Interview: Celeste Yarnall on THE VELVET VAMPIRE

An interview with the late actress about her seminal horror film

On Sunday, October 7th, the planet lost one if its prettier souls. The lovely, kind, brave and talented Celeste Yarnall passed away after a long, torturous battle with ovarian cancer, a condition she and her beloved husband, Nazim, raged against both in private and public. Pop culture will remember Celeste best as THE VELVET VAMPIRE in Stephanie Rothman’s same-named masterpiece and as one of Elvis’ girls in the 1968 musical LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE as well as for her appearances in STAR TREK, HOGAN’S HEROES and a myriad other programs. I knew her enough to know that she truly was a warm, lovely woman and she fought tooth and claw to beat the disease that eventually got the upper hand, though even at her darkest,Celeste lived a great, open and positive life.

Here then, is an interview I conducted with Celeste back in 2013 for DELIRIUM Magazine #1.

RIP beautiful Celeste.

After Hammer Films took full advantage of decade changing censorial belt loosening and brought Sapphic bloodsuckers to the screen in 1970’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, explicit lesbian vampire epics became something of an epidemic. And we’re not complaining of course. With such titles as Jess Franco’s notorious VAMPYROS LESBOS, Harry Kumel’s DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS and Jose Larraz’s VAMPYRES, that titillating cocktail of blood, breasts and biting was a seventies swoon, artful, hot and weird.

Nestled amongst the European sex vamp shockers is director Stephanie Rothman’s moody and melancholy 1972 Roger Corman produced masterpiece THE VELVET VAMPIRE (aka CEMETERY GIRLS). Set in the sun-bleached California dunes, the film sees lovers Michael Blodgett (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) and Sherry Miles (THE PACK) fall into the seductive embrace of exotic So-Cal, desert-dwelling “queen of blood” Yarnall, a kind of sun-baked Carmilla (her character’s surname is LeFanu). Soon both young, hormonal specimens are bedding the horny bloodsucker and much sweating, bleeding and angst-y vampire awesomeness ensues.

But it’s Yarnall who draws all eyes to her like bugs to bright lights. And in life as well as on screen, the model turned actress turned holistic health guru turned sociological oracle may just be one of the most fascinating people you’d ever dare to meet. Transposing the fan-base built around her time spent in from of the camera, Yarnall uses her celebrity status to point arrows towards her spiritual and now humanitarian projects, the latest of which is a new film she produced with her husband, UK painter Nazim Artist, a documentary called FEMME: WOMEN HEALING THE WORLD.

“ A lot of people hear that title and think this film is exclusively for women,” says the still gorgeous performer and scribe, whose youthful glow and beauty betray her near 70 years.
“ This is a 90 minute documentary that serves as a call for partnership for women and men to heal the world starting with the now and the next generation. I’m so passionate about this project. The man behind this creatively is director Emanuel Itier (THE INVOCATION) who – like me – is an amazing connector and lover of people and is trying to make a difference in the world. The point of the film is for men and women not be at odds with each other, to start working together, to heal , to nurture and nourish each other and not declare war on each other. The film is executive produced by Sharon Stone and features Maria Bello, Traci Lords, Maria Conchita Alonso and over 100 women offering insight”.

It might strike some ardent fans of THE VELVET VAMPIRE curious, that the woman who portrayed a sex and gore starved, bisexual parasite in a Roger Corman produced fever dream is now on a dedicated quest to heal the world, but maybe not, considering both her character of Diane LeFanu and the film FEMME aim to bring men and women – and women and women – together. But despite the fact that Yarnall has written myriad books on pet health and nutrition, is a recognized speaker on holistic medicine and treatments, she is not ashamed of her past days parading around starkers in a lurid grindhouse vampire epic.

“I embrace the past,” Yarnall beams, “it has made me who I am. Life taught me that there was more to it than being thin and pretty and to know my lines and doing that was fun and great, but now I want to take what I learned and share it with the world. There but by the grace of god –or goddess – go all of us.”

