DITA VON TEESE • SIMPLY DITA
Dita Von Teese Interviewed By Emma Page
Mention burlesque in the modern era and one name immediately springs to mind. Full of grace and poise she has been at the forefront of bringing an old art to a new generation. Celebrities such as Cameron Diaz, Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera have all followed in her footsteps but she is still the undisputed Queen in this revival.
Her beauty, intelligence and acute head for business assures her as more than an icon and her fanbase includes a smitten Hugh Hefner on whose pages she has graced many a time.
Her fame has brought her accolade and negativity, but most of that comes from people who do not 'approve' of her relationship with rock star Marilyn Manson. Her answer is their recent declaration of love by announcing their engagement.
She is approachable to her fans, unabashed in her interviews, and although having been described as the woman "you may not admit in front of your wife or mother that you know", she has just as large a female following as male. Ladies who want to be her, ladies who wish to be like her, and those who simply admire her for the person she is.
All this from a woman whose career began as a Bettie Page lookalike, another icon revered for her beauty and intelligence.
Meine Damen und Herren, Mesdames et Messieurs, Signore e Signori, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to introduce to you, Dita Von Teese.
It has been widely reported that Mr Manson took quite a traditional approach when proposing marriage - down on bended knee - are there any other traditions that he partook in, such as asking for your family's hand in marriage beforehand?
"It wasn't exactly 'traditional' as reported... an interviewer asked if he had gotten down on bended knee, and I replied yes, because he did kneel in front of me where I was sitting. We didn't want to report the details, so they called it a traditional proposal."
You exercise tight control over your work, deciding on photographers and how your image is marketed, especially via your website. How hard has it been to maintain that control, in what is still a male dominated world, and what kind of opposition have you faced from people who have wished to challenge your role?
"I have complete control over everything I do, I always have. I began doing this in 1991 at a time when there were very few who believed that my style was 'marketable' in the glamour and erotic realm, so it has always been up to me to make something of it. Many photographers and magazine editors were suggesting that I go back to my original blonde hair color to fit in with what was the norm, and to not look so 'harsh' in order to succeed as a model.
For me it's always been about capturing the spirit of the images I had seen in pinup art and cheesecake magazines from the 1940's and French postcards from the 1930s, and nudity and sensuality plays a part in these things I admire. At the time, there wasn't anyone trying to bring back nostalgic pinup, so I saw the opportunity to do something I've always loved while carving out my own niche in both fetish and erotic photography. I also felt that there were other ways of depicting fetishistic elements rather than the usual stuff I was seeing in magazines like Skin Two and the now defunct <> magazine, so my incentive back then was to bring some elegance and sophistication back into to the fetish world.
Presently, I do have a manager, but she knows what she got into, and knows that there is no point in trying to make me change in order to go into the mainstream. I don't have this burning desire to be 'taken seriously as an actress' like it seems every girl that poses for Playboy instantly seems to want. I enjoy having this kind of outlet for my ideas and living the dream I've had since I was little of being a Hollywood showgirl like the ones I was enamored with in films from the 1940s."
You have quite an open relationship with your fans, especially those who are members of your site (www.dita.net) and also those who are not. What has been the most awkward question received from a fan and have there ever been times when you have felt a need to step back from those more "passionate"?
"I started my website around 1993, and I used to answer every single email I got. I can't really do this anymore, because I don't want to live my life online. I found myself spending six hours a day on it. I chat with members of my site on my own message board and in the chat room. The emails I get are usually very interesting to read, I often hear from fetishists that tell me about their lives, and I find it interesting to hear about why they do what they do...
For instance, someone recently emailed me about their fur fetish and their desire to pretend that they are actually the fur that gets to spend the day with the woman wearing it. I get lots of email from women who want to know what shade my lipstick is in a certain photo, or where they can buy the same corset or shoes. I rarely get the kind of email you might expect. I don't get as many raunchy emails that describe lurid details of encounters with my photos as often as one would imagine. And when I do, a simple 'Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the site' is the reply I give. I have seen some really interesting amateur porn though..."
How do you react to the more negative comments on message boards and websites?
"I don't read message boards aside from the one I have at my own site. I have been on the internet since the very start of it, and I have seen the way things have evolved and some people "hide" behind the anonymity of the net. Everyone has the right to have an opinion about who he or she feels is talented and who is not, and does it really need to be said yet again that beauty is in the eye of the beholder?"
On the 30th April you showcase your new show My Heart Belongs To Daddy. What influenced the title and how will it stand out from your previous performances?
"Unfortunately, I had to push the date forward on it, some of the work on the prop was not finished in time, and it is always important to me that it's not just thrown together after all the thought, time and money spent getting it ready. It's an eight-foot tall vertical red sparkling wrought iron heart that I can dance inside of, and it spins onstage. I found this vintage record with a sleazy, brassy big band version of the song My Heart Belongs To Daddy, and so I had this idea to dance inside a big sparkling red heart that lights up. It's over eight feet tall, and will rotate onstage as well. The finale is a fluttering of red heart shaped confetti.
