Prestige Hong Kong, June 2015
What Would Marilyn Do?
Burlesque star, DITA VON TEESE, talks about following in the footsteps of her idols – and becoming one of them in the process
IF YOU THINK Dita Von Teese is impressive in performance, you should see her at a photo shoot. Arriving on set in the library of The China Club, she’s already impeccably done – hair coaxed into perfect pin waves, alabaster skin a poreless cream canvas, lips perfectly painted in that signature vermillion wash. And she’s done it all herself. We have hair and make-up personnel at the ready for touch-ups, but there’s nothing to touch up – not a subtle sheen of sweat from sitting under photography lights, not an errant strand of hair escaping the mothership after hours of leaning, lying and draping herself all across the room, no unpigmented part of lip from drinking water delicately through a straw.
By her own admission, Dita Von Teese exhibits a beauty that’s highly manufactured. A Rochester, Michigan girl originally named Heather Sweet and – gasp! – a natural blonde, she got into the pin-up game as a means of escaping small-town existence, using ballet training from her youth combined with a fascination for ’40s-era glamour to put together the looks and later burlesque shows that would become her calling card.
It may have been her relationship with and later marriage to Marilyn Manson that launched her as a household name, but her sultry burlesque acts – including her most famous performance, which takes place inside a gigantic martini glass – have kept her in demand across the globe, whether as a guest member of the Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris or as the special performer at cigar brand Davidoff’s recent private party during Art Basel in Hong Kong. “It’s all about pleasure,” she coos. “Smoking has to do with indulgence.”
And while 2015 is going to be a big performance year, Von Teese is increasingly focused on various brand extensions of her act and persona – lingerie and loungewear, perfume, gloves, stockings, nails and more. No need to envy Von Teese her elegance and put-togetherness, then – you can have a piece of it yourself.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD.
I grew up in a small farming town in Michigan. My mother really loved antiques and old movies, so I grew up watching a lot of classic films from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s. My mother loved to collect antiques, so I was surrounded by the kind of things that are in our photoshoot [at China Club] today, and it had a big impact on me, the retro style. I think it inspired me as I came into my teenage years, and I’m a blonde girl from a farming town; it wasn’t anything like the image I created. But I realised that this whole glamour and Hollywood thing, these women of the 1930s and ’40s, that was very much something that’s created. That brand of glamour is not something that you’re born with, it’s something that’s made, so I was always very interested in that big Hollywood makeover. And I taught myself how to do it.
The first thing I started doing was creating pin-up photos and erotic pin-up photos in the early ’90s. I was known as being the modern Betty Paige back in the ’90s and I became quite famous for that. And then I had the idea of creating burlesque shows as well, because in researching pin-up art, a lot of the women that posed for the risqué men’s magazines of that era were also burlesque dancers. I was also obsessed with lingerie – I worked in a lingerie store from age 15 to 22. So all of those things came together and I decided to create this character sent from another time, in a way.
YOU MENTION BETTIE PAGE – SHE, LIKE MANY STARS OF HER ERA, WAS KNOWN FOR ONE PARTICULAR LOOK. BUT TO ACHIEVE CAREER LONGEVITY NOWADAYS, STARS LIKE MADONNA OR LADY GAGA SEEK TO CHANGE THEIR IMAGE CONSTANTLY.
A lot of people don’t want to be associated with the character they play on screen, whereas Marlene Dietrich wore a tuxedo onscreen in some of her famous roles and she loved wearing that offscreen, too. That’s something I really love, people who have a distinctive sense of self, a distinctive personal style that doesn’t falter or waiver depending on what’s fashionable at the time.
I really respect people who know how they want to look because I feel very close to that. I have a very distinctive look as well.
I’ve been wearing my hair and make-up the same way for more than 20 years and I know what clothes I want to wear. I don’t really care if someone says that it’s outdated or they’ve seen it already, or they think I should do something else. Real glamour and beauty and personal style comes from what makes you feel good about yourself. And that’s it.
YOU CAN TELL THAT’S HOW YOU ARE, BECAUSE WHEN YOU STEP IN FRONT OF A CAMERA, YOU’RE JUST “ON”.
I feel that way today. I’ve definitely stepped in front of the camera when someone wanted me to look different – didn’t want me to wear red lipstick, wanted me stripped down … I’ve always felt kind of uncomfortable and I often would think about my idols in the past and ask myself, “Would Marlene Dietrich have done this? Would Marilyn Monroe have done it? Would my idols of that era have let someone photograph them without concealer or lipstick, or without beautiful lighting?” And I thought, no, they wouldn’t have. So I’m going to decide I wouldn’t do it either, because I didn’t like the vulnerable position it put me in. Of course I’ve posed for a few people – Peter Lindbergh photographed me without red lipstick on, and of course it was a pleasure. Certain people, I’ll put myself in their hands and let them do certain things, but these are people who are iconic idols of photography. But when just anyone wants to photograph me “undone”, it’s not very interesting to me because I don’t always trust them.
HOW DOES THAT ATTITUDE WORK IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA, WHEN THE PAPARAZZI ARE CONSTANTLY TRYING TO GET YOU IN YOUR SWEATS AT STARBUCKS?
Although I don’t spend a lot of time getting ready before I leave for the day, there are things. My red lipstick is always in place and it takes me only a minute to do. I don’t have this dishevelled personality. I have a distinctive casual look that doesn’t take me much time, but it’s not like anybody’s going to catch me in jeans and a T-shirt.
It doesn’t mean I like being stalked or chased during my off time, I get really annoyed by that because I like doing my grocery shopping and being able to go out and about. I don’t want to be photographed all the time, but I’m appreciative that they care. I know it’s all part of wanting to be recognised for what I do, so I’m glad that there’s a promotional aspect to paparazzi. But it’s just sometimes, can I just not be followed all day, chased in my car? I don’t want to be chased by five men when I’m driving by myself, it’s a very weird feeling.
