Wednesday, 18 August 2021

My 1995 Interview with Punk Diva Jayne County

As you may know, I paid my dues throughout the late eighties and nineties writing for hardcore punk zines like Flipside and MAXIMUMROCKNROLL. None of these pieces are online, so I’m gradually endeavoring to posting them on here for posterity. So far, I’ve uploaded my interviews with The Cramps, Divinyls and Lydia Lunch (actually, there are two articles with Lunch – here and here). Here are some articles I did about outrageous pioneering transgender punk icon Jayne (formerly Wayne) County in 1995. 

Quick bit of context: at the time, County was London-based and playing semi regular gigs at a now-defunct pub called The Intrepid Fox in Soho that attracted a punk and heavy metal clientele. I was always thrilled to see this punk legend perform in such an intimate space. The Intrepid Fox was a pub rather than a music venue. There was no stage and County wasn’t backed by a band. The shows were therefore more like raunchy one-woman performance art than a conventional rock gig and all the better for it. Jayne would arrive with a flurry of drama and excitement (the first thing you’d see entering the building was her gigantic bouffant haystack wig, and then the crowd would part) and then sing over taped musical accompaniment in the corner by the window. Inevitably, passersby outside would be transfixed by the spectacle of County - wearing her signature shortie babydoll mini dresses and laddered tights - thrashing and flailing around in a glamour fit and stop and stare, which would only spur County to freak out the squares even more. Glorious! The MAXIMUMROCKNROLL interview was conducted at The Intrepid Fox before one of County's gigs. I remember buying her a drink and I seem to recall County's cocktail of choice was Southern Comfort, black currant and lemonade. 

/ My own shot of County performing at The Underworld in Camden Town, London in 2005 /

When I encountered County in ’95 she was busy promoting two projects: her memoirs Man Enough to Be a Woman and her first new album in many years, Deviation. Note that the book – co-written with County’s friend, journalist, novelist and literary homme du monde Rupert Smith – has recently been reissued by Serpent’s Tail and is essential reading. Also note that in these articles County and I sometimes use expressions that have now fallen out of favour but were commonly used in the nineties. When I post these articles, I'm tempted to tweak things (I'd write them entirely different now!) but always resist. At the time, I was also contributing to the music publication Vox and the men's magazine Ikon - both long defunct!  


/ County and kindred spirit / contemporary Divine in 1974: in terms of outsider drag royalty, this pic is the equivalent of those 1950s paparazzi shots of Jayne Mansfield and Sophia Loren together / 

From the May 1995 issue of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL

Punk rock’s number one transsexual is back! Straight out of the gutter and into your arms, trash icon Jayne (formerly Wayne) County is resuming her one-woman assault on good taste, complete with a forthcoming autobiography Man Enough to Be a Woman and her first new LP in years Deviation. Despite a low-key period in the eighties, County’s sleaze-rock sensibility, whorish dress sense and paint-stripping vocals are as fierce as ever and ready to terrorize a new generation of audiences. We chew the fat over her past, present and future. 

Early years: little Wayne County was raised Pentecostal in Atlanta, Georgia. County still retains a Southern accent and a taste for Southern Comfort. As an androgynous teen, she met antagonism from the locals. 

MRR: I heard that when you used to leave the house in your Beatles suit and Cuban heels, the local rednecks wouldn’t just shout insults or even beat you up they would literally shoot at you! 

Jayne County: I got shot at one time. That’s what the song “Are You a Boy or a Girl?” is about. We used to get chased through the streets all the time. I used to carry two pairs of shoes: one to walk in and one to run in in case I had to make a quick change! We used to run from the police as well, they were just as bad. Horrible redneck police. You’d have to hide behind trees when they’d come around the corner. In those days men could be arrested for female impersonation if their hair touched the top of their ears! They could legally arrest you for female impersonation! (Laughs). They’d just use any excuse to arrest you. It was weird. A weird time. Really strange. One night me and another transgender person, Davina Daisy who looked like Liz Taylor, were walking down the street.  We were always on acid! We were sailing down the street, stoned out of our minds, and we heard these (does “whoosh!” noise). It’s very strange to hear bullets whizzing past your ears! I said, “You know, they’re fucking shootin’ at us!” It was a truck full of rednecks and they had the gun right out the window and were shooting right at us! 

MRR: It sounds like something out of Easy Rider! 

JC: Yes, exactly like Easy Rider. I kind of decided right there I wanted to split, leave Atlanta. 

County left Atlanta for good in ’68 – originally meant to go to San Francisco but got sidetracked to New York – arrived in time to participate in the legendary Stonewall Riots in ’69 – became active in the extreme fringes of Off-Off Broadway underground theatre scene. She landed the role of Vulva in the play Pork, a parody of the Andy Warhol Superstar Factory crowd. 

JC: It was 1971. (The play) was based on all these tapes, Warhol’s personal tapes. He taped people on the phone. He had all these taped conversations of people sayin’ awful stuff. He gave them to a friend of mine, Tony Ingrassia, and he put them into script form, into a play and called it Andy Warhol’s Pork. Basically, we were just saying real lines that people had rang up and said to Andy Warhol. Tony was a real good friend of (the Warhol Superstars) Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling and had appeared in lots of Theatre of the Ridiculous underground stuff. He had been directing a play of mine called World: The Birth of a Nation, Castration of Man. It was called that ‘cause we had all these traditional male figures doin’ weird things. Like John Wayne gave to a baby out his asshole. Stuff like that. Warhol came to see the play and he was totally impressed. He wanted me to be in the play and for Tony, who’d directed my play, to direct Pork. So, we got lots of attention with that. 


/ Andy Warhol (centre) with the cast of Pork. That is - of course! - County on the left /

A production of Pork went to London later that year, where County found an admirer in David Bowie – unfortunately, this was pre-Ziggy Stardust Bowie and instead of finding a kindred spirit, County lamented that he was “just another folkie” – musical debut at a 1972 gig at New York University, which turned ugly – County’s onstage antics included squirting the audience with a  dildo-shaped water pistol and eating dog food out of a toilet bowl.

JC: This guy from the Gay Liberation Front saw me onstage and went to the dean, and the dean came down and said he wasn’t going to allow NYU to be turned into a 42nd Street smut shop! I was pretty over-the-top then. We didn’t get to do shit. The power went off during “It Takes a Man Like Me to Find a Woman Like Me”, where I was layin’ on the floor with a fake vagina strapped around me and fucking myself with a double-headed black dildo, and the power just went! And this person started screaming at us, “Being gay has nothing to do with hating women!” We were looking at each other like, huh? This has nothing to do with hating women. This is just over-the-top shock tactics. See, my problem is I always expected people to get it and they hardly ever do! 

