Burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese achieves a greatness of her own
How a change in hair colour and name gave a Michigan girl and former go-go dancer the impetus to embark on a career in burlesque, bringing her glitz and glamour to stages as far afield as Paris, Hong Kong and Macau
As a young girl growing up in the US state of Michigan, Heather Sweet did not see herself as a burlesque dancer who would take off her clothes and bathe in a giant martini glass onstage. If anything, like many girls her age, she saw herself as a ballerina.
“You just never know, right?” says the woman better known today by her stage name, Dita Von Teese. “Some people become Olympians and some people achieve greatness at something, and then others don’t. I loved it, but my skill level was never up to par.
“It’s kind of a blessing in disguise. I got to use all my ballet training in a different way, and I got ultimately what I fantasised about, which was not dancing, but beautiful costumes and wearing tiaras and being backstage and having spotlights on me and overcoming my shyness.”
Von Teese, 44, is the “Meryl Streep of burlesque”, as Vanity Fair once put it, a dancer who va-va-vooms to elaborately arranged striptease music on stage while seductively removing her clothing, in the style of 20th-century heroines such as Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr. She has brought her burlesque act to both Hong Kong and Macau in the past few years.
Von Teese has worked as a stripper and a rave-party dancer, but identifies not so much with the titillation but the fashion and pageantry. Her book, 2015’s Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour, has a title printed in bright red lipstick, photos of Von Teese in backless dresses, a bit of biography and beauty tips such as taking care of your skin because “all the shimmering eye shadow and ruby lipstick in the world won’t make you dazzle if the complexion underneath it all is dull and damaged”.
Before she was a teenager, Von Teese writes, she had a revelation that “I could paint my way to glamour”.
“I just felt like I was a very ordinary blonde girl from a farming town in Michigan, and my mum liked to watch old movies, so I have this indelible imprint on me on what women were supposed to look like,” she says. “As I grew older, and wrapped my head around dying my hair from blonde to black and wearing red lipstick and altering my appearance, I found my confidence with glamour. I could speak volumes.”
Born to a machinist and a manicurist, Von Teese got her first job at 16, fitting bras at a department store. In the early ’90s, she began to read about the history of burlesque and pin-up girls, notably Bettie Page. She moved to Los Angeles and had a boyfriend who promoted rave parties and employed her as a go-go dancer. She was 19 when she stripped for the first time, at a bikini club, performing in a pink corset and black stockings and gloves.
“You’re wearing a lot of clothes up there,” her manager told her, according to the Los Angeles Weekly. She picked “Dita Von Teese” from the phone book and immediately changed her stage name; a year later, both she and the club went topless.
As Von Teese expanded her act, with feathers, Swarovski crystals, Jean Paul Gaultier butterfly corsets and a mechanical bull covered in pink velvet, she developed a reputation as everybody’s favourite celebrity burlesque dancer. She appeared on Playboy’s cover in 2002, then married shock rocker Marilyn Manson, although they divorced soon after.
In addition to her tours, including the long-running “Burlesque: Strip, Strip, Hooray” and a new one called “The Art of the Teese,” Von Teese has become a marketing machine – she has fragrance, lingerie and eyewear collections in addition to her three books. She sees Your Beauty Mark as a way of demythologising high fashion, encouraging people to change their look and boost their confidence with, say, a splash of lipstick.
“I have a stack of letters that I save. It inspires me in return,” she says. “They’ve got the hairdo, they look more polished and slick, whether I get credit about it or not. I got a lot of letters from girls’ parents: ‘Thank you for writing this book. My daughter used to wear the same sweatpants every day and wouldn’t get off the sofa, and she’s like a new woman’.”
For her latest tour, Von Teese has arranged an expanded version of a show she did at the Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris, complete with new male back-up dancers. She’ll bring the martini glass, of course, which she created years ago, after befriending burlesque colleague Catherine D’Lish at a Las Vegas stripper convention. It seems D’Lish had been doing a number in a giant champagne glass, and together they came up with a martini glass for Von Teese.
“She and I made all these elaborate props,” Von Teese recalls. “‘Let’s get together and make the most outrageous shows and costumes anybody has ever seen’ – and that’s what we did. Without her, I don’t know what would have happened.
“I have about five different martini and champagne glasses in my burlesque kit at this point. I always do that act in my show and find different ways to reinvent it. It’s a little like singing my hit song.”