ON THE PLUS SIDE, YOUR LOOK IS SO RECOGNISABLE AND ICONIC THAT IT DOES LEND ITSELF TO BRAND OPPORTUNITIES AND EXTENSIONS RELATING TO YOUR LIFESTYLE. CAN YOU TELL US MORE?
My lingerie collection is the number-one thing. I got my start in a lingerie store, it’s really what sparked my entire career, and I was posing for so many years for other people’s lingerie brands, and I was also a huge collector of vintage lingerie and loungewear. So I used my references to create the collection and make wearable and accessible pieces about Hollywood glamour. But easy-to-wear things in everyday life.
AND YOU HAVE FOUR PERFUMES. HOW DID YOU WORK WITH THE NOSE TO COME UP WITH A SCENT THAT READS “DITA”?
I have four perfumes. I was very hands on. I work directly with the noses in Paris, I was living there at the time so it was very easy for me to go over and work on the fragrances. The last one in particular I’m especially proud of. It’s called Erotique and it’s my everyday fragrance and I’m just really proud of how that came out.
WHAT OTHER AREAS WOULD YOU LIKE TO EXPLORE?
I’m branching out to loungewear with my lingerie, which is exciting because I also collect beautiful loungewear from the 1940s and ’30s, so I’m right now in the process of designing the first collection of loungewear – negligées, robes, dressing gowns. And I also started a line of gloves – they’re really beautiful. I was always having gloves made for my photoshoots; erotic long black leather operalength gloves with crystal buttons down the side, really sexy. Beautiful, fetishistic gloves. A lot of people asked me where I got them and I wondered if anyone would want to wear gloves like this, so I started a glove collection, and we’ll see where that goes.
YOU’VE BEEN TO HONG KONG A FEW TIMES NOW, AND WE’RE NOT A CITY KNOWN FOR OUR SEXIER SIDE. WHAT DO YOU TAKE FROM HERE THAT INSPIRES YOU?
This is one of my favourite places in the world. I love David Tang and the brand that he’s created. It’s a little bit like my house, I’m very obsessed with chinoiserie and mixing art deco with Chinese styles. I use it a lot in my own decor at home. I’ve always been very inspired by this place and I did create a burlesque show about 10 years ago that was inspired by my favourite Chinese films. I love the films of Gong Li, Raise the Red Lantern. So I created show a little bit about that, because I’m so obsessed with the beauty of Chinese retro style.
WHAT, TO YOU, IS SEXY?
Sexy is when people are comfortable in their own skin, and confident, and you can tell that they’re doing things on their own terms. Their pleasure is something they’re doing for themselves instead of trying to get appreciation from other people. They’re not looking for validation. All of those kinds of, “What will he like?” – it’s a fail. A fail in the art of seduction. The art of seduction is really about cultivating so many different elements of sensuality, but realising that it has to start with you.
WE ALL KNOW THAT MEN AND WOMEN SEE “SEXY” DIFFERENTLY. ARE YOUR SHOWS RECEIVED DIFFERENTLY BY EACH SEX?
My fan base is predominantly female. Overwhelmingly female. Especially in America and Europe. I’m not sure what my fan base is here in China necessarily, because I’ve never done a public show. And it’s changed over the course of my career from starting creating burlesque shows in the early ’90s, it was definitely men and fetishists, and slowly I noticed it shifted to be women. I think a lot of women who want to come see a show like mine, or a burlesque show in general, are starting to get this message about alternative kinds of sensuality. Different kinds of beauty. Diversity. Something that’s really a running theme in burlesque. And the art of creation.
The reason I started to do what I do is that if I look at Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, I can’t relate to anything in there and I don’t think many people can. They’re wet, there’s hardly any make-up, they’re just Amazons, racehorses. I can never relate to that. But burlesque, and what I do, is about something else. It’s the art of creating beauty and glamour and daring to be different. Weaving a web of mystery and glamour – rather than showing off what you’re born with, it’s about showing off what you’ve done with what you’re born with, whatever that is.
I’ve never been interested in natural beauty. I like looking at supermodels, but I’ve always found I have more interest in people who’ve had to work harder to attain something. I’ve always been attracted to people like that, even singers or performers who you can tell that maybe they’re not the best, but they became the best in a different way.
There’s an art in portraying the person you want to be, and everybody should have the right to decide who they want to be.
HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU SPEND WORKING ON THE ACTS?
It depends. I haven’t created a brand-new act in a while because it’s a big undertaking. I create these crazy sets and props and costumes that cost me close to US$100,000 for each seven-minute act. And I make these big lavish things, and it’s a fortune to ship around the world. That’s one reason people keep coming back to the martini glass – it’s a little bit like my hit song. My martini glass is to me what “Oops, I Did It Again” is to Britney Spears. I have to do it. And it’s still the easiest thing to ship around the world. It’s actually one of the smallest props I have. I’ve also felt like I made a lot of acts that so many people haven’t seen yet, so I’m in the process of creating a new full-length review and touring with that, so that’s my big priority this year.
YOU SPENT A LOT OF TIME EMULATING OTHER STARS EARLY IN YOUR CAREER. DO YOU HOPE OTHERS WILL DO THE SAME OF YOU ONE DAY?
I feel like that’s already happening to a degree. I remember when I used to be a Bettie Page lookalike in the ’90s, a light bulb went on in my head and I was like, OK, do I want to be a lookalike or do I want someday for people to be a lookalike of me? It was a really “Aha!” moment. Can’t be a lookalike, need to be myself. So that’s what I did.