It’s the mid-’50s, and television is as bland as ever. Mrs. Cleaver and the nuclear family grace the screens of identical idiot boxes across the good, wholesome, U.S. of A.
Then on a dark evening, an image of a curvaceous vamp walking through a mock hallway surrounded by cheap fog machines appears on television screens. She gazes out at audiences, and when she comes face to face with the camera (and viewers) she lets out a blood curdling scream. “I am… Vampira. I hope you all had the good fortune to have a terrible week.”
The woman known as Vampira was really Maila Nurmi—a young woman trying to make it in Hollywood by being hard-working, creative, and daring in any way she knew (or could learn) how. Her persona as Vampira would go on to be remembered by goths, cult film freaks, and the fashion obsessed for years to come.
1 // Birth of a Vampira
Maila Nurmi was born in Finland on December 11, 1922. She moved to the the U.S. with her family, living in both Ohio and Oregon. She later moved to NYC to study acting and finally made it to Los Angeles, where she would begin a career in Hollywood. Maila modeled for Bernard of Hollywood and Man Ray, and supported herself early in her career by working as a pin-up model and a coat-check girl.
2 // Everyday is Halloween
In 1953, Maila attended a masquerade ball dressed in a tight black Morticia-esque dress, inspired by Charles Addams’s New Yorker drawings—the original Addams family. After winning first prize, she was tracked down by a television producer looking for someone to do skits and host a late night horror movie program—The Vampira Show.
3 // A Creature of Her Own Design
While Morticia Addams may have inspired Vampira’s look, she was really a character all of Maila’s own imagination:
“Vampira is a kind of entity, we can call her a woman even though she’s androgynous… who survives in this carnal world. I, Maila Nurmi, am not.”
Vampira lived through the depression; being poor, skinny, and scrawny; wearing second-hand clothes and having very low self-esteem. She needed something to cling to in such pragmatic times, so she created an imaginary image to keep her faith in the world going. The character Maila created was inspired by her fantasies and fascinations with characters such as The Dragon Lady of the Terry and The Pirates comic book series, the Evil Queen from Snow White, and silent movie star Theda Bara, the first “vamp.”
4 // The Lady is a Vamp
Maila was no ghoul, taking the horror genre into her own hands and crafting her Vampira character out of a combination of sex and death. She borrowed Charles Addams’s Morticia, and added elements of fetish attire and general provocativeness—a cinched 17-inch waist, a plunging neckline, fishnets, and voluptuous curves. Accessorized with a phallic cigarette holder and matching long black nails, Vampira was dressed to kill.
5 // Blacklisted (and Dressed in Black)
Maila’s sex appeal was the least of Channel 7’s worries—eventually The Vampira Show was cancelled due to Maila’s tendency to make subversive comments, and according to newspapers at the time, her suspected left-leaning politics. Maila went on to tell the story of how she was blacklisted from television and had a horribly hard time finding work because of it: going from appearing nightly on television to living off of $13 a week.
6 // When All Else Fails, Plan 9
Out of work and desperate to support herself, Maila took a role in a production by the infamous Edward D. Wood Jr. After reading the script for a film called Grave Robbers From Outer Space, and disgusted with the lines Wood had written for her, Maila insisted on a silent role. Dressed as Vampira, and bringing a crowd to the film because of it, an undead Maila would silently walk towards the camera, arms out and ready to frighten. Her role in what would eventually be called Plan 9 From Outer Space and by critics, “the worst movie ever made,” would have this image seared in the minds of cult film fans forever.
7 // Bat Your Lashes
Vampira’s fashion would go on to inspire gothic ladies for years to come. Her bat-eye glasses, created in 1949 by Edward Melcarth, are an accessory (and artifact) of note. The original pair is now owned by tattoo and television star Kat Von D and recently a company created a limited edition pair of sunglasses inspired by the originals. However, vamp was not her only look. Maila played a rat-loving beat poet in the film The Beat Generation, sporting a short cropped cut and a bohemian look. Images of her with a chelsea-like hair cut (a tuft of bangs on a bald head), accessorized with elfish ears and sci-fi accessories can be found in her archives.
8 // Creatures of The Night
More than just a blood sucker, Maila was also an animal lover. Maila spent Christmas of 1956 recovering from first degree burns on her arms and hands after a fire broke out in her apartment one evening. Her cat, Ratface, was said to have helped her escape in time. She posed for pictures after the incident with bandages on her hands while holding the beloved feline.
9 // An Uncanny Resemblance
In the ’80s, Maila was working with a television studio to re-vamp the Vampira character and make a comeback on the small screen. After three months, they stopped calling her to come in to the studio, and the next thing she knew, Elvira appeared. Maila tried to sue actress Cassandra Peterson unsuccessfully for eight years. Peterson gained success and fame with the character, and Maila financially gained nothing. She criticized Peterson’s use of the money on “houses and red limousines,” arguing that when she decided to re-visit the character she wanted to donate the profits to animal welfare.
10 // Forever Undead
By 1962 Maila’s career in entertainment dwindled and she found herself laying linoleum flooring and cleaning celebrities’ houses for 99 cents an hour. By the ’70s she was selling handmade jewellery and clothing in her antique shop, Vampira’s Attic, on Melrose Avenue.
Maila Nurmi passed from this wretched planet in 2008, leaving the world with memories, style, and a cemetery of artifacts and memorabilia that today are used in exhibits and documentaries about her life and influence.
images // courtesy Official Vampira