A conversation with Dita Von Teese.
– by Jessica Price
In April I had the unparalleled pleasure of speaking with Dita Von Teese about her upcoming West Coast tour, her dazzling co-stars, the merits of dressage, and the peculiar momentum one needs when wearing a gown encrusted with Swarovski crystals. Those who follow Dita’s career closely may already have a sense of her audacious spirit and industriousness, but she also maintains an unfailing sense of community. What struck me most about talking with Dita was the connection she maintains with not only the burlesque community at large, but with the purest aspect of her career- live performance. Charming and quick to laugh, she makes no secret of her self-made glamour or her roots in strip and fetish modeling. Dita possesses a lightness balanced with an admirable, unshakeable sense of self. All this, and she’s beautiful, too.
BSP: First off, congrats on your West Coast tour! Can you tell us a little about how Burlesque: Strip Strip Hooray! originated?
Dita Von Teese: Thank you! Well, I’ve been wanting to do a full length revue for a while now, because I’ve spent a lot of time guest starring- at the Crazy Horse in Paris, or in a few different shows in Europe–and I get hired a lot for private events and things like that- but for a while I’ve really wanted to do my own show where people can come to see me [laughs], and get a chance to see all my biggest production numbers in one show. There’s something different when it’s an audience of fans, real fans. It’s different- a different feeling, a different vibe.
BSP: I was going to ask you about that actually. In doing live burlesque, as opposed to photoshoots or fashion shows, do you find that you have to call on a different part of your personality and switch gears a little?
Dita: Oh for sure, definitely. I guess it always depends on your mood but I always just feel like it’s what I’m really meant to do. It’s fun doing photoshoots, but not really all the time. Sometimes it’s a little like I’d really like to be doing my real job, you know….probably like actors that don’t want to sit there and do interviews all day; they’d like to go act and do what they do– what they’re supposed to be doing– instead of just talking about what they do. So, you know… photoshoots can be very glamorous and really exciting and creative, but for me there’s nothing that I like doing more than performing these shows that I’ve spent so much time and energy and money creating. It’s like baring my heart and soul up there and it’s a lot different than a photoshoot or someone else’s vision of what they want me to do.
BSP: Has the show evolved since the southern & LA dates you did in 2011?
Dita: Yes, in the past we’ve done a few different dates, and we were really trying to find the perfect combination of support talent- between making sure that every act is a showstopper and every act is really wonderful- but also people that are really great together. I like working with really wonderful people that are easy to work with and fun, and people that I admire. I think it was about really refining the cast to make a really great, diverse line up. I wanted to feel like people can watch the show and see someone that maybe they can relate to a little bit. So that was important to me. For this show we have the support of Live Nation, and it’s been really great to have them behind us to figure out how we can make this big production a success, and at the same time try to keep the ticket prices attainable. (Because you know, our ticket prices start at $35.00- and it’s a lot of show for $35.00!) It’s not easy to do this. So this show is really the fleshed out version. The perfected version of what you saw before.
BSP: You’ve worked with every one of your co-stars previously. Although the eight of you are very different (some classic, some comic, some racy), the common thread seems to be a fearlessness and confidence, traits which you possess yourself. Can you explain how you chose your cast for this tour, and why these performers appealed to you?
Dita: Well, I’m really excited to have added to the cast Catherine D’Lish, who is one of my closest friends, if not my very closest friend. Not only is she a wonderful performer and a close friend of mine, but a lot of people remember that we used to do a lot of shows together. Even the first time I did my martini glass act it was part of a duo act between me and Catherine, where she was in a giant champagne glass and I was in the martini. So we’ve been partnering up for a long time and also she’s responsible for three of the four costumes that I wear in the show. We’ve always worked together on a lot of these shows. I’m really proud to have her in the cast now.
Dirty Martini, who is a legend in the burlesque scene and a major star in her own right, for me really represents the beauty of voluptuousness and brings the house down every single time. And we also have Perle Noire, who is an astonishing energy. I’ve never seen anyone with this much energy in burlesque. She just brings a really special quality to the show that I love. We have Selene Luna who a lot of people know is also a great comedienne that does a really wonderful show. She’s amazing.
