‘I’ve been embracing vintage style for over 20 years, and it hasn’t always been accepted the way that it is now. People often made fun of me for it or asked me why I was dressed like I was or why I’d wear so much make up.’
Dita Von Teese is an icon like few others. Here is a woman who championed vintage style, old-school burlesque, pale skin and red lips, and regularly dyed her hair raven black at a time when heavy tans, rock hard abs and the ‘Baywatch blonde’ was the mainstream notion of a sex symbol. In a world obsessed with the new, her personal vintage collection is enough to make any aficionado swoon. Her home is dedicated to 20th-century décor, including a pink kitchen with vintage appliances. She also has a room dedicated to hats. *sigh*
Having rekindled worldwide interest in classic burlesque, complete with corsets, tassels and stockings, and led the charge towards a new kind of eccentric beauty, Dita Von Teese, (born Heather Renée Sweet) is now a household name. Yet even now at the height of her powers, the international burlesque star, pin-up, fetish model, business woman, lingerie, eyewear and costume designer, actor and author describes ‘those still living under a rock who simply relegate me as that stripper once married to a rock star,’ in one of her more personal moments in Your Beauty Mark. This sadly illuminates, once again, the tendency to downplay women’s achievements. (‘It’s been 16 years since we met and ten years since we’ve been divorced,’ she explains of her days with Marilyn Manson, telling me, ‘I never quite got used to my personal life, break-ups and all, being of interest.’) She has overcome a great deal to arrive as the international star she is today.
Having previously seen her perform at the Crazy Horse in Paris, and at the MCA for Sydney Fashion Week, I had the pleasure of watching the first Australian performance of Strip Strip Hooray! at a sold out Luna Park, where her star power was more evident than ever. Fresh from her Australian tour, I had a chat with the queen of eccentric glamour herself, about burlesque, corsets, body positivity, her new book Your Beauty Mark, and the erotic power that only comes with age.
Strip Strip Hooray! is a dazzling visual feast for burlesque fans. How have you found the Australian audiences, and what has it been like being on the road with fellow legends Murray Hill, Perle Noire, Catherine D’Lish, Ginger Valentine and more? (And have you tried out Catherine’s incredible spider web set piece?)
Bringing my entire show tour to Australia was like a dream come true. I never thought we’d manage to bring the entire production over, so it was a wonderful experience to perform the show in its entirety all across Australia. And to answer your question about Catherine’s spiderweb, Catherine and I used to perform this show together occasionally when we first met around 2001. It takes a lot of strength and flexibility to do it right, I could never do it the way Catherine does!
Above: Dita working her stage magic. Photography by Kaylin Idora.
I’d love to see a re-boot of that act.
In your new publication, Your Beauty Mark, you specifically advocate the virtues of ‘eccentric beauty’. Can you tell us a little about what eccentric beauty is and what it means to you?
I learned about the term “eccentric glamour” from Simon Doonan. He has a book by that name, and the things that he says in it really resonated with me, and he featured me in the book as an eccentrically glamorous person. For me, eccentric glamour is the best way to describe those of us that love the art of creating beauty, and aren’t interested in living life in beige, but rather, in full fledged Technicolor. I’ve been embracing vintage style for over 20 years, and it hasn’t always been accepted the way that it is now. People often made fun of me for it or asked me why I was dressed like I was or why I’d wear so much make up. I think the term eccentric glamour is a great way to describe people that dare to be different; a term for those that feel the positives of glamour outweigh the negatives of being made fun of or asked why we’d like to look like we do.
Your Beauty Mark reads not only like a step-by-step beauty bible for glamorous hairstyles and application of cosmetics, but a manual for skin care, physical exercises, ‘eating simply and sensibly’, and how to find well-fitting undergarments. Throughout the book you write on your philosophy of enjoying life to the fullest, and punctuate that by including sections on accomplished women and eccentrics from Angelique Noire to Catherine Baba, and Sutan Amrull and his drag alter ego Raja. I was impressed by how comprehensive it is. What do you hope readers come away with?
