Maila Nurmi (December 11, 1922 – January 10, 2008) was a Finnish-American actress born in Petsamo, Finland, who created the campy 1950s character Vampira.
She portrayed Vampira as TV’s first horror host and in the Ed Woodcult film Plan 9 from Outer Space.
She is also billed as Vampira in the 1959 movie The Beat Generation where she plays a beatnik poet.
Born as Maila Elizabeth Niemi, She moved to the United States with her family when she was two years old and grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio, home to the largest Finnish-American community in the state. She and her family lived in Ashtabula until 1939, when they moved to Oregon.
She graduated from high school in Astoria, Oregon, before arriving in Los Angeles. She modeled for Alberto Vargas, Bernard of Hollywood, and Man Ray, gaining a foothold in the film industry with an uncredited role in Victor Saville’s 1947 film, If Winter Comes.
She reportedly was fired by Mae West from the cast of West’s Broadway play Catherine Was Great in 1944 because West feared that she was being upstaged. On Broadway, she gained much attention after appearing in the horror-themed midnight show Spook Scandals, in which she screamed, fainted, lay in a coffin and seductively lurked about a mock cemetery. She also worked as a showgirl for the Earl Carroll Theatre and as a high-kicking chorus line dancer at the Florentine Gardens along with stripper Lili St. Cyr. In the 1950s
she supported herself mainly by posing for pin-up photos in men’s magazines such as Famous Models, Gala and Glamorous Models. Before landing her role as ‘Vampira’, she was working as a hat-check girl in a cloakroom on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.
The idea for the Vampira character was born in 1953 when Nurmi attended choreographer Lester Horton’s annual Bal Caribe Masquerade in a costume inspired by Morticia Addams in The New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams. Her appearance with pale white skin and tight black dress caught the attention of television producer Hunt Stromberg, Jr., who wanted to hire her to host horror movies on the Los Angeles television station KABC-TV, but Stromberg had no idea how to contact her. He finally got her phone number from Rudi Gernreich, later the designer of the topless swimsuit. The name Vampira was the invention of Nurmi’s husband, Dean Riesner. Nurmi’s characterization was influenced by the Dragon Lady from the comic strip Terry and the Pirates and the evil queen from Disney’sSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Examination of Nurmi’s diaries in 2014 by filmmaker and journalist R. H. Greene verify longtime rumors that in 1956 she was the model for Maleficent, the evil witch in the Disney conception of the classic fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty.” The Disney archivist subsequently confirmed these findings.
On January 10, 2008, Nurmi died of natural causes at her home in Hollywood, aged 85. She was buried in the Griffith Lawn section of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery