BY JONATHAN VALANIA Of all the reasons that Dita Von Teese is cool — and make no mistake, she is very effing cool — the fact that she takes her clothes off for a living isn’t even in the Top 10. First she’s smarter than the average bear — and not just ‘smart for a stripper.’ She was invited to speak at Oxford. Do you know who else was invited to speak at Oxford? Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Tony Blair, and Anna Wintour. Second, her craft. The period clothes, the period hair, the pre-porn striptease routines, the ornate stage pieces, like the giant martini glass she splashes around in her birthday suit — all of it, is the dual product of her prodigious creativity and patient scholarship. Which brings us to number three: she’s a student of history. The history of all the wiles, poses, conceits, glances, pouts, winks, nudges and assorted accessories that women used to hunt, lure and entrance the opposite sex in the middle decades of the 20th Century. Fourth, she is kind. I know I only spoke with her on the phone for 10 minutes, but in all my years in showbiz journalism I’ve developed a fairly infallible internalized celebrity asshole meter (along with a never-been-wrong gaydar). And I am happy to report Miss Von Teese never moved the needle. Fifth, she is fair. I have it on good authority she gave Marilyn Manson every opportunity to save their marriage but Mister Anti-Christ Superstar refused to give up his drugs and his mistress, or so I’ve been told. Man, you must be high if you’re cheating on Dita Von Teese.
Sixth, she’s a one-woman revival of a lost artform. She completely re-invented herself from Heather Sweet, born 41 years ago in West Branch, Michigan, into Dita Von Teese, the reigning retro diva of mid century moderne Va Va Voom!, who lives in a posh house in the Hollywood Hills and drives a 1938 Packard One Twenty Eight, a 1946 Ford Super De Luxe, a BMW Z4 and a 1965 Jaguar S-type. Seventh, she’s 40 and at an age when most actresses’ careers are winding down, hers is still taking off. Eighth, she has her own line of lingerie, perfumes, signature cocktails and capsule dress collections. Ninth, she’s a best-selling author and her third book, Your Beauty Mark, “a guide to eccentric glamor,” will be published this holiday season. Tenth, she is currently touring a critically-acclaimed Swarvoski crystal-encrusted live revue called Strip Strip Hooray that stops at the Tower tonight. Which is why we got her on the phone last week. DISCUSSED: Twerking vs. striptease; working in a lingerie shop at the tender age of 15; why she decided to become the queen of high concept retro tease; pornography vs. burlesque; the secrets of her vampire-like refusal to age; Betty Page’s refusal to be photographed in old age; and nothing — not one word — about her
PHAWKER: How did you first get exposed to pinup/burlesque culture, that kind of thing.
DITA VON TEESE: There are a lot of different moments in my life that I think lead up to what doing what I do and I would say the first thing was I started working in a lingerie store when I was fifteen. And working in a lingerie store, I began thinking about how lingerie changed throughout history, and of course is when I really discovered the 1940’s era pinup. And the first thing I did was I had this idea when I was 18 to recreate the pinup –you know, the classic pinup style – and I was very inspired by Betty Page, you know, 40’s pinup. And the next thing that lead me to that while I was looking for pinup, I found all these vintage pinup magazines, like Wink and Eyeful and Titter all those magazines and I found that most of those women that were posing for photos were burlesque dancers and that’s when I kind of had the idea of creating this parallel between posing for the pinups and doing a show. Around the same time, I wandered into a strip club and I found it very intriguing and fascinating and I wondered more about the history of striptease. I first started doing my burlesque show in 1991. Of course it was kind of like me doing a show in retro style lingerie in an average strip club in Orange County, California. And of course my show is much different now and it’s had a big evolution. There’s been an evolution in both the ways I perform my shows and the production and of course there’s been a big evolution in the kind of audience that comes to see my shows, and burlesque shows in general. So oomph! There, did I cover it?
PHAWKER: Yep, good answer. What was the “ah hah!” moment when it was like, “this is what I want to do with my life.”
DITA VON TEESE: Well it was all a big hobby for many, many years. I can’t say I ever really took what I was doing seriously until probably 1999 or 2000. It was around then that I was really starting to think like ‘Wow I actually have real fans, I’m making real money doing this,’ and I didn’t really get a real – a proper – manager until like 2002, and that was the moment I was on the cover of the Christmas holiday issue of Playboy Magazine and that was also the time Playboy Magazine was a big deal still. So that was when I really went, ‘Okay, this is what I do!’ But for a long time it was just for the sake of…I loved creating, I loved making shows, I love the process, I never had any intention on making it a career or becoming famous. It was really something I just did, that I liked doing, I liked making costumes or getting ready for a show, I liked doing these funny little shows. It was really not anything I did because I was seeking fame and fortune, you know? It never occurred to me that in this day and age that was possible.
PHAWKER: How would you compare burlesque or golden age striptease with twerking.
DITA VON TEESE: Twerking…Well, gosh, it’s such a buzz word now, isn’t it?
PHAWKER: It is.