We have a girl named Lada. Lada is one of the great stars of the Crazy Horse in Paris, and I came to know her from working at the Crazy Horse, and I just thought she was one of the best, most amazing women I’d ever seen in my life…an incredible dancer and an amazing beauty. We are lucky to have her there to represent the Parisian cabaret Crazy Horse. We have a wonderful boylesque performer named Monsieur Romeo who I’m just crazy about, he’s also French. (Well, Lada is not French; she’s Russian, in fact, but representing Crazy Horse Paris). Monsieur Romeo- for me, his act is one of the chicest boylesque shows I’ve ever seen. I’m really happy to have him in the show.
And Murray! I couldn’t do this show without Murray Hill. First of all Murray and I have a great chemistry. He took me out on a date in New York recently [laughs]. Murray kills it; Murray slays the audience. People can’t stop talking about Murray Hill after they see him. What I love is that he brings that classic, comedic burlesque thing into a new dimension that is great now. Because some of that comedy, if we were just doing a replica of a burlesque show from back in the old days, it wouldn’t be right, or the same. It wouldn’t bring the kind of laughs that Murray gets. That’s what I think is great about this burlesque show – it’s not a replica and nobody has ever seen a burlesque show like this before, ever. I can guarantee it.
BSP: I’m really excited- for people who follow burlesque, all of these people are legends.
Dita: Yes, it’s a great cast.
BSP: Recently I saw footage of you performing your martini glass number on a tiny stage at Top of the Standard for Valentine’s Day in New York. Your acts are so grand and your props so magnificent, it amazed me to see you in such a tiny space…
Dita: Oh yes, that was a tough one, believe me. [laughs]
BSP: Do you enjoy the freedom that working with larger theaters provides, in terms of act selection?
Dita: YES. I can’t tell you the kind of panic that goes through my mind when I’m put on a box or a little tiny stage. First of all my main thing is my costumes are so heavy with crystal that if I don’t have somewhere to walk, it becomes dangerous [laughs]. It’s hard to understand, but the momentum is a really special thing – I need that momentum and a place to go to carry the weight of these costumes. So, when I’m put in a small space, it becomes a whole different element of physical difficulty. But then in the end, I watch the video and I think, ‘oh, the lighting was pretty….OK I’m all right with it’…
BSP: People seemed to love seeing you up close and personal, and you got to splash them a little with the water…
Dita: It kind of drives me crazy when people just watch everything through their telephone screens. I wish people could just enjoy the moment because when I see a show that I’m really into, I want to just drink it in with my eyes.
BSP: It never looks the same through a tiny phone screen…
Dita: It never looks good! It never looks the same.
BSP: You started in burlesque in 1992, and presumably you started pin-up and fetish modeling about the same time, and you were drawn to these things from an early age. Regarding your early forays into burlesque, how did you develop your acts, and where? (I ask because as a follower of your career, it seems as though you just appeared, born mastering burlesque, and I often wonder how you got started and really found your footing as such a uniquely skilled performer).
Dita: The reason people think I ‘appeared’ is because I started creating my shows in the strip club scene- so that’s one reason- and in the LA underground. But really, for years I did my show in strip clubs and I even headlined strip clubs and as you can imagine, they don’t have cameras in strip clubs. So, that’s really how I started developing my show.
BSP: Do you mean feature dancing?
Dita: Yes, but even before that like in 1992 when I first started working in a strip club, that’s when I started playing with the feather fans and doing those shows. But then as years went on, when I was appearing in Playboy a lot and a lot of the men’s magazines- that’s when I started headlining strip clubs in America. And also I was headlining fetish events like Torture Garden and that sort of thing.
