Tura Satana: Amazonian star of Russ Meyer’s cult classic film ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’

The maverick director John Waters might have been exaggerating slightly when he called Russ Meyer's 1965 cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! "the greatest film ever made", but it has certainly become one of the most referenced movies of all time, and is now a touchstone of popular culture. Vaughan Arnell paid homage to it when he directed the Spice Girls' video for "Say You'll Be There", the group's second No 1 single, in 1996, and Anton Corbijn also riffed on it when he filmed a clip for "All These Things That I've Done" by the Las Vegas band The Killers in 2004.

Faster... references also crop up in The Simpsons and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof and in the songs of groups like The Cramps and White Zombie, while the Meyer film has inspired the names of two US rock bands: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!; and – appropriately fronted by the fierce female vocalist Tairrie B – Tura Satana, after the actress who played the role of Varla, the film's exotic, brazen, kick-ass, deadly, Amazonian lead.

Satana only made the one film with Meyer, something the bosom-fixated auteur regretted, but she remains his most formidable and memorable heroine. "It was a statement on Russ's part that females really didn't have to be weak and mild in order to be feminine," she said. "We were feminine, even though we were kicking butt. I helped create Varla, and helped to make her someone that many women would love to be like. I took a lot of my anger that had been stored inside of me for many years and let it loose."

Satana also appeared in four exploitation movies directed by the low-budget specialist Ted V Mikels, the sci-fi horror flicks The Astro-Zombies (1968), and its much delayed sequels Mark Of The Astro-Zombies (2002) and Astro Zombies: M3 – Cloned (2010), as well as the action adventure The Doll Squad (1974), whose female-agents premise was said to have inspired the television series Charlie's Angels.

Tura Satana was born Suvani Luna Pascual Yamaguchi in 1938 – though some sources list her date of birth as 1935 – on Hokkaido, Japan's second largest island. She owed the striking, exotic looks that would later catch the fancy of Elvis Presley – whose marriage proposal she turned down (though she reportedly kept the ring) – to the fact that her father, a silent movie actor, was of Japanese and Filipino descent, while her mother, a contortionist, had Cheyenne Indian and Scots-Irish ancestors. "Suvaki means 'white chameleon' or 'white flower' in Japanese," she explained, "but in Cheyenne it's 'Tura'."

The family moved to the US just before Pearl Harbour, and were interned at the Manzanar camp in California between 1942 and 1945. They eventually settled on the Westside of Chicago at the end of the War. "Ours was the only Oriental family within an area of over 20 miles," she remarked of her troubled childhood and early teenage years spent dodging racist insults and bullying. Her statuesque physique developed early and she excelled as an athlete, but she was the victim of a gang-rape, though she claimed to have exacted revenge on every one of her five attackers later on. "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."

To help rebuild her confidence her father taught her martial arts, and she made use of those skills at reform school. "We had leather motorcycle jackets, jeans and boots and we kicked butt," she said of the gang of girls she led. She achieved a green belt in aikido and a black belt in karate. The marriage her parents arranged to another teenager, a sailor named John Satana, when she was still under-age, didn't work out, and she ran away to Los Angeles. Using a fake ID, she worked as a cigarette girl at the Moulin Rouge on Hollywood Boulevard and began modelling. She also posed nude for the silent film star Harold Lloyd, who told her, "You have such a symmetrical face, the camera loves your face. You should be seen, you should get into the entertainment industry."

Still under-age, she began working in burlesque, billed as Galatea, The Statue That Came To Life. "I started out as an interpretative dancer, but I was offered more money if I took my clothes off, so I did," she said of the nights twirling tassels alongside performers such as Tempest Storm and Candy Barr at venues like the Follies Theatre in Chicago, the Silver Slipper in Las Vegas and Losers in Los Angeles.

Her second husband, a jockey, was killed during a race. At 19, she became pregnant, and continued dancing until a few weeks before her first daughter was born. In 1963, she made her film debut playing Suzette Wong, a chinese streetwalker, in Irma La Douce, Billy Wilder's Paris-set comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, but soon found herself limited to cameos in episodes of the TV series Burke's Law and The Man From U.N.C.L.E, and typecast playing strippers in the Daniel Mann comedies, Who's Been Sleeping In My Bed?, a Dean Martin vehicle, and Our Man Flint, a James Bond spoof with James Coburn.

When she auditioned for Meyer she was wary of his reputation as "King of the Nudies" but found much in the script – then called Leather Girls – to identify with. "I think she has to have a little more balls. I'd make her kind of feminine, but also a bitch on wheels," she told Meyer about the character of Varla, the leader of a gang of go-go dancers on a murderous rampage.

Actress and director didn't always see eye to eye; Satana famously ignored Meyer's edict that none of his leading ladies could have sex during the making of his films, but the tension added a frisson and helped Faster... transcend the limitations of the exploitation genre. Satana did her own stunts and came up with some of the wittiest lines, telling the gas station attendant who leers at her chest and says he wants to see America first: "You won't find it down there, Columbus!"

Faster... opened in Californian grindhouse cinemas and drive-ins in 1966 and didn't perform as well as Meyer's previous movies, yet it has become Meyer's most popular and influential film. "Lesbians and fags are crazy about it," the auteur told me in the 1990s. Satana admitted that, while making the movie hadn't exorcised the memory of her dreadful childhood rape, it had proved empowering for many. "I get emails from women all over the world saying: thank you for showing we can be feminine and still be independent. We don't have to rely on men."

In the 1970s, working in an hospital in Los Angeles, Sutana was shot in the stomach by a drug addict, while in the '80s she broke her back and spent two years in and out of hospitals after being hit by a speeding driver. Yet she always seemed to bounce back. "The one thing you've got to remember is that you just never accept defeat," she said. "Remember to never let life get you down, because there is always something new to learn tomorrow. Life is to be lived, and lived well."

She worked as a dispatcher for the LA Police Department and, after moving to Nevada with her third husband, a former LA cop, was a secretary in a dental practice. She attended fan conventions and appeared on Jonathan Ross's The Incredibly Strange Show series for Channel 4 (1988) and Cody Jarrett's women-in-prison homage Sugar Boxx (2004). She told all about her affairs with actor Rod Taylor and Presley in Let's Spend the Night Together: Backstage Secrets of Rock Muses and Supergroupies, the book by über-groupie Pamela Des Barres. "Elvis kissed like a fish," she revealed.

Satana's manager, Siouxzan Perry, is hoping to complete a documentary provisionally entitled A Kick Ass Life about the actress whose "real life kicked more ass than her movies."

Pierre Perrone

Suvani Luna Pascual Yamaguchi (Tura Satana), actress, model, nurse, clerical worker: born Hokkaido, Japan 10 July 1938; three times married (two daughters); died Reno, Nevada 4 February 2011.

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