Burlesque Icon Dita Von Teese Touts Her Own Brand of Feminism
From Playboy to Marilyn Manson, to iconic burlesque star.
Credit: Phil Barton
Born out of a time capsule from Hollywood’s golden era, glamour girl and burlesque goddess Dita Von Teese has been captivating imaginations around the world since she burst onto the scene in the early 2000s, first on the cover of Playboy magazine, and then draped on the arm of controversial rocker, Marilyn Manson. Since then, Dita has carved out an iconic reputation for herself as the most famous and sought after burlesque performer in the world. Vanity Fair has dubbed her a “Burlesque Superheroine,” and Elle has declared her an “all around icon.”
The raven haired, fair-skinned, hourglass-shaped glamour girl who never leaves home without the perfect red lip and vintage sunglasses, Von Teese travels the globe performing burlesque shows that pay homage to the vintage art form, but with a modern interpretation. She performs to sell-out crowds and mesmerizes with costumes perfectly adorned with breathtaking crystals, and over-the-top stage props and accessories placed just so, including her signature martini glass bubble bath routine. Incidentally, the crowds are packed with Von Teese’s millions of female fans who draw inspiration from her old world, finely crafted sensuality.
Having been fascinated with her image for some time, I sat down with Dita Von Teese to discuss everything from her captivating appearance and stage performances to her thoughts about femininity, motherhood, feminism and her current tour, Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe.
How do you define femininity?
I grew up admiring movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s. To me, that was always the epitome of feminine, and it made a mark on me from a very young age. I guess I have always associated that exaggerated femininity with the definition of feminine; the way a woman enhances herself with the tools in the beauty box, so to speak. I’ve always thought of glamour as feminine. That’s what I love for the outwardly feminine. On the other hand, I have a different closed door feminine as well, where I can remove those layers and get to the essence of what we are trying to exaggerate with the hair and makeup and the high heels and all the things we do to be hyper feminine in public.
Why not keep your natural blonde hair? And your birth name, Heather Sweet, was a sexy name. Why the change to brunette, and why the name change to Dita Von Teese?
I started becoming Dita when I was about 19 years old, so I wasn’t really thinking it through. I didn’t think about long term, and I certainly never expected to become famous for being a burlesque dancer and pinup model. It started as a hobby that I was doing, and in my little mind I thought by the time I was thirty I would be finished. And at the time, I was looking to Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr, and these [burlesque] stars from the past. These were choices I made when I was younger, and yes, I always liked the idea of that big Hollywood makeover. Rita Hayworth’s name was not Rita Hayworth, and Rita Hayworth had black hair and a widow’s peak that got removed with electrolysis. There was that big Hollywood machine, and I was always fascinated with the idea of these raw beauties becoming transformed into Birds of Paradise.
In watching you perform, you truly look like you’ve stepped out of a time machine from the 1940s and 1950s. It’s surreal. Are you comfortable living in this time period, or are there things about this era that you’re ill at ease with?
I’m not living in another time. A lot of my clothes are modern, and I think about a lot of the modern things I do, such as updating my apps (laughs). I love so many things about modern technology. Although, I do have a huge collection of vintage clothing. There was a time in my life when I only wore vintage lingerie, I only drove my vintage car, I only wore clothes from the 1940s, but I’ve kind of evolved from that. The burlesque shows we produce are much different than a show you would have seen in the 1940s. We’re trying to capture the essence of those times, but the whole point is to evolve into something much different than it ever was; to evolve the history of burlesque. I never want anyone to think that I’m living in the past. You can look at the past and get inspiration from it, but it can end up being dusty and irrelevant if you don’t find ways to make it something that no one’s ever seen before. I do love to sit down with some of my favorite glamour girls of the past. I’m quite good friends with Mamie Van Doren who was a big 1950s bombshell and is still around to tell her stories. And I’m friends with Julie Newmar who, of course, was a great dancer and actress. I love to ask them about the past, and I love getting advice from them about the times we are living in and how to navigate being a glamour girl in modern times.
Image credit: Jesper Carlsen & Dimitri Scheblanov
Would you ever consider, at least temporarily, sacrificing your brand and your hourglass figure to become pregnant?
