through a divorce with Priscilla at the time and everyone wonders what happened between him and me, but you have to remember, I was underage. So nothing did go on, except some kissing.”
On the moment she realized her life was about to change forever:
I was doing Elvira and I was going along, thinking, This is just a gig. I’m on late night TV and who knows if anybody is even watching me. I didn’t even know if the show would last more than a week ― I really didn’t ― because it was so... lowbrow. At first, it didn’t change my life whatsoever. I was working during the day as a temporary secretary and I was going on auditions whenever I got them and doing the show one day a week. Then, suddenly, everything changed.
Back then, everyone had their name in the phone book ― and my name was in the credits of the show. All of a sudden, my phone started ringing one day. I was getting phone calls like, ‘Could you make an appearance at my beauty salon?’ and ‘Could you come to my husband’s birthday party?’ My phone was ringing. And ringing. And ringing. It wouldn’t stop!
We had to have the phone disconnected and have our number changed. It was mind-boggling. I thought, What the hell is going on? The show was kind of ridiculous to me and I wasn’t making any real money from it. I thought it was fun, but I didn’t think it was going to be a career-defining moment. I thought, Awesome. This job can pay my rent. Little did I know.
On how she became the head of her very own empire after her bosses refused to give her a raise:
I own the character and I get all of the profits from every Elvira-themed product. We kept asking the station for a raise ― I was there for seven years, and after a couple of years, the show was syndicated nationally ― but they wouldn’t give me a raise, so, in lieu of a raise, my ex-husband, who managed me with his partner, asked for the rights to have a fan club and the station said yes.
And then we asked for the rights to have Elvira appear on other shows ― I did “CHIPS” and “The Fall Guy” and other shows ― and they said yes. And we asked for this right and that right, and one day, they realized that we owned all of the rights to Elvira!
We didn’t feel bad about it because I was being paid so incredibly little. It was the station’s No. 1 rated show! They were taking advantage of me! I did the first 3D television show that had ever been broadcast and they sold 3D glasses at 7-Eleven. I think they sold the glasses for $3 a pair and the show only aired in LA and I think they sold something like 2.7 million pairs of glasses. So multiply that by three ― that’s a lot of money ― and I got ... $350 dollars! So when people say I cheated the station out of the rights, I say, “I don’t think so.”
We still own the character ― 100 percent. It’s a fantastic advantage. Usually, any actor who plays a popular character on something like “Star Trek” or whatever show, they don’t have any control over their licensing and merchandising. They may get a small percentage, but in general, it’s just pennies on each item. I get it all. Whenever you see something that features Elvira, I’m making the money off of it. That’s why when people say to me, “Don’t you feel typecast? Don’t you want to stop playing Elvira?” I say, “Hell to the no! Are you out of your mind?”
On how difficult it is (even for the undead) to grow older in Hollywood:
I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and it really gets to me. I love LA. I’ve been living in Hollywood for 36 years, and as I get older, I’m starting to feel that this city is just brutal. It’s started to cross my mind that I should move away because I don’t like putting on a ton of makeup and doing my hair to go to the damn grocery store. I would like to just pull my hair in a ponytail and just go ― and most of the time I do, but then you’re always afraid you’re going to run into TMZ or someone’s going to take a picture and put it on social media.
I was at the grocery store a couple of days ago, and a guy ran up to me and said, “Elvira! Can I take a picture with you?” I had just finished my workout and I was sweaty and wearing a baseball cap and I had no makeup on and I said, “Oh, I’d like to but I just can’t right now,” because you just know you’ll see it all over social media. It’s almost like you get to the point where you want to become a hermit and never leave your house. I don’t want to live like that. I like going out every day.
I have to say, though, that I’ve had a big advantage over other [stars] because of the role I play. I’m pretty unrecognizable when I’m not dressed as Elvira. People just don’t realize it’s me when I’m out of the costume ― I have long red hair, I’m much smaller than people think Elvira is, I don’t have giant boobs. I mean, they’re not so bad, but with Elvira, they’re pushed up and my bra is stuffed with everything except for the kitchen sink to get that cleavage.
It’s tougher for women ― Hollywood is brutal to women from the beginning of their careers until the end. It doesn’t get any easier. So, I have thought about moving away, which I would hate.
On horror in the Trump era:
I really do think there’s a correlation between Trump and his administration and there being more horror movies and more people wanting to watch horror movies right now.
It’s about people looking for a way to take their minds off of the real horror that is Donald Trump. What he’s doing to this country ― he’s ruining our democracy right before our eyes, and no one seems to be standing up to him. It’s way, way scarier than any horror movie could be. And I do think it’s caused a resurgence in these movies.
There were all the Godzilla movies when the Cold War was going on and people were afraid of nuclear proliferation. It became really popular ― the giant rat movies, the giant leech movies ― because it was people taking their minds off of something that was terrifying and putting it on something they could relate to. Everyone can relate to a giant leech! [Laughs.] Especially if you live in Washington, D.C!
“I've always said when guys have my poster in their bedroom, it’s because they either want to do me or they want to be me, and right around puberty, they decide which one it is.”
On acting as a “beard” for countless gay men:
Gay culture and gay men, in particular, are such a huge, huge part of my life ― partly, I think, because I feel like I was raised by a pack of wild drag queens. I really do.
When I was 14, one of my first jobs, just a few feet from Fort Carson Army base, was at a gay bar called The Purple Cow. I went in there one day, not really knowing what was going on, and I thought, Oh! I should come in here more often ― it’s all really handsome guys! [Laughs.] And I got to talking to someone and they asked me if I wanted to dance as a go-go girl there. So I did.
I don’t know why they wanted to hire me, but I hung out with all of the drag queens who did the show every night. They started teaching me how to dress, how to wear my hair, how to do my makeup, how to walk ― and the next thing I knew, I was in their drag show! One of the guys didn’t show up one night, so they put me in as the third drag queen doing a Supremes number. I was a woman being a man being a woman!
I just gravitated to gay men and drag queens and was around them my whole life. When I was in Vegas, my two best friends were the male stars of the show and they were gay, and I was with them 24 hours a day. After that, I had a group called Mama’s Boys ― it was me and seven gay men ― and we traveled all over the country during the disco era. I surrounded myself with gay men and they taught me how to be and do everything.
I can’t tell you what a big influence they were on me and now, it’s funny, I’m an influence on them! It really came full circle. It’s so funny how many guys come up to me and say, ‘I had your poster in my room and it was fantastic because my mom thought I was straight!’ They were like, ‘You were my beard for so many years!’ [Laughs.] I’ve always said when guys have my poster in their bedroom, it’s because they either want to do me or they want to be me, and right around puberty, they decide which one it is.
Responses have been edited for style and clarity.