Dita being Dita: At home with burlesque queen Dita Von Teese
Thu, May 17, 2012 (midnight) by E.C. Gladstone
The tour kicked off with sold-out shows in LA earlier this month and arrives in Las Vegas for three nights at Mandalay Bay’s House of Blues, May 17-19, before moving on to Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.
Today though, opening night is still weeks away and barely a hair is out of place at Chateau Dita, a gorgeous country colonial in Los Angeles’ Laughlin Park. The small gated community pre-dated Beverly Hills as a star colony (famous residents have included Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Carole Lombard and Deanna Durbin), and it’s still a desirable address. In the driveway is a pristine 1954 Cadillac, and inside Dita’s home every room drips with the sort of details you’d find in an old MGM film: the tufted grey silk ceiling, an original Olivia pencil sketch and mirrored headboard in her bedroom, Chintz figurines in the foyer, hand-painted and velour-flocked wallpaper in the living and dining rooms, powder pink gas range, cuckoo clock and checkerboard tiling in the kitchen. Upstairs, two bedrooms have been converted into wondrous shoe and dress boutiques (“closets” wouldn’t do them justice). Except for a few semi-hidden modern aids—and despite the efforts of Aleister, the impish Devonshire Rex cat—the home is a perfectly executed working fantasy, framing a personality exacting in her identity.
Standing in the doorway of her bedroom closet in a plush robe and stocking feet, Dita Von Teese is a luminous presence, though smaller in person than I imagined. We’re discussing what she should wear for this photo shoot, which involves a glimpse into her private Southern California home.
I’m sure we trust your judgment, I tell her, which prompts the self-assured response above.
We live in an era when almost nothing is what it’s meant to be. Disgraced party girls become multi-millionaire “brands;” motorcycle companies sell baby clothes; the President “slow jams” and does stand-up comedy. So it’s disarmingly refreshing that Miss Dita Von Teese is 100 percent Miss Dita Von Teese.
Her métier is burlesque. Not acting. Not singing. Yes, she models, and she’s done nude pictorials for both Playboy and Penthouse, but it’s clearly secondary to the art of the tease. And if people don’t know what she actually does, that isn’t her fault. And if it is her fault, well, she’s about to change that.
Other than a mini-trampoline and portable ballet barre on the patio, there are virtually no signs that Dita is preparing for what could be a career-defining burlesque show. She describes Strip Strip Hooray as “the very best of modern burlesque—an hour-and-a-half-long, full-length revue that rivals any Vegas show. I’m putting four of my biggest production numbers into one show, which is something I haven’t been able to do before.”
“Perfectionist” is the word Dita chooses to describe herself, as she relaxes on her living room setee in a chenille robe. “When I go see a show, I look at all the details. When I watch a modern movie set in the ’30s or ’40s, I’m watching all the details …”
And yet, in an odd way, Dita does disappoint. Considering how iconic her self-made image has become, it’s almost upsetting how easily you connect with the woman. You want her to be more off-putting, to wear cat-eye sunglasses indoors, to smoke cigarettes in a baton-length filter (she doesn’t smoke, of course), to call you “dahling” as insincerely as possible.
Instead, you feel as if you could be best friends after just five minutes’ conversation.
“Honestly, a lightbulb went on at a certain point in my career that people like when they see the vulnerability, when they see the real me,” Dita says.
By the same token, she’s quick to explain that the persona onstage is the real Dita, that this picture-perfect home is a fairly recent evolution, and that she was just as put-together (you’ll never see her at 7-Eleven in sweats) when she lived in a 750-square-foot apartment.
How the former Heather Sweet came to remake herself as the dark burlesque queen is a story that’s still a bit murky. She recalls appreciating vintage design as a small-town Michigan girl and seeing stripteasing women in her father’s Playboys. She worked in a lingerie shop at age 15, later studying classic costume design after the family moved to Southern California. But how she took those inspirations to the heights she has is nothing short of a testament of personal will.
“I thought, ‘I can either sit here and be ordinary, and be sad about it, or I can try to do something about it,’” she says, matter-of-factly. “I felt really ordinary looking—and I am, too. It’s true. I have gone out into the world blonde with no makeup on, and I know how I got treated differently.”
