OC INTERVIEW: Burlesque Star Dita Von Teese

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Open Chest Power Series
Dita Von Teese
A Revelation Of How She Built Her Brand

ANOKHI Weekly Issue 68 featuring burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese.
First published in ANOKHI Magazine, Issue 68.

Dita Von Teese is one of my idols. Growing up amidst the female role models of the 1940s to the 1990s (those who influenced my understanding of what women were meant to be), both from the West, where I have lived all of my life, to the East, where my heritage resides, the most fascinating of them all where the glamazons — those who had the guts to be as flamboyant as was possible. I didn’t realize until much later on in life that these women identified with being glamorous, rather than it being something they did for the sake of their profession or to attract a man. On the contrary, they became known because of their identification of self.

In today’s era, I feel that the meaning of glamour has become synonymous with commercialization (far more than it ever was in the past), and that only a handful of women stand out as being truly authentic in living their truth when it comes to glamour being an integral part of their identity, both professionally and personally. Dita Von Teese is one such woman. Hailed as the Queen of Burlesque, the author of New York best sellers, a muse to the world’s top fashion designers, and owner of her own name brand of clothing, Dita has defied the run-of-the-mill, cookie-cutter pop culture icons, by inventing her own identity from her own sense of self, inspired by all that touched her deeply as a child and throughout her life since.

This is the kind of woman I admire, and this is why she is my newest Open Chest Power Series interview. If you’ve ever wanted to know how passion and lifestyle has built a world class brand, read on . . .

The Art Of The Teese Tour

Cover of Dita Von Teese's book Burlesque and the Art of the Teese.
Cover of Dita Von Teese’s book Burlesque and the Art of the Teese.

Dita, you’ve inspired an entire generation by bringing the art of burlesque from the traditional Victorian style to the neo-burlesque genre, where you have been hailed as the undisputed “Queen of Burlesque.” Your co-authored book, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese/Fetish and the Art of the Teese (2005), is considered the textbook authority on burlesque even today. When you look back over the years, how does it make you feel knowing the impact that you’ve had on the modernization of the burlesque movement?

It’s all I ever wanted to be known for, and when I look back at the the start of my career, I would have never dared think of what burlesque would become. It was just a hobby for me, something I loved doing. I never had any expectations of stardom or anything; I just loved the creative outlet and the confidence I found with performing.

Before we talk about your unique career path, I have to to say that you’ve delighted your North American fans by announcing that you will be going on tour with a brand new show, kicking off on February 1 through March 5 2017 across the continent. The tour is called The Art Of The Teese and you are bringing never-before-seen performances as well as re-worked versions of acts that you are so well-known for. Why did you feel that now was the time to do a new show, considering your long-time uber successful run touring Strip Strip Horray! and your long-standing residency at Crazy Horse Paris?

After the release of my New York Times bestselling book Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour, I found, when doing the book signings, there were so many new fans. I did a lot of talks and events, and people would tell me they were finally old enough to the see my show, or that they were new to the scene and inspired by it, and always the question came up about when I would perform again.

At the same time, The Crazy Horse Paris was asking me to return to their stage and I thought, “Well, if I am doing this, I have to make it challenging and exciting for me again.” So that’s what I did. I did 40 sold out shows at the Crazy Horse Paris to rave reviews and then toured the West Coast with an updated version of Strip, Strip, Hooray and finally took it to Australia for a six week tour.

So this time around, I was thinking about the warehouse full of stage props I have that have never really been seen on tour, and so I thought, “Why not create a new show?” We toured with that same show for five years and people still want to see it again and again. So The Art of the Teese has lots of new acts but still has the elements that made my previous tours so successful. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but I’ve got my new male Vontourage boys in the show and I am creating a new version of an act I only ever did in Paris at The Crazy, with all new costumes by British designer Jenny Packham and custom shoes by Christian Louboutin.