After her eye-popping, sweaty palmed turn in THE VELVET VAMPIRE, Yarnall slowly detached from Hollywood. The actress had her reasons for fleeing her blossoming on-screen career.

“People today wonder what happened to me in the early 1970’s, they wonder why I vanished. Well, what happened was my daughter Camilla was born in 1970. I separated from her father right after she was born by choice and became a mother and father. I got involved in commercial real estate and owned my own real estate brokerage. And because of what I went through as a single parent, I am passionate about educating on subjects such as birth control, the degree of what it means to be a parent. You know, it’s fascinating. Everything a mother eats drinks think, in utero all of that information is being downloaded into the fetus. The first 1000 days of that child’s life are so vital.”

Cosmic, heady stuff coming from the lady Elvis once crooned “A Little Less Conversation” to in 1968’s LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE and who, in the film, the King eventually, coldly, snubs. One might think Yarnall’s rebirth in middle age as a fervent feminist might stem from starring in such gleefully sexist romps as this and VAMPIRE but on the contrary. In fact her experience working for director Stephanie Rothman – a vital trailblazer for women calling the shots in exploitation cinema – was a pivotal one.

“I was honored to have been personally cast by Roger and Stephanie,” Yarnall recalls.
“We were a tight knit group on set in fact. Now, remember, I had just had my daughter on July 4th 1970 and was still breastfeeding when I did the movie, so I brought my daughter with me and everyone was very accommodating, just a joy to work with. Stephanie is very reclusive now from what I understand, but then she was wonderful, open. It was my first experience having a female director and it was remarkable especially concerning the sexual scenes. Stephanie was very sensitive. She closed the set during the more explicit shots, and there was often just Michael and I and the cameraman. We had a skeletal crew that made sure everything was in place. And then of course, the robes came off…”

Though readers of DELIRIUM embrace Yarnall primarily for her turns in VAMPIRE and in Eddie Romero’s riotous Philippines shot “Blood Island” shocker BEAST OF BLOOD (in which she romances John Ashley while running afoul of the chlorophyll monster), her greatest source of fandom royalty might stem from her role as Chekov’s main squeeze Yeoman Martha Landon in the original STAR TREK series, her short skirt offering male (and no doubt, select female) viewers a glimpse of what awaited in THE VELVET VAMPIRE. In fact it is her cult status as Landon that has propelled her return to the screen, starring in the upcoming Trekkie spoof UNBELIEVABLE!!!!! (yes, as of this writing all five checkmarks are in the title). Yarnall co-produces, along with her husband.

“We’re almost finished principal photography,” she says, “and the cast consists mostly of STAR TREK actors. Nichelle Nichols (who played Uhura) is a producer too. Because of the age of the players, this will be the last time we can pull together this many STAR TREK actors in one shot and it’s a spoof about us STAR TREK guest stars who sit around and wait for the phone to ring. We don’t understand why we’re not on the new STAR TREK shows and movies so we decide at our weekly meeting that we’re going to produce our own STAR TREK movie. It’s about us making this crazy movie. It’s like ED WOOD meets GALAXY QUEST. My husband did the poster art for it too.”

Rare is the artist who transitions careers as dramatically as Yarnall has and yet openly and warmly embraces all of her lives, all of her wildly diverse legacies. And even more impressive is the fact that she has more energy than most women 50 years her junior. Yarnall attributes her success to a refreshingly positive, healthy philosophy.”

“I don’t put out expectations; I put out gratefulness and let the universe do its job. You know, the first two lines of the song Elvis sang to me in LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE were ‘A little less conversation and a little more action, please…’ and that’s what I say to people: we have all the knowledge to just stop talking, start acting, come together as a team and help people. People are so into the “me” when they should embrace the “we” that I just want to hit ‘em on the head sometimes!”

Or bite them…

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