DITA VON TEESE: Uhh….I’m trying to find some kind of connection between it, and of course I can with regard to the move, because if you’ve ever watched any, you know, classic burlesque performers do that real raunchy bump and grind thing that some of them did, you know. I have to preface it by saying when I first started doing my show, the only thing – there was no internet yet, so I didn’t have easy access to authentic footage of the tease. So my ideas came from books that I read, or still photos that I saw of burlesque stars like Lili St. Cyr, and then a couple small performances of Gypsy Rose Lee or even Natalie Wood playing a glorified movie of her life. So I didn’t have like…when I finally saw, when I was finally able to see some real typical bump and grind striptease burlesque dancer that were not like the big stars, when I finally saw some real footage, I saw this bump and grind thing that I was kind of glad I didn’t ever try to mimic? You know? That I didn’t have anything to see. Because I thought, ‘Woah, that’s not that pretty, really. So the twerking is like a move, you know. So I guess I could relate it. I’m sure that there could have been a burlesque dancer that has twerked in the past. I’m almost positive that in the 1930’s or 40’s someone pulled out some kind of twerk-like maneuver on stage.
PHAWKER: And I guess I have to ask you your reaction to the whole Miley Cyrus controversy: were you shocked, Dita, were you outraged?
DITA VON TEESE: I was just kind of confused. You know, I feel like I’m watching all of these pop stars – like not just her, all of them – trying to like sexually outdo each other; I found it very grotesque. That’s really the only word I can think of. It’s like, wow this is outrageous! It’s almost like it’s a parody; it’s grotesque! It’s really…It’s a burlesque in a different way. I’m using the burlesque word in I think the first dictionary term of like making fun of…I was like, ‘is this a burlesque? Is this a joke? Is this a parody?’ It was very strange, I couldn’t understand.
PHAWKER: You are going to turn 41 on September 28th, but from judging by your photos, you look at least 10 years younger, if not 15. I guess my first question is: what is your secret?
DITA VON TEESE: My secret…Well some of my secrets…I have very good genes. My mother looks very young and she’s about to turn 65. A lot of people think that she is in her 40s. So I have some good genes, I don’t go in the sun. I’ve never really been a fan of sun tanning. I never been a cigarette smoker. You know, my vices are kind of mild compared to all the exceptions, kind of things, they’re not really my vice. And I guess, you know, kind of common sense. I have a good time, I like to have cocktails every now and then, but not every day. I’m very balanced in my fun and health. A balance of my health, taking care of my body and the balance of having fun at the same time.
PHAWKER: So in Hollywood, most actresses are considered too old to be playing sexy leading women say after 30 years old, and yet your star only continues to rise the older you get. Can you explain that?
DITA VON TEESE: Well you know, I like to remind people that Mae West who was the biggest sex symbol of her day in the 1930s actually made her first film at age 40. And I think that’s something important to note. But the one reason she was so successful and that she was a sex symbol was because she was a genius! She was like a brilliant wit. She cultivated her mind as well as her appearance. She wrote every line she ever said in every film and if you Google Mae West quotes from Mae West lines and films, you have a slew of genius quips that are still referenced today. So I think that like my success I think lies in, you know, I’m not the product of a team of stylists and style makers. My show is all my own creation. It comes from the heart. It comes from authenticity; it’s real for me. I think there are some people who can see that, who understand that and hopefully it shines through. So I think it’s just about — if you rely on just your beauty, you don’t really have much, that goes away and people get bored of just seeing beauty and they want something else. And I’ve never claimed to be the most beautiful burlesque dancer or the best dance or the youngest or any of those things that one would say are the most important factors for being glamorous and beautiful or sexy or whatever. I think that sexy and sexuality is much more than that and it’s about the cultivation of lots of other facets other than just the way you look.
PHAWKER: Last question: Bettie Page famously never allowed herself to be photographed later in life preferring to let her modeling photos be remembered … be remembered by her modeling photos. What do you think of that?
DITA VON TEESE: Well, I have seen … I did the first ever interview with Bettie Page. When they first found Bettie in the early ’90s, I was asked to sit in on one of the interviews with her – on the phone, of course – and you know what she said about that was she said: ‘well I just want people to remember me how I was.’ Also when they said she disappeared and went into obscurity because she aged, her reply to that was: “I just moved. I stopped modeling and I just moved on and I wasn’t being photographed anymore.” But I think that, you know, I would like to think that I wouldn’t be someone who was refusing to be photographed in old age, but that’s her choice, you know? And there is like one photo that exists of her. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it.
PHAWKER: I have.
DITA VON TEESE: Have you seen it?
PHAWKER: Yes, I have. I’m, shall we say, a student of her work.
DITA VON TEESE: Yeah, so, you know, and she’s smiling in that photo! But and I thought that in that photo she’s still beautiful with the trademark bangs and that silver white … I think she’s really amazing, and you can she’s not really trying to hold on to her youth. She had evolved in a different way, you know? Anyway, I think it’s a personal choice. But, I’m fascinated by the idea of like these women who disappear and reveal themselves, and kind of in and throughout history women have hid their aging process but there are some who wear it proudly and gracefully and I think that’s really chic.
DITA VON TEESE’S STRIP, STRIP HOORAY! @ THE TOWER THEATER TONIGHT