Dita Von Teese lounges on a white fainting chair in the upstairs bedroom of an elegant two-story suite in The Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, California. She curls one knee around the other, locking her foot around her ankle with grace and flexibility. This small contortionist act may be challenging for an average woman, but for Dita it is a subconscious act of seduction – conveying her body’s suppleness and revealing a bit of toned, white leg from underneath her knee-length hemline.
Dita Von Teese is a temptress, whether she is on stage slowly peeling the lacey accoutrements off of her body, or posing for the lens of Albert Sanchez in lace kitten ears. Even her scent is intriguing – she wears her namesake fragrance which is spicy, mature, and strong; a perfect balance of masculine strength and dainty femininity. Her low voice is alluring, and I find myself on the edge of my seat waiting to hear each word as it rolls softly off of her tongue – sly and slightly monotone. She has the voice of a 1950s radio girl teasing her listeners in the early hours of the morning. Her entire aura is a mix of old-fashioned morals and contemporary sexual confidence, from what she wears, to how she styles her hair and, most of all, the way she deals with men.
During her famous Burlesque shows, Dita Von Teese splashes and strips in a giant martini glass, or excites her audience by baring it all in front of an elaborate Opium Den backdrop; but in her real life she refuses to approach a man she is interested in. She even admits to feeling sexiest when she is vulnerable, “the opposite of what I am on stage,” she says. And while she claims to be an easy victim of a broken heart, there is nothing weak about this confident, self-aware forty-year-old who claims outright: “I have no problem telling a man what I want him to do for me.”
This poise is something that Dita has acquired over years of developing her burlesque and ultimately, finding herself. Beginning her career in the 1990s in Los Angeles nightclubs, this star began with a mostly male fan base of fetishists. She attributes the rise of her career to Hugh Hefner, who chose to feature the not-so-girl-next-door beauty on the cover of his famous Christmas issue and in a spread that directly pulled scenes from her Burlesque shows. Dita was a pioneer of the artform, revamping burlesque into haute entertainment, and the audience evolved into a diverse and vast group of viewers who love the glamour of the performance. Dita’s proliferating fame has taken her to perform in London, Germany, and even China where her craft, stripping, is actually illegal.
Today she boasts a clothing line of sexy dresses and lingerie that is available in countries as far as Australia, and is meant to bring Dita’s vintage aesthetic back into contemporary fashion. Von Teese, who is an admirer of Technicolor musicals and old-fashioned films, has had the opportunity to grace the silver screen, playing herself and performing her Burlesque. Perhaps most remarkable, is the release of Dita’s new Burlesque show, which is an hour-and-a-half compilation of all her best routines. With a supporting cast consisting of the best burlesque dancers from around the world, Dita will headline this titillating live theatre, which will hit stages in New York and be filmed for DVD release around the world.
Her universal recognition has given Dita a sense of power that she carries with grateful humility, and her years on stage have given birth to a true vixen whose tangible sexuality is amplified when she is in front of the camera. Watching her pose on a balcony overlooking beautiful San Marino, holding up the hemline of her dress to reveal a glimpse of her sensuous curves, you can see the ballerina and the burlesque dancer. Perhaps Dita’s look is reminiscent of an earlier era, but her talent has made her a true sexual icon of today.
How did you start your career as a burlesque dancer?
Dita: I started making shows around 1990, I was very involved in the LA nightclub scene and I had a boyfriend who was a DJ, so I worked in clubs and I would make my own costumes and dance at clubs or do performance art at clubs. I also started working in a strip club for a while just as an experiment, and it was a strip club that wasn’t nude or topless. I worked there and I was already dressing in retro style. The word “Burlesque” wasn’t being used very much in the media at all because there wasn’t a neo-burlesque scene yet. So it just really started there in the strip club, and I became more widely known. I started headlining at big strip clubs in the United States and at fetish clubs in Germany and Los Angeles. I gradually built bigger and bigger shows.
Do any old movies, burlesque shows, or people influence your dancing?