There are some amazing burlesque stars in the show. I am working on a visa for a wonderful performer from abroad that I have long since admired. I am very proud to have our hilarious MC Murray Hill back for more and the legendary Dirty Martini. My co-creator Catherine D’Lish has an all new act to debut in The Art of the Teese as well. One of my favorite American burlesque dancers is also performing one of my own classic acts. I am so excited to see her perform it with her own unique personality. Each performer in my show has a distinctive sense of self, which is very important in burlesque now. It’s no longer exciting just to see a pretty girl up there; there are so many incredible show stopping performers that bring something truly unique to burlesque. And that is what I look for when casting. I want to be surrounded by the very best so people can’t decide what their favourite part of the night was.

Whoa, what an exciting peek into the show! What can your fans look forward to that perhaps is different from what you’ve done in the past?

The Art of the Teese features some of my favourite burlesque stars doing new acts, along with some new performers that I’ve been admiring. I am always watching for new talent that is distinctive and unique. I’m performing new acts that I’ve never toured with that have never been seen in the U.S. before, along with a new version of my martini glass act. As for the lineup, we have Mr. Showbiz Murray Hill back by popular demand, the show-stopping Dirty Martini, Jett Adore, Catherine D’lish, plus Ginger Valentine performing one of my own signature acts in her own way. I am excited to say that we will have Drag Race winner Violet Chachki joining the cast in Chicago and Texas. I have one other performer to introduce but I can’t yet. But she’s incredible and I am very excited to have her join my touring family. Last but not least, I have my oh-so talented and super hot Vontourage, two incredible male dancers that back me up onstage. They’ve added a whole new dimension to the show. I’m absolutely crazy about them.

Poster for upcoming show The Art of the Teese.
Poster for upcoming show The Art of the Teese.

What should people who have never seen one of your shows know about what to expect that will make it worth coming out for the first time?

Well, for someone who’s seen burlesque before, I can promise that you have never seen a show like this one before. It’s the biggest burlesque show in the world. For those that have never seen a burlesque show, it’s a striptease show that’s bound to change your mind about what a stripper is. Burlesque was originally men’s entertainment in its golden age in the 1940s and 1950s but has since become inspirational — an unlikely form of feminism which is a far cry from what it was in its golden age in the 1940s. In fact, I think there are a lot of burlesque historians that will agree that burlesque is really having a bigger and more meaningful resurgence now than ever before.

At my shows, nearly 80 per cent of the audience is female and we have a very diverse following with the LGBTQ community. People come to the show and say they have never seen anything like it in their lives and they’re really touched by it. We get fans that bring their mothers, their grandmothers. I can’t tell you how many times I have met three generations of women coming to see the show together. And we meet so many couples that are grateful to have a place where they can see a sexy show with diversity in beauty, body shape, ethnicity and gender. Many feel inspired to love their own bodies and embrace glamour in everyday life. It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s what keeps me going. You really have to see it to believe it; we have a glorious audience. People marvel at the beauty of our audience and the warmth in the room.

How incredible, and clearly one of the integral reasons why you’re the Queen of Burlesque. You’re inclusive and allow the art form to be showcased in your shows in such a diverse manner, which in turn attracts a diverse audience. I want to touch on your partnership with Swarovski and British designer Jenny Packham to bring next level of glam to the show. Can you share some highlights about this?

I wanted to create a new version of my act “Lazy,” previously only performed in Paris at The Crazy Horse, so I asked Jenny Packham to design new costumes for it. She has made costumes for me in the past. Christian Louboutin is designing the shoes, and I’ve also designed a new set for this act. Swarovski has always been a big supporter of mine, so they are kindly supplying the glitz.

Will there be any opportunities to purchase any of your fashion, fragrance, beauty or books merchandise at the shows?

Yes, we have lots of show souvenirs such as books, posters and autographed items.

Lots for your ardent fans as well as newcomers to enjoy! I cannot wait to see the Toronto show and I highly encourage my audience to go check it out also. Full show listings and ticket availability can be found at www.artoftheteese.com.   

