Tura Satana (born Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi) was born on July 10th 1938 in Hokkaidō, Japan. Her father was a silent movie actor of Japanese and Filipino descent, and her mother was a circus performer of American Cheyenne Indian and Scots-Irish background. Following World War II her family were placed in the Manzanar internment camp in Lone Pine, California, upon their release her family moved to Chicago.
Walking home from school just before her tenth birthday, she was reportedly gang raped by five men. According to Satana, her attackers were never prosecuted, and it was rumored that the judge had been paid off. She tells how this prompted her to learn martial arts, such as aikido and karate. Over the next 15 years, she tracked down each rapist and exacted revenge:
“I made a vow to myself that I would someday, somehow get even with all of them,they never knew who I was until I told them.”
Around this time, she formed a gang, “The Angeles”, with Italian, Jewish, and Polish girls from her neighborhood. In an interview with Psychotronic Video she described the gang:
“We had leather motorcycle jackets, jeans and boots…and we kicked butt.”
She was sent to reform school due to her frequent delinquency and at the age of 13 years old her parents arranged her marriage to 17-year-old John Satana in Hernando, Mississippi, which lasted nine months.
At the age of 15 years old, Satana moved to Los Angeles and began to use fake identification to hide her real age.
“I started out as an interpretive dancer, but I was offered more money if I took my clothes off, so I did. I started dancing at the age of 13 years old. I became a professional dancer at the age of 15 years old. If the owners of the clubs I had worked in ever knew that I was only 15, I think that they would have had a heart attack.”
She soon began burlesque dancing and was hired to perform at the Trocadero nightclub on the Sunset Strip, and became a photographic model for, among others, silent screen comic and Hero of Cult Harold Lloyd, whose photos of her appear in Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Nudes in 3-D.
Satana later returned to Chicago to live with her parents and started dancing at the Club Rendevouz in Calumet City, Illinois, where she was known as Galatea, “the Statue that Came to Life.”
After singer Elvis Presley saw her perform at Chicago’s Follies Theater, the two began a romantic relationship that some reports say ended in a marriage proposal she declined (but kept the ring). She eventually became a successful exotic dancer, traveling from city to city.
Satana credits Harold Lloyd with giving her the confidence to pursue a career in show business: “I saw myself as an ugly child. Mr. Lloyd said, ‘You have such a symmetrical face. The camera loves your face…You should be seen.'”
In 1963 Satana hit the big screen as Suzette Wong in the movie Irma la Douce alongside Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine, this was followed up the same year with a role in Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?
“When I was dancing burlesque was an art–classy and elegant and requiring talent. I got out of it when it started to become raunchy and lost the art. Now they call it nude dancing, but it’s plain old pornography as far as I’m concerned. They do things on stage that I wouldn’t have even thought of doing.”
TV roles followed in Burke’s Law and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. but then came the role which would forever place Santana on the Cult Faction radar…
As “Varla” in the 1965 film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!—a very aggressive and sexual female character for which she did all of her own stunts and fight scenes. Renowned film critic Richard Corliss called her performance “the most honest, maybe the one honest portrayal in the Meyer canon and certainly the scariest”. Originally titled The Leather Girls, the film is an ode to female violence, based on a concept created by Russ Meyer and screenwriter Jack Moran. Both felt at her first audition that Satana was “definitely Varla.” The film was shot on location in the desert outside Los Angeles during days when the weather was more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit and freezing nights, with Satana clashing regularly with teenage co-star Susan Bernard due to Bernard’s mother’s reportedly disruptive behavior on the set. Meyer said Satana was “extremely capable. She knew how to handle herself. Don’t fuck with her! And if you have to fuck her, do it well! She might turn on you!”
Satana was responsible for adding key elements to the visual style and energy of the production, including her costume, makeup, usage of martial arts, dialogue and the use of spinning tires in the death scene of the main male character. She came up with many of the film’s best lines. At one point the gas station attendant was ogling her extraordinary cleavage while confessing to a desire to see America. Varla replied “You won’t find it down there, Columbus!”
Meyer cited Satana as the primary reason for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!‘s lasting fame. “She and I made the movie”, said Meyer. Meyer reportedly later regretted not using Satana in subsequent productions.
“I took a lot of my anger that had been stored inside of me for many years and let it loose. I helped to create the character Varla and helped to make her someone that many women would love to be like.”
Following Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, she primarily worked with film director Ted V. Mikels in such films as The Astro-Zombies (1968), and The Doll Squad (1973). After making Mikels’ The Doll Squad in 1973, Satana was shot by a former lover. She later found employment in a hospital, a position she kept for four years. She had studied nursing at Firmin Desloge Hospital. She was then briefly employed as a dispatcher for the Los Angeles Police Department. In 1981, her back was broken in a car accident. She spent the next two years in and out of hospitals, having two major operations and approximately fifteen others.
In 2004, she returned to acting, reprising the role of Malvina Satana in Mark of the Astro Zombies, the sequel to The Astro Zombies, she reprised the role one final time (her last role) in 2010 in Astro Zombies: M3 – Cloned.
“I’ve always told Ted [director Ted V. Mikels]) that you can’t let anything get you down. Look at the positive side. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Keep the negative side buried. I come and go as I please, so I can’t get in trouble.”
Sadly, Satana died on February 4th, 2011, in Reno, Nevada, and was survived by her daughters, Kalani and Jade, and her sisters, Pamela and Kim. Her long-time manager, Siouxzan Perry, gave the cause of death as heart failure. She was 72 years old.