I’m really inspired by these films that were made in America during World War II. There was a whole series of musicals, like the Technicolor musicals, and some of the starts of those musicals were Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, Carmen Miranda. It was a really great time in film where they used a lot of showgirls in film and used beautiful colors. I was very enamored with those films even as a young girl, so that inspires my shows a lot.
You were a trained ballerina who danced in a company, how does this affect your burlesque?
I danced for a very small company for about a year when I was maybe 16, so I wouldn’t consider myself a professional ballet dancer, but I did dance my whole life and I always really loved ballet, and it really helps me with my performances. For instance, with the obvious things like being graceful or knowing flattering body shapes, and knowing how to use my hands and my neck and my feet properly.
Is there a specific dance or show of yours that is your personal favorite?
I have a couple favorites. I always like doing the Martini glass – I do different versions of it now. I’ve been doing that show for about fifteen years now so I’m always reinventing it. Right now I have a new version I do that is very Marlene Dietrich style, so that is my favorite version of that show. But my favorite show to do is a number that I made a few years ago and it’s a very elaborate number that has a Chinese style opium den set and I was inspired by these films [with] Gong Li. There are several films, one called “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Shanghai Triad”; I’m very inspired by all the films that she’s made. I’m really obsessed with that work and the beauty of it. And I like the idea of creating this mythical, taboo character on stage. That’s probably the show that I enjoy the most because it’s really over the top.
Are you the lead choreographer for all your shows?
I’m my own producer, choreographer, designer. I do everything. I think that’s one of the things people don’t know about me – I’m creating these big elaborate shows pretty much on my own with the help of one of my best friends that makes a lot of the costumes. She and I have collaborated on a lot of my numbers, but I do a lot of my numbers all on my own as well.
You’ve appeared in Playboy several times including a cover in 2002, what was the most exciting part about being a Playboy cover star?
There were a few milestones with Playboy for me. In the mid-nineties I started posing for their newsstand specials – they were special editions and they were all girls and it would come out every month separate from the regular issue – and that is the reason I chose my stage name. I needed to have a full name, and Von Teese was added to Dita. I became one of the most popular girls in those newsstand specials, that is what caught the eye of Hugh Hefner. Hef came to see one of my shows when I was a guest star with The Pussy Cat Dolls, and he singled me out in that show and he put me on a cover; and not just any cover, the most important cover of the year – the Christmas Issue. It was really great because it was representing my burlesque performances. That was a big milestone for me because I got a lot of recognition for that cover because it was a very special cover and really unusual for Playboy because I’m not the girl next door. And also it opened the doors for me doing my shows because people would open up the issue and see me in a giant martini glass or on my carousel horse and my moon, and people wanted to know more about what I was doing. That issue really put the whole trend of burlesque over the top.
You have your own line of dresses and lingerie, what inspires your line?
I have been collecting vintage for about 25 years and I am very inspired by things in my vintage collection and re-making them in a wearable way in more sizes and better fabrics and bringing retro-style glamour back. Not everybody knows how to shop for vintage clothes, and most people don’t want to wear vintage lingerie, so I had the idea of essentially looking into my archives and creating things based on that.
What are the differences between today’s audience of burlesque and those on the history according to your knowledge?
I started in 1990 and back then people used to say that they didn’t understand anything about Pin-Up and didn’t understand why I was dressing the way I did, and they certainly didn’t know who Bettie Page is. But there was a small group of fans that I had initially that were fetishists or people who remembered Bettie Page, that liked burlesque or even remembered. I had a lot of fans who told me stories about sneaking into burlesque performances when they were little boys, and they would come see me dance. It was definitely men back then; I had way more male fans. And then it grew bigger and bigger. I remember being completely shocked; I was in London in 2001, when I realized how much it had shifted. I was doing a book signing and I had done a very important TV show the night before, called “Jonathon Ross”, and I stepped out of the horse and carriage I was arriving in and the police had to come because there was nearly 3,000 people waiting in the streets to see me, and it was nearly all girls. I remember stepping out and feeling a little overwhelmed and even faint at the sight of it. I remember seeing tons of women and like, a sea of red lipstick.
In many parts of the world, to be a stripper is illegal, however, there are still many girls living on the job, without any protection. What would you say to those girls?