BSP: The reactions must have been a little odd at the strip clubs to the kinds of acts you were doing…
Dita: Yes, there were definitely times when people did not understand what I was doing and why I was wearing so many clothes in a strip club when all these girls were walking out in bikinis and I would walk out in a full outfit. I was up against a whole different kind of challenge then. There’s a part of me too that every once in a while I just think- especially when I do these big shows and there’s a lots of press there and people are reviewing the show or photographing the show, I think ‘oh god can I just go back to the strip club where it was free and fun and easy and everyone was just watching with their eyes and not their phone’, and not reporting on it? I love that freeness. [laughs] Not that I want to go back and do clubs or shows in clubs because the strip clubs have changed a lot in the past twenty years, I have to say. In my opinion, there is a huge shift in exploiting a lot of the dancers more than they used to when I started working there. When I started working there I used to get paid by the hour and now the dancers are paying. I don’t agree with all that.
BSP: Yes it’s definitely weighted in the club’s favor…
Dita: …yeah, I mean good for them, smart on them, but I when I started I used to get a check for my hours put in, I used to get roses on my birthday [laughs] and a cake. It’s just shocking to me that it’s so different.
BSP: Did you ever imagine that burlesque and your days in the strip clubs and modeling would lead you where it has, opening so many doors for you creatively and professionally?
Dita: No, no, not at all. In fact I always remember I felt even when I was taking pin-up pictures originally I thought I was ‘preserving memories of back when I used to be skinny and pretty’ [laughs]. That’s what I thought when I was 22 years old. If I were my 22 year old self and I went back in time and said ‘hey, your body is going to look better than it ever did – when you’re 39- and you’re going to be famous and you’re going to trademark this Dita Von Teese name around the world that you came up with when you were drinking Ciscos in the strip bar’ – I would have never believed myself. Really I feel like part of my success is that all along I’ve just really enjoyed the doing part of what I do. I was never seeking fame. I was never seeking to have any of this. I wanted recognition and wanted people to see my show and like it, I wanted people to like what I do, but I never would have thought I would be operating on this scale. It never even crossed my mind that burlesque would become what it is today.
BSP: It’s remarkable, especially in your case – you’re definitely the most successful burlesque performer in modern times. It’s remarkable what you’ve accomplished; it’s amazing that you’ve gone along the ride while maintaining so much of your genuineness and niceness. I mean you have a public persona and you’re on Twitter and whatnot…
Dita: Yes… [laughs]
BSP: …but you always seem to do just enough to help people relate to you, but not so much where you give up too much of your personality and personal life. That must be difficult…
Dita: It’s not always easy…
BSP: You have been a longtime advocate in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Can you tell us a bit about your work in support of the gay community?
Dita: I think the first time I really had a chance was when MAC Cosmetics approached me to be a MAC Viva Glam spokesperson. They’ve had a lot of spokespeople over the years, and some people just appear in the ad and collect the check and then others of us work really hard to get the word out and do the real ground work to make a difference. I took it on as my personal mission to really do the work and do everything I could to sell that lipstick- which has made 200 million dollars for the fight against AIDS. It’s just a really wonderful charity. I really believe in it, and there are not a lot of charities that really put their money where their mouth is. I was proud to be part of it. Through MAC Viva Glam, I also became involved with amfAR [American Foundation for AIDS Research] quite a bit, and would offer myself up to them anytime I could as well, to perform at their fundraisers. Any time that I do something that I can put some of the money to charity I usually send it over in amfAR’s direction. It’s just really been important to me. I feel like there are a lot of people that are afraid to talk about these things.
For me, my particular message when I was working with MAC- they call me honorary spokesperson because I still like to step in and do the work and speak for the charity whenever they invite me to – my message has always been about safe sex. That it’s sexy to insist on it. I carry condoms with me. I’ve got condoms in a pretty box next to my bed; I keep them in my purse. I think it’s sexy to do that and to not be afraid to insist on it, and to even admit that you like sex or that you’re ready for sex. So, that was part of my motivation. I think a lot of women don’t really understand that they need to protect themselves and this is not ‘a gay man’s disease’ and everyone has to be aware of it.
BSP: The LGBT communities have really embraced burlesque and striptease, both in Seattle and elsewhere I’m sure. What do you think of the intersection of burlesque and drag in terms of performing gender and sexuality in a very over-the-top manner?
