How We Fell for Dita Von Teese

We talked with the enchanting burlesque queen about self-invention, her upcoming Portland shows, and that giant martini glass. Plus, take it from Dita: beauty comes in all sizes.

By Eden Dawn April 14, 2016

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Photo Credit Scott Nathan Photography / Dita Von Teese Facebook

Long hailed the queen of burlesque with her pin-up beauty, vintage glamour, and hourglass figure that famously swishes around a life-sized martini glass as part of her act, the style icon kicks off a 15-show West Coast tour this week. Before she swings into town for three shows at the Roseland (a late-night one was just added to accommodate the sold-out crowds), we talked with Von Teese about Portland, fashion, and performing.

Have you been to Portland before?
Yes, we brought Strip, Strip, Hooray through there once. We added a lot since that first tour so there’s a lot more to see this time. This time I have new backup dancers, new choreography, new costumes. I always like to do the martini glass in a different way.

A surprising number of people asked me about that glass, and how it doesn't topple...
It’s weighted, but at this point I really know my center of balance. There have been some close calls for sure. One time I was on a Plexiglas stage. I don’t know if you’ve ever put put a martini glass on a glass table, but if there’s water on it it starts to move around. That can happen in real life too.

Do you design the costumes for your show?
I work with different people, but the costumes for this show were all made by Catherine D'lish who makes all the extravagant Swarovski and feather things. She’s renowned for being the best burlesque costumer. She’s also in the show and my best friend as well. So we’ve collaborate on this show together although I have a lot of collaborators on costumes. Christian Louboutin makes all my shoes, and you know I have other costumes made by Ellie Saab, and Zuhair Murad, and Dior has made costumes for me before. So I’ve tapped into a lot of different designers for various purposes and shows.

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Let’s talk about the style you’re known so well for. Did you ever have the awkward teenage phases? Did you find your look right away?
I definitely didn’t find my style right away. When I was a teenager, I had my natural long blonde hair past my shoulders. But as soon as I was allowed to wear makeup, I was wearing red lipstick. I worked in a lingerie store, so I kind of had similar style to now, but of course it's evolved a lot.

I started dressing in vintage clothes because I couldn’t afford the designer jeans and things my friends could have. I’ve always loved the lingerie-as-outerwear look. I’ve done that since I was a teenager. It’s not like I woke up like this, it’s been an evolution, but you can definitely see the similarities for sure. I’ve never had a phase with a completely differently look than I do now. Well, apart from the blonde hair, but I think you can definitely see a theme. My obsessions have been prevalent as long as I’ve been dressing myself.

Do you worry that being so well-known as this glamour vintage girl pigeonholes you?
I feel like that there’s a lot of room for evolution, but for me personally? Well, I had a conversation with Sharon Stone recently and she was like, “Maybe you should update your hair?" because she said I might not want to be compared to my younger self. And I thought about it and was like, “Well that’s interesting.” But then I couldn’t think of one other hairdo in the whole history of hairdos that I would rather have than what I have! I can’t imagine any other hair. I’ve been wearing it this way for 25 years. But on the other hand I fantasize about how great it would be to not have to dye my hair from blonde to black anymore. How great it would be to not have to be a slave to the black hair dye. But I think there might be some kind of fan revolt if I changed my hair to blonde or red or another color that looked good on me. Someday I would love to be able to change, but it would be strange.

Which came first? Your love for this style, with burlesque as an extension of that? Or your love of burlesque, which then influenced your style?
It’s definitely been a personal obsession of mine since I was very young. I was doing burlesque shows in the early '90s because I liked doing burlesque shows. At strip clubs where there was no fame or glory when I had a very small audience, so definitely it’s something I would have been doing whether I became famous for it or not.

It’s so physical and athletic. Does this make an early retirement more likely?
Well, I mean it’s an individual choice. I just came back from the Crazy Horse Paris, which is the most iconic cabaret and perfect of woman. Throughout history, since the 1950s, they’ve always kept true to a certain aesthetic. The girls have certain body shapes. They even get weighed in every week. They have to stay within their body shape and ideal form. But interestingly, when I was there there was a famous dancer there that had a baby a few months ago and she’s back and looks amazing and is 38. And another girl is like 43, and they fit perfectly in line. They’re all kind of identical and beautiful and perfect. I think this is a testament to the fact that things are evolving to a place where they isn’t a certain age you have to retire at.

And the thing about burlesque is there is a huge message of diversity in beauty, and I think that includes body shapes and also age. We aren’t interested in seeing just pretty little pinup girls do a show. The best performers in burlesque and the biggest show stoppers are not about that at all. They're people who break against the general standards of beauty. It's very ageist to say you should stop performing at a certain time. You never know what someone’s prime of life is going to be. I use as an example Carmen Dell'Orefice who was a supermodel in the 1950s, photographed by Irving Penn, very beautiful. But now in her golden years, she’s nearly 90, and she’s more spectacular than she’s ever been. She’s one of the most sought-after women to photograph. Universally— in the fashion world and in photography—it's thought that she’s better than she ever was. 

You have a strong fan base here in Portland—we’re a city that’s known for being accepting of things that might not be considered traditional. When I put out to readers that I was interviewing you, several brought up how pleased they were that your lingerie line included plus sizes and maternity wear.
I fight for these things a lot. When I did a collection, I wanted to do a full range of sizes. And with the lingerie collection I would like to go the full range with sizing, but unfortunately you can’t always do that. It’s not always in my power do that. There's always someone who will say, "But I’m a 56 GGG!" I can make a decision of what I want to have made, but if the stores don’t order it, it won't get made. It has always been more of a fight for that that kind of thing. But it’s always been important to me.

When I look out into my audience, when I do shows like Strip Strip Hooray, I can see those audiences, and it's girls that are embracing glamour, and they’re all different ages, sizes, and shapes. I feel like they’re getting the same kind of message I got from my idols of the golden age of Hollywood that it's about creating, it’s not about you’re born with, it's about what you decide for yourself, it's about what you make. And that’s not dependent upon being thin or athletic or young. You can have glamour in many forms.

With all my products, I do my best. It's my first question when I get involved. I have a deal on the table right now for a fashion line and my my first question when we sit down is going to be, “What’s the size range you’re willing to do?” Because I don’t want to just do model sizes. 

Well, I love you for that. It seems fashion can be so exclusive and any chance to be inclusive should be embraced.
For me, whenever I've done my lingerie and we’ve had voluptuous models and other girls wearing the lingerie, I get so excited. I guess it’s because I’m used to modeling it myself, but I get so excited seeing it on a different form. There were so many times, I was like, “Wow, this lingerie looks better than on the models.” The girls are really filling out the product. But by the same token, people say things like, “It's good to see the lingerie on real girls” And no. We’re all real. Some of these girls that are double AA cups, and they’re thin. I’m so tired of hearing, “Oh that girl should eat a cheeseburger!” Some people are just thin.

You know people say things about me all the time, and I feel like it's water off a duck’s back. This is my job, and people judge my appearance as part of it. But it really bothers me when I post a picture on social media of someone else and people start ripping it apart. I can handle it, but they didn’t ask for it.

What else is coming up in the way of projects?
My book of course, my Strip, Strip, Hooray shows, and I just launched my sunglasses website, so that’s very exciting. It's ditavonteeseyewear.com. And I just launched my own online store where you can get signed prints. I do specialized messages like "Happy Birthday so and so." I write pretty much whatever people like, within reason! So that’s kind of a fun little thing we do.

Dita Von Teese's Strip, Strip, Hooray is at the Roseland Theater April 21–22.

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