Since our previous interviews in 2012, Dita Von Teese’s career has been a breathtaking trajectory of achievements and appearances, and I felt it was high time I checked in. We had a lot to discuss: a new, glossy tome of beauty advice and philosophy, a purring vinyl record, an upcoming return to Crazy Horse Paris and a just-announced west coast tour of Strip Strip Hooray! So without further ado, here She is…
Let’s dive straight into beauty. Can you describe your early experiments, successes and failures with stage makeup and your initial attitude to it?
My earliest memory of stage makeup is learning how to paint my face for ballet shows. There were bizarre makeup styles that we had to learn to do for performances; things with three colours of garish eyeshadow and triple winged cat eyeliner. Thank goodness it was the 80s and there isn’t photographic evidence of me wearing that awful stage makeup.
During the course of my burlesque career, I went through various phases. I didn’t always understand stage lighting or have any control over it, so sometimes I would wear very little makeup onstage. I’d have my basic cat-eye and red lips in place, but that was always my makeup look, both on and offstage. Sometimes I see old photos and I’m amazed at how little I wore! I didn’t always wear body makeup either, until I realised what a difference it made under the lights. I suppose I began wearing it more often when I became more known and more photographed onstage by the press. I still feel that it’s a way of covering my real nudity; with all the stage makeup, plus the stage lighting, I feel like I’m dressed in a way!
Of course I’d like to write an autobiography, but I think there needs to be two of those: the first one and then the second one when I’m an old lady and can really tell ALL…
Who are some of the most influential ‘makeup mentors’ throughout your career?
I would say that my stage makeup style became sort of a Garbo-esque-1950s-meets-1960s Barbara Streisand style. I always loved a cut crease onstage, and that’s something I perfected when started touring with Strip Strip Hooray!. I also learned a lot about stage makeup from The Crazy Horse Paris. They have a lot of rules there: the girls aren’t allowed to use any glitter or sparkle of any kind, absolutely no shine. Everything is matte, and it does look really elegant and chic. Their body makeup is all the same colour and they must wear red lipstick, even for rehearsals.
We are talking beauty, of course, because your new book, Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour, came out at the end of last year. What do you enjoy about the process of writing and publishing your books, and do you have future titles in mind?
Well, this book took five years to make. I can’t say I LOVE the process, but I love the end result. Seeing fans holding it and instagramming it, and getting great feedback means the world to me. Maybe it’s like giving birth: it’s painful and then you forget all the suffering after the fact and you have this wonderful creation! It was meant to be a much smaller book with just some instructional photos, but as time went on I felt it had to become something much more. Over the course of the five years my perceptions seemed to change a bit, too, and I felt I had a different, more evolved message to convey in the book, so ultimately I was grateful that it took so long. Of course I’d like to write an autobiography, but I think there needs to be two of those: the first one and then the second one when I’m an old lady and can really tell ALL…
If we imagine an emergency scenario where someone has to hit the stage in five minutes, what are the essential makeup musts for that spotlight?
Well, I would never leave myself with five minutes for stage makeup! There are a lot of essentials when it comes to stage makeup. You really can’t go without foundation, lipstick, lashes, eyeliner, blush – you REALLY mustn’t! I don’t think there is such a thing as five minute stage makeup! I love something that Dirty Martini said for my book, Your Beauty Mark. She said that if she ever saw a burlesque dancer go onstage without faux lashes, she would slap her. This is how we feel about stage makeup. You can’t do it in five minutes. Five minute makeup is for pilates class or the grocery store.
Should stage makeup change with age? How has your routine adapted, if at all, since you began performing?
I see some gorgeous girls that are wearing too much onstage. It’s fun to go crazy with makeup; I know, I get it, I’ve done it. The amount of makeup you should wear really depends on the stage lighting. For instance, when I am at The Crazy Horse Paris, we can wear SO much makeup because there is strong, colourful light from the sides, front, overhead and footlights, and it’s all very saturated, plus there are spotlights just for the face. The makeup we wear there looks great onstage but it’s full blown drag offstage; I’m embarrassed to be seen offstage in it. But in my show Strip,Strip,Hooray! I dial it back a bit because for a big stage I use pink, lavender and peach spotlights, plus the side and fill lights are farther away from me and therefore less saturated than they are at The Crazy Horse. And for many private or corporate events where there is press, I don’t wear much more than I would on the red carpet.
