INTERVIEW: Dita Von Teese
Everyone has an opinion on Dita Von Teese, some of which are unapologetically judgemental or negative, but there are those who are big enough to admit, none the less, that if it were not for Dita, they would never have discovered burlesque, cheesecake, even erotica. They would not be part of the communities they enjoy, they would not have made the friends they now treasure, they would not be performing and growing in confidence and creativity. Their entire lifestyle and focus would be so drastically different if it were not for the woman who introduced them to the sequin and feather world we love.
I could have questioned Dita all night long; there are so many things that the mainstream press never seem to think to ask or discuss, but I hope the interview that has taken shape reveals a little of what Dita Von Teese is really like.
Not the icon, not the Barbie doll, not a 2D image, not a press-byte. Just Dita.
Dita – did you ever have the smallest sense early on, working in the lingerie boutique or dancing in the clubs, that you could, or would, achieve what you have achieved?
Never. Absolutely never! Listen, I was a girl working in rave clubs and a strip club in the early 90’s, and in my mind, I was a just a girl having fun, enjoying an elaborate game of ‘dress up and put on a show’. I always thought I was just going to have some fun, save a little money, marry my boyfriend, and have a baby, and that would be my life, and that someday I would look back on the days when I took pinup pictures and danced, and that it would be just a fond memory of an era of my life, that’s all. But I was ambitious in the sense that I wanted to be as good at what I was doing as I could be, but I didn’t imagine that I would have gone this far. My pinup and burlesque career started in about 1991, so you can see that it wasn’t like I had all this fierce ambition and made it to the top overnight, I was surprised and delighted at every little victory over the past 17 years, but I never dared to think I would actually be doing what I’m doing to this extent, or even for this long.
Do you see yourself as an ambassador for burlesque, or being responsible for the resurgence, as some people have described you?
Well, I think there is a small group of us who were among the first to do this, and we did it before there was a place for it anywhere other than strip clubs and the Exotic World event every year. I don’t see myself as being ‘responsible’ for it, because I wasn’t the only one who was performing burlesque back before it was cool. Maybe some people give me credit for it, because I have had a lot of mainstream press in the past eight years, and a lot of alternative press even from the start, with all the early fetish and Playboy magazine stuff, and that helped.
For me, burlesque and posing for pinups for fetish and men’s’ magazines are something that went hand-in-hand, because that’s how it was in the old days; burlesque stars posed for the risqué magazines to get people to see their shows, so it made sense to me to try the same thing. And eventually, people saw my shows that had the power to get me more mainstream attention. Hugh Hefner came to a little show Catherine D’Lish and I were doing and he liked it, and that’s what kicked it off in a big way.
I realise that not everyone in burlesque is happy about me being the ‘figurehead’, and they might not agree with what I say, or do, or whatever. But, you know, I do my best, and I’m true to myself, and I’m very knowledgeable about the history of classic American burlesque, and I try to be diplomatic about the questions I’m asked; I am sure to consider all kinds of strippers, from us burlesque dancers, to pole dancers. I try to think things through carefully before I say them, and hey, what if the figureheads of burlesque were The Pussycat Dolls?! That’s what you were going to get!
Seven years ago, when burlesque was hitting the mainstream, I made it my personal mission to make certain that people wouldn’t think that sanitized commercialized acts like that were what burlesque is. I wanted to be sure that people understood that burlesque was not a style, not a hip-hop or pop act with fishnet tights and feather boas, but a genuine form of entertainment with a great history, and that most importantly, it was risqué and that the stars were strippers, period! So, whatever anyone has to say about me speaking for the scene, well, it could have been that The Pussycat Dolls and Forty Deuce were our only media representatives of burlesque…
What would you say to anyone involved in the scene that believes you have ‘sold out’ to mainstream success, and perhaps do not represent what they consider burlesque to be really all about? Do you think that it is rather easy for these people to criticise someone purely because they have achieved such an iconic status?
Well, then anyone who thinks that I’m a sell-out must not be an admirer of burlesque stars like Gypsy Rose Lee who ‘sold out’ and did lots of liquor ads, cigarette ads, makeup ads, movies, TV shows, etc. And Lili St Cyr had her own lingerie brand and store too! Are we sell-outs if we try to make the most of what we do? I think that it would be silly for an exotic dancer of any kind and of any stature NOT to have other forms of income. What do you do later? But yeah, obviously it’s easier to criticize others than it is to take a look at yourself and see where your own shortcomings are, it’s easier to analyze others, no?
