Dita Von Teese carries herself with an elegance and determination that has made her an icon in the world of burlesque, modeling, cosmetics, and fetish. By paying homage to striptease icons of the 1940s and ’50s, Von Teese helped pioneer the burlesque revival in the ’90s, and is still entertaining people by the thousands. On Tuesday, July 26, Dita Von Teese will be bringing her variety show “Strip Strip Hooray!” to House of Blues New Orleans. The glamorous Queen of Burlesque was kind enough to give OffBeat a glimpse into her world.
What can you tell me about your upcoming tour? What are you hoping for in regards to it?
I’ve been spending a lot of time doing shows, mostly in Paris and London, and all over Europe and Asia as well. I missed being in America, and felt like I wanted to do more shows here in my home country. So I just kept insisting to my manager that I needed to put the shows that I’ve created for the past fifteen years on the stage and have people come see them. We started by doing some shows at the famous Roxy [Theatre] on Sunset [Boulevard in Los Angeles] and they were really successful; I really enjoyed the lineup of burlesque performers that I chose for those runs. And then we went to New Orleans with the show and it was a success. So when we were starting to form a tour, we decided to start it in New Orleans and Dallas and Houston. We’re going to add more dates in different territories later this year and early next year.
How do you feel about New Orleans and, specifically, burlesque in New Orleans?
I’ve been coming to New Orleans a lot over the years. Actually, the first time I performed my act in my giant martini glass was in New Orleans on Bourbon Street. So I’ve always really loved New Orleans and loved coming there. To me it has a very special feel to it, and I was really looking forward to bringing a full show there. I used to do a lot of shows in New Orleans in a place called the Shim Sham Club [now One Eyed Jacks]. [New Orleans] is just a really special place; it has a really great history of burlesque.
What can we expect from your upcoming show at House of Blues?
This time I’m bringing a great lineup of favorite performers. Dirty Martini is a very well-known burlesque performer from New York, and Murray Hill is the emcee that we can’t live without. I’m bringing another burlesque performer from New York named Medianoche that I saw recently. And I’m also bringing one of my favorite girls from the Crazy Horse Paris named Lada. We have a Parisian boylesque performer [Monsieur Romeo] who’s coming here from L.A. And I’m bringing several of my best shows. One of them is my “Rhinestone Cowgirl” show, which is originally a show that I created when I was the spokesperson—before Lady Gaga—for MAC Viva Glam. I created the show especially for MAC cosmetics for their Viva Glam campaign, where I rode a giant lipstick. Well, we’ve changed the show up a little bit, and I’m bringing it back, bringing it to New Orleans for the first time. And I’m also bringing my brand new martini glass, which is entirely covered in Swarovski crystals, so it’s quite extravagant. And for the third show, we’re not entirely sure. We’re trying to see how many of these big props we can fit on the stage, so the third show is in the air a little bit still. But it’ll be extravagant and there’ll be lots of rhinestones and feathers.
How do you choose performers for your tour?
One of the things I’ve tried to accomplish with this tour is to show the best of burlesque, and show people the variations of burlesque, the different styles of burlesque, and the different forms of beauty and people that are really original performers. What I loved about each show I’ve done at the Roxy is each lineup we’ve chosen. You know I’m backstage getting ready and I hear everything that’s going on. Every single act is strong and brings the house down and has a lot of energy and is unique. I try to stay away from burlesque acts that are cookie-cutter or typical of burlesque. We wanted to see things that are new and different and exciting that look at burlesque outside of just making a retro act that is a cliché of burlesque. So I feel really strongly that we have a great lineup of people that accomplish that.
How did you choose your stage name?
In about 1991, I was working in a strip club. At the time I just sort of did it as an experiment. And as everyone knows, you never use your real name in a strip club for whatever reason. I had just seen this movie with an actress named Dita Parlo, so I used the name “Dita.” A couple years later, I was posing for the Playboy book of lingerie and they told me that I had to have a last name or I couldn’t be in the magazine. So I was with some friends and was looking through the telephone book. I had this idea of putting a “von” in my name because I thought it sounded really exotic, and I found the name “Von Treese.” When it came out in Playboy, they had misprinted it as “Von Teese.” So that’s the story.
What’s your favorite song to perform to?
I have all my own music made, which is one of my favorite parts of creating these shows. I find obscure music from the past and have musicians re-record it with all new instruments and change certain parts. I have a great guy who works with me on my music. I’m not really a singer, but I had an idea as a tribute to one of my idols Gypsy Rose Lee. I decided to record a song. I recorded this about four years ago for the Crazy Horse when I was there. It’s a song that Mae West originally called “A Guy Takes His Time.” Incidentally, last year in the movie Burlesque, they also used that song after they saw me perform it. Of course, I can’t sing like Christina Aguilera, but it’s definitely done in my own style and has a great musical arrangement.
What is your creative process like? How do you come up with new routines?
I don’t really have any trouble coming up with new routines. I never lack imagination when it comes to building them. Out of all the ideas that I have there are very few of them that actually come to fruition, because every time I build a show, it is a big financial adventure. The difference between me putting on a show and a pop star doing a show is that I’m self-funded, and I’m my own investor. I create these shows myself, I don’t have a record label behind me. It’s just me, so it’s a big venture.