County became a regular in the VIP backroom of the legendary pre-punk hangout Max’s Kansas City – as a tribute, she would later write and record the club’s theme song “Max’s Kansas City” on the first Electric Chairs LP in ’78. 

JC: It went through a lot of different phases. The backroom could be vicious. You dared not walk out of the backroom with your back turned because everyone was gonna be saying horrible things about you. That was where the elite hung out. You could find just anyone back there at any given moment, from people like Grace Slick to Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix to up-and-coming underground people like the Warhol people, the Theatre of Ridiculous, to the lowest drug dealer in town to someone strung out on the floor on Quaaludes. It was just such a mixture. Intellectuals, famous writers, movie directors. 

MRR: Pre-Blondie Deborah Harry used to be a waitress there. 

JC: Yeah, that’s in my book. She was famous for dumping cheeseburgers into peoples’ laps, walking into the walls. She was so stoned half the time she got fired! 

Around this time County entered into a competitive friendship with Warhol’s drag queen Superstars Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, the trio name-dropped in the lyrics of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” 

JC: I used to live in a flat with Holly. It was Leee’s flat, really. (Photographer and scene-maker) Leee Black Childers. I was there with Holly, Jackie Curtis. Jackie moved in first. She was running away from this guy who was producing her in this play she’d written. She’d run away because he was a maniac – he was torturing her. Driving her crazy, basically. So, she quit the play. She was in hiding. He was threatening to kill her and everything. Jackie was a total speed freak. She put speed in her coffee, speed in her orange juice. She sprayed the apartment silver. It would have been nice if it’d been done right, but she just sprayed over the dishes, skipped the corners, sprayed the refrigerator. We came home one day, and it was horrible, blotches of silver everywhere, and she thought it was wonderful. She was speeding, y’know. We didn’t have a phone and she had a telephone put in and she put a lock on it so that we couldn’t use it. She was in Long Island, and I broke the lock off. She was visiting somebody – was it Candy? No, she’d had a big falling out with Candy before then. She was in Long Island, and I had the number and I’d broken the lock off the phone and called her. I said, “Oh hi Jackie. I’m calling from the apartment.” And she was like, Oh. I said, “Jackie, you don’t live in this apartment and put a lock on the phone.” It was easy to have a falling out with Jackie because everybody did. She’d fall out with people quicker than she could be friends with them. Always. She fell out with everyone I know. 


/ Portrait of Jackie Curtis (1947 - 1985) by Leee Black Childers /

MRR: So, you and Holly were closer? 

JC: Well, I fell out with Holly because of Jackie. Holly had the bad habit of getting her welfare cheque, her dole cheque, and all bills were due, and she’d promised to pay up with the bills. So, she got her dole cheque and what does she do? She went off and bought a fucking feather boa with it. Came home and said, “Oh darling, isn’t it glamorous?” Yes, but our electricity’s going to be cut off in two days! So, I got really nuts about that. Jackie wouldn’t go to Holly herself, so she asked me to do it, to ask Holly to leave. We were the only ones bringing in money. We’d be sleeping, it would be four o’clock in the morning and Holly would come in and she’d be rolling around in the middle of the floor with someone. Anyway, it got too crazy and there were too many people living in the flat and I was the one chosen. I was the villain, and I regret it. I shouldn’t have let Jackie manipulate me like that. 


/ Holly Woodlawn (1946 - 2015) /

MRR: Did you and Holly ever patch things up? That was over twenty years ago. 

JC: Oh yeah. Of course, we have. Everything’s fine now. We never mention that. But she’s fine now. 


/ Diva summit meeting: County and Woodlawn in the eighties/ 

MRR: Candy was more stuck up. 

JC: She was snobby, yeah. She hated Holly’s guts. She didn’t like me at all. She had a big falling out with Jackie too. The minute Jackie decided to start wearing dresses all the time Candy hated her. Candy wanted to be the only underground drag queen, she didn’t want anyone giving her any competition. She was very jealous of her position. She didn’t want any challenge. We didn’t have any fights or nothing, but I would purposely do things to upset her. Purposely wear the same top or some hat I’d seen her in three days ago and watch her face as I walked into the backroom. Or copy her eye make-up on purpose and watch her go crazy! I did that once. 


/ Portrait of Candy Darling (1944 - 1974) by Gerard Malanga /

MRR: How come you didn’t end up acting in any of the Warhol / Paul Morrissey films? 

JC: Because I wouldn’t go to the Factory every day and kiss their asses, basically. I was more into the rock’n’roll thing. Apparently, Morrissey was quite taken with me, but I think Candy would have basically tried everything in her power to stop me from being in their films. But I never really tried anyway. I didn’t want to be typecast into being just a Warhol Superstar type thing ‘cause everyone who was typecast like that hardly did anything else, ‘cept for some of the later ones. I mean, Sylvia Miles had already done Midnight Cowboy. Joe Dallesandro, he did a few more movies but nothing really after that. 

MRR: Well, virtually all the Warhol Superstars came to a bad end. 

JC: Yeah, they died. Suicides. ODs. I didn’t want people to think of me as a Warhol Superstar, because immediately people would think, “A junkie who just rants in front of a bad movie.” A lot of people didn’t like Warhol and you wouldn’t have got an even break. There was a lot of antagonism, particularly in California. When the Velvet Underground played there everyone hated them. “How dare these fucking junkies come out here?” They wanted to keep everyone on acid so they could love, and then all these junkies come out from New York. Oh, it was horrible. They hated the Velvet Underground! I didn’t want to get stereotyped. And I knew I wanted to get into rock’n’roll. 

Friendship with the New York Dolls – County continues to include Dolls covers in her act – sings “Lookin’ for a Kiss” while lolling her tongue lewdly, scanning the audience for a likely candidate – wrote “Johnny’s Gone to Heaven” as a valentine to Johnny Thunders following his death in 1991. 

JC: I knew Johnny for years. I did some shows with the Dolls. Leee Childers, who’s been my flatmate on and off for years, was managing The Heartbreakers when they were in London. We were part of the same scene, hung out in the same places. You couldn’t really help bumping into everyone. There was always something goin’ on. You could run into anyone on the street anywhere: Patti Smith. Dee Dee Ramone. 