I’m just following the examples set by the burlesque stars that I admire, and by choosing products and projects that have relevance to me. I’m not the face of a jeans brand, even though I have been offered a truckload of money for it, and I am not in a sneaker ad, even though I could be about a million bucks richer, and I didn’t do any of the reality shows offered to me. I don’t want to be the host of “The Next Top Burlesque Star” or “Celebrity Burlesque Challenge”, I want to be involved in things I think are chic, and I believe that with integrity and honesty bigger successes come. Oh, and if I did choose to be a total sell-out and be in that jeans ad, well, that would be my choice and I shouldn’t care what anyone else has to say about it anyway. That’s my best advice to anyone – don’t consider what other people think, you have to listen to your own head and heart, you can never, ever win the affections or approval of everyone.
How is the ‘footloose and fancy free’ life suiting you? What would you say is the key to enjoying a smooth and successful single-girl lifestyle?
Who’s footloose and fancy free? I work my ass off! That’s the key to being single – I like to keep busy. I have been loving being single for the last two years, it’s been an important time for me to think about what I really want from life, and to take the time to write, to read, to be focused on becoming a better performer, and on trying to be a better human being. I’m spending a lot more time with friends, and I reconnected with my oldest, most loyal friends, and it’s been amazing.
“Try to please everyone, and you lose, because you can’t be yourself, and where does that get you? So, I’m an ‘artiste’ to some, and an overpaid talentless slut to others. It’s the way it is. I’m okay with that.”
Where does one take Dita on a date? What sort of a good time would I have to show you to get a second date?
Somewhere low-key, but elegant, and what’s the point of going somewhere where there isn’t delicious food? I always ask where we are going first, because for one thing, I like to know the decor so I can dress for it, and secondly, sometimes a date will choose something like Mr. Chow or The Ivy, which are paparazzi-infested. That’s how I have remained silent about my dating life, by not going to those kinds of places on dates!
And most importantly, I don’t want a second date unless I have chemistry with a man on the first date. I totally kiss on the first date; I need to know right away!
Is the marriage/babies/picket fence scenario something you still desire? Would you give up your lifestyle and career for it if you had to?
Well, I have my own white picket fence already, so I don’t need one of those. And I was married, so I had one of those too! You know I’ve been offered the option of giving it all up for a man my whole life, but the problem is that the men that ask me to do that are asking for the wrong reasons. Ego. Any man that wants me to give it up is the wrong man. Someday, I might choose to give it up, but to be honest, no man has made me feel like that yet.
Have I not yet truly been in love? I don’t know. I thought I was, lots of times. I have no idea what’s in store for me, I have no way of predicting what happens next, so I just let things happen as they may. It’s not so bad to be part of this group of women who chose a different path. I don’t need to have what everyone else has to feel secure about myself. This is my life, this is what it is, and I’m not lamenting what I don’t have, I’m enjoying what I DO have.
Every time I see you in person, I cannot get over how absolutely immaculate you look, and I always remark on it when people ask me about you. Not a hair out of place; perfectly turned out. Do you have any tips and tricks for looking immaculate and poised, whether on a budget or with a crazy time limit?
Well – you have to be a little crazy! I am obsessed with this stuff; I have been since I first got my hands on a lipstick! The best tip I have is to make it part of your day to day routine; when I get lazy, I think, if I don’t do this, and if I walk out of the house dishevelled, I’m going to run into an ex, or and ex’s new girlfriend, or the paparazzi! So, I’m motivated. Plus, when you take a little time to put yourself together, you always have a better day. So I’m motivated by having a day where I feel good, and for me, that includes feeling put together. And really, it takes no time at all to sweep some powder over your face and apply lipstick.
The other day I was photographed while I was working out, and everyone made such a big deal that I had a full face of makeup on, but I spent about 20 minutes that day getting fixed up and dressed. I brushed my hair, and put on powder and sunglasses, and wore a nice coat over my workout clothes. It doesn’t take any longer to apply a red lipstick than it does a beige one. I’m not really as high-maintenance as I look. I just have a routine down. I’m fast!
I have seen the photos of you from Halloween this year, completely transformed and unrecognisable, walking through the crowds unnoticed. Is the ability to do that something you genuinely miss, or was it something you anticipated having to sacrifice fairly early on?
Well, when I’m in certain countries, I can go totally unrecognized by anyone but the occasional British or French tourist. This summer, I was in Thailand for three weeks, and it was a great way to spend a holiday. It’s great to be noticed for what you do, and it’s great to have the appreciation of fans, but yes, of course sometimes it gets a little crazy, even frightening. I think it’s something where you have to have a level head about it, you have to get used to people whispering or straight up pointing at you, sometimes grabbing you and drunkenly throwing their arms around you to try to look like your buddy for a photo, or taking a picture of you when you’re just trying to eat a sandwich.
