Interview with Burlesque Dancer Dita Von Teese
How did you first get into burlesque? I was working in a lingerie store as a teenager, and at that time, I was looking at the history of lingerie and began collecting vintage lingerie and magazines with pictures of pinups, and started noticing that many of the pinups in men’s magazine of the 1940s were also burlesque dancers. So there I was, posing for pinups, working in a strip club, and it was all very obvious that I should do this, because I already was dressing head-to-toe in vintage clothes. This was around 1991. Basically, my love of the 1940s just led me to it. I slowly built my shows up, and from around 1994, I became quite known amongst fetishists and Playboy fans. So, I started touring in America and developed a bigger show as time went on. It was just basically a very slow climb from 1991 to now. I was no overnight success, that’s for sure!
What does burlesque mean to you? For me it always comes down to the historical significance as a popular form of entertainment in America between 1930 and 1950, when the stars of these large-scale revues were the striptease artists. It’s my intention to change people’s minds about what striptease is.
In your opinion, what is the difference between burlesque and striptease? “Burlesque” was a word used to describe a type of risqué show one would go see in the 1930s and 40s in America, and striptease is the word to describe what the burlesque performers did onstage. It’s not my opinion; it’s a fact. Nowadays, we use the word “burlesque” to describe this retro-styled striptease that is seeing a revival. Without the strip, it’s not burlesque, that’s for certain!
You are known for vintage glamour. Why are you so drawn to retro/vintage fashion? I’m really inspired by feminine beauty. I can’t really quite explain why, but there is something about the glamour of the past that strikes something in my heart. Of course, I love the 1930s and 40s because there was something so fabulous about that particular era of film and of its stars—they had such iconic, unfaltering images. Sadly, in modern times, it feels like stars feel the need to be “fashionable” and “of-the-moment”, and it seems like no one has a real sense of who they are. And there is certainly a lack of eccentricity in Hollywood, no? When you think of women like Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe with their strong personalities, with their individual style that was distinct and consistent, to me, just the fact that we remember them and reference them still, it must mean something to know who you are and to be true to that. So those kinds of women inspire me, women who had true chic that wasn’t ever-changing. And they were all created, artificial beauties—and that appealed to me because I never felt like I could measure up to the modern all-natural supermodel kind of beauty, but I could certainly see how I could get closer to this old Hollywood “painted” and coiffed and dressed to the nines kind of glamour. It’s a bit like that scene with Natalie Wood in Gypsy where she does her hair, puts makeup on, and is dressed to go out on stage; and she looks in the mirror and considers for the first time that she could actually be a pretty girl. I love that scene. I remember feeling just like that one day when I was playing with makeup and a set of hot rollers! And I love the idea that other girls might have that feeling too. I’ve become a pied-piper of glamour in a way. When I do my shows or personal appearances, I look out into the crowd and I see a beautiful sea of girls of all ages and sizes and ethnicities with scarlet lips and little black dresses and chic hairstyles, and it affects me, because I enjoy knowing that they feel unique and beautiful and sexy, like a bombshell! I originally thought I was performing for a male audience, and now it’s the women that are embracing burlesque most of all, and I love it!
Tell us about your new book. What inspired you to do this project? How do you choose what projects you work on? The photographer Sheryl Nields approached me with this book idea, and we took it to my publisher. Sheryl and I had worked together on several occasions for magazines and ad campaigns, and I always liked working with her a lot and trusted her to shoot my shows, which is rare for me because with all the time and money it takes for me to build a show, I don’t let just anyone shoot them. But I really love her as an artist and as a person, and I loved her idea for this book. I just showed up and did my hair and makeup and did my show for her as she shot it stop-animation style. The end result is fabulous—I’m happy with the way the three little flip books look tucked inside the velvet-flocked book case.
How and why did you get involved with Cointreau? Well, I always knew that I would eventually team up with a spirit brand . . . it seemed obvious since I’m known for bathing in giant cocktail glasses. I had certainly been approached by many brands, but Cointreau was the first that I felt had the kind of sophisticated approach that suited me. I loved all the ideas that they had about being true to their incredible history and elegant style but with a modern touch. This is what my own burlesque shows are all about, being knowledgeable and true to a history, while reinventing it.
Your cocktail is the Cointreau Teese. What is the inspiration behind this drink? Well, they interviewed me about fragrances, colors, and flavors I like, and a few weeks later, when I met with the expert mixologists in Paris, they had many different kinds of cocktails created for me to try based on my choices. What a fabulous way to spend an afternoon, trying delightful cocktails made just for me! Yes, I was a little tipsy by the end, but that didn’t impair my ability to choose my signature drink, which is violet scented and a very light, not-too-sweet cocktail that is ultra glamorous and tasty! I’ve become a master at mixing it myself at home for my party guests—they always ask for it!
What’s next on your plate? We heard you’re working on a beauty book. Tell us more. Well, I am self-created. I do my own hair and makeup for my shows, for many of my shoots, for red carpet events. I don’t have a “glam squad”, my look is my own. So I decided to write a step-by-step book for girls who want to learn how to do retro-eccentric hair and makeup. It’s the beauty book for those of us who have no desire to look “natural”!
You’re a dancer. You’re an author. Any other professional aspirations? I really enjoyed designing lingerie for Wonderbra, I would like to continue that kind of work, because it’s something I know a lot about, having worked in a lingerie store since I was 15.
What do you do for fun? I like to cook, entertain at home for my friends, go to museums, play cards, go out dancing, shop for antiques.
Who are your style icons? Favorite designers? My style icons are eccentric, daring women. My favorite designers are Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Moschino and Elie Saab.
You have gorgeous skin. What’s your secret? What are your favorite products? I’m a big believer in seeing a dermatologist. Miracles don’t come in fancy jars—they come from people who have knowledge of the skin as one of our organs! I don’t like naming the products that work for me, because I think it’s important to get the message across that we all have different skin and what works for one person may not work for another. My beauty secrets are using sunscreen and seeing a dermatologist for skin concerns.
What is your fitness routine? I do Pilates mostly but also ballet and yoga.
What can’t you live without? Besides air, food, water? That’s a complicated question . . . love, friends, family, my pets. Come to think of it, there is a vast list of things I cannot live without—or at least that I THINK I can’t live without!
If you could be any person, living or dead, real or fictitious, who would you be? It’s hard to say, because everyone whose lives I might covet probably had their own set of problems, and how would I know what those are? I’m happy to be me.
What’s your guilty pleasure? I don’t feel guilty about anything!