The name Tura Satana may not ring many bells to mainstream film aficionados, but to those who appreciate the cult classics, Tura Satana was a true legend. Best known for starring as Varla in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, she also made appearances in Our Man Flint, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and played a streetwalker alongside Shirley MacLaine in Irma La Douce. A lot of people don’t realize what a fascinating life she led. Her life story sounds like it could be the plot of one of her movies.
Born in Japan, she spent some of her childhood in the Manzanar internment camp in California before moving to Chicago with her family after World War II. But once she got to Chicago, she had to deal with a lot of the anti-Asian attitudes prevalent in America at the time. When she was nine years old, she was walking home from school one day when five men raped her. The men who attacked her went unpunished and the judge actually sent Tura to reform school instead, but Tura took the old adage of “that what does not kill us, makes us stronger” to heart. She took up martial arts and made it her goal to hunt down each of her attackers and make them pay — which she did. While in reform school, she became the leader of a gang before getting married at the age of thirteen in an arranged marriage. She then moved to Los Angeles and became a model. When she posed for Harold Lloyd, he told her she was beautiful and encouraged her to get into movies, words that meant a lot to someone who still felt like an awkward teenager. When she returned to Chicago, she became a queen of burlesque and worked with other burlesque icons such as Tempest Storm and even attracted the attention of Elvis Presley, who once proposed to her.
In 1963, she made her film debut with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce. She made a few other appearances here and there before her career-defining role as Varla in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! in 1965. Tura didn’t just play Varla, she was Varla. Of course, her figure made her the perfect star for a Russ Meyer movie, but with her martial arts skills and no-nonsense attitude, nobody could have ever played that part better. Watching that movie, it’s no surprise at all that she spent some of her youth as a gang leader! After FPKK, she made a few more movies before taking a job working in a hospital and later as a police dispatcher. In recent years, she spent a lot of time traveling and making appearances to meet fans of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and shortly before her death had been working on a documentary of her remarkable life.
Faster, Pussycat is one of my favorite movies, so I truly was sad to hear Tura had died on February 4th. Even though she was one woman you’d never want to cross, she was always exceptionally gracious to her fans. After I saw FPKK for the first time a few years ago, I went to her website and saw that she had an official MySpace page so I sent her a friend request, assuming I’d just get accepted automatically and that’d be it. Imagine my surprise when I got a personal message from Tura asking why I requested her because she noticed I hadn’t mentioned any of her movies on my page. So I explained that I had just recently seen FPKK and loved it and loved her in it, and she replied saying she was glad to hear I liked it so much and welcomed me as part of her Pussycat Gang. I was quite impressed that she actually took the time to look at her fans’ pages and only wanted to accept people who really were fans. I admire how she was able to rise above so much and come out so strong, I love how much she embraced her legacy as Varla, and I always like a person who is good to their fans. She was a truly amazing woman who will be greatly missed.