Maila Nurmi's image is known worldwide, but she is rarely given credit as its source. Nurmi was an aspiring actress, chorus girl, and model who posed for Vargas and worked with pre-stardom Marilyn Monroe.
Her Vampira persona was born in 1953 at Lester Horton's annual Bal Caribe Masquerade in Hollywood. Her costume was inspired by Charles Addams' then-unnamed ghoul from his New Yorker cartoons. She "bound her bosoms" to appear flat-chested, got a long black wig, and painted her body with lavender powder so she would look like she'd "been emtombed." Nurmi defeated 2,000 revellers and was named the best-costumed contestant at the ball.
KABC-TV's producer spent five months tracking her down after the ball to offer her a job as hostess of a late-night horror show. She modified her costume, making it "campier and sexier," so as not to plagiarize Addams' creation. (Ironic, since Nurmi was plagiarized quite a bit in later years, even leading to a successful lawsuit against Elvira.)
Vampira was an instant sensation, and fan clubs sprung up all over the world. Nurmi was soon featured in a multi-page spread in Life magazine.
Vampira also caught the eyes of Bela Lugosi. Lugosi saw her on TV, telling Ed Wood,the legendary "worst director of all time," that he'd like to work with her. Some years later, while Vampira's fame was waning because of what she termed blacklisting, Wood honored Lugosi's request. Lugosi soon died, leaving behind some unfinished movie footage. Wood cast Nurmi as Lugosi's undead wife in the B-horror classic Plan 9 from Outer Space. She was appalled by her dialogue in the film, begging Wood to let her perform linelessly. Her role as a '50s tv star would soon be forgotten, and she would be best remembered for her appearance in Plan 9. Nurmi has said that at the time, she thought it was horrible. She "knew immediately" that she'd be "committing professional suicide." She said she pitied Wood, finding him to be of little intelligence. "I always pity people who aren't very bright," Nurmi says. "unless they're just barefoot primitives who are artless."
Vampira's character rose again in 1994 when Tim Burton made the film Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp as Wood, Martin Landua as Lugosi, and supermodel Lisa Marie as Nurmi.
Nurmi is now retired in Los Angeles. She paints self-portraits of Vampira which are much sought after collectors items.
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