Introducing the first online interview in my new ‘Perfect Partnerships’ series.
When I sat down to think about the burlesque partnerships that I wanted to examine and celebrate, two exceptional women were at the top of the list, and when Dita suggested the interview herself a short time afterwards I couldn’t wait to get started.
Dita von Teese and Catherine D’Lish have been interviewed separately countless times, but I was eager to focus on their shared history. So many people have discussed their relationship with me over the years, especially newer performers and fans who ask about their early duets at Tease-O-Rama and how their iconic costume collaborations were conceived. I was just as interested to find out more, and I hope this satisfies some of the curiosity about one of the most enduring and intriguing partnerships in burlesque’s history…
Can you describe how or where you first met?
Catherine D’Lish: We first met at the stripper convention in Las Vegas. We had heard about each other from ‘industry’ people we both knew; neither of us had much in common with what the other feature dancers were doing at that time.
Dita von Teese: We were both on the same feature dance circuit for a little while in the mid-nineties, and in some of the places I would go the club owners and staff would tell me that I just had to meet Catherine, who had been there too, as we were ‘cut from the same cloth’, so to speak. So she and I arranged to meet in Vegas; a ‘blind date’ of sorts. We had the idea of ‘banding together’ to make shows, and we were basically inseparable from then on.
Were there early signs that you could potentially enjoy a long term partnership? What strengths and qualities did you initially recognise in each other?
C: Well, I don’t want to go on and on (and on) about our ‘strengths and qualities’! Really though, I think I can sum it up by saying that although we are obviously different people, basically we are pretty much the same girl in many ways. So together we can be two peas in a pod, or a two-headed monster, depending on your point of view…
D: The first thing I noticed was that we had the same sense of humour! But another thing I always liked was that although we like many of the same things, Catherine is very much her own person, with her own unique look and style. I always liked that we could love many of the same things, but be complete individuals together in our friendship.
You would come together for performances as a burlesque ‘super duo’ at events such as Tease-O-Rama, with ‘Duelling Glasses’ and ‘The Phone Sex Show’. What were some of your favourite ‘striptease scenarios’ you performed together?
C: We’ve shared too many ‘super duo’ super fun times to recount here. However…
Easily holding the number one spot is the act we respectfully refer to as ‘the best show we ever did’. This (as if it isn’t obvious!) was the show in Denver when we rode out on stage on a Harley Davidson, dressed head to toe in patent leather, stripped, and ended up mounting my giant black vinyl penis and covering pretty much everything on stage in Reddi-wip. My favourite thing about that night (besides our gloriously triumphant performance) was that nobody ever mentioned the number to us – as though it was ‘that of which we do not speak…’
I also remember people being scandalised by our phone sex show at TOR in New Orleans; there were arguments that we were too whorish to be ‘real burlesque’ (and I also recall what a sweaty night that was… Boy, it’s hard to strip when your costume is totally stuck to you!).
D: I have to agree with what Catherine said about the ‘best show we ever did’ being that one with the Harley. It was always fun to have a partner in crime, to make shows with someone else who didn’t always take burlesque too seriously. We came under fire from some of the neo-burlesque dancers back then for being from the strip club scene, but she and I have never been elitist about ‘burlesque versus stripping’. We’ve always strived to keep the spirit of burlesque alive in our shows, but not to forget that historically burlesque was very risqué. I strongly believe that my years of establishing my act in gentlemen’s clubs is part of what made my success. Not only was I happy just doing my shows with no cameras and no press, but I also learned a lot about what REALLY makes a performer compelling and sexy on stage, and I loved the challenge of changing people’s minds about what it is to be a stripper.
“…we rode out on stage on a Harley Davidson, dressed head to toe in patent leather, stripped, and ended up mounting my giant black vinyl penis and covering pretty much everything on stage in Reddi-wip.”
What was enjoyable about performing together as opposed to performing separately?
