Burlesque queen Dita Von Teese has a sixth sensuality
By Nelson Branco
Nothing is taboo anymore—except sensuality and subtext. Which is why burlesque queen Dita Von Teese is still set on seducing the masses with her captivatingly sultry yet soulful burlesque show. On February 11 at Toronto’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Canadians will get a front row seat to the fashion and fetish star’s spellbinding talents.
Born as a blond Heather Renée Sweet in Rochester, Michigan, the 44-year-old raven-haired bombshell’s imagination was first captured by the classic films of the ’40s, her father’s Playboy magazines, lingerie, and all things vintage.
After moving to Orange County, California, at age 12 with her parents, Teese honed her skilful movement thanks to ballet class. At age 19, she found her niche working at a local strip club. Soon after, she caught the attention of Playboy in 2002 where she posed au naturel and was given the name Dita after German actress Dita Parlo. Her last name? That came from researching a phone book. Teese finalized her transformation after being introduced to the work of iconic Bettie Page, who inspired her to dye her hair black and cut her bangs. And voila—Dita Von Teese was born.
IN Magazine spoke with the politically and socially outspoken star, who was once married to Marilyn Manson, to chat about the art form of burlesque, president-elect Donald Trump, and whether millennials will save the world or destroy it.
Are you still reeling from the shock election of Donald Trump as US president?
[At the time,] my friends—who are from all over the world—were like, ‘It’s not possible this could go down the way it did.’ It was interesting. It’s on everyone’s mind internationally. It’s all everyone can talk about.
Are you worried the new administration might hurt the art community? Have you even thought that far ahead?
I feel like it’s going to be a long time before we see the art world impacted or for it to shift with [this administration]. I’m hoping in four years we’ll have another chance to change things. I don’t know…. I find it interesting because burlesque was alive and well in the 1930s and 1940s, so it’s hard for me to see the industry impacted in 2017. We never know, of course, but I haven’t thought about it much because I know the resilient history of burlesque.
Why do you think burlesque is still relevant and resonating with audiences after all these years?
I was thinking to myself the other day: it’s very interesting that there is a huge resurgence of burlesque today. So many people are empowered after seeing a burlesque show. Most of the audience at a burlesque show consists of the LGBTQ community and women. So it’s a very different audience today compared to its so-called heyday—I think we’re living in the golden age of burlesque now. Today, there is a decidedly different message behind burlesque, especially international burlesque. If someone has never been to a show of mine, they might not understand what they’re getting into. But as soon as they walk in and see that it’s about 80 per cent women who are embracing glamour and they’re all different ethnicities, sizes and ages, and owning their glam and confidence with fun and sensuality, it’s more of an inspiration. A flight attendant came over to me when I was flying recently and she said: ‘I love my body because of what you do.’ I’m not trying to say burlesque is for everyone, but it’s a feminist movement because it’s different for everyone—and that’s what is wonderful. There are many complex and evolving flawed versions of feminism but, at the end of the day, we have to support each other’s right to decide what makes us empowered and where our individual boundaries are. I think it’s extremely relevant right now.
Do you think the ubiquitous porn culture and/or sex apps have numbed the masses to sensuality, subtext, seduction, etc.?
Acceptable hard-core porn—which is very different from the old days of VHS porn or sneaking a peek at our father’s Hustler we found underneath his bed—impacts the imagination of sex, which we were lucky to play with in our generation as opposed to what the millennials are used to now. I have fears of how people are learning about sex today. But what is great is that there are other choices. People are using their imagination, they want to embrace their sexuality—and burlesque is a great option, especially for couples who want more of a bond. I don’t have any argument with hard-core porn. I just think there is a place for all of it and I love that we get to choose what turns us on.
Have you figured out yet why you have such a loyal, rabid gay following?
Obviously the aesthetics. I definitely have always had a close-knit diverse group of friends. I’ve always appreciated art and beauty, and I love hanging out with people who feel the same. Especially in my show, I have a very diverse cast that celebrates gender fluidity, different body shapes, etc. I have just as many boys in my shows as I do girls. My shows are really a place of acceptance. I mean, it’s a rockin’ show! People really feel free. Whenever my business team sees my show, they’ll say, ‘Wow, I just saw someone wearing a pony outfit!’ I say, ‘That’s right! We do what we want here and it’s a place of acceptance. Let your freak flag fly!’ There’s something for everyone.