So yes, Halloween was really fun for me! But it was a combination of heaven and hell: heaven being totally incognito and being free to act like an idiot with no one taking pictures and hell being the actual jeans-wearing, fake tan-sporting part, and the weird guys hitting on me. I developed a heck of a jeans-wearing stance, so that was sort of fun, getting into the way girls stand and walk in their skinny jeans. I don’t normally stand and walk like that! But my friends were happy to have me back the next night in my own clothes, with my red lipstick in place. But I am going to be a different kind of ‘normal girl’ every year for Halloween! But I would never put on a disguise to go out into the world any other day.
People have been pointing and whispering about me since I was in my early 20’s and started dressing like this and wearing dramatic hairstyles and makeup. A little ridicule is part of what comes with the territory of being eccentrically glamorous, I don’t mind a little gawking after all this time, and I’m used to the stupid questions that come with dressing up in vintage.
Do you still commission or dream up photo shoots yourself, or even just do shoots for fun? Or have they become more of a necessary evil?
I don’t really do shoots for fun anymore, I mean, everything we do gets published. That’s not to say they aren’t fun, and that I don’t bring my own clothes to the shoot and have ideas I want to do. I’m working on all the photos for my upcoming beauty book, and all of that is my own direction. I do get really tired of doing all those long photo shoots for press, because sometimes I just think there are too many magazine shoots, and not enough shows! I like performing, I like doing my thing! It’s the moment when I have the most control and creativity, and I like the excitement of it.
The shoots are most often for promoting my projects and shows. I do get excited about working with the big name photographers that are shooting stuff that is forever, like Pierre et Gilles, Steven Klein, Ali Mahdavi – when it’s really beyond a photo shoot and becomes art, with photographers that have specific admirable vision.
Do you still get any input in photo shoots, or is it all preconceived? I imagine that a lot of photographers or publication teams have got so many ideas for you in advance, once they find out they will be working with you…
It depends. It depends on what the magazine is, who the photographer is. I let Peter Lindbergh shoot me with no red lipstick on. Will I let just anyone do that? No way. I learned my lesson a long time ago about letting people shoot me undone and normalized. It’s great when the big magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue do interesting shoots where we find a compromise between my personal style and modernization. I like it when it’s a collaboration, and when reinvention is done well.
Was there a particular reason that you chose to do some soft-core work and pornographic images in the past? Do you intend to revisit this area in the future?
I did it because I was a fan of the films of Andrew Blake – so I wanted to be in one of his films, and, yes, I wanted the money! It was in the mid-nineties, and I got a big boost from all that. So, anyway, I’ve been there, done that, with no regrets and no reason to do it again – unless there’s another filmmaker that I fall in love with and the money’s great again! Ali Mahdavi and I dream of doing extreme highly-stylized erotic films, with beautiful girls.
Now, a little bird (okay, it was Ava [Garter]) tells me that you not only love cooking, but you also enjoy throwing dinner parties! What sort of hospitality would I receive if I was invited to dinner at Casa Dita?
It just makes me really happy to spend time with my close friends at home. After all the travelling, I just want to be home, and do home-things. I love getting out my fancy china and antique crystal, and I love entertaining with food, champagne, wine. I love it when every guest is an old friend and I can just be me and say whatever I want to say, I can laugh as loudly as I want, and wear my pyjamas and no makeup.
The same little bird would like me to ask if you have a favourite pair of shoes. (If you find that difficult, just imagine the house was on fire and you only had time to grab one pair!)
Well, I would be able to take more than one pair, because, you see, I could wear one pair and carry another pair. Actually, come to think of it, I probably wouldn’t care much about the shoes if my house was on fire anyway, because my favourite are all my Louboutins, and Christian is one of my best friends, so he would take pity on me and remake all my burnt shoes! I might grab my circa 1992 Vivienne Westwood sky-scraper court shoes, because I saved my money for about a year to buy those back then, and those can’t be replaced.
“…you have to get used to people whispering or straight up pointing at you, sometimes grabbing you and drunkenly throwing their arms around you to try to look like your buddy for a photo, or taking a picture of you when you’re just trying to eat a sandwich…”
Who feeds and pampers the menagerie when you are away?
My long-time friend Stacia lives nearby and she lives there at my house with my animals while I’m travelling. I have three Devon Rex cats, and two dachshunds. Stacia adores them, and I can’t imagine leaving them with anyone else.
You were recently honoured with an AMFAR award: what did this mean to you, and when/why did you become so passionate about the AIDS/HIV cause?
