Eartha Kitt, who rose from the Southern cotton fields to captivate audiences around the world with sultry performances as a singer, dancer and actress, died on Thursday at the age of 81.

Kitt died of colon cancer for which she was recently treated at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York, said Andrew Freedman, a long-time friend and publicist.

The cancer was detected about two years ago and treated but recurred after a period of remission.

"She came back strongly. She had been performing until two months ago," Freedman told Reuters by telephone from Los Angles. "We had dates booked through 2009."

Slinky, sensuous and cat-like, Kitt described herself as a "sex kitten" and used her seductive purr to charm audiences across the world.

Actor-director Orson Welles once called Kitt "the most exciting woman alive" and, along with Lena Horne, she was one of the first African-American sex symbols.

Kitt picked up a string of awards during her long career, winning two Emmys and being nominated for a third, as well as a Grammy. She also had two Tony nominations.

Her hit songs included "C'est Si Bon," "Let's Do It" and "Just an Old Fashioned Girl." She also was widely associated with Christmas because of her hit "Santa Baby." The song, recorded in 1953, went gold this year and she received the gold record before she died, Freedman said.

Despite those accolades, Kitt may have been at her best in her nightclub act, which allowed her to use her feline, seductive manner to its fullest.

"She loved cabaret performances," Freedman said. "If there was ever an opportunity to do a small intimate venue with about 150 people, that was always her preference."

Kitt was blackballed in America for speaking out against the Vietnam War in the 1960s -- most notoriously at a White House luncheon in the company of first lady Lady Bird Johnson. Kitt then began performing in Europe, where she had been popular early in her career, and eventually returned to the United States to great acclaim.

"She was never one to look back on her life," Freedman said. "She was a true individual who believed that if you had a true belief in yourself, your talent was authentic."

"My greatest challenge was to be able to survive in the business and to be able to survive according to what I was doing. Not what other people were doing," Kitt told Reuters in a 2005 television interview at the Newport, Rhode Island jazz festival.

"I just stuck to my own guns and I think that was one of the way's I have survived. The audience is not supposed to know that I'm scared, the shyest person in the world."

Kitt was born to a black-Indian mother and a white father on a plantation in South Carolina in 1927. She once described herself as "that little urchin cotton picker from the South, Eartha Mae" and often spoke of a tough childhood in the impoverished segregated South. She was often harassed for being light-skinned before being sent to live with an aunt in New York City.

But Kitt's life in New York also was marred by abuse and poverty until she got her start as a member of the Katherine Dunham Company and made her film debut in "Casbah" in 1948. On television she was perhaps best known for her role as the sexy Catwoman in the 1960s U.S. TV series "Batman."

In an interview with The Times of London in April Kitt described her approach to performing by saying: "I do not have an act. I just do Eartha Kitt ... I want to be whoever Eartha Kitt is until the gods take me wherever they take me."

She was married in the 1960s to real estate developer Bill McDonald and they had a daughter, named Kitt. She also was known for her relationships with Welles, cosmetics mogul Charles Revson and Arthur Leows Jr. of the U.S. movie theatre chain.