After 11 years of interviewing Dita Von Teese, her constant reinvention, evolution and endurance never fails to impress me. Instagram is teeming with Dita replicas wearing shameless copies of her iconic costumes and frolicking brazenly on all manner of imitation carousel horses, martini glasses and giant filigree hearts. None the less, Dita continues to reign as burlesque’s universally acknowledged figurehead and the last word in opulent, sensual glamour.
In 2015, after more than five years of touring the United States with her burlesque extravaganza Strip Strip Hooray!, Dita found herself pondering retirement. Then Crazy Horse Paris, the historic and notorious erotic revue where Dita featured as their first guest star 10 years ago, asked her to return.
“I was apprehensive at first,” Dita admits, “but I created an act with Ali Mahdavi called ‘Undressed to Kill’, with state of the art projection technology used in a totally new and groundbreaking way, and the whole experience was fantastic.
“All my reservations about repeating the past went away, and after finishing a sold out run of forty shows in Paris I became excited to perform again. I started thinking about all the other acts I’ve made over the years that I’ve never toured with, and all the props and concepts that could be staged in new ways. So I thought, why not a new show with a new name, one that retains the spirit of Strip, Strip Hooray! but with new acts to see?”
Dita wasted no time in announcing a spectacular new production, The Art of the Teese, featuring resurrected routines from Dita’s own repertoire, and world class striptease from her all-star cast. The European leg of the tour included several dates at the legendary London Palladium, and 1400 tickets for the Palladium dates were snapped up within the first hour of sale.
“I could only secure a few shows at the Palladium at first, because I couldn’t get any of the big promoters on board. So I took a chance, knowing it would cost me more than I would make to ship all the gear over there and run the production. But then we put the shows on sale and broke sales records, and suddenly we had great promoters coming out of the woodwork and sending offers, so we were able to piece together a proper tour.”
Dita was thrilled with the response. The logistics and expense of bringing the world’s biggest touring burlesque show overseas, however, remain a challenge.
“I send over a semi truck-sized shipping container filled with our big velvet curtains and lighting rigs, and of course the big props I’m known for have to be shipped too. Between those expenses, the costs of traveling with 20 people and running payroll, taxes and insurance, the costs of running a show like this are astounding, so it’s tricky to make the finances work.”
Dita laughs at the illusion that the tour is a money train.
“In all the years I’ve been touring, even though we always sell out, I have, at times, failed to turn a profit because the production costs are so high. It’s disheartening, but then I just think, ‘I got a lot of stage time, became a better performer, provided jobs for others – next time, it’ll work!’ I learn from the lessons and troubleshoot and make it better.
“It’s easy to see a room full of 3500 people and do the math on ticket prices, but there is so much that goes into months of pre-production, touring overheads and payroll, and don’t get me started on the insurance! I paid a six-figure insurance premium this year alone, with only one tour on the books.
“It’s not easy to run a show like this, and I produce it on my own. I have to sell 85% of tickets just to break even in the United States, but I love doing shows and I want people to see what my life’s work is all about. What I don’t want to do is compromise the quality of the production.”
After a long career of performing for celebrity audiences, are there encounters that still thrill her?
“When the show was in Monte Carlo, at the breathtakingly beautiful Opera Garnier, I was invited to sit with Prince Albert and Princess Caroline for a formal dinner. Later on, Prince Albert sneaked away from his other event just to see my finale and was cheering wildly from the royal box during the cowgirl act. I couldn’t believe I’d brought a full burlesque revue to that stage, but to have him there loving it was a real moment.”
Dita celebrated her sold out smash with a spectacular New Year’s Eve show in Los Angeles.
“I think a lot of people want to enjoy the feeling of an old-fashioned New Year’s Eve, so I decided to create an unforgettable experience. We filled a 2500+ theatre and people came dressed to the nines in vintage and formalwear; it was quite a scene.”
The NYE stage was an ideal place for Dita to debut new acts.