 

The Queen Of Burlesque

Having followed your journey over the years, I see so many examples of the universe working towards unfolding a unique life and career path for you. I would like to take this opportunity to share the milestone moments of these with my audience as you’ve experienced them, in the hopes of having you ‘Open Chest’ (no pun intended) about things that people cannot Google about to find out. So, let’s begin! I read the interesting way in which your name came into being. Dita was adopted by you in 1992 from the German silent film actress Dita Parlo. Von Teese came about purely by accident due to a spelling error by Playboy in 1994 when you appeared in Playboy’s Book of Lingerie issue.  You gave them “Von Treese,” after surfing the phone book, but they misprinted it as “Von Teese.” Do you believe (like I do) that this was perhaps a message from the universe giving you a premonition of things to come, since you then went on to changing the game by making burlesque pop culturally “cool” in ways that it had never been before?

Yes, I agree that it was a happy accident. I didn’t put much thought into my last name. I thought I was just using it for Playboy because they told me I had to choose a last name to be in the magazine. Some years after that, a journalist called my name “contrived,” which was funny since it wasn’t even something I chose. I just left the typo as is because I thought it was just a single use in Playboy’s Book of Lingerie.

Dita Von Teese, burlesque dancer, during one of her performances.
Dita Von Teese during one of her performances. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dita Von Teese.

Your signature style of burlesque has been adopted and adapted in many ways across multiple platforms, from modern dance to stimulating fashion styles to inspiring music videos. Why do you think that mainstream society has been more accepting of burlesque performance today versus in the past when it was more of an underground niche art form?

Well, we can speculate. I think there have been burlesque stars in the past, like Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand and Lili St. Cyr that achieved degrees of mainstream fame in their day. I think that it’s incredibly interesting that something that was really men’s entertainment in its golden age in the 1940s and 1950s has become a new kind of feminism today. My audience is predominantly female, and very fashion-forward, with a big LGBTQ presence. Burlesque is very different in its modern reincarnation; for those that love it, it’s playful and fun, a way to experience sensuality and glamour in a way that can inspire.

Absolutely! Dita, I would like to break down your unique interpretation of burlesque before we talk about all of the extensions of your brand, since it’s upon the foundation of this success that the rest has materialized. Let’s explore the various skills that you’ve learned over the years that have uniquely defined and immortalized the Dita Von Teese signature. You trained in ballet and, as such, have often incorporated the en pointe technique in your performances. Why include this particular technique, and how do you feel it adds to the allure of your performance?

Ballet is rooted in my childhood obsessions. That’s why it’s become part of my shows. My first shows in the ’90s were all danced en pointe. I’ve been obsessed with ballet since I was very young. I had a vinyl album with a 1950s ballerina on it and I would obsess over her satin pointe shoes, fishnet stockings and powder blue tutu. I have many deeply ingrained obsessions from my childhood that are all prevalent in what I do.

Let’s talk about some that you are known for. You’re a well-recognized “tightlacer” in the fetish space from what I’ve read —a skill that has also made an appearance in your shows over the years. Explain the technique as you have deployed it, as well as share what it is about this technique that is such an aphrodisiac for those who are not familiar with its objective. 

I don’t really care to speak as an expert on tightlacing, because I honestly don’t really practice it the way some do, and I don’t want to condone it as a substitute for taking care of the body or getting an hourglass shape.

Burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese in costume.
Dita Von Teese in costume.

Fair point.

I started wearing corsets because I always loved lingerie. My first job was working in a lingerie store at the age of 15, and the corset is the ultimate obscure lingerie piece, something from another era and something restrictive and taboo. The stiff satin reminds me of what I love about ballet pointe shoes, and the way it creates a womanly shape is a symbol of exaggeration of the feminine form, something that I always loved. I also began using corsetry in my stripteases because I liked the complication of removing a piece like this, the dramatic unlacing.

Ofcourse, the ultimate allure, similar to the dance of the seven veils or the undressing of the masses of material and jewelry worn by and Indian bride — the thought of how long to get to the prize so to speak. And finally, your Pilates practice, other than keeping you toned and in shape, does it add in anyway to your choreography?

