Interview with Dita Von Teese

Even if you had never been to a burlesque show in your life, even if you thought pasties were just something you ate on holiday in Cornwall… Even if you had absolutely no idea what burlesque was, you’d still have heard of Dita Von Teese. 

This woman has done more than anyone to bring this fabulous artform back into the public eye and we were naturally delighted when she accepted our invitation to be our cover star. Sarah Lindsay had the privilege of an audience with the undisputed Queen of Burlesque…

Some burlesque dancers have been vocal about how burlesque should be left to the professionals. What do you think fans having a go?

I personally don’t think it’s my position to say whether anyone should perform burlesque. We were all amateurs at one time and I can tell you that since I’ve been performing, I’ve seen many wonderful performers emerge who were just starting out and they eventually became some of the best out there, so if no one had given these newcomers a chance, we would be missing some major star power in burlesque! 

There is also a wonderful burlesque fan base of women who understand how to embrace the spirit of burlesque in their own lives without feeling the need to get up there and perform in front of people. I think it’s very important to know your personal boundaries, and performing in front of an audience certainly isn’t – nor should it be – for everyone. Empowerment from burlesque isn’t merely about facing fears and showing your body to people;
one can certainly feel empowered by
seeing a great burlesque show and incorporating those same elements into real life. The neo-burlesque community has women of every shape, ethnicity and age represented, and it’s fantastic to have all kinds of women displaying the beauty of woman and setting a good example of confidence for their audiences.  

Can you see yourself, like Tempest Storm, dancing into your 60s and 70s?

It’s hard for me to say because when I started doing this, at age 19, I certainly would never have imagined that almost 20 years later anyone would want to see me perform a striptease, as I am now in my late 30s. We have a strange idea of what age is – until we reach that age we thought we knew about. At age 24, I was so sure that I was in my top form, but now I can see that it wasn’t true, because I’ve grown as a performer, and I’m in better shape now, and I also think that part of my appeal to my fans is that I am a grown woman. 

I think things might be different for me if I were 21 right now. I’m not sure I would have the same fan base, or the same media interest. Back when I was in my 20s, I was sure that I would stop performing and go on to have a baby and a normal life, and that burlesque was just a little thing I did when I was ‘young’. Therefore, I have been preparing financially for my retirement since I was in my early 20s, with ideas about what I thought was ‘age appropriate’ – and yes, I may sometimes fantasize about retiring, but at the same time I fret about losing that triumphant feeling of a perfect show and a generous audience.

My shows have evolved greatly over the course of my career, obviously with regard to production values, but when I am creating new acts now, I do take a more ‘womanly’ approach, rather than just seeking to be a ‘pin-up girl’, if that makes sense. For me, Gypsy Rose Lee was an excellent example of how to evolve. Later in life, she gathered a troupe of girls and used them on stage for the nudity aspects of her show, and I think that’s quite clever – which brings me to the point that most of these legendary burlesque queens, like Lili St Cyr, who had her lingerie store and mail order company in Hollywood well into the 1980s, were very clever, and that’s how they managed to have lifelong careers. 

There was Sally Rand, who still toured in the mid-1970s with her feather fans. She still danced divinely, without revealing anything of her body, and she was still fabulous. And people could still see the real Gypsy Rose Lee right there on stage, in all her bugle-beaded glory, with the same witty banter she was known for, but she no longer stripped off as much as she used to. She always stood for glamour, and made quite a living well after burlesque was dead. I hope I will always be a part of burlesque, in some way, but I am setting up for retirement just in case this 15 minutes runs out sooner than I would like it to.

How does it make you feel to be referred to as a stripper?

I never mind it one bit. My aim is to change people’s minds about what it is to be a stripper. I am trying to educate people about what burlesque actually is, and it does no service to educate about burlesque history by saying, “I’m not a stripper, I’m a ‘burlesque artiste’.”

Back then the stars of the burlesque shows were referred to as strippers, and that’s a fact. It’s not a bad word. Gypsy didn’t mind people using the term because she felt her elegance spoke for itself, and I feel the same way. I want my show to say it for me. In the big burlesque boom, there have been people trying to sanitize what burlesque used to be, in an effort to capitalize on the stylistic elements of it, but to put down the striptease as being ‘tawdry’ is unfair to the real women of burlesque that came before us that did perform striptease. Without them, we wouldn’t have a burlesque revival now. 

The headlining strippers are what made a burlesque show risqué, glamorous and interesting. I got my start in strip clubs, and that’s how I learned about this thing called ‘burlesque’. I truly believe that my years there, developing my show, are a big part of my success. It never really mattered to me what the joint looked like, or who my audience was and why they were there. I just wanted to perform retro-style striptease – and, I have to admit, when I’m sitting there in my first class airplane seat and the highfalutin business person next to me asks me what I do, I take a bit of delight in simply saying, “I’m a stripper…”

I don’t require acceptance or validation, because there will always be someone who doesn’t like it or doesn’t approve. The best we can do is to make peace with our choices in life, and stand by them with conviction and integrity.  