“I put up the new LipTeese act, the Venus shell with the bubble dance and 400 multi-sized ‘pearls’ falling from the sky, my Big Cat Tamer act, and my towering Baroque cake, which is a complete reinvention of the classic ‘pop out cake’ gag.”
So what’s next for Dita and her glittering repertoire?
“After the success of my Europe tour, I felt inspired to make something new. You can expect a whole other level of extravagance in my newest and biggest show yet, Glamonatrix. It’s on tour this winter in Australia and New Zealand, and next spring in Europe.
“For me, burlesque has always been about finding my own power and confidence, embracing sensuality and encouraging others to do the same in their own lives. Glamour is the art of creating mystery and allure, and Glamonatrix embraces all of these qualities.”
Co-stars Dirty Martini and Zelia Rose have already been confirmed for the run, with more acts to be announced. Previous tours have drawn from the creme de la creme of neo-burlesque, representing various ages, body shapes and ethnicities, and featuring both men and women.
“I’m always looking for unique performers that bring the house down every single night in their own distinctive ways, and they’re all lovely people. We are like a family; everyone uplifts and inspires each other, with zero drama offstage.”
I ask about the particular differences and points of satisfaction for Dita in giving a commissioned performance at a celebrity birthday or high ticket event, and performing feet away from a crowd of fans on tour.
She describes the excitement of performing for celebrities she admires, such as Elizabeth Taylor, George Michael and Catherine Deneuve, and the unexpected encounters at star-studded events.
“Axl Rose came up to me once and said, ‘Are you that Dita Von Teese burlesque girl? What you do is fucking cool. And you did it before it was cool.’ He knew ALL about burlesque. So does Bono! He came up to me at a party recently, saying it’s a shame there hasn’t been a good modern burlesque movie.”
Ultimately, there’s nothing like the energy of what Dita calls her “real fans”.
“It moves me to tears sometimes, because I look out there and see all these beautiful, glamorous people of many shapes, sizes, ethnicities and ages, and it feels like there’s some kind of meaning behind it all.
“I love the glamour and I love creating shows, but I wouldn’t keep doing it if it felt frivolous like it did when I first started and my audience was mostly the Playboy audience – the straight male gaze. When people tell me what I do or say is meaningful to them and inspires them to feel confident, it’s very fulfilling and keeps me motivated.
“One of my favourite parts of touring is getting handwritten letters. I open them on the airplane and savour them, because it’s the thing that really matters when it comes down to it. I might have retired a long time ago and pursued other avenues of showbiz if it weren’t for those letters.”
With the passing of the years in mind, I ask her if she ever feels complacent, and who she looks to for advice, critique and development.
“I enjoy working with the Crazy Horse. I always pick up new tricks from them, and they challenge my dance ability, which I really enjoy. I also like working with Ali Mahdavi; he’s directed two acts for me. He likes to strip away all the rhinestones and feathers, fusing simplicity and elegance with eroticism and technology. And then sometimes it’s just me, and I just have to lock myself in the studio and figure it out all on my own. It’s nice to have someone to work on ideas with, but sometimes it’s satisfying when I’m forced to work on my own.”
And is she her own harshest critic?
“I’m plenty critical of myself. I loathe watching my performances, but I make myself watch and take notes and work on things, and I ask people I admire in the dance or entertainment world for critique. I don’t try to be anyone else. If someone picks apart what I do, well, that’s par for the course; it comes with the territory.”
Dita warms to this theme.
“I started in 1991, and there were many, many hurdles over the years, not to mention opportunities to parlay my career into something more mainstream, but my mission from the start has been to shine the light on burlesque, and that’s what I’ve done, trying my best to do so with integrity and authenticity.
“I never, in a million years, expected to become famous in this way for burlesque. I remember when I had a big ten page pictorial in Vanity Fair and my manager was all set to capitalise on that and get me into acting and such, but I didn’t do all this to be famous. I did it because I wanted to be a burlesque star.”