You’re 44 and seemingly aging in reverse! What elixir are you on—and how can we get some?!
[Laughs] I don’t smoke. I don’t get sun. I wash my face every night. I work out. I try to eat healthy. I maintain a constant discipline in my life. I’ve also come to realize—watching my mother age and how stunned I am at my grandmother, who looks amazing at 90—my family genes are clearly a benefit. But keeping active, taking care and using common sense are key.
As a vet, are you seeing more ageism in the business? You’ve spoken out about age shaming a lot.
Yeah. It’s interesting because, of course, ageism is always there and it’s been prevalent in the United States for the last 15 years. Journalists always ask me: ‘What are you going to do when you’re not beautiful anymore and you get old?’ I’m like, ‘Oh God! You wouldn’t be asking me this if I were a man.’ But even when I was younger, when I started burlesque at 19 in the early ’90s, I thought I was the best and most beautiful I ever was. I was so stupid and wrong. The real problem with ageism is that the younger generation thinks they are at their best in their earlier years. They don’t realize that there is so much more to cultivate as you evolve other than your beauty. It’s really more about being fun and sexy than about age. When I cast a new show, I ask: ‘Show me all the new people out there.’ But when I look at the finished cast list, I realize everyone is usually over 30 because they have meaning behind what they’re doing and they’re just generally better on stage. Some people don’t agree with my approach, but I know they’re just not where I am yet or understand it. My cast isn’t about showcasing pretty little pin-up girls—it’s about who brings the house down every single time and who is inspiring people.
Vice president-elect Mike Pence saw Hamilton on Broadway and the cast controversially took the opportunity to speak to him in the audience after the show. What would you do if Trump or Pence came to see your show?
I doubt they’ll come see my show! [Laughs] But that’s cool. I met Donald Trump once. He wanted me to come onto Celebrity Apprentice but I decided it wasn’t for me. I don’t know. I felt two ways about it. People really want to express themselves right now—and get their message across to people in power: ‘Don’t forget about us and don’t hurt us.’ So I saw what they were doing, but I also saw how uncomfortable that could have been for Pence. But then again, he put himself in that position. Listen, when I put on a show, I open myself to criticism too. It was an interesting conversation but I also felt it was a distraction from the real issues.
Social media: good or bad?
It has really helped me. When I first started to use Twitter, it gave me a voice and let people discover my personality and allowed people to see what kind of person I was beyond the photos and my show. People saw that I was also smart and funny. I used to have a real veil of mystery before. What I love about social media is that it’s given the power back to the performer. I can sell out my shows without taking out an ad in the newspaper. It’s really powerful to tell my fans where exactly I am going to be. And to be able to ask them, ‘What do you want me to do?’ I listen to my fans, so I’m a big fan of social media. Of course I learned early on and quickly—especially when I was married to Marilyn—that you don’t read the criticism…unless it’s someone you admire. Share a little bit and ignore the negativity.
What can we expect from your show, The Art of the Teese?
It’s the first time I’ve brought my whole show to Canada, so I’m excited for you guys to see the entire revue. I really hope one day I can do a Canada tour. I’ve done small solo performances in Canada, but this is going to be more of what I do across the world.
How intimidating are you to date?
I have a hard time when I’m single because I’m old-fashioned. When men meet me, they think I’ll make the first move, but I don’t. I usually have to be set up on blind dates. Men don’t realize that I’m really just a blond girl from Michigan with a veneer of a femme fatale. veneer of a femme fatale.
NELSON BRANCO is the editor of 24 Hours Toronto newspaper. As a contributing editor, he’s penned pieces for magazines like Hello Canada, People, TV Guide and online sites like Huffington Post. He’s also worked as a TV producer for Breakfast TV, The Marilyn Denis Show, CTV News and Sun News Network. You can follow him at @nelliebranco.