My entire career from the start, even when I was working in nightclubs, was always very protected. I always had security guards and was always really careful about that, so to be careful is my best advice.
Some people believe that watching burlesque is a way to unleash one’s desire, how about the situation in the US?
I guess so. If I think about when I do my shows, about 80% of the audience is female, I’m sure it’s creating desire, but what it is creating desire for? I’m not sure that it’s creating sexual desire, but I think it’s creating desire for glamour and beauty and fun and a playful side of sexuality. I think it’s very different for everyone. I think it’s hard to generalize why people come to see burlesque. A lot of gay men come to my shows, it’s not because they want to have sex with me, it’s because they’re finding something inspiring about it.
Do you believe burlesque gives its female audience members confidence in their own sexuality?
I hear that a lot from women and I can understand it. For me, the reason I started dressing the way I do, and wearing my makeup the way I do, and dressing the way that I do, and creating these shows is because I couldn’t relate or even try to attain the kind of sexiness that I would see in normal media. When I was younger, Pamela Anderson was all the rage, and I never felt like I could be anything like her. When I looked at the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue I felt like I don’t look like any of those girls. So I get a lot of my fans thanking me for essentially taking a stance that says ‘you don’t have to be tan, you don’t have to be a natural cheerleading looking girl to be sexy’.
How can Burlesque benefit a culture, in your opinion?
I think any form of live entertainment benefits a culture, but like anything there will be people who support it and think it’s empowering and there will be people who disagree. That’s the way I like it. It means you’re doing something interesting if some people like it and some people hate it. If everyone likes it, it’s probably mediocre at best, and that’s not what I want to be.
What kind of men could break your heart, if any?
Oh, it’s easy to break my heart. I usually fall for men that are exciting and dynamic and thrilling and maybe a little bit powerful. I get heartbroken easily by men who are really great at what they do, whatever it is in their field. I love a man who works hard, I love a man who is talented. Those are things that I get turned on by. I have tried to have relationships with men who haven’t found their calling in life yet or really didn’t care if they worked or not, and that is a total turn off for me. I need to be with a man who is as driven and ambitious as me.
When you express your love, do you tend to use words or actions?
What is the best gift you have ever received from a man?
I’ve gotten a lot of really nice gifts of art that was painted of me. I love being in an artist/muse relationship. I have a stack of paintings of myself painted by former lovers.
What is the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for you?
There are a lot of things. There was a blanket of snow over a car, and a man wrote my name on it with hearts around it and then went up to the top of a building and took a picture looking down on it. I still don’t know how he did it, but it was pretty romantic. Getting married was very romantic. Getting engaged and getting a big seven-carat diamond ring was pretty romantic too.
What is your view on marriage?
You just have to marry the right person. I enjoyed being married, I am a serial monogamist. I have no problem being married a few times. I think it’s kind of unrealistic to say that you’re going to be married your whole life. I admire happily married people who have been married for decades, but I also admire people who are willing to get married a few times and keep getting better at it and are willing to say ‘this isn’t working out, and we aren’t as happy as we were before.’ I think marriage is great and it’s romantic.
Do you see yourself getting married again some day?
Yes, if I could find somebody else I want to marry.
You’ve tried a lot to perfect your body/shape, how important is the look of your body?
It’s important for a couple reasons – it’s important for me to feel strong, I feel better about myself when I’m strong and I can dance better. I like to have a sense of discipline in my life. I also want to look good naked both on stage and I want to look good for whoever I am dating at the time.
What do you do to stay in shape?
I do pilates in the morning usually when I first wake up, and I drink a green smoothie that is basically made up of all greens – spinach and romaine lettuce with lemon and ginger and a little bit of apple and parsley. That’s my breakfast. I never drink coffee, I only drink tea. I usually have a vegan or vegetarian lunch and then I’ll have a fairly normal meal for dinner depending on if I’m training for the show or indulging. I definitely have my indulgences. I’m disciplined depending on what I’m working on and where I am. When I’m in China I’m all about the Chinese food.
It is said that you shrunk your waist to around 16 inches using corsets, what inspired you to do this?
