“Easy, baby, you’re almost a fire hazard.”

With apologies to Jean-Paul Sartre, if Tura Satana didn’t exist someone would have to invent her. Standing 5’7”, you could easily be forgiven for imagining her towering at 6’10”. She passed away on February 4, 2010 in Reno, Nevada. The world continues without her, albeit in a severely impoverished state. Tura’s life sounds like something out of a nightmarish fairy tale designed to tell exotically beautiful young women that they can grow up to be legends.

Born in Japan in 1938, she began life as an outsider due to her mixed Japanese, Filipino, Cheyenne and Scots-Irish heritage. She spent her formative years doing time in a Japanese internment in Lone Pine, California and growing breasts. Satana fell in love with learning from a young age, though her early physical development and Japanese heritage made school life difficult. At 9 years old she was gang raped by five men who evaded justice by paying off a judge. This brutal incident would spawn her life-long love of karate and aikido, as well as a fifteen-year-long quest for revenge.

Satana hit the streets of Los Angeles in 1951, after a mercifully brief arranged marriage to a 17-year-old groom. She found work as a nude model using a fake ID, a gig that resulted in makeup poisoning. Later, she worked as an exotic dancer with legends such as Candy Barr, Tempest Starr and Rose La Rose. Silent-era comic Harold Lloyd encouraged Satana to look into a film career, helping her to see her own strange beauty.

Thus begins the most famous period of her life. She landed bit parts on television and in movies, though she will always be remembered for her role in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the Citizen Kane of exploitation cinema. Tura collaborated closely with Meyer, a man known as the Rural Fellini. She wrote dialogue for the film, as well as choreographed her own fight scenes. The unforgettable ending where she twists a strongman into a pretzel using a car was her idea, not Meyer’s. Her iconic costume and makeup were likewise products of her own imagination. Meyer once famously stated that the film was both his and Satana’s and frequently lamented never working with her again.

The years after FPKK were largely uneventful, save for her collaboration with director Ted V. Mikels. After being shot by a lover, Satana spent some time in the hospital before becoming a nurse and marrying a retired LAPD officer. The two remained together until he passed away in 2000.

Tura Satana was a singular figure in world culture, larger than life and impossible to replace. Her story belongs to the bygone era of ascendant, post-WW2 American capitalism. This was a time when laws were fewer, jobs more plentiful and scores of films were shot on actual film every day to fill the grindhouse theaters on skid row. Fans of Tura should stress the latter point. The basement of cinema was a place of great artistry not just behind the camera but also in front of it. Tura was the equal or better of any iconic actress of her era. However, the mainstream studios would never have used Satana the way that Meyer and Mikels did, too fearful of her strong feminine presence and nervous about how her unique look would play in Peoria.

With the resurgent interest in 1960s independent cinema in general and Tura specifically, expect to see a small army of imitators emerge. True fans won’t be fooled. Not only is it impossible to imitate Tura Satana without her precise biography, rooted firmly in the social circumstances of her times, the last thing Tura would have done was imitate. She came from an age when sincerity was the new black. Today’s cutesy-poo dimestore burlesquistas and Internet “models” pose hard, but they don’t have a fraction of the substance Satana oozed through every pore of her body. Smart, talented and drop-dead gorgeous, Satana is more than just a set of titanic tits and the face of twisted porcelain doll. She’s an inspiration to anyone down in the gutter with her eyes on the stars.

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NICHOLAS PELL writes about the untold corners of popular culture just before they bubble over into the mainstream and become bowdlerized. His work first appeared in the alleged "punk rock bible" Maximumrocknroll when he was just 15 years old. Since then he has written for The Hit List and London PA. He is currently working on a history of the 1990s hardcore punk sub-genre known as powerviolence. When not writing, editing and researching he can be found dancing to soul and rocksteady or searching for the perfect pair of Levi Sta-Prest jeans. His personal website is nicholaspell.com.

7 responses to “Queen of the Hellcats”

  1. Jade Fall says:

    Thank you for this wonderful eulogy to my beautiful mother! She was and will always be very special and my family and I miss her terribly.

  2. danny says:

    good work nick

  3. Wow. So interesting. Her life would make a great book. Or movie. Why don’t you write it?!

  4. Tura Satana is one of those people/characters/references that I have carried around in my pocket my entire life (or at least starting at age 15 when I lucked upon a Betamax version of Faster Pussycat) that I have always been able to count on to get a laugh, start an interesting conversation, or connect with a stranger over and know we were on similar, and soon to be interesting, ground.

    Wrote my own obit for her on my site. Always happy to see another. Tura and Beefheart the same year? Sign of the Faster Trout Apocalypse.

  5. Amber says:

    She was a goddess. I think my husband decided to marry me after I introduced him to that film. I’m pretty sure I have Tura to thank for my marriage. And a lot of other things.

  6. Galoux says:

    Thanks for saying it the way I couldn’t.

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