I also have another new act in the works where I come out of a giant jeweled powder compact. These shows aren't meant to be deep and artful, just amusing and entertaining!"
You have been very busy this year with the Playboy 50th Anniversary Tour. How much of an honour was it to be asked to perform and how did you first become part of the Playboy 'family'?
"Hugh Hefner enjoyed coming to my burlesque shows, and a few months later, I was offered a pictorial and that turned into the cover. Aside from the big legendary parties, they do many benefits and corporate events there, so I am asked to perform often. I have been a fan of Playboy since I used to sneak peeks at it as a little girl, so having the association with Playboy is a great privilege for me. In the mid eighties, I had stolen an issue from my father that had a girl on the cover with a sleek jet-black bob, and my obsession with that image is what made me dye my own blonde hair black in 1991. She is a striking Finnish girl with alabaster skin, and it was just a close up of her face and black gloved hands, and it is still the most striking cover I have ever seen. No one at Playboy seems to know what ever happened to this girl. When I shot my cover, they handed me the very same pair of gloves to wear, but they were too big for me. I think she was over six feet tall!"
Your book The Art Of Burlesque is being released later this year. How did the idea come about? Did you ever encounter writer's block? And what will make it stand out from other publications on Burlesque?
"This book will be a lot different from the others because I did a lot of research on the darker side of burlesque. It has a history that I feel some neo-burlesque dancers fail to mention or don't know about because they're so wrapped up in the 'art' of it all and forget that it had quite a racy past! Aside from a few of the big stars that went beyond the burlesque theatres and into the mainstream like Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand, most dancers were considered fallen women. The book goes through the history and parallels my own experiences. It's a full color photo book, and has two sides, one that is all retro pinup and burlesque and the other being all classic fetish. As far as writer's block goes, I have been collecting vintage books and magazines for over 12 years, so it was easy to find interesting facts about burlesque and write about the ways things have and haven't changed, and to liken them to my own experiences.
I also have a retro style pinup cookbook coming out with Harper Collins early next year. I love to cook and entertain, so they came up with this idea as a novelty book that will be full of elegant yet simple recipes and ways to seduce with food."
Over the past four years you have become more of a household name. Does this put more pressure on you as a performer/artiste and are there ever times that you wish you could return to the more underground scene?
"I certainly would not say that I am a household name, but it's very kind of you to say so. I don't think that there is anyone who has found success who would say they longed for the days when they weren't paid and had to sleep on the floor in order to perform a show! I spent the past twelve years trying to be recognized for what I do, and in that time, I paid my dues. I did burlesque in seedy strip dives, little clubs, and without pay for the exposure. Now I have the opportunity to see the world without being reliant on another job, and there isn't one single day that I'm not grateful for having this chance.
It was also difficult in the beginning trying to convince fetish event promoters that there is a connection between fetish and burlesque. I remember doing a show in 1999 in London at a big fetish party, and there were some people criticizing it for not being 'fetish'. Now five years later, every fetish night now features some kind of burlesque performance, and every fetish model has a burlesque themed act. I do have more pressure, after Playboy came out, I read the text and they made me sound like some sort of erotic superhero... suddenly I'm performing at these high profile events and the pressure is there to be all of that. I read that article, and almost instantly went into the studio to rehearse."
Have you ever considered setting up or becoming a teacher to those who wish to become part of the Burlesque movement, and where do you see yourself in twenty-thirty years time when performing may no longer be possible?
"I will be more than happy to pass it on; I hope I'll find someone who's just right... I think it will be far sooner than 30 years from now, but I thank you for yet another kind compliment!
I am not sure what I could do to teach, I feel that what makes someone sexy is not any one thing, but knowing what your best points are and learning to use them to your advantage."
If you had never taken up the line of work you are in, if you had never become Dita Von Teese, what would you like to be doing?
"I was in college to learn about historic costuming for films, which is how I became so infatuated with antique and vintage clothing. I suppose that I would have done that, or opened my own store, which I still may do someday. When I was in high school, my first real job was working in an upscale lingerie shop, and I always loved it, so I've often thought of having my own boutique."
I read in one interview that your image has been painted on the side of aeroplanes in Iraq. Without getting into the politics, how does it feel to have this accolade? I expect it must be an honour reminiscent of pin ups of the 1940s - an era oft linked with yourself.
"Politics aside, it follows in the tradition of pinup art history."
Having 'connections' to the rock industry, do you receive many requests to be in bands' music videos and have you ever experienced a conflict of interest - i.e. a band asking to work with you, but with your relationship felt loyalty forbade it?
"I get requests all the time and I have done many in the past... but now, Manson straight up forbids it, and I like it when he exercises his right to tell me what to do! In all honesty, the video treatments that are sent to me are usually ridiculous and tasteless, and I wouldn't do them anyway. No one else has the exquisite taste in making videos that he does, there is no denying that he's way ahead of his time.
We do have a good time reading the video treatments, and then seeing the final product, which usually has a girl in a black wig for the part that was written for me."
What is the strangest venue you have ever performed in?