Why do you think there has been such a resurgence in burlesque?

Well, it’s been a long time in the making. It’s been getting a lot of press that has slowly been building year after year and, with the way the fan base has shifted from predominantly male to female, it makes for an interesting story to shine the spotlight on this other form of titillation that isn’t porn, yet is not too innocent either. 

Also of note is that we are showing another form of sexy imagery that isn’t supermodels au naturel. Burlesque showcases a fabulous message of self-creation. You don’t have to be born beautiful to be beautiful, and burlesque showcases the fantasy and the art of ‘created’ glamour in a wonderful way. 

What makes you feel sexier: being naked or wearing glamorous underwear?

I’ve always loved lingerie. I worked in a lingerie store from age 15 and, for me, it’s always been this fascinating, mysterious secret among women. It’s less about the seduction of men and more about honouring yourself with something beautiful, just for you. I love how lingerie shapes my body, from the lines and the frame a garterbelt and stockings create, and the way patches of skin show through alluringly. This kind of lingerie appeals to my love of 1930s and ‘40s era glamour;
they go hand in hand. 

I love the ritual of dressing and undressing – the more intricately the better. I love the way a corset can create curves and exaggerate everything that is feminine about a woman’s shape. I also love the effect it has on men, but I don’t wear it for them. I just wear what I love, and they can consider themselves to be the lucky benefactors! I have never liked dressing up in something for a man that doesn’t make me feel sexy – white cotton panties or ruffly little girl socks and the like are out of the question for me. I simply won’t – because I believe that, as women, we should wear what makes us feel confident, and the important thing is to know what is right for you. 

What item of make-up could you not be without?

Red lipstick. If I have a sweep of powder, red lips and a pair of sunglasses, it looks completely ‘done’ – and it takes all of two minutes to accomplish!

If you weren’t a burlesque dancer, what do you think you would be?

I would probably have made a good stylist. I would have liked to have been a ballerina, but I simply didn’t have the talent. That’s another thing that drew me to burlesque: many of the great Queens of Burlesque became so out of necessity! I have a special fondness for those stars who are accused of not being as talented, or as beautiful, as someone else. I will take the intriguing Madonna over a stylized singer performing perfect vocal gymnastics any time! I love unconventional beauty. I prefer the inventiveness of those who want to ‘compensate’ for what people may consider ‘less talent’. There’s something really amazing about watching someone who wants to succeed and doesn’t just rest on their ‘God-given’ talent. 

How would you advise a keen burlesque dancer to overcome undressing and body fears?

Well, first of all, I wouldn’t tell her that she has to overcome her fears, because perhaps burlesque is not the right profession for her. I really wouldn’t try to talk anyone into getting up there and stripping. I’ve never had any body fears, or fears of being naked, or stage fright of any kind, and so I can’t tell someone that they will overcome it by just doing it. 

I genuinely think that you should just love doing it. For instance, the best and most famous porn stars genuinely love to have sex on camera. They aren’t doing it for the money or the rewards: they are doing it because they love what they are doing; theyneed to do it. I feel the same way about burlesque. If you feel like you want to do it because it means you can be worshipped, adored and famous, then you’re in it for all the wrong reasons. It should be fun to be up there. It should not be a painful, scary, nerve-wracking experience – ever! 

Where do you most like to perform? Are there any particularly favourite places?

It would be impossible to generalize, because I’ve had some amazing stand-out shows and the reasons are all different. It’s been exhilarating to perform in countries that have never had burlesque of any kind, or places where it’s technically not even legal. It’s been exciting to perform at high-profile events for mega-stars that I’m star-struck over. It was emotional to dance on the same grand stage as Gypsy Rose Lee and take that big burlesque strut down the stage to a live orchestra. I pinched myself when I once saw that Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg were all there in the front row! 

I remember taking my first spin in my martini glass in a strip club on Bourbon Street. I think fondly of wild audiences full of die-hard fans… But then again, it was also a thrill to perform in front of 3,000 people who had never heard of me before, and then there are the shows I’ve done with amazing support talent that I was so proud to dance with. And then yet again, I’ve had some great times in strip joints in Midwestern America! There are so many good times over the years, some of them glamorous, some not so much, but it was all fun and I enjoyed every bit of it, even the ‘dues-paying’ parts!

What has been your most memorable performance?

The first time I danced at the Crazy Horse was amazing because I was the first guest star in the history of the place since 1951 and I was a long-time fan of the show. I had seen the show in Paris about 30 times over the years, and I’ve studied everything I can find about the history of it, so it was a huge honour for me to perform there. 

The stars of the Crazy have gruelling schedules because the show is up 365 days a year, so there are these young, hard-working, beautiful and talented professional dancers, and they were somewhat cold towards me during the first rehearsals, which is understandable, because there I am, taking over their place, doing lots of press, getting the star treatment. I can’t blame them. But then the curtain went up on the opening night and the place was filled with the Paris elite and all the press, and the girls came off stage exhilarated and thanked me for being there and bringing the media attention back to the Crazy. 