Well, I remember 13 years ago when Rupaul first came on the scene with MAC Cosmetic’s Viva Glam campaign, and I thought it was such a cool idea, and so two years ago, when MAC asked me to be a spokesperson for the campaign, I was really determined to make a difference, and I worked tirelessly to promote the campaign in every way that I could, by speaking at events, and schools in Asia, visiting HIV care centres, and talking about this lipstick which has raised $130 million for people living with HIV. And when I started doing this, I chose the message of safe sex, because I wanted to inspire women in particular to be strong and not to be afraid to carry condoms and insist on safe sex. The same time I started working with Viva Glam, I became a single girl suddenly, and so I realized how so many people think they can’t get HIV if they are heterosexual, so it all struck something in me…
I took an on-camera HIV test, where you can see the results in 10 minutes, and I was thinking of all the times I had been so naive to think that I was in a monogamous relationship, and how we all think that just one time without a condom won’t matter. And I was terrified, and I had this strong urge to get this message out to young women that it’s sexy to be safe and to be vocal about sexuality.
And then, during this time, and afterwards, I did some work with AMFAR, and it’s been really rewarding. I plan on continuing anything I can do to raise money, including my involvement with this project with H&M where I designed a T shirt with the proceeds going to help in the fight against Aids. It’s cute! Buy one!! Buy two! It’s amazing how these little things can make a big difference! When you become overwhelmed with how major this pandemic is, remember, all these little things add up to something big. And to me, receiving an award this year was totally undeserved, because I think it’s too soon to give me that kind of acknowledgement, but I see it as something I will to try to live up to.
I know that you have enjoyed burlesque performances in the UK this year; what did you think of the UK burlesque you have seen? Where do you stand on the division between contemporary UK and US burlesque: the more satirical UK scene, and what is sometimes called the ‘American Classic’ scene. Do you have a preference?
I think that the British neo-burlesque scene is booming, more than anywhere else in the world, and the acts are amazing and innovative and polished, but, we American burlesque fans and dancers can still be proud of the undeniable fact that this “burlesque bump and grind fan dancing tassel twirling” kind of entertainment was invented and perfected in America, all the historic stars of this kind of burlesque were all American. Even though British showgirl Lydia Thompson jump-started American burlesque by putting the idea of showing some leg in American theatres, but it was still in American theatres that all the striptease-burlesque as we know it was created.
So, what I mean to say is that I’m proud of our American burlesque history, but also embarrassed that now, all these decades later, it’s not understood and embraced in the US the way that it is in the UK these days. It’s a weird flip-flop; striptease wasn’t allowed in the UK by law when the golden age of burlesque was happening in America, and now, it’s like it’s changed continents! But maybe it all comes down to the fact that now, there are more great venues for burlesque in the UK, and back in the old days, in America, we had hundreds of beautiful burlesque theatres across the country, whereas in the UK, striptease wasn’t allowed at all.
If you could only perform one of your acts for the rest of your career, which would you choose?
That’s a tough choice. I have a few new acts in the works, so it might be one of those! So far, I would say that riding that giant Viva Glam lipstick was pretty great. I had original music made, burlesque versions of old country classics, so the music is hilarious and gets me going every time. And the costume is amazing, and I learned how to spin guns and use a lasso. That’s fun. And the prop is an actual authentic mechanical bull, so what’s more fun than that? The fun never wears off on that one. I have great memories of giving Catherine D’Lish the old tip of the hat to indicate that I was ready for my ride. She is the only one I trust to run that dangerous beast!
You are in residence once more at Crazy Horse Paris in February – how are rehearsals coming along?
Fantastic! It’s hard work, because this time I have three all new acts, but I’m enjoying it so much. I’m working with new people on all of them. It’s exciting to have new insight and ideas for my acts, and to be working alongside the Crazy Horse girls in numbers with them. They are so talented and beautiful, it’s good to push myself and learn from them. And I love having the entire staff of the Crazy Horse on my side, working hard on all the technical aspects to make the shows great. They analyze everything, the lights, the sounds, everything. And of course, I don’t mind spending several weeks in Paris to rehearse!
There’s something very exciting about coming out of the theatre and onto the Georges V with the Eiffel Tower there. I love it; it’s like a dream come true. It’s like another kind of glamour – aside from all the obvious glamour of red carpets, etc, this is the special kind, where I feel like a real showgirl, coming in and out of rehearsals in Paris at this legendary theatre. I love it!
For any readers who don’t yet know, you are developing several new acts exclusively for this run, and will perform throughout each show. Can we have the tiniest hint as to what these new acts might be like?