Dita: I can definitely agree there are parallels and I’ve even seen some really great burlesque-drag shows. I think it’s really great. We’ve had a few drag performers in my revue before, too. So, I think they’re very relative and I always kind of refer to my drag as ‘my drag’, as in ‘I’ve got to get on my drag today’. We all have our own drag, as RuPaul says.
BSP: You were the first guest star in history at the Crazy Horse in Paris. Is the perception of burlesque and striptease different in Europe than it is in America?
Dita: I think definitely the Crazy Horse is its own thing, first of all. I don’t consider the Crazy Horse a burlesque show. Although in my opinion, I felt it was the closest thing to the kind of super-stylized strip tease that I really like, but they’re not about the strip. They’re more about the glorification of woman, the beauty of the nude. For me, it’s different than a burlesque show, but it’s special in its own right. Yes, I think there is definitely a difference. The Crazy Horse is a fully nude cabaret of the highest order and the highest beauty of women, and the most elegant and sophisticated, talented dancers. I know so many stories from working there and talking to journalists and talking to people that love the Crazy Horse– there are so many stories about boys being brought there by their parents to see their first naked girl, when they’re fifteen or sixteen….they’re [the dancers are] completely nude, you know? It’s hard to imagine that could happen in America.
BSP: How do your acts usually originate, and how do you choose the music?
Dita: Now I make a lot of music with a really great guy named Chuck Henry and we come up with a lot of ideas and sometimes we take inspiration from modern pop songs- I can’t even say that they’re ‘pop songs’- but modern music, and turn them into striptease songs. It’s one of my favorite things, to think of new ways to make interesting music. The music is a big part of it. I almost always make original music for my shows now.
BSP: Congrats also on your beautiful Von Follies show at the L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival last month. The collection and models were beautiful, it was great. You’ve been hard at work developing a fragrance, a capsule apparel collection, as well the lingerie line available (for now) only overseas. I hear you’re also working on a new book- a guide to eccentric beauty. When can we look forward to seeing some of your projects in the US?
Dita: We’re working on that and in fact I think we’re going to be fortunate enough to be able to sell the perfume on the tour at the merchandise booth. There are a lot of things you have to do before you can bring these projects to other countries so… we’re doing the work for that, and my book comes out this fall with HarperCollins. It’s a step-by-step guide to how I create glamour. I do my own hair and makeup for almost all my photoshoots, for red carpet events, for my shows- I’m a self-created person. So, I’m really breaking it down and telling people exactly how I do it. That comes out this fall with HarperCollins.
BSP: I’m always impressed when I read that you don’t use a stylist, that you do everything yourself – it makes me want to try a little harder!
Dita: I feel like I’ve got to stand for something and that’s what I stand for: ‘anybody can do it’!
BSP: Aside from these worldwide projects, what are you taking on personally these days? I think I read that you’ve started dressage lessons?
Dita: I just started taking dressage lessons because I really wanted to do something that has nothing to do with burlesque, and nothing to do with my career, and nothing to do with maintaining my body in a way that’s about my show. I just really wanted to do something that was outside my comfort zone. So I started taking dressage lessons, and I really like it because it requires total focus, it’s something I’m a little bit afraid of, and lastly… I like the clothes.
BSP: Yes, exactly- it’s perfect for you, with the clothes…
Dita: Oh there’s no living with me in those riding pants and those high boots; I can’t be controlled. When I leave my riding lesson, I’m just so fired up and I feel so powerful and sexy! [laughs]
BSP: Definitely in need of something to whip…even regular arena riding can be physically demanding. My sweetie was disappointed to learn in my riding I didn’t get to wear the clothes…
Dita: It’s intense! You gotta do it though. [laughs]
BSP: Well, that’s all I have for you…It was a real pleasure talking to you, Dita! Thanks for speaking with me and on a personal note- you are a truly inspirational success story and I admire your strength and beauty, inside and out.
Dita: Likewise. Thank you, thank you so much!
BSP: See you in Seattle!
Dita: See you then!