County contributed backing vocals to a few songs on Thunders’ last studio LP, Copy Cats in 1988 -- County is also featured on the recent Thunders tribute LP I Only Wrote This Song for You (1994). 

JC: I sing on “Help the Homeless.” When they told me about it, I just went – get outta here! Is this a wind-up? I’m not singin’ on no fuckin’ song about that. Not because I don’t agree with helping the homeless ‘cause I do, but I thought this must be some kinda pisstake. I’ll do it and I’ll look like a fool. But then they explained it to me, and I said Oh, cool. But when I first heard about Johnny Thunders doing a song called “Help the Homeless” I just thought – I ain’t doin’ that! But then when I heard the lyrics, the lyrics were really cynical. I said, Yeah, I get kit. But my first reaction was I don’t want to do that! It might come off like a do-gooder song, not well, corny and tacky. But it’s a good track and I’m really glad I did it now. My first reaction to a lot of stuff is immediately the first three minutes is negative and the next few minutes I’ve totally changed my mind. I do that all the time. 

From glam in New York to punk in the UK – moved to London in time for the emerging punk scene – found a receptive audience and a record contract with the Safari label – teamed up with the band The Electric Chairs and released self-titled debut in 1978. 

JC: I’d been playing at Max’s forever. Leee Childers had gone over with The Heartbreakers, and he called my manager and said, “There’s a scene developing in London that Wayne would really go down a storm in.” The scene in London was more theatrical. And so my manager got me over there. We went over to play The Roxy. That was my first gig there. It was packed to the rafters, queues around the block. It was incredible. The London scene was incredible. They loved it. The punk scene in London was very showy. First time I ever went into The Roxy someone was sitting there with a razor blade, cutting themselves and bleeding. It was very much “Look at me, I’m suffering. I’m a masochist.” It became a bit uncool later, but there were lots of people wearing swastikas. Johnny (Thunders) used to come onstage with a swastika armband on, I think they got that from him. And then Siouxsie did it and it grew trendy. But people wised-up later. It was very showy; it was a fun scene. It was less serious than the New York scene.  The people in New York were more serious, more arty: Talking Heads, Television, Patti Smith. The punk thing in London was more fun and more energy, more just jumping around and sticking your tongue out. “Look at me, I’m brainless!” More that trip. It worked well with the music because the music was so fast and energetic. The punks in London got a lot of the style from the Ramones, whereas in New York the Ramones were the only band that played like that. The rest was like Patti Smith, Talking Heads. More variety. But the early days in London was more like that. The Damned, even the Pistols. A lot of Steve Jones’ guitar sounds were lifted from Johnny Thunders. 


/ County's memorable appearance as Lounge Lizard in Derek Jarman's art-y punk epic Jubilee (1978). I can't believe I didn't ask County about this film when I interviewed her, or mention it anywhere in the article! County's musical number (singing "Paranoia Paradise") is probably the highlight of the whole movie  / 

MRR: Who from that period impressed you the most? 

JC: (Long pause, then laughs). I wasn’t really impressed! It’s hard to impress me.

MRR: Did you feel like you were coming from a totally different place? I mean, you were American, older, a transvestite … 

JC: I knew I was the odd person out. But then I was in New York as well. 

MRR: What was it like for you in punk circles, being a transvestite and then a transsexual later? How much acceptance or prejudice did you encounter? 

JC: A lot of prejudice at times, from people you wouldn’t expect. 

MRR: Well, a lot of the most so-called liberal hip people are the most hypocritical. 

JC: Yeah. I remember running into Patti Smith on the street and I was wearing a t-shirt and my tits were just beginning to grow. There was this look of horror on her face as she focused in on my breasts. She got totally speechless and couldn’t even talk to me. Dee Dee Ramone’s reaction was fabulous. “Oh, your tits are growing great!” He’d pinch them and say, “You’re gonna have great tits! Don’t get big silicone tits, Jayne. Just get a nice handful. That’s all you need.” Dee Dee was always really nice to me. Johnny Thunders was always a little strange with me. He’d still call me Wayne just to irritate me. “Hey Wayne!” I went to Max’s one night and he said to me, “Oh Wayne. I love you anyway. I don’t care if your tits are pointed!” 

/ Bad boy Ramones bassist Dee Dee Ramone (1951 - 2002). I covet his killer Mae West t-shirt hard /

MRR: You emerged from the glam scene when it was trendy to pretend to be androgynous. You must have seen right through that, being the real thing. 

JC: Yeah. I was just doing an extension of what I’d been doing in the underground theatre in New York, but I was doing it to rock’n’roll. Early Alice Cooper really impressed me. I was trying to merge theatrics into rock’n’roll. And I was doing it long before David Bowie! 

MRR: Well, you got revenge on Patti Smith because you used to do a vicious parody of her in your act. 

JC: Oh, I did. But I didn’t mean it to be mean, I meant it to be funny. She was always taken so serious and I had to take the mickey. I’d come out in a black wig and a man’s shirt and tie and I’d spit. She started that whole thing, spitting onstage. I did “Horses” and then I went into “giraffes … giraffes” and then “chimpanzees … chimpanzees …” 

MRR: Did she ever see it? 

JC: I don’t think she ever came to see it. I think her manager saw it and warned her not to come. She took her work very seriously. Patti was a little bit funny with me, although I’d worked with her twice in the theatre already, so I don’t know why. A lot of people, when I first started doing rock’n’roll, were taken aback. They couldn’t believe I was gonna do rock’n’roll because drag queens didn’t do rock’n’roll. They didn’t know how to react to it. 

MRR: I guess they expected you to mime to show tunes, do Carol Channing or something. 

JC: That’s right. But I’ve always been a rock’n’roll person ever since I was a kid. Most transgender people are not rock’n’roll-oriented, they’re more into dance music and show tunes. Not that I don’t appreciate different types of music sometimes but I’m a rock’n’roll person. It’s in my bones.

Infamous punk feud: County’s onstage fight with Handsome Dick Manitoba of The Dictators at CBGB’s in 1976 – after exchanging words, County attacked him with her microphone stand, breaking his collarbone. 

MRR: What exactly did Manitoba say to you that led to you hitting him? 