I have four new acts, one of them is really special. It’s a take on one of the Crazy Horse’s most iconic numbers, and I was watching the show one night with photographer Ali Mahdavi, and we came up with this idea of reinventing this show, turning it upside down, in a way, and so he is directing me in it. He’s a master of lighting, and beautiful lighting is one of the things that the Crazy Horse is known for. We are very close pals, so it’s so much fun to work on this show together. It’s going to be amazing. It’s hard work though, and I’ve taken some nasty falls in the process of getting it right. But it’s worth it. Last time I had only one solo number, and I only needed a few days of tech rehearsal, but this time, we have done about six full weeks of rehearsals to get all these shows up, and of course, I don’t mind, because it’s quite fabulous to be in Paris rehearsing!
I also have a cute number that I’m actually singing in too, not live, but pre-recorded, because another Crazy Horse signature is that the girls lip-sync to some songs, so I wanted to do that too. I’m no singer; in fact, it’s one of my worst fears, but I recorded two songs, old Hollywood style, by singing every line over and over until it was right!
It’s so much fun to create whole new numbers, utilizing all the great technical aspects of the staging, and incorporating the talents and beauty of the dancers. We have been having so much fun working together. And I’m excited because I have been working with some of my favourite fashion designers on the shows. Christian Louboutin is making some amazing shoes, Stephen Jones is doing elaborate hats, Elie Saab made three haute couture gowns, Dior made me a suit – it’s all very exciting! So, I’m there performing from February 1st through the 15th, with two and three shows a day.
I love having the chance to do the same show, on the same stage, over and over, and there’s nothing quite like being backstage at the historic Crazy Horse with all those amazing dancers. I love being in it, and being one of them. The dressing rooms are all open and we all get ready together. At most shows I do, I’m usually isolated from the other performers, and so it’s a special treat to be able to do this. I have to pinch myself when I think of how historic The Crazy Horse is, and how I never would have imagined I could be up there with those girls!
I truly cannot wait to come and watch the result of all this hard work!
What are you hoping to see under your tree this year? What does one buy Dita von Teese for Christmas anyway?
I got a rhinestone tambourine and a pair of booby shaped maracas from Ava [Garter]. We had gone to a dance party a few months before and I was saying how I wished I had some tit-like maracas to shake!
We all loved your book – is there still to be a second book, a book I believe was to be about hair, makeup and beauty? Can we expect anything else from you – a Dita perfume, makeup line, fitness video?!
I have two more books coming out with Harper Collins this year, one is a cute striptease flip-motion book, and the other is my step-by-step how to beauty book with every beauty secret I have revealed. I have other things in the works too, but I don’t like to talk about them until they are almost finished.
Is there anything important to you that you are yet to achieve?
Yes, of course! I want to create a large-scale show that incorporates other acts, something Ziegfeld Follies style. And of course I have lots and lots of other professional and personal goals to achieve.
Is there anything about yourself that you would like people to know, if you could rewrite or add to the popular media portrayal of you?
Oh goodness, lots of things, but I don’t want to bore you. But don’t believe at least half of what you read on the internet – it’s nuts the way the online ‘PR’ agencies make up one false quote and it spreads like a disease on the internet. There are at least five stories about me that come from no basis of truth. It’s the most annoying and frustrating thing about this job. It’s shocking how quickly it spreads, and that it’s impossible to correct. I am still asked about the ‘special skin whitening foods’ I ‘said’ that I eat! There is no such thing! It’s so stupid, and there’s nothing you can do. I can handle criticism and so on, but I really hate bad journalism.
Do you think it is truly possible for a woman to be dignified, demure and respected in her field, and, at the same time, body confident, sensual and open to frank discussion? Are women still unable to just be who they are, and suffer criticism and judgement from the media et al if they do not fit a black or white type?
Listen, one cannot ever expect everyone to have the view they want of them; you may be respected by some, hated by others, and that’s just the way it is. It doesn’t matter if you fit into the ‘type’, as you say, because there is really no such thing. Try to please everyone, and you lose, because you can’t be yourself, and where does that get you? So, I’m an ‘artiste’ to some, and an overpaid talentless slut to others. It’s the way it is. I’m okay with that. Universal respect is impossible; everyone in the media eye is the subject of criticism. If you can’t stand the showbiz heat, get out of the showbiz kitchen!
What are the three greatest life lessons you have learnt?
To work with honesty and integrity, to love like your heart has never been broken, and that loyalty in friends is priceless…
I would like to thank Dita for her great generosity and the time she has given to make this interview happen.
Ava Garter for the insight, support and suggestions x
George at Silvercanvas.com for his help and support, and generous use of his images.
Melissa and Andrea at Dishell Multimedia Group.
Johnny Olsen and Richard Avery for the generous use of their images.