She was born Maila Elizabeth Syrjäniemi in 1922, in a part of Finland that is now part of Russia. As Maila Nurmi, she began to make a name for herself modelling for Man Ray and performing onstage with Mae West. But it took another name change and black hair dye for her to become a legend - Vampira.
Vampira was not only the first horror movie hostess, but probably the most legendary. Her rise to fame coincided with a 1950s-era obsession with horror, and the new availability of movie "packages" being made available to local TV stations at a cut rate.TV was a new, hungry medium in the early 50s, and what would be better for the black-and-white screen than a ghostly pale woman in a contrasting jet black outfit?
Nurmi first dressed up as the character for a 1953 fancy-dress soiree called The Bal Caribe, drawing the attention of TV producer Hunt Stromberg Jr. Nurmi's initial inspiration was the proto-Morticia character from Charles Addams' cartoons, and was later refined to incorporate the highly-arched eyebrows of the Evil Queen from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Nowadays, she would have been instantly labeled a Goth Chick, but back then she was like nothing anyone has ever seen before: a pure archetype of the intersection of sex and death.
Stromberg set Nurmi up at KABC TV in LA with a show in which she would introduce bad horror movies and generally ham it up in silly skits. The Vampira Show debuted in April 1954 and was a huge success. Nurmi played the character to the hilt, walking around Hollywood in a matching black dress and parasol. She dated a young actor with a taste for the macabre: James Dean. Sadly, Dean dumped her, claiming that she was a brief fascination and that he didn't "date cartoons." (While they were still dating, Dean made an appearance on the show as a student being disciplined by Vampira as a stern librarian; yes, this aired on live TV)
Despite its success show lasted only a year, cancelled after ABC tried to buy the rights to the character and Nurmi refused. Nurmi revived the character for a rival station, but this show too was short-lived.
Sadly, much of the original Vampira Show is lost to the pre-videotape ether. Her most famous surviving appearance is her mute role in Plan Nine From Outer Space, but she can also be seen sans Vampira drag as spoken word poet in the 1959 B movie The Beat Generation.
Fame did not suit Nurmi well. Soon after the initial show's cancellation she was the victim of an attempted murder when a deranged fan cornered her in her apartment. An attempted comeback in 1981 fizzled when the producers informed her that they wanted the character Vampira but not Nurmi herself. (The show became Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark; Nurmi sued the show but the suit was unsuccessful)
From the 60s onward Nurmi made a living selling jewellery, laying linoleum flooring and doing carpentry. Towards the end of her life, Nurmi became more open about her time as a horror host, appearing in several documentaries. Nurmi remained a striking woman up until her death in 2008, and every woman who has applied the pale white makeup and donned the slinky black gown owes a debt to the Original Goth.