JC: Oh, he was saying all kinds of things from the back of the room. The typical things: “Oh, you fuckin’ faggot … you fuckin’ drag queen … you fuckin’ slag.” He’d been there the night before calling Debbie (Harry) a slag. I said, “What? I can’t hear you. Come up.” So, he came up to the stage and started yelling, “Oh, you fuckin’ …” So, I got vicious back. “Oh, go home, go on a diet, you bum, you fat fuckin' pig …” And then he stopped for a while, and I went on singing and all of a sudden, he was up on the stage! My first reaction was, he’s going to fuckin’ clobber me. So, before I even knew, I picked up the mic stand and clobbered him with it. Later he said he was just on the way to the bathroom, the loo was behind the stage, but he was walking too close to me, and he had a glass in his hand. I didn’t want to stop and find out if he was really just goin’ to the bathroom, so I just whacked him one. And then he fell off the stage and hit his head on a table and gave himself a concussion. They had to take him out on a stretcher. He was bleeding. And the next song was “Rock’n’Roll Resurrection”: “rock me Jesus / roll me Lord / wash me in the blood of rock’n’roll …” and I performed the whole song dripping in Dick Manitoba’s blood! He pressed charges (eventually dropped). They arrested me, took me to the tombs overnight. The tombs is like a nightmare – hardened criminals. They put me in a cell with another drag queen. They must’ve taken one look at me and went, “We know where to put you!” So, there was this queen with no eyebrows and dyed hair, and all the others were like (mimes slurring and lunging). We were like, “Thank God.” At least they were that understanding. New York police, they can surprise you. They actually asked me, “Do you want to be put in a special place?” and I said, “I’m not going in there with them!” So they said, “OK you don’t have to.” They were very nice. Years later (Manitoba) came up to me at a bar and he was showing me the scars in his head. I said, “You fell off the stage! I didn’t hit you there! You fell off the stage and hit a table!” He said, “I do realize that you felt threatened …” (County’s voice rises at the memory). Somebody comes up onstage, twice as big as you and holding a beer mug in their hand, what would your first reaction be?! After that person had been screaming at you from the audience. Wouldn’t you have thought that person was going to kill you? I thought you were going to hurt me! And he agreed. He won’t talk about it anymore. They interviewed me about that for the CBGBs documentary about a year ago and they tried to get him to talk about it and he refused.

After scoring punk hits with triple-X gutter rock tunes like “Cream in My Jeans” and “Fuck Off”, The Electric Chairs and Wayne County parted acrimoniously by the end of the seventies. At the time, The Chairs issued a press release stating they’d kicked County out of the band and would continue without her. 

JC: No, they didn’t kick me out. They were covering their own egos. What happened was I went to New York to do a few solo gigs and they got mad. So, to get me back, they decided to do a few solo gigs without me, but there was no kicking out of the band. My manager wanted me to get on the next plane from New York to come back and I wouldn’t do it. They wanted me to come back desperately and I wouldn’t. No one wanted to know The Chairs without me. They knew that. 

County now a solo act again – Wayne became Jayne – re-emerged in 1981 with Rock’n’Roll Resurrection, a live recording of a New Year’s Eve gig in Toronto – enjoyed nightclubbing in Berlin at the expense of her career – would be five years of obscurity until next studio LP Private Oyster (aka Amerikan Cleopatra) in 1986 – she surfaced in a “Whatever Happened To?” article in Rolling Stone magazine – the EP Betty Grable’s Legs in 1989 brought the grand total of County’s recorded output for the decade to up to one album and a half. 

JC: Berlin was a great stomping ground for me. I was becoming more serious about my sexuality and everything. I went there just to sort of hang out. It was probably a mistake. I should have come back to London, but I was going through a lot of changes, and I was very stubborn. I’m a lot more loose about things now. But basically  I just fell in love with Berlin and didn’t want to leave. It was very exciting. The Wall. The clubs were open all night. It was like a 24-hour coffee shop. I made all these incredible friends who were also TS’s and TV’s. There were fabulous people. I just thought, this is great. I can’t leave. It practically ruined my career. I should have come back to London, gotten back with The Chairs and got on with it. I was a fucking fool. I’m still paying for my mistakes. But never mind. That’ll teach me for being a stubborn know-it-all. The eighties were pretty much of a slow gap. I hated the eighties! Everything in the eighties was horrible! I just didn’t feel like I was part of anything. I just sort of kept my head above water. I was active, performing in clubs, but not very high profile. 

MRR: At one of your last shows at The Intrepid Fox here, you introduced an old song by saying it was by someone called Wayne County and asking, “I wonder whatever happened to him?” Do you really feel that way? 

JC: (Laughs). That just came off the top of my head. There’s still a bit of Wayne County in me. You always retain the original character, the original person, despite the changes over the years. I may be Jayne County now, but there’s still a lot of Wayne in there. I don’t want to murder him! 

/ The evolution of Wayne to Jayne /

MRR: You’re heading back to spend some time and play a show in New York. What city would you ideally stay in? 

JC: No city permanently. I’m too itchy. I’m a bit of a gypsy. I stay in one place too long, I feel trapped. I gotta get out. It’ll always be Atlanta – New York – London. I wouldn’t live in Berlin again. I’d go back for a while. But my real base is always going to be London and New York. 

County is poised to inflict herself again on an unsuspecting public this year with double whammy of new LP (Deviation) and autobiography (Man Enough to Be a Woman) – the album promises to be a return to form including Jayne-ified anthems like “Everyone’s an Asshole But Me” and a cover of The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb”. 

MRR: Is the new material going to be the classic Jayne sound or have you changed much? 

JC: It’s the classic Jayne sound, but a little punchier. It’s all rock’n’roll-ish but some of the songs are varied with different guitar sounds. It’s all really driving. It’s seventies punk but with a modern feel to it. I can’t describe it. It’s just the best thing I’ve ever done. I don’t see how anyone who likes rock’n’roll can listen to this and not like it. 

MRR: So, the nineties are going to be your big return to the scene. 

JC: (Fatalistic). Well, I don’t know. They always seem to have accepted me more in Europe. I’m going to be working there a lot soon. We did a European tour in April as a test to see what the reaction would be like after being away so long, and the reception was incredible. We couldn’t get off the stage. We had to do songs over again. They went fucking mad. I was over the moon. 

MRR: I promised Sexton Ming I’d ask you what are your favourite colour of tights. 

JC: Tights? I don’t really have any favourite tights. I like the kind that don’t fall down. I hate it when you have to keep pulling them up. Oh, I like fishnets. What I like to do now is wear three or four different pairs of rights of different colours on top of each other. That looks fabulous. 