It usually takes somewhere between a year and three years to make each number, depending on what it is. One of the numbers I’m bringing with me is the lavish “Opium Den,” and that took about four years to put together, between the elaborate costume and the music and the props. It takes quite a bit of time sometimes, and [for] most of these shows, like the Swarovski cowgirl show and the “Opium Den,” the cost runs about $50,000 once you get the whole show together. It’s an investment of about $50,000 to $80,000 for that one seven-minute moment on stage. So it’s pretty lavish and extravagant, but that’s really one of the things that drives me. When the stakes are high and the investment is high, and the effect is dazzling, that’s really what motivates me to want to create these new shows. Also, I’ve been performing burlesque for twenty years, and my show has to evolve. This is what it’s basically evolved into.
One challenge for some burlesque performers is letting people from their personal lives know about their burlesque lives. Was that ever an issue for you?
Never. I don’t ever apologize for what I do. In fact, I started my burlesque career by working in strip clubs. One of the reasons I learned about burlesque is because I was working in a strip club in 1990, and I wanted to know more about the history of what it meant to be a stripper. And that’s how I discovered burlesque. But I’ve never apologized for anything I’ve ever done. Perhaps I’ve had moments in my life where my personal life might have suffered, but I feel like I obviously did the right thing. I get to do what I love, and twenty years later I’m successful at what I do. I think if you have to go around apologizing and lying about what you do, you’re probably not doing the right thing (or not the right thing for you, anyway). That’s the way I see it. Some people have asked me how it is to get up there and take off your clothes, and it’s like, “I don’t know, I don’t have a problem with that.”
Are you happy with the direction burlesque is going today?
Yeah. You know, I think we have the occasional sidetrack of mainstream media presenting it as something that it’s not. Burlesque was not a cabaret. It was not a song-and-dance show, [and] it was not just about dancing girls. Ultimately, the stars of burlesque in the 1930s and ’40s were striptease stars. So there have been a few moments where I think the mainstream media, for their own commercialization of burlesque, have tried to portray it as something that is more of a cabaret style. And that’s a misconception that I think [created] the risk of things going the wrong way. I made it a personal mission to try to educate people about the authentic side of burlesque for what it really was. Not just to stand up for myself, but also to stand up for the real stars of burlesque like Gypsy Rose Lee or Sally Rand or Lily St. Cyr who are the women that did come before all of us and made the revival possible, who were striptease stars. I just think it’s important to preserve their memory even when Hollywood comes in and tries to make it something they can sell, and takes away the nudity aspect. I think that collectively the burlesque community—I and a lot of other prominent burlesque dancers—has done a really good job of squashing that myth that was being presented to the world.
What is the main message that you want to send to the world, especially to women who look up to you?
I think one thing that’s really great about the burlesque revival is that the audience is predominantly female. It means a lot to me that there are a lot of other women out there that are getting inspired by this, and getting the message about infusing a sense of playfulness, fun, [and] glamour, embracing different kinds of beauty, creating your own beauty and your own glamour where maybe you didn’t have it before. Because you know, I’m a very ordinary looking girl from West Branch, Michigan. You know, I had blonde hair and freckles, and I created an image that is something that transcends that. I think the message is really that you can be whoever you want to be. You don’t just wait around to become beautiful, you can take it into your own hands.
What I love about my fans is they’re taking that message and understanding that there are things that we can do. Everything should be about what empowers you and makes you feel good about yourself, and not letting other people put that on you. When you look out into my audience, it’s [made up of] women of all shapes and sizes, and all different ages, embracing glamour and beauty; you know, wearing red lipstick and curling their hair, and wearing clothes that they feel good in. It’s not just about trying to fit into an American stereotype of beauty and having a little nose and having natural makeup and blonde hair. You can create something different than that and achieve beauty and glamour for yourself.
Have you, at any point in your career, ever felt objectified?
The only times that I did feel objectified, I took control of it. I’ve always, throughout my career, been very quick to say what I am okay with and what I am not okay with. And that has never faltered or changed.
On the other hand, one thing that I find very interesting is that I think deep down we all want to be objectified at one point or another. In a way, it’s kind of the ultimate taboo to let go, to say, “I want to be worshipped and adored for just this one moment, and I don’t care if he’s loving me for my mind.” It’s like, there’s this moment where you kind of fantasize about one moment where you’re being just objectified; you don’t have to talk about anything, [and] you don’t have to say anything. I mean, when you’re in the bedroom, do you really care if someone is concerned about your intellect? I think that sometimes you have to let that go.
It’s not my problem if somebody thinks that I’m an object, because I know that I’m not. These lavish shows that I create on my own that can stand on their own in the casinos—the Perry Stage or the Las Vegas Crazy Horse stage—I created them myself. I’m not just the girl performing the show. I did the music, I did the costumes, I even did the lighting. If someone’s objectifying me, I think they’re missing the point, or they don’t know enough about me, and I don’t think that they really need to know more about me. It’s like that saying, “What people think of me is not my problem—it’s theirs.”
Dita Von Teese will be appearing at House of Blues on Tuesday, July 26 at 8 and 11 p.m. Tickets are $42. She will also be doing a book signing at the Garden District Book Shop Monday, July 25, 5-7 p.m. For more information, visit dita.net or follow Dita on Twitter.