It’s no secret we’ve got a major crush on burlesque performer Dita Von Teese. What’s not to love? She’s got a bitchin’ wardrobe (and an assistant who takes care of her clothes!), an incredible job, and more confidence than we’ve seen in, well … anyone!
Dita was kind enough to talk to us recently about her latest book, Dita: Stripteese, where to get the best vintage, how many pairs of Louboutins she owns, and how often she checks her lipstick …
So, tell us about the book you recently published, Dita: Stripteese.
It’s my second book. The first one is called Burlesque & The Art of the Teese and the one that just came out is called Dita: Stripteese and it’s little flipbooks of some of my shows.
What advice do you have for women who want to try stripping or burlesque?
Mostly what I try to emphasize is there’s not a formula. Burlesque is about embracing the spirit of it and individuality of a woman. It’s not necessarily about “just retro,” “just pin-up,” “just vintage.” It was once about that but I don’t believe it has to be about that to be interesting. I think what makes burlesque interesting and what was always interesting about it was that every performer made her mark by being self-created and letting her personality come through onstage. I think with neo-burlesque, what’s most important is not trying to re-create retro style burlesque but to more bring it into modern times and understand the spirit of what it’s about. I’m more about saying it doesn’t have to be corsets and stockings and red lipstick and vintage, but it can be whatever you want it to be. Trying to understand what it was then and trying to relate that to what it is now is more important. Whatever you feel most sexy in is what’s important and that’s going to make a good burlesque performance and a good striptease performance: wearing the kind of clothes you like, using the kind of music you like, having your hair and your makeup the way you like and not worrying about what other people think is sexy, or what I say is burlesque.
So what is it about burlesque that you find personally liberating?
I like the creative aspects of it. I like the whole process of creating a show and the challenges of it. You know, it’s not for me just that moment I step out on the stage; it’s kind of the whole process. I like the process of knowing, when the curtains open on this big, expensive, elaborate, fabulous show, I did all the creative parts of it and I’m not just a girl taking off her clothes to music in front of an audience.
It has nothing to do with exhibitionism or anything like that. I’m not any of those things — it has more to do with the creation of these big shows. My shows are comparable to any big Las Vegas show and one behind all of that. I think a lot of people don’t understand the work that goes into the actual creation of these numbers. That’s what is exciting for me, when the curtains open on this big show, between the music, the lighting, the costume, the styling, the concept, all of that is my own. Sometimes it takes a few months; sometimes it takes four years, for one seven-minute number.
I obviously create these shows so I can perform in them myself, because that’s the way I’ve always done it, but that isn’t necessarily the way I would always do it. I’m really interested in creating shows that don’t include me.
Mmmhmm. The question is constantly: “What are you going to do when you’re too old to do this?” But it’s, like, this is not what I’m good at. It’s not being the girl in the show what my main talent is, believe it or not. It’s really the whole creation. The reason I think people notice my shows is the creative part of it, not that I’m the prettiest girl or the best dancer or the youngest. (laughs)
Is there an expiration date for women in burlesque?
I think when you look at the very big stars of burlesque, Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Lily St. Cyr, they have a lifetime career because they weren’t just pretty girls taking off their clothes. They were producers; they were full-on; they were a brand and a business. So maybe I just went to Vegas and somebody gave me a show and said, “Here’s your show.” Well, they would be done with me because all I could do [would be to] put on the costume and do what they told me to do. But I’m the one that’s making it.
Most of my idols of burlesque did go on to do other things ’cause they weren’t stupid. (laughs) Gypsy Rose Lee was not stupid. She wrote lots of books. She had lots of TV shows and kind of stood for glamour. A lot of women of the ’40s and ’50s really looked up to her because she was a single mother and still considered sexy and to be a single mother back then — can you imagine? To be a single mother and a striptease artist? That was quite incredible. I think she was interesting because she stood for glamour her whole life.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Hmmm. Well, it’s a question that’s posed to me quite often and it’s frustrating, because if you look at the definition of what it means to be a feminist, it’s to have the same rights as a man. If someone tells me that I cannot create, produce, direct these shows and star in them, that that should be for a man to do, then that doesn’t really jive with feminist ideals. It’s kind of an argument I hate even addressing because I think it’s just a stupid thing to ask. I’m sorry, but you know, I get asked it all the time! I’m, like, how can I be anti-feminist if I’m pro-woman and all my fans are women, so if you say it’s anti-feminist and you come to my show, or you come to one of my book signings, and it’s 80 percent women, how do you explain that means being an anti-feminist? A lot of women look to me as someone who is embracing her sexual power and confidence and trying to explain you don’t have to fit into the media’s mainstream image of “sexy.” I feel like the only time someone should call me “anti-feminist” is if they don’t understand what I do and who my fans are and what I’m standing up for.
Well, I’m asking because—
(interrupts) No, I know. A lot of people are, like, “How can you be a feminist?” But look at the word, look at what I do. I’m not performing for men. Originally I was [performing for men]. In the 18 years I’ve been performing, my audience was mostly men and fetishists and a different kind of audience. But it’s really shifted. So, that’s my point and it’s not a personal attack to you.
Oh, no, I didn’t think it was. What I meant to say is I ask that question to pretty much everyone I interview, because I like to know if successful, celebrity women consider themselves feminists.