I trained in Pilates for 16 years with the lovely Mari Winsor. Pilates is wonderful, but the past year I decided to try other workouts because, well, I became bored with it and I also want to work on sculpting my body in other ways. I started working out in a crossfit gym learning how to work with weights like kettle bells. I actually love it and have had less issues with my hips like I did with pilates. I always like to keep my workouts interesting, so I tend to try news things, hence the dressage lessons, dance classes, yoga.

And that you do!

 

The Fashion & Beauty Icon

In addition to the vast skills that you incorporate into your performances, there’s also the grand costumes that you’re known for that heighten the experience for your audience. And there’s no wonder since you’re a trained costume designer that specializes in historic costume design, which explains the 1940s vintage look that your image imbibes. Can you shed light on how your look came into being and who your influences have been over the years that have inspired the creation and metamorphosis of the Dita Von Teese image?

My mother loved to watch classic films, so the glamour of stars like Betty Grable, Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe made an indelible imprint on me. I would be wanting to look like them. I began wearing red lipstick and cat-eyeliner when I was in my teens and I started dressing in vintage, mainly because I couldn’t afford the designer jeans, bags and shoes my girlfriends could. Over the years my style has evolved, from the early 1990s when I wore 1950s lingerie as outerwear with cardigan sweaters, to wearing 1930s tuxedos, dressing in exact period 1940s style, down to the year, and finally to now, where my style is a blend of vintage and modern. I like clothes that capture the spirit of classic Hollywood but with a modern twist.

Burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese during a trip to India in 2012.
Dita Von Teese during a trip to India in 2012. Photo Credit: Pinterest.com

Such meticulous attention to detail, a great lesson for the younger generation of girls to find their style through a combination of those they admire as well as their own individuality as you have done. I’m curious, have you ever been influenced by Indian fashion or Bollywood, since the opulence and intricacy of your style is so indicative of the South Asian esthetic?  

I think that the saree is one of the most beautiful types of dress and I have worn it in India when I have visited. I own several beautiful ones. I love national dress and in my travels I’m often encouraged to wear it.

You’re famous for the creation of the garter belt with six straps garters instead of the standard four. What’s the significance of the six?

It’s something I noticed on some of my vintage and antique lingerie pieces, and so I decided to make it a signature of my garter belts. Six strap garters keeps fully fashioned seamed stockings in place better than a four strap garters, and I wore stockings daily, so it was important to me to make my garter belts functional, in hopes that other women would discover the pleasure of wearing stockings as opposed to pantyhose. My own lingerie collection is meant to bring functionality and glamour together. I had a drawer full of unwearable garters from various lingerie designers — things I bought to complete a pretty set because I love garters. But most designers don’t wear them so they don’t know how to design them. They just make them as a frivolous, sexy add-on item.

Valid point! You’ve walked for and been the muse of many A-List fashion designers over the years, including being featured at The Heart Truth celebrity fashion show in 2011 in New York City, which is not surprising since you’re such a distinctive and authentic woman whose beauty, although classic, is multilayered. What have designers shared with you about what they see as the magic that you bring to fashion?

Walking in Jean Paul Gaultier’s shows were the pinnacle, because, well, it’s Paris Haute Couture and to see how these clothes are made as wearable art is a great privilege. Jean Paul and I have a commonality in that we both have these deep childhood obsessions and we might be repeating ourselves in some ways, reinventing our signatures, but it’s genuine love and passion for something that touches us deeply. It’s impossible to fake this kind of thing. I think he recognizes that in me. I do what I do because I love it. It’s not for the sake of attention or because other people are doing it.

Dita Von Teese with Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2014.
Dita Von Teese with Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2014. Photo Credit: hydrogen-mag.com

 


That’s quite clear about you. Your art, fashion and style is clearly quite defined and rooted in your ideas of self identity. In
2012 you forayed into branded merchandize with your own clothing line Von Follies. Tell me about the name choice, the collection specifics, the prototype women it was designed for, and where it can be purchased.