MRR: Final question. So many of the people you started out with are now dead … 

JC: They’re either dead or mega-stars! 

MRR: But you’re still here. Do you ever wonder what kind of survival skills or whatever you must have? You must be tough … 

JC: Either that or very lucky. I’ve always managed to keep my head above water. I’ve always had a place to live. I’m very streetwise. I do know how to survive, because I’ve had to since a very early age. In my teens when I was living on the streets of Atlanta, running from the police. I’ve learned to survive over the years. I can suss people like that (snaps fingers). I can suss out a situation on the street. But this is all I know how to do, really. I’m a rock’n’roller and that’s why I’m still doing it. I’ll do it until I drop because that’s what I do. That’s what I am. 

MRR: Well, you could be like the Marlene Dietrich of punk. She was still performing onstage into her mid-seventies. 

JC: (Laughs). And she’d break her hip and they’d tape her back together! Her face was all taped back under her wig. It pulled everything back, and once she was right in the middle of a song and one of the grips broke and one side of her face just fell, and they had to bring the curtain down! She was amazing. (County sucks-in her cheekbones and sings a bit of “Falling in Love Again” with a fake German accent). I am a rock’n’roll person. It’s not an act. That’s what I love. It’s what’s kept me alive. Everything’s rock’n’roll with me. I am rock’n’roll. 

/ Portrait of County as a young starlet by Leee Black Childers /

Missing In Action piece from Vox magazine. July 1995 issue 

Jayne County’s career is like a one-transsexual assault on good taste. In the seventies with The Electric Chairs, County (then billed as Wayne) vomited up sewer-mouthed diatribes like “Fuck Off” and “Cream in My Jeans” to receptive British punk audiences. After the band split, County relocated to relative obscurity in Berlin. But 1995 sees her resurfacing with two new projects, an autobiography entitled Man Enough to Be a Woman and an album called Deviation. 

Born in Dallas, Georgia, County’s music career began in the sixties as a nightclub female impersonator, miming to Dusty Springfield and Janis Joplin records. 

“Straight drag queens used to do people like Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand,” she recalls, “and I’d come out and do rock’n’roll people, which would really flip people out. Dusty was my favourite. She had such a strong, stark image and I really aspired to that image.” 

With the Backstreet Boys, County carved a niche in New York’s rock scene, hanging around CBGBs with the New York Dolls, the Ramones and Patti Smith. She had to leave the US though to find a recording contract. Moving to London in 1977, County was lapped up by the punk subculture. 

“The punk scene in England was more theatrical, more showy,” she says. “They’d incorporated the David Bowie make-up left over from the glam era. The safety pins, the no-eyebrows look, the heavy make-up. In New York it was more arty and less theatrical. It was more visual in London. I fit into that a lot better.” 

Re-naming her band The Electric Chairs, she specialized in scatological gutter-rock outbursts, the most notorious remaining “Fuck Off”, with “Eddy and Sheena” the most fondly remembered. They became a popular live act due to County’s outrageous stage antics, the most printable of which was wearing tattered babydoll nighties long before Courtney Love. 

“Is she wearing babydolls?” County rasps in mock horror. “They don’t look like mine, do they? I’m gonna kill her!” 

In 1979 The Chairs imploded and County left London to find kindred spirits among Berlin’s transgender nightclubbers. It was a turning point. 

“My looks had changed quite dramatically, and I couldn’t go on calling myself Wayne. In a club one night this drag queen said to me: “You’re not Wayne. You’re Jayne now.”” 

After a low-key solo career in the eighties, County seems due for a rock’n’roll resurrection in the nineties. Gender’s gone crazy and drag is suddenly hip again, with transvestites on the catwalks and films such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert pulling in large audiences. 

“The glam thing in the seventies, they took that from drag queens,” nods Jayne. “Drag queens would not have been accepted, so people took from the underground and made it more commercial. It’s come around again, and I think people can now accept trannies.” [Note: this term was still considered acceptable in 1995]. 

Deviation sees County repaying old debts by vowing “I’m in Love with Dusty Springfield.” She also re-interprets the old Runaways jailbait anthem “Cherry Bomb.” If anyone can claim the line “Hello world, I’m a wild girl” it’s Jayne County. 


/ My own shot of County performing at The Underworld in Camden Town, London in 2005 /

From September 1995 issue of Ikon Magazine 

Let Your Backbone Slip: the Best of Wayne / Jayne County Volume 2

Deviation 

Hot on the (white stiletto) heels of her autobiography Man Enough to Be a Woman come Jayne County’s latest musical offerings, and these two releases more than adequately flesh out the lurid past and present of the toilet-mouthed American transsexual punk chanteuse. Let Your Backbone Slip, a sequel to RPM’s earlier greatest hit compilation Rock’n’Roll Cleopatra, traces County’s progression from the punk era, when she was billed as Wayne and backed by The Electric Chairs, to her later (post-nose job and female hormones) solo career as a self-made woman. On raunchy glitter-punk rants like “Bad in Bed” and “Are You a Girl or a Boy?” the former Wayne Rogers trashes his / her own Deep South Bible belt upbringing and rasps your face off in the process. 

Reassuringly, she hasn’t cleaned up her act at all during her long absence. The raucous Deviation, the artist’s first new album in years (the last – Goddess of Wet Dreams – was never released in the UK) confirms that County’s voice, saturated in Southern Comfort and gravel, is still one of the lewdest instruments in rock. “I’m in Love with Dusty Springfield” is a beating valentine to an early hairstyle role model, and County explores misanthropy on the anthemic “Everyone’s An Asshole But Me.” Best of all, on “Transgender Rock’n’Roll” she surveys her own history as the Glen or Glenda of punk and snarls, “I’m looking fierce / So don’t you piss me off.” 

In the seventies, Wayne County was the undisputed drag queen of choice for hardened punks. Today, Jayne looks like a genuine cult figure for the nineties.


/ My own shot of County performing at The Underworld in Camden Town, London in 2005 /

Further investigation:

Explore County's back catalogue on Spotify.

County's official website.

County on Instagram.

Filthy Dreams blog's appreciation of County as a queer role model. 


/ Role models / filth elders for life: a recent photo of Jayne County and John Waters. Via /   

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Reflections on ... my podcasting debut!

 

Hear me rant like a lunatic on my podcasting debut! 