As the run went on and the shows were sold out every night, we developed a mutual respect and adoration for each other. I would ask them for advice, and they would ask me for advice, and it came to a point where I was also able to overcome some of my own insecurities about my dance talent as compared to theirs – nearly all of them are professional ballet dancers from Paris and Russia, definitely top-notch dancers – and I was able to look at how we are different, and see that I actually do have my own strengths. As much as I love watching it, I do understand that it’s not always about how high you can kick or the choreography you can remember…

Recently, I worked with one of my favourite Crazy Horse girls and helped her create a burlesque act for herself. It was amazing to watch this disciplined, technically brilliant dancer let loose and perform her own act, feeding off the audience! Burlesque performances thrive on the energy of the audience, and I think that the element of self-creation and having the power over your own stage time is something that many dancers don’t get. I really just loved seeing her become untamed! I have formed some great friendships there at the Crazy. It’s a very special place for me, and I feel honoured to have my place there. 

Everyone should see that show. It’s a fabulous show unlike any other, with the most beautiful dancers in the world, and the lighting is exquisite. It’s a fully nude revue and it’s more sophisticated than anything I’ve ever seen – proving that you just can’t say to what degree nudity should be kept classy or elegant. I go back there often and there’s a DVD of the shows I performed there, along with the numbers I performed with the girls. For me, the Crazy Horse is the most beautiful show that glorifies the female form. 

Have you had any performance disasters? What happened?

I wouldn’t call anything a disaster because I’ve never left the stage crying or anything. “That’s not showbiz,” as Murray Hill would say. In showbiz, you get it together and you keep going, with a smile! But yes, all kinds of technical things do go wrong: costumes malfunction, props fail… It’s just part of the deal. The thing that makes a great performer is how you deal with those things while everyone is watching. Everyone loves seeing a little thing that makes you ‘human’ now and then, and they love you for dealing with the problems in an elegant and fun way. 

Probably the funniest was the time my hair caught fire. One minute I was backstage with Catherine D’Lish and we were delighting in my fab hairdo, giving it some extra sprays of hairspray, and the next thing that happened, my hair caught fire because someone backstage had lit the prop candles on my boudoir set. 

I could see my manager, my fiancé and my friends all walking towards me, getting ready to drop and roll me, but I just patted out the flames and kept on doing the show. The theatre smelled horrible afterwards and I had to get two haircuts to get the burned hair out! 

Have I slipped on stage? Yes. Have I screwed up my act? Yes. Has a zipper stuck? Of course it has. If you didn’t have a crappy show every now and then, you wouldn’t be able to appreciate those perfect ‘all forces aligned in your favour’ moments that performers live for. 

I understand you are into old black and white movies… What is your all time favourite film?

Actually it’s 1940s technicolor that I love. That World War II era, when it was all about the big song and dance musical to get people’s minds off the horrors of the war. Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda films are my favourites. 

This was also my favourite era of film for make-up, hair and clothing, and Betty’s numbers have definitely influenced a few of my burlesque shows. I have every big film that Betty and Carmen ever made, and I watch them often for a big dose of glamorous and colourful beauty! I also watch a lot Mae West and read everything I can get my hands on that she’s written. She was a genius. My friends and I have readings of her book Love, Sex and ESP. It’s hilarious, racy, yet smart advice from the Queen of the Quip!

How is your French coming along?

Terribly! The only way I can manage to make progress is to go to classes in Paris for three to four hours a day for a week or two, and then it’s all lost in the shuffle of my commitments when I am back in Los Angeles or when I’m off travelling. 

I’m the global brand ambassador for famous French brand Cointreau and I’m also working with Perrier; they are both always pleading with me to speak French on camera for them, or give speeches at events in French, because they think it’s so cute, so I’ve really got to get it together and make some progress!

Tell me about your latest book…

I’m still working on the beauty book, which is going to be a step-by-step guide to getting glamorous and is also about enforcing the importance of individuality, and the unimportance of the typical beauty ‘rules’. It’s about breaking the guidelines of modern beauty to achieve glamour and stand out from the crowd. There will be no lessons on how to create the perfect beige lip or smoky eye… In this book, eccentricity is encouraged; rules are dismissed!

What’s next for you? Any big plans or performances you can share?

I’m putting the finishing touches to some new numbers and various tours for 2011. I am also about to begin production on my be-all-end-all, big-budget burlesque revue, which will be the show I have always dreamed of. And I am about to launch my first fragrance and a lingerie line.

How would you sum up the world
of burlesque today?

It’s hard to sum it up because the scale of the burlesque revival is global now. There are all kinds of new styles emerging. It’s exciting to see the evolution and I am happy for all the attention burlesque is finally getting. My hope is that it continues, and continues to evolve, but that the true spirit of classic burlesque is maintained.

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