What’s life like for Cassandra Peterson right now? “Unexpectedly fantastic and busy,” she says in an interview during her “two-day vacation” from her packed schedule.
When the woman behind the beloved character of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, decided to come out in September, the world took notice. “It’s been crazy,” Peterson says about the outpouring of love she’s received after opening up about her almost two-decade relationship with her partner, Teresa “T” Wierson, in her new memoir, Yours Cruelly, Elvira, which at the time of this interview ranked fourth on The New York Times best-seller list. “I think the book publishers are as surprised as I am.”
It’s far from the reaction the horror icon feared. When Peterson began her Hollywood career, being closeted was necessary for an entertainer’s survival. “I’m playing this sexy straight horndog woman, you know. If I was playing someone’s grandma, I don’t think people would care. But I’ve had friends who play straight male romantic leads whose careers [coming out] has ruined,” Peterson recalls, adding, “I have friends who said to me, ‘If you’re ever asked if T is your partner or if you’re with a woman, deny, deny, deny — don’t say anything if you want to keep your career going.’ So I just did.”
However, that denial took a toll. “I felt hypocritical.... It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, be who you are, do it,’ and then meanwhile, I’m like sneaking around with my partner,” she says. After all, Peterson spent her entire life surrounded by queer people, from performing at a Colorado drag bar as a teen to doing live shows in the ’70s in queer meccas like San Francisco. She’s always counted gay men among her dearest friends.
“My best friends used to be in drama class with me. And I had no idea that they were gay men, but I thought, I love these boys. They never try to jump on me like all the other guys do and they’re fun. And I have a great time with them. And I feel safe,” Peterson shared in a prior interview with this writer. Per her former wishes, her friends kept the specifics of her relationship private. “My friends were totally supportive. And I’m happy to say that every last one of them obviously kept their mouths shut because nobody knew,” she says.
Thankfully, most of her fears were unfounded. The internet largely celebrated the news that Peterson had found love with a woman as a long-term partner. “It’s my dream come true. I really hoped that everybody would be accepting of it. I knew my fans would,” she says.
Still, not everyone was rejoicing. There are those who follow her just for “my cleavage — you know, older fans, mostly men — that I knew would not be happy about it. And that kind of did happen,” she says. “I was recently told on my social media that I had 11,000 people drop me off of Facebook,” she says, adding, “The good part is I got 60,000 new followers. So, you know, buh-bye, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
For Peterson, some online negativity is worth the freedom of no longer hiding her love. “It’s so much nicer; we can just walk down the street and act like two normal human beings,” she says. “And instead of just introducing her to anybody as like, ‘Oh, this is my assistant, T.’ It’s so kind of degrading and humiliating for her, I think. I always felt bad doing that…. Now [I say], ‘This is my partner, T.’ I just feel so much better. I got a very heavy burden lifted off my chest — and it wasn’t my boobs. I still have them; they’re very heavy.”
As for Wierson, “she’s very happy, but she’s kind of shy; she doesn’t want to be in the public eye,” says Peterson. “She’s just getting offered to be in interviews and asked to send photos...but she’s a very private person and just doesn’t really want to go on TV shows now or write a book…. But she’s thrilled that we finally came out.”
In the media, Peterson’s been referred to as bi, queer, and lesbian since coming out, but none of those labels are ones Peterson uses to describe herself. When asked how she identifies now, Peterson says she’s been asking herself the same question.
“I’m very confused by it,” she admits. “There’s black and there’s white and then there’s a hundred shades of gray in between. And I have people say, ‘Oh, so you’re bi,’ and I go, ‘Well, I guess I am now. I wasn’t bi before this, I’ve only been with men.’ And then they say, ‘Oh, how does it feel to even finally be, you know, a lesbian?’ And well...I’m not sure how it feels exactly. I mean, my attraction is to men still.”
Peterson explains that she’s drawn to androgyny. As she recounts in her book, she initially mistook Wierson for the “bad boy” of the Hollywood Gold’s Gym where they first me. One day, they bumped into each other in the bathroom and Peterson realized her “bad boy” was actually a bad girl. Additionally, men she’s been attracted to over the years have played with gender presentation.
“I was always madly in love with David Bowie and Mick Jagger, because they have androgyny going on. It’s very attractive to people I think, you know, not super macho and not super femme,” she says. Peterson says she’s still figuring things out about her sexuality. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like a teenager all of a sudden,” she laughs.
One might assume that at 70, Peterson’s career would be winding down — but she’s hotter than ever. This October, she hosted Elvira’s 40th Anniversary, Very Scary, Very Special, Special, a movie marathon on the horror-centric streaming service Shudder, as well as Netflix and Chills, a month-long Halloween celebration on that service. She also appeared in the Halloween episode of The Goldbergs. “Oh, my God, I’m 70 years old and I’m getting more popular,” she says in a Valley girl accent.
The Mistress of the Dark has always resonated with queer audiences, and Peterson has a theory as to why. “Believe it or not, she’s a little bit androgynous...in that she’s a very sexy woman showing a lot of cleavage and all that. But then her male side is that she’s strong, tough, determined, and doesn’t take any crap,” she explains. “Cher and Madonna, for example, have that same thing going on.” Peterson also explains why she and many queer folks are drawn to the horror genre: It’s a safe haven for outsiders.
“I was teased and made fun of when I was a child,” says Peterson, due to scars she received from accidentally spilling a pot of boiling water on herself. Many queer men, often bullied for not being “like the other boys,” share this experience of not fitting in.
Peterson has long been an ally for marginalized folks, and now she’s doing that for LGBTQ+ people in a brand-new way. She’s been a friend forever, but now she’s family too. In a fascinating life, being on the cover of Out is the latest twist for Peterson. “I never thought it was going to be something I’d see, but it feels exciting,” she says “I was like, ‘Did I really come out? OK, I guess I did.’ This cover will be proof that I did. I’ll look at it and go, ‘Hey, I did.’”
Cassandra Peterson is one of seven cover stars of Out's 2021 Out100 issue, which is on newsstands November 30. Since this is also Out's 300th issue, we are running a $3 promotion for a one-year subscription. Subscribe now (the promotion ends on December 1). Otherwise, support queer media and subscribe outside of the promotion — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.