On this nostalgic train of thought, we discuss her early experiences at Tease-O-Rama, where Dita and Catherine D’Lish famously duelled in their iconic glasses.
“The things I miss are the carefree, camera-free shows. Not a care in the world about someone getting my best angle, no worries about saying the wrong thing in an interview – just making shows for the fun of it. And when Catherine D’Lish and I partnered up eighteen years ago, I found my burlesque soulmate, and together we developed things that had never been done in burlesque before. It was an exciting time, and that part hasn’t changed even now.”
Dita has endless praise and gratitude to shower on her long-time friend and collaborator.
“Catherine is responsible for more than most people realise; the source of countless things that performers probably take for granted. I remember stepping out of the dressing room for the very first time, walking down a staircase in the first fully crystallised costume Catherine ever made, and people’s mouths dropped as I hopped on a full-sized carousel horse that she and I had covered in Swarovski crystal in my living room. We shared in many triumphant moments like that; things that took a lot of experimentation, time and money to do. It was always our aim to take burlesque to a place it hadn’t been before.
“Last year I debuted my John Willie fetish act in slick black patent, with thigh-high vintage style boots with spurs, and I asked her for a faux fur, vintage style fox stole. I jokingly said, ‘with a ball gag in his mouth’. Next thing you know, I’ve got this outrageous twelve foot long stole with foxes with Swarovski ball gags. She handcrafted these foxes! I don’t know how she does it, but I love how she one-ups her work every time.”
Many performers I speak to find it hard to imagine Dita on a tour bus, or sat in a dressing room rubbing in body makeup, setting pastie glue, fiddling with an eyelash and checking her g-string as they do, as if she wakes up each day fully coiffured and immaculate. What is the reality, I ask? When she thinks back to the early days of Tease-O-Rama, does her process and experience feel all that different now?
“It’s probably a bit of both sides of the coin. There’s a bigger team, and I had to learn to delegate, but all that slathering of body makeup and eye lashing – there’ll never be a way to delegate that, despite the offers!
“The reality is that yes, there’s a big team for touring, and a truck full of road cases filled with costumes and props and lights, and crazy stuff that I don’t even understand. I’m very grateful for the team that brings it all together for me. There’s a lot of time spent at home, prepping and doing the not-so-fun elements of showbiz. It takes a lot of self-discipline.”
We discuss the complaints of saturation and the prevalence of mediocrity on the ground, and the struggle to consistently attract new audiences. I ask if she’s sensed any effect on her appeal or demand, or changes in the mainstream perception of burlesque, and what she feels is the key to growth and longevity for the art form.
“The demand seems to be rapidly growing for ticketed shows. For it to continue growing, I’d like to see more integrity in performance with less copying. I’m always looking for unique performers, and the biggest problem I see is that very few performers can see any way of doing it other than what they see others doing.”
Is she ever-conscious of her perceived role and influence as burlesque’s undisputed mainstream figurehead?
“I do feel a certain level of responsibility. I do my best to speak about burlesque in a way that other performers can benefit from, but also in a way that is true to what I believe. There’s no way to please everyone all the time; that’s impossible.
“I do know that I’ve made contributions to the scene, and it’s nice when that’s acknowledged. There’s a lot of ‘I invented that’ going around, and it makes me more mindful of acknowledging the contributions that others have made to my success.”
While thoughts of retirement have been put aside in favour of ever-expanding touring plans, Dita remains thoughtful about why – and why not – to bow out.
“I’ve been asked what I will do once my ‘looks fade with age’. It’s bizarre how it’s instilled in us that we won’t be beautiful if we age. I guess I never really paid too much attention to it until recently when I started thinking about retirement, lest anyone see me age, God forbid! But then I thought about how much it means to me to watch the women I admire evolve through their years. I spend time with women older than me; I’m in awe of them.”
I ask who she finds especially inspirational.