The suave host of the Soho Bites podcast attended the 15 July 2021 Lobotomy Room film club screening of British sexploitation b-movie Too Hot to Handle (1960) at Fontaine’s bar and afterwards we discussed the film, the club, Jayne Mansfield, the representation of Soho onscreen – it’s divoon! And when he calls me “sleazy evil genius” in the introduction, I feel seen!



Listen to the episode of Soho Bites here.


Read my reflections on Too Hot to Handle here. 

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Reflections on ... The Hollywood Reporter's interview with Carroll Baker

/ Pictured: Carroll Baker in the sixties /

My quick thoughts on the fascinating but problematic Hollywood Reporter podcast interview on 6 July 2021 with the fabulous Carroll Baker, who I venerate as a trash cinema goddess. (I call her that with love! It’s a high compliment!).  The profile is meant to commemorate the 65th anniversary of Baker's film debut (actually, Baker's show biz roots stretch all the way back to the dying days of vaudeville!) ... but it goes in an unexpected direction towards the end! 

90-year-old Baker is impressively sharp-witted, extremely articulate and has a treasure trove of juicy anecdotes from fifties and sixties Hollywood. Some highlights: 

Baker was offered the Natalie Wood part in Rebel without a Cause (1955) - but turned it down because she disliked the script! 

There was talk of Baker playing Madge in Picnic (1955), but studio mogul Harry Cohn’s protegee Kim Novak got the role instead (Baker makes a rare bitchy dig at another actress here: “Kim Novak couldn’t act!”). 

On Giant (1956): Baker and James Dean were already friends from their Actors Studio classes in New York, but once they made Giant together, the social-climbing Dean swiftly dropped her to befriend the more famous Elizabeth Taylor. Baker admits that at the time, she disparaged the acting ability of Hollywood movie stars Taylor and Rock Hudson (whereas she and Dean had "serious" Method training). Looking back now, to her credit Baker admits she was a snob and appreciates how genuinely good their performances were. 

Later, when Baker inexplicably rejected the role of Maggie in the 1958 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Taylor was ecstatic, telling her, “Carroll! You’ve given me a whole new career!” Which was true: Cat reinvented Taylor as a gutsy, risk-taking overtly sexual adult actress (and began Taylor's fruitful association with Tennessee Williams). 

Baker is eloquent and sympathetic regarding her peer Marilyn Monroe. She recalls how Monroe would drink straight vodka and pop Seconals while partying with the Ratpack, then at the end of the night the men would simply pour her into a cab and send her home, so she found Monroe’s death grimly inevitable. 


/ Pictured:  Baker as a young starlet around the time of Baby Doll

Obviously, Baker is asked about her most famous movie Baby Doll (1956), but I loved hearing her discuss the underrated avant-garde Something Wild (1961). Baker’s ultra kitsch sex kitten-era films The Carpetbaggers (1964), Sylvia (1965) and Harlow (1965) are routinely dismissed as dreck – but I happen to love them! Her post-Hollywood Italian filmography is entirely skimmed over.  

Then interviewer Scott Feinberg mentions Harvey Weinstein and inquires whether Baker ever encountered “the casting couch”. She volunteers, “My heart is broken for Bill Cosby … he’s a wonderful human being”, does some horrifying victim-blaming and asserts, “He’s a very sexy man!” Oh, Carroll! 


/ Baker (and her sequined nipples) around the time of The Carpetbaggers (1964) /

Listen for yourself here.

Further reading:

My reflections on Something Wild (1961).

My reflections on Harlow (1965).

My reflections on Andy Warhol's BAD (1977).




 

 

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Reflections on ... Homicidal (1961)


Recently watched: Homicidal (1961). Tagline: “The story of a psychotic killer!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly).  


This simultaneously tense and campy exploitation shocker directed by William Castle opens with a prologue set in 1948. A little girl is playing “tea party” with her doll. Her reverie is shattered when an evilly grinning little boy enters and steals the doll. "Warren! Warren! It's mine!” she shrieks, bursting into tears. We then flash forward to present day Ventura, California. In a genuinely jarring and effective introduction, we follow an icily secretive mystery blonde in the Hitchcock tradition (she even speaks in the same breathless whisper as Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958), although her stilted acting style owes more to Lana Turner. She also resembles one of Cindy Sherman’s “film still” self-portraits come to life). 


/ Above: Jim (Richard Rust) and Emily (Joan Marshall) in Homicidal /

There’s something ineffably “off” about this woman who is on some inscrutable mission. Her rigid blonde coiffure is obviously a wig, and she seems hesitant to remove her long white gloves. After purchasing a wedding ring, she checks into a hotel using the alias Miriam Webster, then persuades the sexy bellboy (Richard Rust) into marrying her with a $2000 cash bribe on the understanding the wedding will be immediately annulled afterwards. Once the wedding ceremony is hastily completed later that night, to everyone’s shock “Miriam” abruptly pulls out a knife, fatally stabs the justice of the peace and - amidst the screaming and bloodshed - flees the scene. The next time we see her, Miriam is now identified as “Emily” and she’s menacing Helga, a mute, disabled elderly woman confined to a wheelchair. (The scenes of a vulnerable woman in a wheelchair being terrorized anticipate What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). As Helga, Russian actress Euginie Leontovich manages to overact wildly while never uttering a single line of dialogue).  


What, you may ask, the hell is going on and who are these people? The real Miriam Webster, it transpires, is a virtuous brunette florist (Patricia Breslin), engaged to dreamboat local pharmacist Karl Anderson (Glenn Corbett). The children in the introductory flashback represented Miriam and her half-brother Warren. Warren Webster (Jean Arless) is due to inherit the $10 million family fortune following his upcoming twenty first birthday. (Miriam and Warren shared the same father, who is now dead. Weirdly, the will stipulated only the male heir would inherit anything. Goody two-shoes Miriam is remarkably unperturbed about this). Why their childhood nanny Helga – now an invalid following a stroke – still lives with Warren is never adequately explained, but we do know that William and Helga only recently returned from a long sojourn in Denmark. In fact, they brought back the murderous nurse and housekeeper Emily from Denmark. Just how does she figure in all this?  


Decapitated heads! A newspaper headline exclaiming “Homicidal Maniac at Large!” Lingering close-ups of knives! Dark family secrets! Wigs! Homicidal has it all! John Waters has been voluble in his praise for William Castle, citing him as a primary influence and even declaring, “In fact, I wish I were William Castle.” (In 2017 Waters portrayed Castle in the TV anthology series Feud: Bette and Joan). Castle is probably best-remembered for hits like House on Haunted Hill (1959) or 13 Ghosts (1960), but I’d argue Homicidal is his meisterwerk, alongside Strait-Jacket (1964) starring Joan Crawford as an ax murderess. Castle was also, of course, the king of the attention-grabbing publicity stunt. The gimmick here is the “fright break”. (As Homicidal builds to its climax, the action pauses for 45-seconds and a clock ticks down as Castle himself announces that if you don’t want to be “frightened to death”, you are eligible for a full refund).   