There are a few choices that I have made, like making a conscious decision not to have children, because I think it may be a good moment in time for some people to step away from that idea of feeling that it’s required. I think it’s a conscientious choice for modern times, because of overpopulation. Throughout my life, I always felt like I was going to quit [burlesque] and have a child because I always thought I wanted them. More recently I have given thought to the unsustainable population growth and global climate change. Do I think it’s fascinating when women tell me that the most important and wonderful job they’ll ever do is raising a child? Yes. Then I think, “Oh wow, that’s interesting. I guess I won’t know what that’s like.” This is such a personal thing to ask a woman about, because what if I couldn’t have children? That’s not the case, but it’s such a personal topic.
I thought it was a relevant topic to discuss because you’ve spent so much time and energy cultivating this look, this body, this image. I would imagine it would be a big emotional undertaking to forfeit that for a pregnancy…
One of the things that’s important to me is letting my fans watch me go through different stages of life. I think even if I had decided to have a child, or if I still decide to, it will be fun to navigate that. I just did an event where there were pregnant pinup girls, pinup girls with their little children all dressed up in 1940s clothes, walking them around. It’s not that much to do with losing my look or anything like that. There are so many other factors for me, like being in a relationship or not being in a relationship. Is this the right person to have a child with? I’m actually quite into fate. I try to control what I can, but I have always been about, “If it happens it happens.”
In your current show, Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe Tour you have another model on stage with you, Gia Genevieve. What inspired you to cast her in your show?
I had always wanted to have a blonde bombshell in the show. I had a hard time finding this kind of quintessential “Playboy” blonde. I met Gia a few times over the years and she always had this effervescence, and she was sexy and fun. I knew she wasn’t a dancer, but I wondered if I could teach her how to do my bubble bath act, simplify it and have her get her personality across on stage. She’s a lot of fun to watch and she’s the perfect example of, you don’t have to be dancing all over the place and doing backflips on stage to be wildly entertaining.
Tell me about your collaboration with Absolut Elyx for the Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe tour.
Being famous for bathing in a giant cocktail glass (laughs) I was open to a partnership with a cocktail company. I loved the ideas that Elyx had. They were just about beautiful, whimsical imagery that’s a tribute to what they do with their copper distillery. I was very familiar with their brand and loved the idea of making these tributes in the show to their imagery. I took a giant shell and dipped it in their signature copper. And I made a cocktail glass that’s a tribute to their style. We had a lot of fun creating the show and bringing it all together.
IMAGE CREDIT: JESPER CARLSEN & DIMITRI SCHEBLANOV
What other imagery on stage will reflect this tour’s name, The Copper Coupe?
With every tour, I’ve redone a version of my martini glass act. I have a six-piece set of gigantic glasses at this point. I could have a giant cocktail party! I’m always thinking, “How can I one up that number and make it fresh and new?” For this tour, one of the most exciting parts is the costume. I collaborated with my longtime creative partner, Catherine D’Lish, we put our heads together and came up with the most extravagant costume we’ve ever done, to date. A big part of making the show was this gown. I can’t tell because I’m wearing it on stage, but from what people are telling me it lights up the entire room.
I know you’re the Swarovski queen. I’m assuming everything is crystallized…
Everything is crystallized on this costume. We haven’t weighed it yet, but I keep asking to. It’s completely covered, and we’re using a new version of their aurora borealis stone. They’re cut like diamonds, and the effect is mind-boggling. People have been asking if my costume is electrified or plugged in. It’s really something to see under the lights.
You’ve been quoted as saying that burlesque is a new kind of feminism. How so?
It’s become that for a lot of women. The feminist movement must be respectful of other women’s ideals of what it is, and what it means. More than ever, we as women have to respect each other’s choices. Like I always say, and this is the truth, my audience is mainly female. My social media following is about 85% female. When I started in the 1990s I had a lot of male fans, and when I was a Playboy model I had a lot of male fans. It shifted in the early 2000s when I came out with a book and told my story about why I loved pinup, why I loved burlesque, and what it meant to me to have that to look to for my beauty icons. That resonated with a lot of people and I could feel that was when it all started to shift, when I exhibited my vulnerability about why I love this. I like to say that it’s an alternative feminist movement.