“I can tell you that in a room full of twenty-something supermodels, your eyes hold Sharon Stone. She just exudes major sensuality, confidence, and of course she is beautiful, but she’s cultivated much more than just her beauty. Some older women possess the most potent erotic weaponry in the book!
“So I’ve long admired women older than me, from Mae West, who made her first film at age forty, to modern sex symbols like Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, Madonna, and Gwen Stefani. Watching them go through life changes and maintain their eroticism holds importance to me.
“We can either submit to public consensus and quit when the general public thinks we should, or we can continue to evolve in our own ways and set an example for change.”
I explain how much I’m enjoying my thirties so far, giving far fewer fucks and being much more willing to take risks and seek adventure than in my twenties. I ask how she feels she has evolved in her forties.
“I’ve learned to be careful with generosity, to set boundaries with people, and to cut ties with people when I need to. I do stand up for myself more now. I won’t suffer fools, I no longer let people around me that are soul-sucking and vampiric, and I no longer ignore my gut instincts about people.”
What, if anything, makes her hesitate or question herself?
“I question myself all the time. It was the day before the big New Year’s gala and I was thinking, ‘What if these ideas I have don’t work at all, and I end up being boring in front of 2500 people?’ I really had no idea how the new acts were going to be received. I like to think that if I think it’s cool, others will too, but the last thing I want is to be self-indulgent onstage.
“I always ask myself if I’m doing enough, and what I’m missing or overlooking. It’s why it took me six years to write a book. I’d argue points in my head or want to include opinions that might differ from mine, and eventually my writer, Rose, said, ‘This is YOUR book. You MUST express strong opinions and not apologise for them!”
I ask how she envisions the future of contemporary burlesque, and her place in it.
“I think a lot about next steps; I’d like to put all of my signature acts in one show and eventually step back a bit. I’ve enjoyed other performers doing versions of my acts as part of my touring show, and I’ve loved seeing the ways they bring their own style to them.”
As she readies herself for another round-the-world crusade, Dita’s vision of retirement feels firmly on ice…
Dita Von Teese interviewed by Holli Mae Johnson.
AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND
19 November Perth The Astor
20 November Perth The Astor
24 November Brisbane QPAC
26 November Gold Coast The Star
28 November Canberra Canberra Theatre
30 November Melbourne Palais Theatre
1 December Melbourne Palais Theatre
4 December Adelaide AEC Theatre
6 December Sydney State Theatre
7 December Sydney State Theatre
13 December Auckland The Civic
15 December Wellington The Opera House
18 December Christchurch Isaac Theatre
27 March Amsterdam Royal Theater Carré
28 March Amsterdam Royal Theater Carré
30 March Brussels Cirque Royal
1 April Milan Teatro Degli Arcimbold
10 April Berlin Admiralspalast
11 April Berlin Admiralspalast
16 April Brighton Brighton Dome
18 April Birmingham Alexandra Theatre
20 April London Palladium
21 April London Palladium
23 April London Palladium
24 April London Palladium
28 April Edinburgh Playhouse
30 April Manchester O2 Apollo
2 May DublinOlympia Theatre
6 May ZurichTheater 11
11 May Madrid Teatro Nuevo Apolo
14 May Paris Folies Bergere
15 May Paris Folies Bergere
16 May Paris Folies Bergere
20 May Copenhagen Det Kongelige Teater, Gamle Scene
22 May Oslo Folketeateret
24 May Stockholm Cirkus
Find out more at Dita.net/shows
Burlesque Hall of Fame / Miss Exotic World Judge, 2011 Holli Mae Johnson is the founder and editor of 21st Century Burlesque Magazine, a pioneering publication created twelve years ago to unite, document and celebrate the global burlesque community. Holli is actively involved in the burlesque community on a day to day basis and is privately consulted by performers and producers at every level for promotion, critique, recommendations and encouragement. As a documenter and critic, she has seen countless burlesque and variety performances from across the world and provides an intimate perspective and insight into the lives and careers of burlesque’s greatest pioneers, performers and personalities.