Raven-haired burlesque beauty Dita Von Teese (born a natural blonde 41 years ago as Heather Renee Sweet) knows a thing or 36D about lingerie. Known from Paris to Pasadena for tastefully taking off her dainties, Von Teese has led the full-blown revival of striptease that continues to gather audiences seeking seduction over sex.
“I’m very surprised at the growing popularity of burlesque,” purrs the polished Von Teese, sitting on a Victorian settee at Dark Garden, the Hayes Valley custom corsetiere where many of her costumes are made. “When I began performing in 1991, I definitely did not think it would become a worldwide phenomenon. And I would never have dreamed I’d still be doing it.”
Von Teese is in town to promote her new Von Follies line of lacy lingerie, which will be carried at Dark Garden. This is the first time the collection will be sold in America, a continuation of her successful line of vintage-inspired bras, garter belts and panties that launched in Australian department stores in 2012.
“I had a lot to prove,” she says. “It was very important to have creative control over every aspect of the design. I’ve been observing the worlds of fetish gear and retro styles for years. I’ve designed the pieces I’ve always wished I could find.”
Von Teese is an avid collector – and enthusiastic wearer – of undergarments and clothing from the ’20s to the ’60s; she also drew inspiration from the trove of vintage lingerie catalogs she seeks out in her travels. She is particularly proud of the “inclusive” price points and the wide range of sizes in the Von Follies line.
“We go up to a G cup, which takes quite a bit of engineering,” she says. Her experience draws upon her years as a lingerie store salesclerk from ages 15 to 22. “That’s what sparked my interest in pin-ups, which began my career. I see what women want to wear, and what makes them feel good about themselves.”
Although a relative newcomer to retail sales, Von Teese has had extensive involvement with fashion design. She studied historical fashion in college, and conceives the sets and costumes of her many performance tableaux, which have included an en pointe ballerina set inside a life-size music box, a Shanghai-inspired opium mistress, and a rootin’-tootin’ pink cowgirl on a bucking satin mechanical bull.
“Autumn Adamme of Dark Garden and Catherine D’lish made that amazing outfit covered in thousands of pink Swarovski crystals,” Von Teese says, which was most recently seen in San Francisco at a private party celebrating the opening of the de Young Museum’s Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective in 2012.
Over the years Gaultier has designed many one-of-a-kind ensembles for Von Teese to wear down the runway. “Jean-Paul and Mr. Pearl (his corset maker) have taught me so much about haute couture,” she sighs. “It’s a rarefied world for the lucky few. How many people can fly off for 12 fittings in Paris?”
Q: You recently were the muse and model for the world’s first 3-D printed dress, which was made of interlocking carbon fiber embedded with Swarovski crystals. Did it feel different than some of your fittings with Jean Paul Gaultier or Vivienne Westwood?
A: It’s totally different. I have respect for both kinds of creation, but they are not the same thing. Everything in haute couture is hand sewn. People provide the labor. Real haute couture is something that costs a fortune, but it is because it contains hundreds of hours of expert work. It is fashion as art.
Q: Do you have any favorite up-and-coming designers?
A: I admit I’m out of touch with what is trending now, or cool. I wear vintage and clothes created by people whom I know and like. I’ve had the same aesthetic for years. If I can’t find it, I have something made.
Q: You are known for your impeccable grooming. What advice would you give a woman who only has 10 minutes to get ready to leave the house?
A: I’m actually really fast at getting ready because I’ve figured out what works for me. I put my hair in a chignon, add a swipe of face powder and dark red lipstick. Then I put on sunglasses and I’m off. My advice is to choose one signature thing that makes you feel polished. Then get really good at doing that!
Q: Would you ever want to teach burlesque?
A: That’s hard. There are so many things that I want to do. I would like to help women discover their inner burlesque star. But that doesn’t mean their femininity has to translate to a striptease. It’s about having them embrace the spirit of burlesque into their life. It doesn’t have to be onstage. People don’t need to learn to undo a garter. They have to appreciate what makes them different and special. That’s what makes them sexy.
Q: What is your idea of a perfect day?
A: When I feel I’ve accomplished something. Or sometimes when I’ve done nothing, but I’m in love and not looking at the clock.
She may be the Queen of Burlesque, but Dita Von Teese still has her shy moments – just not when she’s shopping naked Words: FRANKIE MULLIN
The dominatrix name, unnervingly polished look and fact that she’s a star of fetish porn leads me to expect a certain hardness from Dita Von Teese. She’s made her living as the pin-up girl of new burlesque; a raven-haired, ghostly faced strip artist whose martini glass routines took the movement to new levels of creativity. I’m braced for someone brash; the Dita I meet is anything but.
Softly spoken and reserved, it’s hard to reconcile this demure but glamorous woman who tells me she’s “really shy” her raunchy vixen image.
Von Teese is tiny, a doll-like figure in her satin frock, making other women in the room look as though they lumbered in from Brobdingnag. She’s the most immaculate human being I have ever met. From her all-masking make-up to the chip-less manicured nails and shiny coiffed hair, it’s like looking at a painting.
So does she always keep it up, this gloss? Surely she must bowl around in a baggy jumper sometimes, I ask hopefully.
“I’m highly motivated by the fact that I don’t want to be recognised looking terrible and paparazzi come out when you least expect it,“ Von Teese says.
“I have a trick. I always wear red lipstick and sunglasses and put my hair back in a chignon, but underneath I have no make-up on. And, sometimes, under my coat I have nothing on.
“I’m notorious for going to the grocery store with nothing on under my coat, because I just don’t feel like choosing a dress. It’s too much trouble, I’ll just go naked under here.”
Popping to the corner shop naked? That’s more in keeping with my image of Von Teese. This is, after all, the girl who began a career – under her birth name Heather Renée Sweet – working in the strip bars of Orange County, US.
“I was performing in seedy strip bars for six people,“ she recalls. “I remember being in a small town called Fon Du Lac, Wisconsin, where I had an ad in the newspaper and I thought that was it. I was like, ’this is the height of my fame. This is my 15 minutes!’“
Von Teese was born in Rochester, Michigan, the daughter of a manicurist and a machinist. It was her mother who fostered her love of retro style and 1940s glamour. As a teenager, Von Teese says she didn’t get too involved in school activities.
“I just kind of minded my own business, worked in the lingerie store, hung out with my best friend and my boyfriend,” she explains.
Many celebrities claim they were ugly ducklings as teenagers. Not Von Teese. “Me and my girlfriend weren’t ‘popular’, but we were pretty cool and hot,” she says.
This contrast between personal reticence and sexual confidence is the crux of Von Teese’s allure.
She sits primly on her chair, talking in a soft voice; the model of gentle femininity. It almost feels wrong to question her about anything risqué and, in the event, I can’t bring myself to ask about the hardcore fetish videos she made in her 20s. But her shyness does not extend to the realm of her sexual power; about this she is supremely confident.
Von Teese’s performances are showcases of the female body; in this case, one that is damn near perfect. At 39, Von Teese is as firm-buttocked and perky-breasted as she was a decade ago, and her commanding, sexually charged stage persona seems at odds with the woman I sit talking to.
It’s a contradiction Von Teese acknowledges.
“I’m not shy about what I do for a living, making my show, and going on stage,” she says. “I created all of the rules for what I do. But I feel shy when I’m asked questions I don’t know how to answer. I feel shy that I’m speaking in my funny American accent that some people make fun of. I realise I built up an image, but I don’t have any interest in changing my persona.”
She even claims to be bashful around men, however unlikely that may seem. “I’m not very aggressive when I see a guy I like. I’m still the girl that gets really nervous. I don’t have a plan on how to seduce someone that I don’t know,“ she says.
I wonder if being Dita Von Teese, the rightly crowned Queen of Burlesque, is a huge pressure to live up to. Do men expect her to stay in femme fatale mode 24/7?
How exhausting. Does she ever, I ask, just want to have boring sex and wear her manky period pants.
“When I’m with somebody who really cares about me they like seeing both sides of me,” she says.
“It’s funny because when you wear garter belts and stockings every day, it becomes old hat for men and then they’re just excited to see those manky period pants you were talking about!”
The image of Von Teese in baggy, greying underwear is not one I can conjure, but I’m grateful to her for making me feel better. Von Teese lives usually between her homes in LA and Paris. She is in London promoting the exclusive Piccadilly speakeasy she has co-designed, Cointreau Privé.
“It’s a really luxurious bar where you can have dinner or a cocktail. I’ve chosen everything on the menu,“ she says. “It’s a really sexy place.“ The speakeasy is decorated by select objects from Von Teese’s LA home, a place she describes as being like a dolls-house, but with “good lighting“.
Cointreau Privé is one of many sideline projects she works on: Von Teese also writes books, designs lingerie and dresses, just launched her first fragrance and has campaigned for AIDS awareness. She has been the global ambassador and face of Cointreau since 2007.
But Von Teese’s heart belongs to burlesque and watching her perform – behind fans, feathered, nipple-tasseled, sometimes galloping atop a fairground horse, once naked save for £3million of diamonds – it’s hard not to be impressed by the artistry of it all.
But is it really so different from straightforward, sliding-around-a-pole stripping? Burlesque has become a socially accepted stalwart of middle class nights out, while strip clubs are largely seen as seedy and morally questionable.
Crazy, agrees Von Teese, who says she always tells people she’s a stripper when they ask her what she does. “If you were sitting here with Gypsy Rose Lee in the 30s and you asked her what the difference between stripping and burlesque was, she would be completely baffled.
’Stripping’ wasn’t a bad word back then. The trick is, can you change people’s minds about what it is to be a stripper?“
Watch Dita talk about shyness, naked shopping and ‘manky pants’ here.
Dita Von Teese launches the Cointreau Privé, London’s most exclusive speakeasy, open for a limited three-week period from November 30. Visit www.cointreauprive.co.uk
Tina Turnbow is a professional makeup artist, who is known for lending her celebrity clients editorial polish.
This past Cinco De Mayo, I enjoyed sipping a new signature cocktail from Cointreau with the brand’s beautiful spokesperson, Dita Von Teese. The cocktail, which was called the MargaDita, was as well put together as the lady herself. Between sips, we discussed the power of sunglasses, damp skin and her opium-den requirements.
TT: If pressed for time when doing your makeup, what are your bare essentials?
DVT: Flawless skin is the most important thing, then red lips. In exactly that order. Red lips don’t look good on blotchy, uneven skin. I use Dior Capture Totale Foundation, and a dusting of Mineralize Powder by MAC. Dior Dolce Vita is my favorite red lipstick. When in a rush, I tie my hair back and throw on a great pair of sunglasses…and voila! Don’t underestimate the cosmetic power of sunglasses. It’s worth spending a bit of money on a quality pair. I usually go for Dior or Louis Vuitton.
TT: I can tell that underneath the foundation and powder you have lovely skin. How do you care for it?
DVT: I have really sensitive skin, and a few allergies, so I stay on it. I recently had a bout with rosacea. I was told by a big name dermatologist, “this is your life now,” because he couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it. A million creams later, I went to a real skin doctor in Orange County. He prescribed a pill and one lotion, and boom, it was gone. The moral being: find the guy who takes your insurance.
TT: He sounds knowledgeable. Did he give you any other tips?
DVT: Yes, he said it doesn’t matter what moisturizer you use. Just make sure you put it on right after cleansing, while your skin is still damp. That way your pores can absorb it while they are still open. So choose any cream you like for the face and body. My choice is always Creme de la Mer- it’s pricey, but so worth it.
TT: Do you usually prefer a very matte look?
DVT: Always, glowing is not my thing. A matte finish diffuses any features about my face that I’m not comfortable with, while shine highlights them. It’s like soft-focus magic. Plus, my favorite look in makeup comes from the era when women kept their skin matte and flawless.
TT: Who are your favorite beauty icons?
DVT: Oh, my all time favorite is Betty Grable. Her look, her humor and most of all her spirit and sense of individuality. Just like Madonna 20 years ago. She was unlike anyone, and stayed true to herself. Modern day, I find Carmen Dell’Orefice very unique and fantastic.
TT: Has it taken time to find what works best for you?
DVT: My look has taken time to evolve. I’ve gotten to a place where I feel pretty and confident. I think that’s important for anyone. Personally, I have no reason to change it, no matter what people say or advise. I will save baring all for the person I am intimate with.
TT: When you have time to put a “cat eye” on, what is your favorite liner and do you have any tips about application?
DVT: Stay in shape with it. When I go a while without putting it on, it’s always rough at first. But when I’ve been applying it daily, it’s “whooosh;” it goes on seamlessly. Generally, getting that perfect, flattering line is hard! I look down into a mirror to apply it so I can see the shape and match them up better. Make sure not to pull your eyelid out at the side, because when you let go, the line will be a completely different shape. My favorite liner is Guerlain Divinora Liquid Liner. For lashes, its Dior Show Mascara. A truly winning combo!
TT: Being a natural blonde, what do you use to darken your brows?
DVT: It’s easy with Just For Men hair dye. I’m kind of a do-it-yourself person as far as my hair, makeup and styling go. I’m in the process of writing a beauty book, where I do it all. It’s hard work. But nothing good comes easy.
TT: As for your incredible figure- how do you stay in shape?
DVT: I think variety is key. I prefer the competitive atmosphere of a classroom setting, like yoga or Pilates. That keeps me going. Although performing on stage is great exercise! I just haven’t been doing it as much as I’d like. It’s all the requirements and special effects I need to do a show. Many venues are not big enough or are not set up for everything. Many can’t accommodate my Opium Den, for example, which is part of my most opulent show. I won’t settle for middle of the road- I go for grand. I’m pretty particular, as you might have guessed.
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