/ John Waters as William Castle in Feud: Bette and Joan

Seen today, Homicidal is most interesting as an exemplar of “transploitation” or “gender reveal horror”. Other examples in this subgenre might include Psycho (1960), The Name of the Game is Kill (1968), Miss Leslie’s Dolls (1972) or Sleepaway Camp (1983). One clue is the repeated references to Denmark: transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen underwent her reassignment surgery in Copenhagen in 1952. (The Jorgensen story also inspired Ed Wood Jr to make Glen or Glenda? (1953)). You’ll immediately notice that one character has markedly androgynous characteristics. And that no one questions that two certain characters never once appear in the same room at the same time. (But then, no one ever thinks to hand Helga a pen and paper – she could instantly explain everything!). Homicidal hits a crazed pinnacle when Emily runs amok in Miriam’s florist shop, vindictively destroying the floral arrangements. She focuses her rage on the wedding displays, snapping-off the heads of the little groom figurines. Take that, heteronormativity!  


/ Above: Emily (Joan Marshall) and Jim (Richard Rust) in Homicidal /


/ Emily (Joan Marshall) and Karl (Glenn Corbett) in Homicidal /

The cast of Homicidal is noteworthy for the presence of two exceptional paragons of male pulchritude. Early in his career, bodybuilder Glenn Corbett posed for Athletic Model Guild wearing nothing but a posing pouch, a sheen of baby oil and a smile. (Do a Google image search. You’ll thank me!). As the bellhop, Richard Rust possesses the hooded eyes, snarling voice, cruel smirking mouth and greased-back hair of the perfect delinquent thug. But ultimately, it’s the menacing and strange portrayal of Emily by actress Joan Marshall who makes the greatest impression. (Fun trivia: in 1964, Marshall would play Lily Munster (then called Phoebe Munster) in the unaired colour pilot episode of The Munsters. She would subsequently be replaced by Yvonne DeCarlo).

/ Glenn Corbett in his beefcake modelling days, posing for Bob Mizer of Athletic Model Guild /

Homicidal is viewable on Amazon Prime.

Further reading

Read a perceptive and in-depth analysis of Homicidal on the essential Dreams are What Le Cinema is for blog here. 


Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Reflections on ... Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi


 / The woman behind Vampira: Maila Nurmi photographed at the Seventh Primetime Emmy Awards on 7 March 1955 at the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Los Angeles. As her biographer Sandra Niemi recalls, "She wore an ice-blue evening gown, her hair dyed to match, and a rented fur stole draped around her shoulders." /


My ruminations after reading the 2020 biography Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi by Sandra Niemi. 

First, some caveats about this account of the life and times of wraith-cheekboned atomic-era horror movie hostess, pin-up model and actress Vampira (aka Maila Nurmi, 1922 - 2008). That title is unwieldy. The misjudged cover design is offputtingly amateurish. The prose would have benefited from the hand of a professional ghost writer. Author Sandra Niemi (Maila Nurmi’s niece-turned-biographer) frequently gets bogged-down in minutiae, especially (and perhaps understandably) when it comes to the Niemi family history. (A quick explanation: Maila Nurmi’s real name was Maila Elizabeth Niemi). All you really need to know about Nurmi’s origins is that she emerged from a poor family of Finnish immigrants, with a deeply conservative and disapproving father and an alcoholic mother. 

But stick with Glamour Ghoul. It’s clearly a labour of love and ultimately a gripping account of an eccentric and tenacious survivor (some might say “failure”) who existed on the fringes of Hollywood for decades. Like the doomed Barbara Payton or her one-time director Ed Wood Jr, Nurmi endured obscurity and grinding abject poverty for most of her life. Yes, The Vampira Show on KABC-TV in Los Angeles rocketed her to fame and made her a pop culture sensation, but that success was ephemeral (her show was only on air between 1954 -1955) and Nurmi never made a cent even at her fleeting apex. 

When The Vampira Show was abruptly cancelled following a dispute with the broadcasters, Nurmi’s career dramatically fizzled-out and never recovered. She also alienated many by seemingly exploiting for publicity her friendship with James Dean following his death in 1955. By the time Nurmi appeared in Plan 9 from Outer Space she was widely considered washed-up and a show business pariah. All her scenes were filmed in one day, she was paid a grand total of $200 for her performance (the union minimum) and she was presumably glad to get it.


Plus, the volatile Nurmi was nuts and self-sabotaging, burning bridges and making terrible career decisions at every turn. (Boy, did Nurmi need good management and financial advice). It also didn’t help that she lost her health and looks early. While still in her forties Nurmi was struck down with the debilitating autoimmune disease pernicious anemia. The side effects included losing many of her teeth and meant she walked with a cane for rest of her life. Niemi speculates her aunt’s illness was caused by malnutrition, partly from sheer poverty and partly from Nurmi starving herself to maintain the freakily emaciated 19" waist that was an essential component of the Vampira image. (By today's standards, we'd say Nurmi had an eating disorder).  

/ Kim Novak and Vampira /

Nurmi was terminally unlucky in love, too - with one exception. God knows Marlon Brando was a messy, complicated and deeply flawed person but he was a rare savior in Nurmi’s life. To his credit, once their brief romance cooled, they remained long-term platonic friends and he just about kept Nurmi afloat in later years by paying her a modest allowance. (Brando did eventually cut her off, though). Otherwise Nurmi’s taste in men (with a preference for younger pretty boys) was disastrous. (Interestingly, she clashed with powerful gay agent and “the man who invented Rock Hudson” Henry Willson: they liked the same type). While Niemi herself never comes to this conclusion, it’s clear Nurmi either possessed defective “gaydar” or was primarily sexually attracted to unavailable gay men. For example, she was obsessed with the manipulative and sexually ambivalent young Antony Perkins and seethed with frustration that he didn't return her ardor. 

