Tura Satana - Happy Birthday to the B-Movie Icon
Despite it’s less than favorable reputation, the horror and exploitation genres have long since been an unexpected vehicle for female empowerment. Much of this can be credited to early female creators themselves, who saw the potential in counterculture. Women who found a voice and freedom in art that the general public would turn their noses up at. One of the earliest and most enduring icons of horror and exploitation cinema was burlesque star, Tura Satana who would have celebrated her 83rd birthday this month. Not only has Tura’s image become notorious in punk music, horror merchandise and tiki bars everywhere, but she also led a fascinating, albeit tragic, life with a level of impressive resiliency and strength.
Born Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi on July 10, 1938 in Hokkaido Japan. Her father was a Filipino Silent film actor and her mother a Native American and Scots-Irish circus performer. After relocating to the states for her father’s career in 1942, Tura and her father spent 3 years in Manzanar, the Japanese Internment camp.
After their release, the family relocated to Chicago and resided in a predominantly Italian, Jewish & Black neighborhood. Being the minority Asian family on the block during a time when anti-Japanese rhetoric was at an all-time high, spelled trouble for Tura. She was near constantly harassed and jumped by the other kids on her way to and from school. To teach her to defend herself against the neighborhood attacks, Tura’s father taught her aikido and karate, skills she would integrate into her burlesque performances later in life.
However, the training was not enough to protect her from a brutal gang rape by five of the neighborhood boys when she was only nine years old. None of the boys were ever charged and Satana believed the judge had been paid off for the boys’ freedom. In later interviews, Tura claims that over the course of the next 15 years, she tracked down each of her attackers and enacted a mysterious I Spit on Your Grave-esque revenge.
To further solidify her apparent real-life caricature as an exploitation baddie, in the months following her attack, Tura recruited several other girls in the neighborhood to form a gang she dubbed The Angels. Their goal was to protect each other and other girls from the same attacks they had all become accustomed to. Her gang activity, as well as other, rather understandable, behavior issues landed her in a reform school until her early teens.
After proving that rehabilitation was not in the cards, she began dancing professionally in Illinois clubs at the age of 13. At 15, she began exotic dancing and found her way to California, dancing at famous clubs up and down the Sunset Strip. Her burlesque career opened a multitude of doors for the young Tura, including romances with Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, whom she allegedly declined a marriage proposal. Her performance at the Follies Theater in Los Angeles landed her a role on the television series Hawaiian Eye and other small bit roles.
Eventually the stars aligned and she found herself running late to an audition with well know sexploitation director Russ Meyer. Still dressed in a wedding dress from a job earlier that day, she read for the role of Varla from a script, then titled Leather Girls. Varla was the leader of three fast driving and contentious Go Go Dancers who ruthlessly kill a man and go on the lam with his young girlfriend.. This film would later become Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! A favorite of Quentin Tarantino and best described by John Waters as “beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future."
In interviews with both Satana and Meyer, much of Varla’s character and the creative direction of the film as a whole, was largely influenced by Tura. The film became an outlet for her to challenge the rage she had simmering since early childhood. "I took a lot of my anger that had been stored inside for many years and let it loose."
Tura and Russ wanted to show that women did not need to be weak and helpless to be feminine and sexy. Tura’s performance as Varla accomplished this in spades and the film has since become a cult classic in it’s own right and an unquestioned feminist masterpiece.
After her iconic performance, Tura’s career in showbiz was rather shortlived. She starred in the Ted V. Mikels sci fi horror film Astro Zombies and appeared in the Charlie’s Angels precursor, The Doll Squad, after which she briefly retuned to dancing full time, before
retiring from showbiz completely. Although she did stay somewhat active in the industry, with convention appearances and even another feature film in 2009. She had also proved herself to be a very savvy businesswoman, who had the foresight to trademark her own image as Varla, undoubtedly earning her comfy royalty checks for years to come.
Post- Showbiz, Tura explored several other career fields throughout her life until, in 1981, she was hit by a car and spent two years in the hospital with the fear that she would never walk again. But overcoming tragedy had become a specialty of Tura and she made nearly a full recovery. She spent much of her twilight years working security in a casino in Reno, NV where she passed away on February 4, 2011 of heart failure.
Being a female genre-fan can be difficult. As Kier-La Janisse, author of Recreational Terror put it, we are “made to feel like ‘traitors to the cause’ and it seems that much of feminist horror theory was born out of the need for a defensive response.”
With the existence of characters like Varla and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! it is no wonder female genre fans get defensive. The Horror and exploitation genres are a gold mine for female strength, even when it is masquerading as sleaze. It is the self-assured fearlessness of pioneers such as Tura Satana who can be credited for saturating these films with perspective and personality. She made Varla into a staple in pop culture, but she herself was larger than life.
Happy Birthday to a legend, may she rest in peace.