When I look at my life, I think a lot about how my life changed with glamour. I thought about the way it gave me confidence in my life, and my mission has always been to inspire others to see if glamour does the same for them. I feel that putting my best face forward and living my life the way that I want to live makes me feel better. For me glamour is certainly not about pleasing others or are trying to be accepted by others by being more beautiful. It’s really about what works for the individual, and being whoever you want to be. I grew up in a small farming town fantasizing about being glamorous and womanly like 1940s movie stars Betty Grable or Hedy Lamarr. There’s no reason that anyone can’t capture a little bit of that in their own lives.
You are known for wearing some incredible corsets in your performances. In Fetish and the Art of the Teese, you write of the ‘exhilaration I felt wearing my own corset’ and explained, ‘I don’t wear a corset because I am a dominatrix on this stage. No, no. I wear it because it is an exaggeration of the feminine form, aside from being pretty and fun to unlace and remove.’
As a fellow corset wearer, I am interested in your corset collection, and how often you corset off-stage (if at all). What or whom first got you interested in corsetry? Do you have any particular standout corsets in your collection? Any stand out corset experiences?
I first became interested in wearing corsets when I was 18 years old and I was working in a lingerie store. I had begun styling myself in vintage style and collecting vintage lingerie pieces. I really, really wanted a corset, but it was not very easy to find one in those days like it is now. Someone gave me an address on the piece of paper of where I could find one…it was a fetish store and that experience opened my eyes to this whole new world, and that’s where I had the idea to recreate vintage fetish imagery like Bettie Page. I ordered a pink satin corset with black velvet trim and black lacing, and I still have it to this day. Back then I was wearing my corset almost every day, and in the years that I was working in strip clubs developing my burlesque show I always wore a corset on stage and never took it off. These days I really only wear them for my shows and photo shoots.
As far as my standout corsets, of course the ones made by Mr. Pearl are the most incredible. No one on earth can do what he can.
One of my most recent blogs, on fabulous pin-ups over 40, really hit a nerve for some. What do you say to those who believe that age is a barrier to glamour, pin-up or burlesque?
One of my goals with StripStripHooray! was to bring together a group of performers of varying ethnicities, ages, and body shapes, with very strong stage presence. The thing that I think is always the most difficult is to find are very young burlesque dancers that are actually fantastic performers…. never underestimate the power of experience, wit and erotic wisdom. There is a thing that happens each time I perform alongside the very young, beautiful and seemingly perfect dancers at the Crazy Horse Paris. They all ask me how I convey what I do onstage, and honestly it’s really a lot to do with the thoughts you think and the way you exhibit your true personality up there. It’s not something you can teach. I think I’m a better performer now than I was when I was 25, and now that I think about it, the best burlesque dancers that I’ve ever seen and all the headliners I’ve booked for my show are all in their late 30s and 40s.
I try to put pretty young pinups in the show sometimes and it falls flat compared to stars like Dirty Martini and Perle Noire. I’d hear the feedback after the shows and certain acts, like those two would always be the ones singled out. I’m always looking for new talent for the show, and I’ve been hunting for a hot little blonde for years, but I can’t seem to find younger dancers that bring down the house like these other gals do. I think that with burlesque being what it is now, a new kind of feminist movement that has an audience of so many women and the LGBTQ community, I think that the ageist mentality with regard to nudity will subside in this scene.
I’ll still be asked by journalists “What will you do now that you are getting older?”, but it’s up to me not to let it affect the way I think. I think that we should celebrate beauty and sensuality at all stages of life. Those that don’t agree are likely living in their 20s and have no clue what their own erotic power can even be yet, they think that the beauty of youth is all that there is….
Above and top of page: Dita photographed by Albert Sanchez and Pedro Zalba.
- Words by Tara Moss AKA Victory. All photographs copyright of the respective photographers and kindly provided by Dita.
- For more Dita Von Teese, check out her official website.