I didn’t do it deliberately. I have always loved the look of a corset and I started wearing them when I was 18, but I don’t wear them on a regular basis. I like the aesthetic of it. I love the look of taking it off on stage. I think it’s a beautiful article of clothing. It does sculpt my waist, but I don’t use it to sculpt my body.
What characteristics make a woman sexy?
I generally don’t think you judge what is sexy on someone’s physical. What is sexy doesn’t always have to do with beauty. Some of the most sexy women I know might not be considered beautiful, and I’ve definitely been in a room with very beautiful supermodel girls, but I’ve seen sexier girls who were not model-esque. But then again, that’s my opinion. What makes someone sexy is subjective, and it’s in the eye of the beholder. I think confidence and knowing yourself and embracing the things that make you different from other people is sexy, you can see that from a mile away. When a woman has found herself, it’s very visible and very sexy. Usually the women I meet that I just think ‘wow that is a whole lot of sexy coming off that women’ are women who are in their late thirties to late forties. I think because by that age you know what you want and that is sexy. For me I feel so much different about how I am with men at this stage of my life. I have no problem telling a man what I want him to do for me, and they love hearing it.
What characteristics make a man sexy?
Confidence and ambition, but also a sense of humor is essential and also kindness and humility. It’s a combination of things: elegance, humility. I don’t fall for guys who are only rich and powerful. I have no interest in men that are only power figures. It’s very hard to find a man who is very confident in himself and has his place in life but is also a good kind human being and is also romantic and sweet and knows how to treat a lady. That’s the tricky thing, you can find men who are one or the other. You can find men who are rich and powerful and ambitious and great at what they do, and they’re total assholes, not just to you but to everyone. I always watch how men are with service people or with friends. And you could date someone who is sweet and kind but has no ambition and that doesn’t work either in the real world. I try to find that happy medium.
When do you feel most sexy?
A couple different moments: on stage at times I feel that way, and then other times when I’m with someone I have really good sexual chemistry with and makes me laugh. I’m pretty sure I’m at my sexiest when I’m having a good time and when I’m vulnerable and having fun, when I am the opposite of what I am on stage.
What outfit makes you feel most sexy?
I have a few pieces that make me feel sexy. I always feel good when I am wearing black lingerie that fits me well, when I’m wearing my seamed stockings and garter belts. I love wearing long black gloves. I like my hemlines just below the knee. I like figure hugging clothes that don’t show too much but are still really sexy.
What is the sexiest part of a man’s body?
Well, I’m a bit of a size queen. It’s true.
When you see a man you are attracted to, what is the first physical feature you notice?
Physically I like a man with a good clean haircut, especially when it’s short on the sides and the back and a little longer on top. I like a real 1940s style haircut. I like black hair. I always notice a well-dressed man, and I like tall men. I like a guy that makes me feel small. But then again, I’ve dated short men too and I enjoy that as well. But generally I think I notice tall men first. I like a guy that wears glasses too. I am always intrigued by a Clark Kent: a tall, good looking guy, with a good haircut and glasses.
Hollywood, what female (other than you) do you feel has a great body type?
I’ve hung out with Scarlett Johansson a few times and her body is amazing and she’s a nice girl. I like when I meet these beautiful women who are also a lot of fun too. They are girls’ girls too; they’re not the kind of girls that are going to steal your boyfriend when you turn your back. Eva Mendez is another really sexy woman in person that you can feel the warmth and kindness exuding from her, but also the sexuality. Sharon Stone, like wow. I’m not even sure how old she is now, but she is so beautiful and naturally just stunning and always surrounded by so many young men that just want to get near her. I love watching her, she just glows.
What is a tip for seducing a man in the bedroom?
I think it depends on the chemistry between two people. I don’t think the same tricks that work on one man work for another one. There is a special chemistry for each of them, and certain things that work for us as a pair in particular.
Do you dance for men in private?
Not very much. I’m not against it. I know what I would do and I know exactly how I would perform a strip tease one on one privately for someone. I’ve done it, but I haven’t done it in a really long time because I haven’t had a worthy man in my life yet. I wouldn’t just do that for someone I met a few months ago. That is something I would do if I were in a serious relationship for someone or if I were married.