She initially stripped in typical gentlemen’s clubs, always wearing corsets, opera gloves and the like. Around the same time, in the mid-’90s, the Velvet Hammer in LA and other clubs encouraged women to rediscover burlesque and rewrite it by post-punk rules. Dita stayed on her own path professionally but formed friendships with performers like Catherine D’Lish, who’s become her longtime creative collaborator. Later she had a phase working in the underground fetish and S&M world, an element she’s finally incorporated into her burlesque performance. “I’m so excited about that,” she coos, referencing the inspiration of vintage iconographer John Willie.
Dita is much better known in Europe, where she is the face of Cointreau liqueur, is launching her second fragrance and is a regular at Paris fashion shows. (She also endorses private-label hosiery and nail tips and recently launched a lingerie line at Target Australia that she says will be sold here eventually.) And despite her love of a golden-era aesthetic, she’s no luddite: Earlier this month, London’s Design Museum announced the centerpiece of a Louboutin retrospective exhibit would be nothing less than a holographic performance by Dita.
“I believe in showmanship, and showing people something they’ve never seen before,” she says. “The last 10 years of my career and at least a million dollars of my own money is in those four numbers. The gowns are $50,000, the props, the music … ”
Dita’s friend Christian was kind enough to make all of the footwear, including a particularly remarkable pair of “up to there” boots. Other than that, the designs belong to Dita.
Strip Strip Hooray will eventually tour most major cities in the U.S., but it’s obvious that Las Vegas is a special stop—and not only because her grandmother is planning to attend. Though Dita is a bit ambivalent about modern Vegas, she believes strongly in its place as the capital city of burlesque and the “showgirl revue,” both truly American art forms, she proudly emphasizes.
She’s an unabashed fan of Donn Arden’s Jubilee! at Bally’s. “I love that show, all the girls in feathers and rhinestones. It’s extravagant,” she says, adding that she just sent Mr. Gaultier to see it and he concurred. Dita was also the first guest performer to join the cast of Crazy Horse Paris at MGM Grand, where she’s taken the stage twice with the classic adult revue.
Today, she sits on the advisory board of the Las Vegas-based Burlesque Hall of Fame, and her mainstream acceptance thus far has proven an inspiration to the burlesque revival movement that has grown beyond any predictions. (The BHOF’s annual weekend follows Dita’s stint from May 31-June 3 at the Orleans).
Dita agrees with and endorses the notion that the strongest characteristic of modern burlesque is self-determination. “Even when I started it was still exploitative,” she recalls. Now, dancers design their own costumes, create their own choreography and mold their own stage personas, doing it more for self-expression than profit. Burlesque performers don’t make the kind of money that typical club strippers can, and at least at her shows, Dita notes, “more than half” of the fans are female.
In the U.S., many of Dita’s performances have been private affairs, counting among her audiences the late Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna and, at his 70th birthday party, Francis Ford Coppola, alongside guest George Lucas.
Nearing 40, she’s still remarkably youthful (she could easily pass for 28), a testament to the powers of sun-avoidance and pilates. And while Dita certainly doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, she’s conscious that “maturity” looms. So she’s looking forward to a “second act” that may include her own theater, built to the exacting needs of burlesque performance, and presenting other performers as much as performing herself, following the model of her icon Gypsy Rose Lee.
Could that theater be in Las Vegas? Dita winces at the thought of living full time in the desert, but it’s a natural fit. Her own “wildest night in Vegas” underscores that there is still an edge to the seductress—one she holds dear. It was “a night I took acid, in the early ’90s,” she recalls, laughing. “And that was still the old Vegas. I had the real Hunter S. Thompson experience.”
What’s evident is the pride that Dita takes in paying for productions herself, that idea that self-determination is paramount, the importance of creative control. This is not a woman who would tailor her artistic vision to the whims of a casino entertainment director.
And so far, she hasn’t had to.
With a Cheshire Cat grin, she clutches the lapels of her robe and says, “I like to see how much I can get away with.” More, it would seem, than anyone realizes.