My Fair Lady
By Paul Rogers
Dita Von Teese is you and I. She’s you and I with a 22-inch waist, skin like manicured alabaster and a job that involves writhing around, next-to-naked, inside a giant martini glass.
See, Dita Von Teese might be the glamorous queen of neo-burlesque, but this Orange County gal still has the unremarkable upbringing, insecurities and relationship problems familiar to us everyday folks.
Dita Von Teese wasn’t born (that was her pre-fame incarnation, Heather Sweet). Dita Von Teese was made—self-made. For all of her variety show’s larger-than-life glamour and pin-up sensuality, the abiding theme of Von Teese’s current “Burlesque: Strip Strip Hooray Tour!” (which arrives at Santa Ana’s Yost Theater on May 30 and 31)—and indeed of almost everything she touches professionally—is in fact self-creation.
An Ordinary Looking Girl
“I always say, as much as sometimes people like to argue with me over it, I’m really, like, an ordinary looking girl,” Von Teese laughs, doll-like in the low light of the Foundation Room atop West Hollywood’s House of Blues, just hours before the opening night of her two-year (on-and-off) national trek. “I willed something on myself and worked hard to make something that doesn’t really exist.”
Born in the farming town of West Branch, Michigan, to a machinist father and manicurist mother, Von Teese says her family relocated, with her father’s job, to Orange County when she was “12 or 13.”
“It was a big shock for me,” Von Teese recalls, visibly moved by the memory. “I was still playing with dolls, and my [new] friends were having sex and talking about how to give blow jobs. I was, like, ‘Whoa!’
“I had a lot of girls that made friends with me, but they didn’t really make friends with me—they just wanted me to babysit their sisters and brothers while they went and had fun.”
Ingredients for Success
By age 15 Von Teese was spending most of her free time with her boyfriend (“I’ve always been a bit loner-ish” she recalls). Only she didn’t have much free time, what with school, ballet classes (which she paid for by cleaning the dance school’s bathrooms, she says), and—as soon as she possibly could—a part-time job.
“I was a big worker from the minute I was legal to work,” she says. “I felt like financial independence is everything. No one can tell me what to do if they’re not paying for me, and I’ve always felt that way. I can be sometimes a problem in my relationships!”
Von Teese’s first job was a foreshadowing—she worked at a lingerie store. She already had a fascination with Golden Age of Hollywood glamour and dressing-up (both encouraged by her mother), and was intrigued by the images of corset-clad models she’d glimpsed in her father’s Playboy magazines. Though she was still the blond Heather Sweet, the stimuli that would shape the raven-haired Dita Von Teese were circling.
By the time she was 18, Von Teese had posed for her first glamour photographs (which she reportedly gave to her boyfriend). By the turn of the 1990s she was go-go dancing, and then stripping. She adopted the name Dita in tribute to German silent film star Dita Parlo (“Von Teese” was added by Playboy magazine later).
The Burlesque Way
But Von Teese wasn’t into stripping just for the money (though Showbiz Spy quoted her as saying she was making “a thousand or $1,500 a night” even back then). She was curious about the whole culture of erotica and the very nature of sexuality and how it is portrayed and conveyed.
“I just wanted to know more about the history of why the strip club was there—like, what is that brass pole doing there?” she explains. “It’s kind of like all these things came together, between by love of dressing in vintage, and old movies, and vintage erotica, and striptease—I fell into [burlesque] a way.”
Von Teese says she began performing burlesque (which combines elements of striptease, modern dance, theatrical mini-dramas and light comedy) “around 1990, ’91.” Her shows gradually became more elaborate and distinctive, often featuring props and characters inspired by movies of the 1930s and ’40s. She even sought-out the advice veteran burlesque dancers Toni Alessandrini (who played the buxom stripper in the 1984 Tom Hanks comedy Bachelor Party) and Dixie Evans, curator of the Burlesque Hall of Fame museum in Las Vegas.
“I like when the bad and the good come together—and changing peoples’ minds about what sexuality is,” she says. “Not making them believe it’s something dirty or wrong, but giving it to them in a different way.”
Simultaneously, Von Teese was earning a reputation as a fetish model, making the covers of subculture titles like Marquis and Bizarre. The ability to lace down her waist as small as 16.5 inches in a corset made her an in-demand choice for so-called “tightlacer” photo shoots. But, like stripping, modeling was much more than just a job to Von Teese.
“I was fascinated with the films of [adult film director and producer] Andrew Blake and those highly stylized hardcore porn movies,” she explains. “That’s my fantasy. It’s not watching YouPorn or watching an amateur porn movie, but I like the candy-coated, glamorized version of sensuality and sex.”
Iconic men’s magazine Playboy ran Von Teese pictorials in 1999 and 2001, before she made the cover in 2002. Her high-profile relationship with shock-rocker Marilyn Manson further boosted Von Teese’s mainstream fame, and audiences for her burlesque performances swelled accordingly.
Forgetting the Fans
But before long Von Teese found herself, as she puts it, “collecting all kinds of money” for performing at private and corporate events, but all the while losing touch with her now worldwide legion of fans.
“I spent a few years—like from 2003 for five years—constantly doing all these big VIP parties,” she says. “Like Louis Vuitton would fly me out to do their openings in Paris. I was doing all these lavish VIP parties, like, ‘Catherine Deneuve’s in the audience’; ‘Sophia Loren’s in the audience’; and ‘George Clooney’s here.’
“But I felt really sad that I couldn’t do a show for real fans that bought tickets—the girls that would come to my signings to meet me, wait in line—they couldn’t see my show.”