C: We just used to laugh – a lot of laughing! I have fun working by myself for sure, and I can always count on myself to laugh at my jokes, but when we were working together it was guaranteed that somebody else would be there that would think I’m funny too. We’d be cracking up backstage non-stop and doing our best not to totally bust out laughing on stage during the shows. There were times in the middle of a number when we knew we just couldn’t look at each other or it would be all over. Illusion demolished…
D: We always had a great time, big laughs backstage and on stage, and I have to add that Catherine has always pushed me to work harder and strive to become a better performer. Her own self-discipline always inspired me. We would fantasise about making these big elaborate props, and then little by little each show would be bigger and better. It was always great to have someone to go through the process of figuring out what to do with these new strange things with. When we bought a real mechanical bull from some cowboys and had a big lipstick made to mount on it for me to ride, we were both pretty scared. There it was, this massive $60,000 piece of heavy machinery, and we had to figure out how to use it, make it work, and make it look sexy and easy when it was anything BUT easy. It’s always been fun to have someone to go through the process of working through the glitches and challenges of creating a new act with.
Were you mindful of giving each other equal opportunity in the spotlight within a duet? Does it require added thought and planning to guide and maintain an audience’s focus when there are two compelling performers on stage at once?
C: No, it just all worked out. We didn’t really give it that much thought!
D: It was never an issue; we’ve both always been able to hold our own up there and I think that we’re both from the school of thought that we want to be surrounded by other great performers.
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Catherine, what was the first costume or piece you made for Dita? How did this partnership begin?
C: Officially, I suppose it has to be the blue satin skirt that I did to go with Dita’s corset and bra set, and I did a coordinating costume for myself in pink. However, the first real costume I did for her was the ‘Big Black Dress’; I made matching 250-yards-of-tulle skirts for us with black lace lingerie. Together we took up a fair amount of space on stage.
Catherine has created a number of costumes for and with you, Dita. She has told me in the past that she will not work to detailed specifications and proceeds with basic information only, such as overall theme or colour scheme. How much does she allow you to specify, and what happens if you have a very definite image already in your mind? Are you happy to let her ‘do her thing’ and enjoy the surprise?
D: I love our little rule about making each costume more extravagant than the next and I love letting her try new things with the costumes and take each one to a new level. It’s been a thrill to see just how far she can take it and I love seeing how her talents in costume design have evolved. Catherine has this drive for glamour and beauty in costuming that sets her work above the rest; there were never burlesque costumes like the ones she’s made and I think it is very safe to say that in the grand scheme of the history of burlesque, her costumes will go down in history as the most lavish and unique ever seen on stage. Even Swarovski admits that they have never seen more extravagant use of their crystal on anyone’s costumes, not since Liberace, anyway! Every costume begins with a mutual idea and dialogue about the colours, shapes, themes and so on, and there are always lots of fittings for each costume, so it’s not as though a costume just shows up and it’s a surprise. On my end, a lot of work goes into sourcing certain pieces for the costume to be embellished, such as corsets, stockings, shoes, hats, gloves, etc., and all of those things need to be custom made and fitted before they go to Catherine to work her magic.
C: I really appreciated and enjoyed the trust that Dita gave me; I was always free to do my own thing without feeling constrained by needing approval. I don’t think this sort of relationship often occurs in the real world! I always felt very good that Dita believed in me that way, that she felt secure that I’d make something she’d like. Another huge perk was having free rein to order what ever stones and materials I desired for each costume; not having limitations there resulted in bigger and better costumes each time (this kind of freedom is also is quite uncommon in the real world).
“I think it is very safe to say that in the grand scheme of the history of burlesque, [Catherine’s] costumes will go down in history as the most lavish and unique ever seen on stage.”
Are there clear benefits in your mind of maintaining a working relationship with the same costumier on multiple projects, Dita, and for you, Catherine, in working with the same performer on a number of costumes?
C: One benefit was just that we both could share a love of costumes, and we have Swarovski fever so badly; having that in common made for a rhinestone party time when the unveiling came around. I liked the challenge of always trying to top the last project and I loved that Dita was always game for that! She’s achieved such tremendous success over the years, and because of that success we were able to plot and scheme more grandly and see our plans come to fruition.
