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Interview with Vampira

The original Scream Queen

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If these are good times for sexily cheeky bloodsucking freaks, the mother of them all — Vampira — isn’t getting her due.

TV’s original horror-show hostess (whose real name is Maila Nurmi), Vampira was an S&M-lite concoction made up of equal parts Theda Bara and Morticia Addams. Blessed with a 17-inch waist and ample cleavage, she had fans all over the world at the height of her fame in the mid-’50s, when her eponymous show aired on L.A.’s KABC. One of her fans was director Ed Wood, who cast her in 1956 for his no-budget horror opus Plan 9 From Outer Space, and who has posthumously attained lowly new heights of fame through Tim Burton’s recent biopic.

Now 72, the Finnish-born Nurmi lives (with a cat and two pigeons but no phone or car) in a small Hollywood apartment, where she subsists on Social Security. Although she had previously worked with portrait artist Bernard of Hollywood and was a popular pinup model for Vargas, things got tough when KABC canceled her show in 1955. ”There was a horror craze going on,” she recalls, ”and I was thinking someone was going to knock on my door.” Mr. Wood did. ”I was on unemployment — $13 a week — and I was paid $200 for one day (for Plan 9).” In the late ’50s and early ’60s she made three movies for quickie producer Albert Zugsmith (including Sex Kittens Go to College), but after that she found herself ”housecleaning for friends, charging 99 cents an hour.” Her clients included Burt Reynolds, Tuesday Weld, Troy Donahue, and Tab Hunter.

In the mid-’60s she opened a clothing boutique called Vampira’s Attic, where rockers like Iron Butterfly and Grace Slick shopped. By the early ’80s, amid the Hollywood punk-rock scene, she found herself performing on spoken-word night at L.A.’s Anti-Club, doing monthly recitations from a book she was writing about Googie’s, a ’50s coffee shop and actors’ hangout. ”I got to chapter five and the Red Hot Chili Peppers came in — those guys who appear naked with socks on their penises — and that was the end of it,” she remembers. ”In fact, it ended my career. I said I’d never face a live audience again except with a loaded machine gun.”

Although Nurmi has been married three times, her close yet platonic friendship with James Dean remains the highlight of her life: ”He was the first and the last human being I’ve ever known with whom I’d felt we were of the same species. Everybody else to me is a stranger.”