I mean, I kind of do. It’s not a word I don’t really like to address, you know? It’s not even that I want to call myself that. I just sort of go, “Oooooh!” It’s an eyeball roller. (laughs) You know what I mean? It’s like, oh man, it’s a weird question. The word “feminist” is so broad.
Yeah, I get what you’re saying. So, do you read stuff people write about you online?
To a degree. I used to more. Of course, I read interviews and it’s interesting when you talk to someone and you try to see if they understand where people see where you’re coming from and, fortunately, most of the time, I think people do. But, you know, occasionally you’re, like, “I don’t really understand where they got [that] out of that interview.” But I don’t really read too much because the internet’s a dangerous thing in a lot of ways. There’s too much anonymous commentary. I only take criticism seriously when it comes from someone that I admire. Fortunately for me, the people that I admire don’t have much bad to say.
So let’s talk about style instead! Where would you say are the best places in the world to shop vintage?
I’ve been all over the world for vintage and I have to stand by it — people argue with me about this all the time — but the best vintage is in America.
Yup! The British will say, “Oh, no, we have better vintage,” and the French will say, “We have better vintage.” But America’s a big country and there were a lot of really great knockoffs of great designers and, like, Betty Grable had her own line of clothes with different big department stores and so on. By far, the bulk of my best vintage collection is obtained in America, especially from 20 years ago when I started collecting. Even all the haute couture I’ve got, like Christian Dior, numbered book pieces, I’ve got them all in America! I’ve never gotten anything extravagant in another country, I have to say.
Do you go to vintage shops or do you do the estate sale thing?
I mostly do stores because I don’t like to pick through things. I like to go to vintage dealers. I was also always a big eBay shopper from the very beginning. I used to shop on eBay when you could look at everything on eBay in one sitting. I used to love that. I feel like you can find bargains in America still; you can find pieces in good shape. Whenever I go to Paris, people say, “You should go to this vintage store!” or whenever I go to London, they say, “You should go to this vintage store!” and I’m always, like, “Yeah, maybe not!” I look at the prices, I look at the quality of the things and think, “Back to America, please!”
Oh, I have no idea. I never really count. People always ask me how many pairs of Louboutins I have. It’s just not something you sit around counting, you know? Those are not the big blessings of my life that I’ve been sitting there counting and thinking how lucky I am. It’s not really as much about the clothes and shoes as you think it will be. I have a lot of things. I have a nice collection of clothes. I wouldn’t want to trade it with anyone. Except maybe Madonna — I bet she has a really great closet.
Is it hard to maintain the upkeep on all that vintage stuff?
Yeah, it’s really expensive: tailoring is expensive; the constant moth control is expensive. (laughs) I have an assistant that takes care of all of my clothes. When you wear vintage, you have to fix everything. It’s like old cars: you have to keep ‘em up.
OK, I have a beauty question for you! How do you keep your lipstick from bleeding?
Well, there’s not really a trick. You either wear a very matte lipstick that’s very dry and doesn’t bleed, like MAC Ruby Roo or Russian Red, or you wear something that’s shiny and you look at it every, like, half hour to make sure it’s OK. There’s not really a secret. There’s no trick! It’s like matte equals non-bleeding; shiny plus moisturizing equals bleeding.
Do you really check your lipstick every half hour?
If you’re going to wear lipstick — if you’re going to wear red lipstick — you have to check it out! You can’t just, like, eat a giant cheeseburger and think it’s going to be perfect. (laughs) You have to have a mirror with you. You have to check it out. It’s part of the upkeep. And, you know, it’s sexy to take out your mirror and touch up your lipstick. It’s OK!
I know you did a line of bras for Wonderbra, but do you ever think you’ll do a full Dita Von Teese clothing line?
I might like to, but I would be very careful about how I went about it because I feel like I wouldn’t want to just go into my closet and knock off my favorite designers. I feel like a lot of celebrities do that. They’re, like, “I’m going to have a clothing line!” and meanwhile it’s, like, “Oh, you really loved that Dior suit you borrowed! You loved it so much you knocked it off!” I would be very careful about it. If I did do something like that, I would be very interested in having a lot of my favorite vintage pieces copied because it’s kind of sad there’s a lot of great things that are going to be lost, that can’t be worn again, that people will never get to see the beauty of vintage. It would be great to remake those things from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. You know, a lot of mainstream designers go into the vintage archives and that’s where they get their inspiration, anyway. I would do it that way: I would be inspired by my own vintage pieces and not modern pieces.
So what’s next for Dita Von Teese?
I have a DVD out of the show that I did at The Crazy Horse in Paris. It’s the first time I’ve had my burlesque shows on DVD. I’m still working on my beauty book. I’m finishing up that — it’s a step-by-step how-to guide of how to do your hair and makeup. But in eccentric style! It’s for those girls who want to be different — they needed a beauty book. A lot of beauty books out there are really standard and they tell you how to be safe, how to be normal, how to be tasteful. So I’m writing the opposite book.
Ooooh, when’s that coming out?
Probably this time next year. It’s a little ways off because it’s a lot of work. It’s a photo-heavy instructional. I do all my own hair and makeup and styling. I don’t have a “glam squad,” so [the book is] a lot of me doing my hair and makeup and then being photographed and laid out, step-by-step.
Wow, it sounds like you do everything yourself.
Yeah, I’m pretty hands-on!