In 2006 she became the first guest star to perform at the legendary Parisian Crazy Horse cabaret but, as she points out, “not everybody can go to Paris.” And though her sporadic gigs at glitzy invite-only functions were what she calls “easy work,” Von Teese began to lose sight of (and validation for) why she’d even created her remarkable shows, she says. Plus, performing only around once a month, she began to worry that her very expression might suffer.
“I felt like I couldn’t even become the dancer I wanted to be,” she says. “’Cause I don’t even have enough practice.”
Home Sweet Home
Von Teese also went through a period of detachment, emotionally and physically, from her adopted hometown of Los Angeles, and lived for a while in Paris (she currently divides her time between her house in L.A.’s Los Feliz neighborhood and an apartment in the French capital).
“I had just gotten divorced [from Manson, in 2007]; I was really having a hard time meeting men in L.A. and I just felt like men didn’t get me,” she remembers. “I kept wanting to escape L.A. because I was kind of down on it . . . not wanting to go to clubs because I felt like I didn’t belong because the girls were wearing, like, mini-skirts and Ugg boots and it’s just weird to me.”
So Von Teese immersed herself in her group of similarly creative Parisian friends; dated French aristocrat Louis-Marie de Castelbajac for a while; and lived mostly on the other side of the Atlantic. But this only made her appreciate Los Angeles anew—the weather; her vintage cars; convenience; customer service; and being able to live in a house with a yard rather than within the restrictions of an apartment—she says.
“Now I’m having this big love affair with L.A. again,” she enthuses.
“Strip Strip Hooray Tour!” All of this seems to have factored into Von Teese’s enduring desire to mount a substantial U.S. tour which would be accessible and affordable for her true fans and elevate her on-stage achievements to new heights.
“I wanted to do a full-length review where I could put as many of my best acts into one,” she says. “I’ve spent the past two years doing little shows here in L.A. trying to fit together a perfect puzzle of a perfect cast of a really rounded-out burlesque show with a diverse cast.”
It took a while to convince her management that a tour which, with its expensive sets and low ticket prices ($35 for general admission), would only break was even viable. But once entertainment giant Live Nation threw its production and promotional muscle behind the idea, Von Teese’s longtime dream became flesh as “Strip Strip Hooray Tour!”
Her audiences (who she says are “about 70—80-percent women”) will get a 90-minute Von Teese review featuring four of her most famous routines: the latest version of her signature martini glass act; her emergence from a giant powder compact; an act where she rides a Swarovski-encrusted bull (a show originally created for a Mac “Viva Glam” campaign when Von Teese was that company’s spokesperson); and her closing “Opium Den” routine (“My best production number,” she says).
“This is a lot of show for $35!” stresses Von Teese.
Unlike most previous Von Teese productions, “Strip Strip Hooray Tour!” features a diverse cast of performers, who basically cover the gaps while she changes in and out of her elaborate costumes. MC-ed by renowned drag king Murray Hill, the show also features Von Teese’s super-svelte former Crazy Horse Paris cast-mate Lada Nikolska; 3-foot-11-inch comedienne/dancer Selene Luna (as seen on Margaret Cho’s reality TV series The Cho Show); and over-the-top New York dancer/model Dirty Martini (who Von Teese has described as “big in every way”).
“I didn’t want a bunch of girls who just look like me; I didn’t want a bunch of girls who all look the same,” Von Teese explains. “I wanted it to be, like, everyone can watch somebody and be like ‘I’m a little like her’. I want it to be really fun and diverse . . . I want everyone to walk away feeling like they can bring part of [the show’s glamour] into their real life.”
The Real Show
But for all of the supporting talent gracing “Strip Strip Hooray Tour!,” Dita Von Teese is the show. A self-confessed perfectionist and control freak when it comes to her work (she twice admonishes members of her staff for distracting her during our interview), Von Teese—herself flawless, even at conversational quarters—is also Strip Strip’s producer and director, she says.
“I’m baring my soul up there,” she insists. “I’m not just a girl that they give the steps to and the costume to and the cue music to . . . I’m doing all of it!”
The idea of accessible glamour is central to everything Von Teese does, from her show and her books (she’s working on her third, a beauty guide), to her lingerie collection and perfume line. Leading by example, she has always done her own make-up and hair (including dying it black with an off-the-shelf brand).
“Affordable, attainable glamour—that’s been my goal. To make really chic things that make sense for me . . . that my fans can still afford,” she says. “Beauty and glamour have nothing to do with each other . . . It’s like an art—it’s the art of self-creation.
“Even though I have lots of nice things now, I have money to spend on sets and I can have a different level of glamour in my life, when I used to make $2.25 an hour—and you can look at pictures of me back then—I achieved glamour, because I wanted it and I believed in it.”
People Who Transcend
Predictably, Von Teese says she gravitates towards people who, like herself, have reinvented themselves on their own terms.
“I like people that you can see that they overcame their struggle,” she says. “I like the people that they say, ‘Oh, she’s not a very good dancer; she’s not that good of a singer . . . the people that you watch transcend.”
Von Teese offers Madonna and Liberace as famous examples of “self-creation”, but the description could also apply to a rather awkward Ohio teenager named Brian Warner—who transformed himself into a rather confident (and successful) Marilyn Manson.
There’s every indication that “Strip Strip Hooray Tour!” may be the pinnacle of Dita Von Teese’s career as a touring performer. But this venture shouldn’t be taken as some sort of swan-song – far from it. Von Teese explains that her future projects will include more books, the continuation of her many product lines, and possibly further exploration of the holographic technology that created her virtual performance for the London Design Museum’s current Christian Louboutin exhibition.
“I’m 39. I don’t know how long I want to be up there in a G-string bouncing around riding a mechanical bull,” Von Teese concludes. “Let’s be real—a lady knows when to bow out gracefully, OK?”