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Elvira joins Sum 41, Sloan for Halloween benefit single for UNICEF

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TORONTO (CP) - The Mistress of the Dark wants a promotion of sorts - she wants to be known as the Queen of Halloween.

Just ask the woman behind Elvira, Mistress of the Dark - actress Cassandra Peterson, who's been portraying the campy vamp for more than 20 years.

"Elvira is the queen of Halloween," said Peterson in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "She has become somewhat the Santa Claus of Halloween ... I think she really pretty much has been for the last 25 years."

So how did a struggling actress-singer-dancer-comedienne come to be known as a Halloween icon? Peterson came up with the character in 1981 when she accepted a job at a local Los Angeles television station as host for their late-night horror programming.

"It didn't sound that appealing and it wasn't paying much," Peterson said of the gig. "They liked a character that I was doing that was sort of a Valley girl type ...They said they wanted me to do that character but come up with some sort of outfit that was spooky."

It's that Elvira costume that has made her a pop culture icon. A skin-tight, cleavage-revealing black dress, bouffant jet-back hair and gothic makeup transform the petite, wholesome, red-headed Peterson into the Mistress of the Dark.

"It's amazingly uncomfortable," said Peterson of the ensemble which takes about an hour and a half to put on. "Wearing it for more than a couple of hours gets to be really annoying."

"It's every woman's worst outfit," she adds. "It's got six-inch heels, incredibly tight waistline and super push-up bra ... You've got more makeup on than Kiss practically, and you've got that hair which is hot and heavy."

Which explains why Peterson makes more public appearances as herself than as Elvira these days.

She said that until a couple of years ago she made all appearances in full Elvira get-up because she really wanted people to treat the character as a separate person. But she came to realize the fans were loyal no matter what she wore.

"The fans didn't really seem to care," she said. "I can go there and be myself and they're just as happy to meet me."

Since her first appearance on TV screens in 1981, Peterson has turned playing Elvira into a cottage industry. "It's kind of a Martha Stewart Dead as opposed to Living," she quips of her full-time business.

In addition to numerous TV and film appearances as Elvira, Peterson is involved with licensing the Elvira image for pinball machines, slot machines in Las Vegas, video games, books, Halloween candy and, of course, Halloween costumes.

When asked what she'd like to do next, Peterson affects a villainous voice to say, "I'd like to take over the world." In the meantime, helping the world is on her list of things to do.

Just in time for this Halloween, Peterson lends her voice to an all-star roster of talent for the benefit single Do They Know It's Halloween. The song, a parody of Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas, is performed by the North American Halloween Prevention Initiative - made up of artists such as Sum 41, the Arcade Fire, Sloan, Feist, Beck, Sonic Youth and Sex Pistols founder Malcolm McLaren among others.

"There's 20 really cutting-edge, cool artists on there, so I was so thrilled to be a part of it," said Peterson. "And it's a really fun song."

Do They Know It's Halloween arrives in stores this week with all proceeds being donated to UNICEF. In addition to the project, both Peterson and Elvira are strong supporters of animal rights.

"The great thing about being in the public eye is that you can really do something for that cause because people love and respect you," said Peterson. "Having the character out there enables me to do all sorts of things for charity that I wouldn't be able to do as an individual." Both Peterson and her alter ego share strong personal convictions. "Elvira stands up for what she believes in," she said. "She doesn't depend on men for anything and she really stands up for herself."

Peterson describes Elvira as a feminist character. "Even though she's wacky, she's a type of a heroine," said Peterson.

© The Canadian Press, 2005

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