‘I just an old-fashioned, shy girl,’ says burlesque queen Dita Von Teese, whose signature act is stripping and bathing in a giant Martini glass
By LINA DAS – 17th April 2008
While our television schedules groan under the weight of reality TV shows and where a virtue has been made out of ordinary people doing ordinary things, there is at least one woman who has bucked the trend.
Dita Von Teese, whose retro chic brings to mind the old school glamour of stars such as Ava Gardner and Betty Grable, has ditched mundanity and with the aid of corsetry and a little help from the hair dye bottle has turned herself into a living doll.
She is widely credited as single-handedly reviving the dying art of burlesque.
Just five years ago few would have recognised a feather dance if it had got up and tickled them.
Now Dita has performed for everyone from the royal jeweller, Garrard, to the cast of the film Ocean’s Thirteen.
She blushes at the acclaim, but admits it is, “wonderful to hear because I’ve been performing it since the early Nineties – way, way before it became hip and cool. I just did it because I loved it”.
As she wafts into the Magnolia restaurant on LA’s Sunset Boulevard, it is evident she is in off-duty mode – though in Dita’s case, “off-duty” is a relative thing.
In a black dress, flat shoes and with her jet black hair teased around an immaculately made-up face, Dita so resembles a porcelain doll that I’m tempted to suggest a table inside to protect her from the harmful rays of the sun.
“I know the picture the paparazzi want is me coming out of Starbucks in jeans with my hair all messy, but that’s just not going to happen,” she laughs.
“I just think that when you take a minute to look your best, you get what you want. And,” she adds, “I pretty much get what I want.”
Looking at her now, exuding Forties glamour, that’s not too hard to believe.
While her stage dances can be risque, in person she is softly spoken and, dare one say it, shy.
But that she is a beguiling mix of contradictions is unquestionable.
Born Heather Sweet 35 years ago in smalltown America, she has transformed herself from a pretty yet unremarkable blonde into a sultry brunette with va-va-voom curves by sheer determination, a boob job and corsetry.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of transformation I’d look at pictures of Rita Hayworth and be captivated.
“I was always shy as a young girl, but wearing my hair and doing my make-up a certain way transformed me and it became a hobby to turn myself into a cartoon character.”
Though her body may be her fortune, it was her business brain that transformed her from underground star to worldwide phenomenon.
Burlesque – a popular form of entertainment in the Twenties and Forties – had all but disappeared until Dita’s skill updated the style for the modern audience.
Her elaborate routines which feature her riding crystal horses or dancing with strategically placed pink feathers cost anything up to $20,000 to stage, and so famous have they become that her fabled act gyrating inside a giant martini glass was emulated by Cameron Diaz in Charlie’s Angels.
Dita has performed at parties for the likes of Jade Jagger and the Marquess of Bath’s son Ceawlin, modelled for Jean Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs, and is the new face of Wonderbra.
Three years ago she wed shock rocker Marilyn Manson – a union that lasted a year.
With their matching black locks and lipsticks, they were to celebrity what Posh and Becks might have been had they gone over to the dark side.
Dita came to prominence in the UK five years ago when Jade Jagger, having spotted her dancing in one of Manson’s videos, invited her to perform at the relaunch party for Garrard, the royal jeweller, and from that moment her fame has soared.
She earned more than $2million last year, “but that’s not to say it’s been champagne all the way”, she adds.
“It hasn’t been easy. In 1993 I was working in a bar full of truckers – and I must have looked like an alien to them.”
Raised in Michigan, Heather Sweet was the middle of three daughters.
She had grown up entranced by the glamour of old Hollywood: “I loved the costumes, the stockings, the girdles.”
By the time she was 15, Heather went to school in stockings and suspender belts – a factor that must have made her popular with the boys.
“Actually, it didn’t,” she laughs.
“I was quite a grown-up girl and I had one best friend and a boyfriend, so we were the mysterious ones at school without ever really being picked on.”
By now, the family had moved to California, although her parents, Ken, a machinist, and Bonnie, a manicurist, separated while she was in her teens.
“I lived with my mum and then with my dad, although we didn’t see eye to eye. I was working in a lingerie store, I had a boyfriend and I was independent and my dad didn’t really get that. He threw me out when I was 16.”
Soon, Heather’s blonde hair was snipped and dyed black, as she set about recreating herself in the image she wanted to be.
She wore a corset for ten hours every day for ten years until she was able to get her waist down to an eye-popping 17 inches and worked as a model and exotic dancer.
By 2002, though, her time had finally arrived.
She was invited to dance with The Pussycat Dolls, who started off as a burlesque dance troupe, alongside celebrity guest stars Charlize Theron, Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera.
In corset and stockings, her waspish waist and retro make-up heralded a return to old-fashioned pin-up glamour.
Heather Sweet was banished for ever and in her place stood Dita Von Teese.
Dita’s 2005 wedding to Manson, (real name Brian Warner), covered by American Vogue, appeared therefore to be the cherry on the cake and so it came as a shock when they divorced after just a year.
They had seemed the picture of alternative bliss (Manson would paint his wife and write her poetry), but having been together six years Dita filed for divorce, proclaiming herself “happy to have the drugs out of my life”.
Dita now appears to be pretty happy playing the proverbial field.
She insists: “I’m on the market! I’m having fun being single and for probably the first time in my life I don’t have a boyfriend.
“I truly feel the world is my oyster. I’d spent a lot of years with a man who was a hermit and that was frustrating as in some ways I was more alone while in the relationship.”
She says: “I want children only if I’m with the right partner, and I’m not desperate to have a child. I enjoy my life and I enjoy having my friends’ children around. Not having my own doesn’t make me any less of a woman.”
One can’t help admiring a woman who’s pulled herself up by her corset straps and come from nowhere to become a walking, talking brand.
Her current incarnation as the face of Wonderbra is a dream come true, “I’ve always wanted to do something with lingerie and it was important for the finished product to be something I would wear myself.”
She has her detractors, of course; she does, after all, remove most of her clothes on stage, “and a lot of people think that what I do is anti-feminist”, she admits.
“But most of my fans are women and my whole thing has been about finding sexual power rather than abusing it.”
She still claims to be shy, “and that always confuses people because they say, well, how can you be shy and still be up on stage doing the kind of dances you do? But most performers are shy and I still go to parties and feel nervous talking to people”.
At 35, she must wonder how long she can carry on burlesquing.
“If you’d asked me at 20, I just wouldn’t have comprehended the fact that I’d still be doing it at 35. But I’m in better shape and better at what I do now, so I’m just going to evolve appropriately rather than say a time when I should stop.”
With that, she heads off to do her “many errands”.
If she’s off to the shops, one hopes that a comfy tracksuit and trainers will never find their place on her shopping list.