D: We definitely both have Swarovski fever; we used to find the best rhinestone light and sit for hours crystallising things together, and get completely crazed over a new crystal colour and the final unveiling of a project! Although I have recently worked with famous fashion designers on my costumes, there has always been something very special about working with Catherine; someone that knows all the aspects of the way a striptease costume should function and look on stage. In all these years that we have been partnering up, we’ve both grown and evolved in so many ways, and it’s been fun to keep ‘one-upping’ ourselves with the costumes and props. Catherine’s costuming influence can definitely be seen throughout the world on burlesque stages, and her costume work has completely raised the bar for burlesque. There are so many things that she did as ‘burlesque firsts’ in costuming; she deserves major credit. There isn’t a more influential and important burlesque costumer than her. Jean-Paul Gaultier is amazed by the costumes she’s done for me; he was beside himself when he saw the Opium Den gown on stage in Paris and couldn’t believe how much Swarovski was used on it. Catherine’s work is really in a class by itself.
Is there a particular costume or project that has been especially rewarding for you both thus far?
C: There are so many ways to describe ‘rewarding’! The chunkiness of all those giant stones I put on the ‘Diamonds’ costume felt pretty satisfying. The Cointreau project was really massive, so just completing that was its own reward. Same story with the cowgirl costume; getting that sucker ready to go on stage just in the nick of time was no small feat! The big ‘whew’ when that Opium Den costume finally went out the door was pretty rewarding, but it wasn’t just my working on the costumes; there was a complete adventure with every show project. Dita and I had some super great times with every show. Mostly because we find each other to be very funny and we think we make the best jokes.
We had a lot of laughs with both ‘The Glass’ and ‘The Birdcage’ when I was giving Dita ‘the moves’; the first time with her in the glass was particularly memorable, and I’ll never forget the nights by the pool in her new birdcage making the ‘flight plan’ when I was showing her some of my bird stuff on the perch (we made a lot of great bird jokes). I loved climbing around on that giant heart when we were getting that show ready to go, and we always had the best time making prop-specifc jokes that left us cracking up every time (like the ‘lunar cord’ for the moon, or chuckling about all the ridiculous things that could be done with the ‘Lazy’ show for the Crazy Horse). There were late night marathons glittering and rhinestoning the carousel horses, days in the ballet studio giving Swan Lake the stripper treatment that were hilarious fun, and the days we spent when we were working with that big bucking lipstick are definitely unforgettable.
D: I agree with Catherine; all of the shows have been memorable in their own ways, and we sure have had fun going through the process together. I’m proud of the way the Opium Den show came out; I think it’s an incredible costume. The ‘Rhinestone Cowgirl’ is also another incredible feat in costuming and extravagant use of Swarovski beads and crystals. The feather fans Catherine has made for me are also so incredible; she was brilliant to look at using different kinds of feathers for fans, and types of fans that no one had ever used for a burlesque fan dance before. So, in my opinion, her work really inspired everyone to try things differently in keeping the tradition of fan dancing evolving in burlesque. I feel very lucky to have been the one to have these new styles of feather fans and boas first!
“Dita and I were always just ‘doing our own thing’; I think this is an ideal approach and I know we both encourage individuality in other performers!”
What are some of the changes and developments in contemporary burlesque you have observed since you both began, for better or worse? What approaches and opinions do you share?
C: For me, all of the shows I’ve worked on are not much different than the shows I started doing in the strip clubs ages ago, just ultimately transmogrified with my years of experience. The biggest changes in contemporary burlesque are undeniably the number of performers and the mainstream popularity. I hope for further evolution of burlesque as an entertainment genre, and I believe that there is tremendous potential for the quality of the shows to continue to improve. Dita and I were always just ‘doing our own thing’; I think this is an ideal approach and I know we both encourage individuality in other performers!
D: I think that there has been a great evolution, both personally for me and also for the burlesque scene as a whole. The shows in the burlesque scene have become more elaborate, more unique, and of course there is a huge audience now. I still remember when my audience was predominantly male in the early nineties, with some of them being old-timers that had actually sneaked into burlesque shows as kids and were still searching to recapture that feel of real burlesque! I also felt like over the years, as I became more known in the press, I had to work harder to live up to any accolades I was given, so I always felt an extra big push to work harder because of that, not wanting to let people down. And even though I know that not everyone is going to agree with the things I say, I do my very best to try to educate people about what this burlesque thing is really about, especially during times when movies and clubs, etc. come along that try to commercialise and sanitise burlesque for the masses. I’m trying my best to stand up for what we do, and for what the amazing ladies of burlesque’s past did to make this revival even possible.
Are there any upcoming collaborations we can look forward to?
C: you’ll have to wait and see!
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.