Vampira: Beatnik, Goth, Punk

vampira color

I’ve toyed with the idea of starting a regular series called something like “You Invented Nothing.”

I’d put up vintage photographs without comment, except for the date, and maybe a snarky title.


“Hipsters, behold!”

I’ve complained here before about Lady Gaga stealing “half her career” from Nina Hagen, Toyah Willcox, Lene Lovich and Hazel O’Connor.

Or maybe you’ve already seen this widely-Tumblr’d photo taken in Canada in 1940.

Note the casual, camera-carrying guy center right, looking quite out of place with his sunglasses, graphic shirt and hat-less head.

He’s been dubbed the “Time Traveling Hipster”:


Is the photo a (sort of lame) hoax?


People back then wore sunglasses and clothes with writing on them (especially varsity sweaters and sweatshirts).

Just not as many as we see today.

Every generation thinks it invented sex, but it’s less commonly observed that it also thinks it invented “cool.”

9_GP as proto-punk, Mexico City, 1969

Frankly, I find the Mexican guy (left) in the 1969 photo above way more impressive than “Time Traveling Hipster.”

Look at that mohawk!

Yeah, I know:

Strictly speaking, that hairstyle should really be called “the Pawnee.”

And yes, some members of the 101st Airborne adopted the “mohawk” during World War II.

As well, a couple of photos depict jazz musician Sonny Rollins and one girl in California — wearing the style in the 1950s.

(If a kindly LexisNexis subscriber wants to look up the story behind that teenage girl’s “mohawk,” the photo accompanied a Los Angeles Daily News piece dated June 27, 1959. The paper’s archives don’t seem to be available on their website.)

That said, I’m fairly certain surrealist painter Yves Tanguy (born 1900) beat all those people to the punk look:

Yves Tanguy 1929

Tanguy was certainly way ahead of the 15-year-old boy in Alice Cooper’s “Teenage Lament ’74” who wails:

Well, I cut my hair weird
I read that it was in
I looked like a rooster
That was drowned and raised again

Maybe this fictional kid was inspired by Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, but still:

When that single came out, John Lydon’s locks were still shoulder length.

That’s why I have all the time in the world for Soo Catwoman.

The words “iconic” and “original” are tossed about far too promiscuously.

Surely, though, if they apply to anyone, it’s the woman who started out life as Soo Lucas fifty-nine years ago.

London is a city renowned for its eccentrics:

Stanley Green, the “human billboard”; Screaming Lord Sutch, founder of the Monster Raving Loony Party; and Lyndon Yorke, “a fixture at the Henley Regatta [who] has, over the years, produced an amphibious Edwardian tricycle, a floating wicker bathchair and a nine-piece mechanical orchestra made of car windscreen wiper motors,” to name only a very few.

That said, Lucas’s “Catwoman” persona circa 1976 hasn’t lost much of its arresting outrageousness, despite its ubiquitous (and unauthorized — until recently) replication on countless posters, t-shirts and album covers — and its adoption by generations of rebellious girls.

I presume her look emerged fully formed and sui generis from somewhere inside her brain:


Or did it?

Is it possible that, even pre-internet, Lucas had spotted a photo — somewhere, somehow — of an American actress who’d adopted a strikingly similar look an astonishing twenty years earlier?

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Some will counter that that’s more like what we’d now call a female skinhead’s “Chelsea” style than strictly “punk.”

Fine. Regardless, imagine walking around like that in 1956 America; even in Los Angeles, that must have been, to say the least, an adventure.

Maila Nurmi always claimed that she’d been forced, albeit briefly, to go around like that after a freak hair salon accident.

She made the best of it, but her altered appearance was particularly problematic, because that same year she was shooting a movie in which she was expected to look like this:

Halloween seems like the perfect time to look back at the life of actress Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira.

She actually trademarked her famous proto-goth look, and famously sued “Elvira” actress Cassandra Peterson in 1989 for stealing her image.

Nurmi lost the lawsuit. It probably didn’t help that she’d admitted all along that she’d borrowed much of her style from Charles Addam’s “Morticia.”

But Maila Nurmi was certainly a true original in one way:

She was the first TV horror host, male or female, and the only one whose image is still recognized today around the globe.

This is especially astonishing because only two minutes of The Vampira Show are still known to exist on primitive Kinescopes.

Nurmi’s colorful life included a close friendship with James Dean. Her other famous pals ranged from Liberace to Marlon Brando.

Nurmi was at turns a savvy businesswoman and a chronic self-saboteur, probably too outspoken and kooky to ever really get very far in 1950s and 60s Hollywood.

If you’re sick of the usual Friday the 13th marathons, the recent documentary Vampira & Me makes for refreshing Halloween viewing:

It took a couple of generations for the full impact to be felt, but by the 1980s, Vampira’s sartorial image was being widely appropriated by goths, and eventually her aura sampled by pretty much everyone else; her detached cool, and her blurring the line between life and performance, made her, Greene notes in the movie, “the birth mother of hipster irony.” After punk bands The Damned and The Misfits recorded songs referencing her creation, Nurmi lent her own voice to a recording by a band called Satan’s Cheerleaders — another archival gem that Vampira and Me resurrects. (…)

Greene’s doc presents Nurmi as a witty, erudite, and bewitching woman who was swallowed by her own creation and then spat out almost immediately by the very industry that spawned her. Instead of dwelling on the Vampira character’s brief scenes in Ed Wood’s godawful Plan 9 from Outer Space, we’re given clips from a far more accurate — and non-Vampira — depiction of Nurmi the actress/poetess in 1959’s The Beat Generation.

Like Louise Brooks before her, Nurmi was ahead of her time, a harbinger of a new pop culture soon to be dominated by Dean, Marlon Brando, and Elvis Presley. It’s a testament to the lasting impact her foreshortened career had on us that not a Halloween goes by that somewhere, sometimes everywhere, Vampira is all over the place.

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