If Brando was the hero, then Orson Welles was the villain of Nurmi’s life. She first encountered him aged 18 when she arrived in Hollywood in 1940 in pursuit of stardom. Welles took the naïve starlet’s virginity – and impregnated her. Unfortunately for Nurmi, he was engaged to Rita Hayworth at the time.  After Welles callously abandoned her, the baby boy was quietly put up for adoption. Once Niemi uncovers this long-suppressed family secret, she commits herself to locating and contacting the long-lost son of Orson Welles and Vampira. (Did she succeed? I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to read the book). 

On a lighter note, in 1956 Nurmi enjoyed a short-lived fling with 21-year-old Elvis Presley in Las Vegas. At the time, Nurmi was guest starring in Liberace’s spectacular revue at The Riviera and the embryonic Elvis was bombing nightly to hostile audiences at The New Frontier. Recognizing a kindred spirit, Nurmi was initially dazzled by the rockabilly hepcat’s rebel style (she admired his turquoise dinner jacket and noted, “Never before had I seen a straight man … and I assumed he was … wear eye shadow and eyeliner and was that mascara as well?”). But she was bluntly critical of his sexual expertise (“he made love like an adolescent”) and their relationship ended abruptly one night when in a fit of pique (Elvis was paying her insufficient attention), Nurmi - in her own words - “grabbed his pee-pee in a public place and he never forgave me.” But never mind that. Imagine the hallucinatory trio of Vampira, Liberace and Elvis hanging out together in Las Vegas in the fifties. The mind reels! 


/ Above: Liberace and Vampira /


/ Above: Maila Nurmi with an adorable young Elvis in Las Vegas /

/ The February 1956 issue of gossip magazine Whisper via /

The other essential male presence in Nurmi’s life, of course, was her friend James Dean. They met when she was 31 (and finally finding belated success on television as Vampira after years on the margins) and he was still an unknown 23-year-old actor on the ascent. Just how intimate they were is contested (some Dean biographers argue Nurmi embellished their friendship). Niemi takes her aunt’s version as gospel (and doesn’t question Nurmi’s claims that Dean’s ghost repeatedly contacted her from beyond the grave). For what it’s worth, on the topic of Dean’s much-debated sexuality, Nurmi was succinct: “At the time I knew him, he was seeing women, but he was basically bisexual.” 

In her later years, with considerable justification Nurmi sued Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira, Mistress of the Dark) for copyright infringement. (Nurmi lost, even though she had an overwhelmingly persuasive case. If – like me – you revere both Vampira and Elvira, the chapter about how Nurmi got swindled makes for painful reading. Nurmi was frail and destitute at the time, while the savvy Peterson would go on to amass a fortune from Elvira merchandise. We’ll inevitably get Peterson’s side of the dispute when her impending memoirs come out in September 2021). 

/ Maila Nurmi as a beatnik poetess (with a pet rat) in The Beat Generation (1959) /

More happily, in the seventies and eighties Nurmi would be embraced by her spiritual offspring, punk musicians, particularly the bands inspired by lowbrow culture and horror b-movie imagery like The Misfits, The Screamers, The Damned, The Cramps and surf band Satan’s Cheerleaders (Nurmi recorded several tracks with the latter, which you can listen to on YouTube). Nurmi herself was obviously a punk ahead of her time. One thing Glamour Ghoul clarifies: there are some startling photos circulating online of a virtually bald Nurmi in the fifties sans the Vampira wig with brutally shorn hair, seemingly anticipating punk by about twenty years. Out of Vampira drag, Nurmi favoured a low-maintenance beatnik look of cropped-short blonde hair, Capri pants, sandals and shapeless sweaters. (You get a good impression of what the real Nurmi looked like in her cameo appearance as a beatnik poetess in 1959 film The Beat Generation). Niemi explains that when Nurmi’s stormy marriage to screenwriter Dean Riesner broke down, she chopped all her hair off in a bout of depression. 


/ Maila Nurmi sans the trademark Vampira wig, 1955 / 



/ Above: Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of The Cramps. Note Lux's t-shirt - original Vampira merchandise that Nurmi made herself and sold at public appearances in the punk era. In 2015 I managed to pick up a reproduction of this t-shirt at Viva Las Vegas rockabilly weekender, and I wear it with pride! /


/ Above: Vampira and Tor Johnson in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) /


/ Above with Edward D Wood Jr in 1955 /

Weirdly, Niemi seems to skim over some intriguing aspects of Nurmi’s life and career. She doesn’t offer much insight into Nurmi’s participation in Ed Wood’s notorious 1959 sci-fi atrocity Plan 9 from Outer Space (to be fair, that’s been extensively documented elsewhere). We don’t glean much about how Nurmi came to be the live action model for the animated evil queen Maleficent in the 1959 Disney classic Sleeping Beauty. And I’d read elsewhere that Tim Burton exploited Nurmi badly when he made his 1994 biopic Ed Wood. If so, Niemi doesn’t mention it. 

While Niemi strives to present her aunt in a sympathetic light, Nurmi doesn’t always emerge as terribly likable. Many of her career disappointments were self-inflicted. In the forties director Howard Hawks wanted to groom Nurmi for stardom as his next protegee (as he’d recently triumphantly done with Lauren Bacall). Nurmi scuppered that opportunity by flouncing off in a huff, complaining Hawks was taking too long. She also rarely had a good word to say about other women.  Consider Nurmi’s scathing assessment of  fiftysomething Mae West (one of Nurmi’s first acting breaks was appearing onstage in West’s 1944 play Catherine Was Great). “I saw that her movie star stature was only an illusion of the camera. She was really a tiny little biscuit of a girl. She wore an Aunt Jemima scarf tied round her weary peroxided hair and walked on tall awkward platform shoes. She wore a faded peignoir that likely began its life as pink but had since greyed with age. The garment was cut on the bias, revealing a surprisingly buoyant cleavage even as her pot belly gave away her age. She wore no makeup save for a huge pair of black nylon eyelashes. I didn’t understand why a purported legend could not afford a new bathrobe.” 

Adopting the morbidly beautiful Vampira persona never made Nurmi rich or assured her stardom – but it gave her immortality. Still vivid, cartoon-ish, sexy and perverse, the irresistible image she created never grows stale, appealing to b-movie connoisseurs, punks, psychobillies, goths and the fetish subculture (with her extreme waist-cinching, Nurmi was a pioneer in body modification). And remember: at the time, she was perceived as a gimmick or one-woman publicity stunt. Decades later, Nurmi’s cadaverous cutie still haunts popular culture. The spell Vampira cast is seemingly eternal.

Further reading:

My analysis of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).