"I could make a list, believe me. The strangest one was about two years ago, I got asked to do this 80th birthday party out at one of the biggest estates I've ever seen. It was a family party, and it was in this enormous ballroom in the house... there I was, with an audience of about 200 people of all ages... from about a dozen 10 year old boys - sitting front and center - to a slew of senior citizens, and they were all family and close friends. It was very odd, but fantastic at the same time. I have an upcoming event in Ibiza at an electronica festival, so that just may be up there on the list of interesting experiences."
What is the strangest tribute a fan has ever made towards/for you?
"It's hard for me to say what is 'strange', for I don't find too many things shocking, I find them intriguing. There are a couple of fans that send me the most beautiful rare vintage stockings in exchange for my worn ones.
I am also always amazed at the number of tattoos fans of have of me, big ones too! It's not that it's strange, it's just such a high compliment.
For the most part I have very nice fans that send me beautiful tributes of art, books, vintage collectables and photos of themselves."
You performed in your own film series, Dita In Distress. Are there any more plans in the future for such movies?
"I get emails constantly about continuing this series... it's based on the whole idea of the classic 'damsel in distress' sexploitation films. My plane crashes in the jungle and Amazon women almost sacrifice me, then I am captured by cannibals and put in a pot, and finally, a mad scientist tries to switch my brain with a gorilla's. It has all the elements of a 30s Sci-Fi B-Movie, plus the bondage scenarios fetishists love.
I get requests from people that want to see more episodes with me tied to the old sawmill or train tracks... classic cliffhangers. I had the best time making the four episodes that are out now, it is a silent film, so overacting is a plus and any excuse to overact in the right situation is good."
If a movie were to be made of your life who would you like to see play you?
"Living or dead? Isabelle Adjani is my favorite living actress, but I wouldn't dare say that she looks like me. She is the ultimate pale-skinned French beauty, and more importantly, she's not afraid to show her body! I discovered her great beauty and acting in the film Queen Margot."
In your early career how hard was it to get across to people that you were not a modern day stripper? Also how do you deal with hecklers that may cry 'Get it off'?
"The phrase, 'Take it off!' has been hollered unabashedly since back in the 1930s in the burlesque theatres, so why would I ever be offended myself? Heckling is an important part of burlesque history! I don't take myself and what I do that seriously, and I really don't like to put myself 'above' all other strippers just because what I do is from another era and lacks a brass pole. I've never bothered trying to defend what I do. They created a fancy term for Gypsy Rose Lee, who was the most famous burlesque dancer in history. The term was 'ecdysiast', but Gypsy hated it. If the term 'stripper' is good enough for her, you can bet its good enough for me!"
You have overwhelming support from Mr. Manson for your career. Have you always received this from those closest to you, and how did your family first react to your choice of career?
"I am very lucky to have a man who genuinely appreciates what I do, for I have certainly not always had that kind of support from other men I have been with. He is always there to give me the best direction and advice, and there is no one I trust more. My family has always been supportive of me... I don't do anything in my shows that I wouldn't do in front of my mother, and she has been to many of my shows and has seen many of my photos. My family always trusted me to have good judgment, and never tried to control me."
How, if at all, do your British fans differ from your American fan base? We British are often thought of as prudish - do you concur in your experience?
"My first shows in London were at The Rubber Ball, Torture Garden and The Erotica shows back in 1999. I was doing a classic feather fans dance and striptease, and the other fetish performers were out there lighting themselves on fire and so on. One girl put a flame out with her crotch!
They had city officials come down to approve the shows, and all was fine, the girls could all be as naked and raunchy as can be, but they said that it was not legal for me to striptease. Not even a glove. It seems that there was an outdated law still intact that stated that a woman could not remove her clothing in a seductive manner in public, so I had to go behind a screen to take off each article of clothing and reappear with it gone. I had to do about 15 shows like this, and all the while there were girls humping poles buck naked.
Now, burlesque is all the rage, even in London, so it must have been straightened out.
I do many of shows in London for the fashion and celebrity scene there, and it seems to me from the way they love to describe how 'outlandish and titillating' my performances are in the newspapers, they have some sort of love/hate thing with nudity and sex there. I don't even show more than what a girl would wear on the beach, so this tells me that the very idea of taking one's clothes off must be more controversial than the actual nudity."
After the Janet Jackson 'event' have you had any difficulties or restraining requests from TV execs on whose shows you have performed? And how do you react to those who may say that instead of becoming more open minded and accepting, society is going in quite the opposite direction?
"I personally have not been too affected by this yet. I have so many different ways I can do the show with varying degrees of undress, but I always prefer to stay true to the way it was actually performed back then, which always ended with the dancer in sparkling pasties and a G-string. Occasionally I do a conservative event so I wear a flesh-toned brassiere and a full brief covered with rhinestones, but still, there is the illusion of nudity, and that seems to be what gets them riled up in any case!
It is frightening the way the county reacted to that incident, but I do feel that a performer should know their audience, and they should have known better than to do something like that for a family show. It wasn't an accident. I've seen enough fetish outfits with snaps around the boobs to know why they put them there!"