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Every year at Halloween, there are certain pop cultural touchstones of the season that come back, reminding us why we love this holiday of ghosts and goblins so much. The Sanderson sisters of “Hocus Pocus.” The horrifying mask of Michael Myers. The sexually tempting ways of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
“The key to my longevity is definitely aligning with a national holiday,” Cassandra Peterson, the woman who has played Elvira since 1981, told TODAY.
When compared to Santa Claus, she responded: “Exactly, except without the beard.”
This year, as the leaves turn gold and pumpkin spice pops up everywhere, Peterson has made a shocking admission to the world: she has been in a relationship with a woman for almost two decades.
“It was hard on both me and my partner, sneaking around and introducing her as only my assistant, which she is, by the way,” Peterson said. “It was just uncomfortable, holding in secrets like that. That's your energy, you know? And I just turned 70 years old and thinking, ‘If I don't talk about it now, when will I? When I’m 90?’”
In tandem with her new book, "Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark," Peterson sat down for an interview with TODAY, opening up about her decadeslong relationship with a woman, why she has no current plans to get married again and what labels she uses to identify herself with ... if any.
‘I was worried about my gay fans thinking I was a hypocrite’
Peterson began performing as Elvira in 1981 on a local television show in Hollywood, hosting a weekly showing of B-movies called “Movie Macabre.”
“I was an actress in Hollywood, running around, looking for work and heard about this horror hosting thing on a local station,” she explained. “I knew it wasn't going to be much money or anything but as an actor when you’re out of work you can't be too picky. I didn't know exactly what the hell I would be doing, but it was horror-related and I was and still am obviously a big horror fan. So I thought this is going to be such a great gig. I actually get a little check every week to do this awesome job.”
After that show ended, Peterson went national with Elvira in a syndicated version. She later acquired the rights to the character, the key to how she has been able to perform as her for the last four decades.
“I really, honestly, never imagined that being the rest of my life,” she said. “It was such a cheesy, low-budget show. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is probably going to last about a week.’ But here I am, 40 years later still doing it.”
Elvira had her own feature film in 1988, and continued to make appearances every Halloween, making massive income over the merchandising of Elvira. Peterson also had a daughter, Sadie, in 1994 with her then-husband, Mark Pierson, whom she married in 1981.
In 2002, Peterson met Teresa Wierson — whom she lovingly refers to as "T" — at Gold's Gym in Hollywood. By now, Peterson was separated from her estranged husband and wasn’t looking to date anyone. Especially not a woman.
“I really didn't understand what was going on,” she said. “I mean, I knew I was falling in love with her, but I kept saying to myself, ‘You’re not gay! What's going on?’ Sadly for her I even sent her packing for a while. It was hard for me to come to the conclusion that it was OK. I've been with men for 50 years, now suddenly I want to be with a woman? It really was very bizarre.”
After staying friends with Wierson, the pair ended up developing a romantic relationship and falling in love. But Peterson kept their relationship a secret until now, when in her new book she "came out" about dating her. One of the fears Peterson harbored wasn’t what her straight fans would think. She was more worried about her LGBTQ fans, especially since for her entire career, Elvira has been heralded as a gay icon and Peterson is known herself as an LGBTQ ally.
“Honestly, that made it harder,” she said. “It's so funny because practically 99.9% of my friends are gay, and I had so many gay friends on the one side I had not told. I feel like it'll be harder for them to hear and I was more worried about my gay fans thinking, ‘Oh, God, what a hypocrite. All these years she keeps this secret, while hanging out with the gay crowd. Meanwhile, she's been with a woman.’
"That was the biggest hurdle to get over. It didn't bother me as much with the straight people as I was worried about my gay fans thinking I was a hypocrite.”
"You need to be open to those changes and feel OK about yourself and with yourself for loving whoever you want."
On how she identifies sexually, Peterson doesn’t identify as gay or as a lesbian since she is still attracted to men.
"I always have been,” she explained. “My partner is fairly androgynous and so I was attracted to her but I'm not attracted to women in general.”
While some have suggested she is bisexual, she doesn’t relate to this label as well. “I think pansexual might be a good label for it possibly. Just fluid,” she said.
Overall, she said, “I fell in love with a particular person who just happened to be a woman.”
One label Peterson unabashedly identifies with: drag queen.
“Oh, 100%,” she said. “I am completely a drag queen, the only difference is I don't tuck. Other than that, I'm exactly the same.”
Before Elvira, Peterson even worked in gay clubs as a drag queen — a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. As Elvira, she appeared as a guest judge on "RuPaul's Drag Race" in 2019 and at numerous DragCons over the years. She is close friends with the queen of all queens herself, RuPaul, and even said she helped inspire the drag icon to begin producing DragCon back in 2015.
“All my drag queens friends, we all talk about the same thing: new heels, putting on all the makeup, piling on the wings, the glamorous dresses," she said. "It's exactly the same.”
'There's so many different options now'
Peterson's journey as Elvira and her personal sexual awakening as Cassandra is all profiled in her new book, "Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark."
On what she hopes people learn from the book and ultimately her story of falling in love with a woman after being straight all her life, she said "you just don't know what is around the corner."
"You may suddenly change," she added. "Don't be critical of anyone in the way they see themselves, because that can all change in a moment. You need to be open to those changes and feel OK about yourself and with yourself for loving whoever you want. Person by person, there's so many different options now. I'm so glad to see that all happening, and that could have never happened back when I was young. I just hope everybody feels good about how they feel about themselves."
Peterson's story especially carries a message to people who may be older. She believes you're never too old to learn something new about yourself and to challenge yourself in ways you didn't know were possible.
"I hope this gives people a little inspiration to feel like it's OK to change," she said. "You could even be in a relationship with a same-sex partner and maybe later on you're falling in love with a person of the opposite sex. Who knows?
"Life throws you a curveball and all of a sudden you're saying, 'What the hell am I doing here?' I never saw it coming, but it’s been the best long-term relationship of my life."
So are wedding bells in their future?
"I'm still dealing with alimony from my first husband," she said candidly. "So I don't know about marriage, but I was thinking about some kind of commitment ceremony. Just because I don't want to have another alimony check to write."