I launched my lingerie collection in Australia as Von Follies, yes, but later re-launched it as Dita Von Teese Lingerie when we went into the U.S. markets at stores like Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, ASOS, Figleaves, Bare Necessities, Journelle, Harrods, Selfridges, and Glamuse.com. My aim is always to create a collection that is glamorous and nostalgic but functional and wearable in everyday life. I’ve always loved lingerie. Ever since I was a little girl, I felt it was symbolic of femininity and womanhood. My collection is created with that idea. Wearing pretty underpinnings shouldn’t be about the seduction of men. I’ve always enjoyed wearing beautiful, functional lingerie in everyday life rather than putting it on for someone else. Why wait for someone else to see it? Why store your sensuality on a shelf? I believe in creating everyday moments of beauty and glamour.

Burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese's latest book, Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour.
Her latest book Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour.

Beautiful articulation of your belief in self as the centre and core of your identity. Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Beauty (2015) is your most recent authored book. Great title! Tell me about the eccentric aspect of it. 

I wanted to write a beauty book that encourages readers to try new things, to dare to be different and to break the standard rules of beauty.

How did you do this?

When I think of eccentric glamour, I think of people with a strong sense of style that doesn’t seek approval from others. I’ve always taken notice of glamour, because in my opinion, it has very little to do with God-given beauty. Ever since I was a little girl, I noticed this thing called glamour! I was always awestruck by my great aunt Opal’s flaming red hair, green eyeshadow, crimson lips, with a cigarette holder between her scarlet nails. She wasn’t classically beautiful, but she was colourful, joyful and memorable, and I thought she was gorgeous. Even now, I am often stopped dead in my tracks by glamour and I usually find it in older women. Sometimes I see an elderly lady walking down the street and I stop my car to watch her.

Whoa, how interesting!

Yes, I’m obsessed with glamour. When I was little, I would watch technicolor films from the 1940s and loved the flamboyant stars like Carmen Miranda and the glamour girls like Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable. All these painted and colourful ladies with fancy clothes always appealed to me and they came alive in glorious technicolor.

I can relate. Growing up in England in the 1970s and early 1980s, we only had three TV channels and they predominantly played silver screen and technicolour movies and I found so many similarities between these stars and the Indian glamizons of the Indian movie scene. So what can people expect from your book?

The book takes you through every step of my glamour arsenal, from sound nutrition and exercise guidance, skin care and scent insight, as well as accessible techniques for creating bombshell hairstyles and makeup looks. There is the authoritative advice of my confidantes, who are the masters in makeup, hair, medicine and exercise, as well as some of the world’s most eccentric beauties. It shares the skills, history and lessons you need to enhance your individual gifts and realize your own beauty mark, with original illustrations by Adele Mildred and instructive step-by-steps, along with hundreds of glamour portraits by more than 80 acclaimed photographers, such as Ellen Von Unwerth, Peter Lindbergh, Ruven Afanador, Paola Kudacki, Ali Mahdavi and Albert Sanchez.

What a delicious treat for all round beauty advocates or those who want to start from the ground up. If you were to encapsulate the book’s uniqueness, what would it be?

This book is for those who enjoy breaking the beauty rules and changing them, and I hope it inspires them to not be ashamed to say that they like something the way they like it. I say, “look beyond the mainstream perceptions of beauty and celebrate eccentricity and individuality. That is making your beauty mark!”

Well said!

If I was to pin point one take away from this interview with Dita (of the many that there are), I would state that the word authenticity is the one running thread that has sewn together the fabric of the Dita Von Teese brand. EVERYTHING she has done, that we know her for and why I admire her so, is because of being self aware and building a life (personally, professionally, spiritually and passionately) around it. In a phrase, “If you build it, they will come.” – Field of Dreams (1989).

I hope that this interview with Dita, as it has done for me, brings you one step closer to realizing that your truest and greatest self is only as close or as far as you believe it and work on it to be, whether its burlesquing, accounting or anything in between!

 

 

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