I can’t say that makeup should really change with age, because I think it’s really more about the lights and your own beauty. There’s a story I have about a beautiful dancer I know from the Crazy Horse Paris. She had long black hair and bangs that framed her catlike almond shaped eyes and she would wear heavy black shadow on her lids and it really enhanced her feline look. Well, one day she came to show me the new stage makeup she learned from a makeup artist and she had drawn these huge eyes with white tightlining, with this bird-like liner on the inside corners…it was very Cirque du Soleil. Yes, her eyes were bigger. But that gorgeous, captivating heavy-lidded smoky gaze was lost. I talked to her about some beauty icons she reminded me of and told her how special her look was before, even if her eyes didn’t appear as ‘big’. Bigger isn’t always better. Thank goodness she went back to her signature makeup! When it comes to eyes and lips, overdrawn isn’t always best. Yes, you can exaggerate, but the key is to enhance your beauty, not mask it, and you want your beauty to shine through the makeup.
Do you have any less obvious tricks or weird tips for stage makeup and/or hair?
I use a couple of different sets of hot rollers for my hair, and I roller-set my hair every time I go onstage. Yes, sometimes three or four times a night!
How about any cheap/less remarkable products in your kit we might not expect you to use?
I put Scotch tape underneath my eyes to pick up fallout glitter from the lids. That’s one of the tips from the chapter on stage makeup in Your Beauty Mark. I also write a lot about stage lighting and all my body makeup tips too. Another thing I always have in my kit are glass cleaning wipes to clean the makeup off the Swarovski crystal costumes once they’re on.
Is the ritual of applying stage makeup satisfying or enjoyable for you at this stage, or simply a practised, necessary routine? How can we avoid it becoming a resented chore?
I do enjoying doing my face for a show, but I really dread the body makeup. I always hate the part of the night where I have to take off my warm-ups and start slathering! I usually put on some music that gets me going so that I can make a dance out of it.
Specific stage beauty products you swear by?
MAC Liquidlast eyeliner. It stays put even with the full downpour of the water shower in my birdcage.
How has your attitude to and experience of photo shoots changed over time?
Well, it’s unfortunate that many photographers are relying on Photoshop rather than learning how to light well. I think the digital age has changed things a lot. I like working with great photographers that know how to light well and can shoot quickly.
Would you advise sticking to what suits you when you are new to photo shoots, or is it okay to experiment and try something bold or new?
You have to be aware of the photographer’s lighting style. For instance, with someone like Ali Mahdavi who uses very strong light, the makeup has to be very heavy. But then with other photographers it might need to be lighter. I find that photos are more useful when I stick to my signature style rather than trying new things.
Can you describe the value of a good makeup artist and any particularly rewarding relationships and collaborations you’ve experienced with MUA?
I’ve worked with a lot of famous makeup artists. Gregory Arlt is a favourite because he’s one of my best friends and we have a lot of fun together, plus he does my makeup exactly how I like it. I like working with makeup artists for certain photo shoots because they’re better at shading and highlighting than I am. I’m a little bit afraid of shading myself; I do a little bit for my shows but I think it’s hard to find the right counter colours for very pale skin. There’s also a makeup artist named Lloyd Simmonds in Paris and he draws the best cat-eye liner I’ve ever had. I can’t even figure out how he does it! But when it comes to stage makeup I can’t really handle sitting in the makeup chair and having anyone do it for me. I love having the time to myself to quietly paint and think before I go onstage. I find it stressful and distracting to have anyone working on me backstage. I appreciate great artists and I’m glad I get to work with them for fashion shoots, but I like not having to rely on them. I’ve done my own makeup for major fashion shoots, too, but it is nice to let go sometimes and just sit in the beauty chair.
When we are capturing ourselves as a performer on camera rather than live on stage, are there key differences to the way we should approach hair and makeup, and the way we express ourselves?
Yes, definitely. I think that offstage, even if you’re shooting in a stage costume or shooting to promote your act, makeup should show your beauty and personality. It can be dramatic, but it shouldn’t be glittery or too heavy. Glitter doesn’t really read well in still photos unless it’s being photographed close-up in a technical way to capture the sparkle. I also really love the tradition of taking pinups and classic Hollywood style portraits to promote burlesque.
Specific photo shoot beauty products you swear by?
MAC Studio Fix for around the corners of the nose and mouth and to cover blemishes, and Garnier Nutrisse Blue Black for super blue black that really shows that blue halo when it’s freshly coloured.
A few beauty quick-fires then before we move on:
True beauty is…?
What you create and radiate!
Biggest hair/makeup disaster?
Letting stylists do it for me before a show. I always end up running late, I get stressed out, and I don’t feel like myself.
Is there one thing you can do to instantly feel more beautiful?
Good lighting! I have dimmer switches in every room of my house, plus Hue smart light bulbs that let me create a sensual atmosphere.
A time when you felt at your most ‘beautiful’?
I never really feel it in the moment; it’s usually later when I see a photo that I might think, “nice hair!”
A luxury beauty product worth spending on?