What do you say to the women who cry out that burlesque is objectification?
Something that could have, in the past, been considered degrading to women, I think that idea has been turned upside down when my audience is mainly female. They’re getting inspiration from this and feeling like they can harness their own sensual power in a different way and be in control of it. I would never say that striptease and burlesque should be for everyone. I have always loved things that walk that fine line, where one person looking at it thinks it’s inspiring and magical, and another person thinks it’s dirty and bad. It’s interesting to me the way people see things. I find things that are polarizing to be interesting.
Do you think femininity and feminism can peacefully co-exist in the #MeToo era? And have you found yourself in the crosshairs of a certain segment within this current feminist movement that doesn’t agree with your idea of feminism?
Yes. But for me, I have always understood feminism to be about having choices. I don’t see how you can put rules on that, especially now. Whatever you do, there’s always going to be someone who criticizes it. I think more than ever it’s about sticking close to people who share your beliefs. You try to understand other people’s point of view, but you don’t have to take it for your own or feel like someone is pointing a finger at you. We have to stop pointing fingers at other people.
You perform your show all over the world. What are the differences in how burlesque is received in the U.S. versus in other countries?
What’s interesting is that the striptease-style burlesque was invented in America, and it was thriving here in the 1930s and 1940s. That’s the funniest part about all of this. I had to go to France, England, Germany and Australia to get that big mainstream acceptance at first. I performed a lot in the UK during the early part of my career and I would do mainstream television shows over there. I could talk about what I was doing there, and I could go to France and do my show on television. They could show the pasties and the G-string, and it was fine with everyone.
In the U.S. there’s this strange sensibility where it’s okay to promote a film with a lot of violence, but it’s not okay to put overt sensuality into the mainstream.
It’s not just sensuality, but decisive sensuality. That’s one of the things people have a problem with. If I had made a sex tape and I said, “Oh, I’m sorry I did that,” it would be more acceptable. As compared to me deciding to present striptease and eroticism and do it in this way because it’s decisive. It’s not “accidental.” I often think of that. Am I inspiring other women to embrace their sensuality in a way that they’re not apologizing for, and is that what upsets people?
You brought burlesque to the forefront during a time when it wasn’t part of the mainstream pop culture vortex. What advice do you have for other creative pioneers?
I think I had it better in some ways back then. I feel lucky that I didn’t have the Internet to influence me when I started. I had to use my imagination. I didn’t have anyone to watch, except ladies from the past. There wasn’t YouTube. I had to really forge my own path and I’m grateful for that. I think one of the things getting in people’s way now is the feeling that everything has already been done, because they’re scrolling through Instagram. Or they’ll look through social media and just copy what other people are doing. They don’t have to rely on their imagination. I didn’t have others to measure myself up against. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be inspired by other people, and even if it appears that everything has been done before, there are ways of making it better or making it different.
The moral of the story is, there’s going to be some ridicule either way, so why not forge your own path?
For #oldheadshotday, I posted my early headshot on Instagram and someone commented, “But your [eye]brows don’t look good.” I was like, “Listen. I was nineteen years old and I didn’t have a four-hundred page book about retro glamour called Your Beauty Mark (Von Teese’s beauty how-to book/Dey Street Books) to look at yet! I had to make all the mistakes so that I could tell you all the short cuts.” There are always people who must come first and experiment and make those mistakes in order for other people to pick up that knowledge. I certainly did that with burlesque queens of the past, looking at their pictures and thinking about how I could do it in my own way.
For people who have yet to go see a burlesque show, what will the experience be like for them to attend one of your shows, on the Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe tour?
They will be very excited to see the diversity of my fellow cast members. You’re on a wild ride of beauty and glamour in its many shapes and forms, and it’s unexpected and inclusive. I think most people walk away thinking, “I’m a little bit like her. I can be like that, yeah!” My show is a warm and welcoming place, and it’s raucous; it’s wild! I’m really proud of the show as a whole, and people will experience the biggest burlesque show in history.
Dita Von Teese is currently touring throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. Purchase tickets to see Absolut Elyx Presents Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe at http://www.dita.net/shows/.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.