Born Maila Elizabeth Syrjaniemi in Petsamo, Finland, Nurmi immigrated to America when she was just a toddler. Although she grew up in Ohio, Nurmi moved to New York in her late teens to try and break into show business. The actors and artists she met in Manhattan persuaded her to change her name and head to Hollywood. For Nurmi, the trappings of stardom were simply too enticing to pass up.
While auditioning for roles, Nurmi worked as a chorus girl and pin-up model. In 1953, she won a costume contest at the annual Bal Caribe Masquerade, an event that brought her to the attention of KABC-TV Channel 7 program director Hunt Stromberg Jr. He tracked her down months later and offered her a job as the host of a late-night horror program.
That’s how Nurmi became Vampira, a gothic enchantress reminiscent of Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons. Each week, the Black Madonna of Hollywood would appear on camera wearing a slinky black dress, blood-red lipstick and darkly mascaraed eyes, and introduce fright films like “Revenge of the Zombies” and “Devil Bat’s Daughter.”
Although “The Vampira Show” was canceled after about a year, Nurmi became a cult figure among B-movie buffs. Her legions of admirers launched fan clubs in her honor all over the world. Many felt she inspired the character of Morticia Addams on “The Addams Family,” which premiered about a decade later. Nurmi, however, believed her dark persona was stolen by Cassandra Peterson, an actress who created the horror movie hostess Elvira. She even filed a $10 million lawsuit against Peterson for pirating her trademark image, but lost the court battle.
Nurmi later appeared in several B-movies, including “Sex Kittens Go to College,” “The Beat Generation,” “The Magic Sword” and “The Big Operator.” She also made a memorable appearance in Ed Wood’s 1959 cult classic, “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” But these pictures didn’t pay the bills, and Nurmi was forced to support herself as a linoleum-layer, carpenter, housekeeper, clothing designer and antique shop owner. More recently, she painted pictures of Vampira that she sold on the Internet.
Privately, Nurmi was a self-described psychic with a talent for clairaudience, and a passionate advocate for animals rights. Her life story was chronicled in the 2006 documentary “Vampira: The Movie.”