A good fragrance. Avoid fruity, vanilla candy bombs. Try unique, beguiling perfumes that can become your silent theme song. It doesn’t have to be expensive to be special, but it might take some time to find the right one. There’s a list of great classic perfumes to try in my book; things I’ve always loved. I also indulge in Cle de Peau concealer – worth every penny!
The key to becoming a great burlesque star is to bring something unique to it. There’s still so much evolution that can happen for the future of burlesque, but it can only happen when there’s someone brave enough to try new ideas!
What advice do you have for newcomers to burlesque who are still discovering and exploring their own beauty?
Of course I think they’ll gain a lot from my book, but I think the best advice is not to just get inspiration from others in the burlesque scene. The key to becoming a great burlesque star is to bring something unique to it. There’s still so much evolution that can happen for the future of burlesque, but it can only happen when there’s someone brave enough to try new ideas!
You will be back on the road in April with Strip Strip Hooray!, accompanied by your original ‘dream cast’. What can first time fans expect, and are there any surprises or changes for the seasoned SSH crowd?
The last time we toured with the show I thought I’d call it the last tour, but then LiveNation told me the venues were getting constant requests for the show to come back, so I thought, why not bring it back with some new things to see?
There are a few changes: we’ve added Jett Adore and Ginger Valentine to the lineup and I’m still trying to decide which of my own acts to change. It’s hard to decide because on the book tours I’ve met so many fans that tell me this will be their first time seeing Strip Strip Hooray!, and then others ask me if I’ll please do certain acts again. So I am trying to find the balance between showcasing favourites and new things with this tour.
I’ve always wanted Strip Strip Hooray! to be a showcase of diversity and I’d love to keep it going with a rotating cast. The goal this year is to finally bring it overseas, and so starting up again in the US is the first step. It’s a huge production and so it’s not easy to bring it to the places we want while maintaining an attainable ticket price of around $35. Touring with this show is truly a labour of love, but I love doing it because the energy in the room is just phenomenal. The audience just gives it all back to us, so I can’t give it up!
You are about to release your first vinyl record, which includes special arrangements from your shows and your own vocal recording of Lazy. Was this a project you instigated, or an invitation?
It was 12on12.com who approached me. They asked me to be the first one to create a ‘soundtrack for my life’ on vinyl and I loved the idea. I had a hard time deciding what the soundtrack for my life should be like – whether it should reflect my stage persona or not – so I asked if I could give each side a different feel.
Side A is a compilation of classic striptease and seductive retro songs. One of my biggest extravagances in burlesque is in creating bespoke music for my shows, arranged to my liking and recorded with real instruments. I decided this was a great format to release some of these songs, like Lazy, Guy What Takes His Time and the music from my martini glass act called Dita’s Theme.
The flip side is the music I love that perhaps wouldn’t be expected of me. I love sensual electronic music, so the flip side is a curated selection of the music I might choose for an ‘off duty’ striptease for a lover – a departure from the burlesque style I’m known for. It comes on a pink vinyl album with a digital download and it’s only available during a short pre-order window at 12on12.com until March 14th, so it will be ultra exclusive and truly limited edition.
I was thrilled to hear you are returning to Crazy Horse Paris in March. Which all-time Crazy favourites have you decided to include in the show, and can you share any details about your own routines? Is your creative team from the previous residency back on board, and are there any new collaborations in terms of costume or direction?
I’m onstage more than ever for this return engagement with many new things to see. I am such a fan of the Crazy Horse, so I’ve curated the show with selected iconic Crazy Horse acts to make my ultimate show.
When I was the first guest star in the history of the Crazy Horse, I only did one act – my bathtub show. There was actually a Crazy Horse dancer named Candida that did a bathtub act there in the 50s after the founder saw Lili St Cyr perform her bathtub act, so I thought this would be a nice nod to that part of their history. I’ve staged this act three different ways, so now I will bring it back again in another new way for this show.
It’s very special, something we have never seen used in striptease…
One of the things I’ve been rehearsing the most is a group number with all the girls that hasn’t been staged there in over fifteen years. I remembered seeing this in the 90s when I first saw the show, so I asked if I could do it. There’s a special Crazy Horse signature hip motion that they say is the hardest thing to teach new dancers there, so I’ve been learning that.
Lastly, there’s an act directed by Ali Mahdavi that utilises state of the art video mapping technology. It’s very special, something we have never seen used in striptease; totally otherworldly. Zuhair Murad, Alexis Mabille and Ralph & Russo have made couture costumes for my appearance, and Christian Louboutin has created newly designed shoes for each act. The show is from March 15th – 30th. Most shows are sold out, but there are a few tickets for weeknights still. Come see me!
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.