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A Conversation With Dita Von Teese

"It’s not about being under the male gaze....we can work, we can be smart and we can be sex symbols."
Image Credit: Phil Barton

Image Credit: Phil Barton

World-famous Dita Von Teese is known for her pin-up looks and sensuous curves, both ways of reveling in femininity. The American vedette is often credited with single-handedly reviving the art of burlesque dancing with her elegant and sophisticated performances. Her meticulously crafted shows – from the elaborate set designs to the haute couture costumes and classic Hollywood glam images – totally immerse her audience in a world of her making. And that’s the point: Von Teese controls everything. Her show and persona are never about the male gaze or titillating the viewer; her focus is on the pageantry of burlesque, while showing a woman in total control over her own sexuality. 

Although Von Teese (nee Heather Sweet) is frequently referred to as the Queen of Burlesque, what becomes evident during our interview is that she wears many professional hats, including dancer, singer, model, costume designer, and entrepreneur. And as a businesswoman, Von Teese is a marketing master; she has been able to propel her glamorous brand into numerous fashion and beauty products like lingerie, fragrance and even nails, and prove just how adept she is as an entrepreneur. 

While Von Teese was on tour across the U.S., we spoke by phone about the evolution of her shows, why she feels she’s a better performer now than at any other time in her career, and what her work can teach us all about modern feminism.  

Image Credit: Phil Barton

Image Credit: Phil Barton

Can you tell me a bit about the acts in your latest show, Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe?

There are several new acts – four to be exact. I dance inside a giant shell dipped in glimmering copper, and also with a floating bubble, which is a tribute to [iconic 1930s burlesque dancer] Sally Rand. There are also all new versions – new choreography, new costumes, new music – of a couple of former acts, including “Lipsteese,” from my MAC Viva Glam collaboration.

You're so famous for your costumes. Can you tell me a bit about the new ones?

There are two new costumes designed by Jenny Packham, including one for the floating bubble act. Probably the most extravagant new costume in the show was designed by Catherine D’Lish. It’s for an act we conceptualized together – the finale with the Absolut Elyx Martini Glass. The dress is studded with state-of-the-art, fancy-cut Swarovski crystals and weighs about 65 to 70 pounds. We can’t even get decent photos of the dress, because of the way the light bounces off of it on stage.

Your costumes are couture-level in their craftsmanship – many are hand-beaded and feathered – but you still have to be able to dance in them and choreograph how to get out of them on stage. That’s a lot of elements to consider. How do you collaborate with designers?

I’m lucky enough to have worked with a lot of designers – people like Elie Saab and John Galliano – and really don’t have to communicate much to them. They know that for every piece that comes off, the costume has to look like a new picture – it still has to look complete even though something is now gone. I tell them what I prefer for hooks and how things come off, but rarely do I have to change anything. I just keep working with a costume until taking it off looks effortless. It’s like Houdini: keep doing it until it looks easy.

That’s a lot of discipline.

I hate it, but I love it! I once worked with a special corset by Mr. Pearl [a Paris-based corsetier and haute couturier, and a frequent collaborator with Von Teese] laced from the top of the back to the butt. I didn’t know how I was going to get out of it at first, but doing 33 shows at The Crazy Horse in Paris teaches you to just keep trying. That kind of stage time gives you the experience to work it out.

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So, how would you say your stage show has evolved from when you first started out?

When I look at my shows from 10 or 15 years ago, I think they’re so unrefined. I never walk away from a show thinking, “I was amazing!” I know I’m better now than five years ago or ten years ago – it’s about a lot more than your body or how good a dancer you are. I cringe when I see a show that’s not beautiful. I want everything to seem effortless, and to create moments that inspire other people.

It sounds like getting older has allowed you to tap into more emotions as a performer. 

I learned a lot about myself doing those shows at The Crazy Horse – how I do what I do. It’s not just about remembering choreography. You have to go through different things in your life – I love when someone wins against the odds.

I feel like there’s a lot of focus right now on women’s empowerment because of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Was there ever a time you felt like you had to explain or defend your art form as being pro-feminist?

Always. I seem to have to defend it on paper to people who’ve not seen my show. What they don’t realize is that the audience is mostly female. There’s also a huge LBGTQ community. It’s not a girlie show for men.

I think people just assume it’s a show for men.

It’s not about being under the male gaze. One of the last taboos to be liberated is that we can work, we can be smart and we can be sex symbols. I don’t have some of those [#MeToo and #TimesUp] stories, because I’ve been in a very female world. Yes, I’ve been preyed upon, but I don’t really care if anyone thinks it’s bad or wrong. I think more about what I say and how it impacts others. Being a modern feminist means having your own choices and not telling other people what they should do or think.

But do you ever feel pressure, external or internal, to change your look or show? Or maybe the better question is, what kind of pressure do you feel?

When I decided to go on tour again, I didn’t feel very motivated. Each act costs $50,000 to $100,000 to create, from the costumes to the sets to the choreography. It’s a huge undertaking. I didn’t really want to do it, but then I kept seeing people imitating me. Meanwhile, I have books full of ideas! So, I keep pushing myself to reach another level of performance – one that’s more thrilling and more exciting. And it pays off; when you put the work in you get the return.

So what motivates you to keep going and creating new performances?

I was doing burlesque when I didn’t think anyone would recognize what I did. I just wanted to do cool shows. My motivation has always been to make beautiful things that no one has seen before. I want to always be relevant, interesting and evolved. I’m not done yet.  

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