When Dita Von Teese decided to bring her new burlesque tour “The Art of The Teese” to her home state of Michigan for the first time ever, she admits she was concerned about selling tickets.
“It’s a big financial risk, but we picked a few places I’ve never been and Detroit was the first city to sell out,” Von Teese said. “We’ve been opening more and more seats, but it’s the fastest selling show of all of them. That really warmed my heart. I was like ‘Oh Michigan.’ I’m going to go back to Michigan all the time.”
The only pressure then, Von Teese said, was creating the ultimate burlesque show, a spectacle for new audiences.
“I was like ‘well, what do I do?’ I need to bring my A game. I need to bring the very very best best numbers,” she said about her plans for never-before-seen performances as well as re-worked versions of acts that she is so well-known for.
“I can’t just put together a new show and leave all the good stuff behind so I had to strike the balance between giving my faithful ticket holders lots of new things to see, but also maintain the top level of what kind of burlesque show I want to present.”
Performing striptease since 1992, Von Teese is arguably the biggest name in burlesque in the world since Gypsy Rose Lee. She has transformed the art of burlesque from the traditional Victorian-style – originally men’s entertainment in its golden age in the 1940s and ’50s – to the neo-burlesque genre, with its feathers and Swarovski crystals, which Von Teese said attracts 80 percent women and the LGBTQ community.
The naturally blond, mid-western glamour girl, born Heather Sweet, has branded herself a muse to the world’s top fashion designers, owner of a line of fragrances, cosmetics, eyewear, lingerie and hosiery, and is a New York Times bestselling author.
Von Teese speaks out about how she’s changing the ideals of beauty, the importance of empowering women, and what she loves about burlesque after reviving the art more than 20 years ago.
You’re no stranger to strutting your stuff on stage in custom shoes by Christian Louboutin, but it’s not like you to march in solidarity for civil rights. What inspired you to join 750,000 people in downtown L.A. to coincide with the Women’s March on Washington?
I don’t like to get too politically charged. A lot of people know I never really get involved. I don’t use my social media very much for that because I respect each other’s opinions and beliefs. I think I wasn’t planning on going and I opened my eyes and I was like ‘I need to cancel everything and go do this.’ I feel like it was great to be around so many like-minded people. I live in California. It helps. We’re as liberal as it gets I’ve heard. But I think everyone had different reasons that they were there and my reasons were mostly for – alot for my LGBTQ community – I’m always very concerned for their rights. You know there’s been a lot of work done to get where they are now and it concerns me that any of their rights could be stripped away in the new administration. That’s one of my biggest concerns in fact. It was really wonderful to be with all those people and have it be so peaceful and fun. I did have a few people who were upset that I even attended and I thought that was very interesting. I didn’t see it as going and taking a stand against President Trump. It’s not just that. It’s the overall feeling and the mood of everything and everyone. It’s not even just him. It’s what he’s incited and how he has given people permission to say things to discriminate. To be supportive and have people come out and say it’s not okay to say things like that about people. Free speech is one thing, but this is different.
Without spoiling all the surprises, tease us with a few show details.
There are some amazing burlesque stars like the show-stopping Dirty Martini, Jett Adore from Chicago, my co-creator Catherine D’lish has an all new act to debut, plus Ginger Valentine from Texas will perform one of my own signature acts in her own unique way. My co-star, MC Murray Hill – he’s the glue of the entire show. He brings the raucous comedy element. We’ll be creating iconic numbers with my martini glass, my champagne glass and a giant gold bird cage. All new costumes by British designer Jenny Packham. We’re really bringing it. I’m performing a number that I’ve never done on stage. I’ve only done it three times at private parties in the U.S. There is a ballet-themed number. Ballet is rooted in my childhood obsessions. When I was a MAC Cosmetic’s Viva Glam spokesperson, I rode a giant lipstick. Instead, I will ride a bull. I said I have to bring this one to Michigan. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek. There is not much that is serious about the show. It’s a playful side of sensuality.
What did you mean when you said it’s ‘no longer exciting just to see a pretty girl on stage’ and that the women you cast have a ‘distinctive sense of self?’
Having done my show at the Crazy Horse in Paris where famously all the girls have the same body shape and height, they are all very beautiful, get weighed in every week and have to stay within a certain weight range – it’s very strict, but it’s a beautiful, astonishing effect, too, I have to say. But for me, what I think the appeal of burlesque is that the very best performers that bring the house down and shake the rafters, that the audience goes bananas over – they know how to bring their personality and character to the stage and they just have that superstar quality. I think a lot of people, some of the biggest stars of burlesque are not girls that fit into pinup standards. They are changing the ideals of beauty. People get inspiried seeing someone that they can relate to in some ways. I feel like even throughout my career – I started when I was a 21-year-old girl and I’m 44 years old now – I think it’s important that when somebody comes and sees the show that they see people, not just women, but gender fluid people, and men even, in various stages of life and in various stages of their beauty. I think it’s important just as much as diversity and beauty and body shape and ethnicity – all those things are very important to me in casting my show.
If other women are looking to you as a role model, what might you say to them about how to develop or maintain confidence?
I write a lot about that in my book (a 400-page illustrated book called Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour). It’s hard for me in a lot of ways to write a guide that presents my ideas of what I think beauty and glamour is because I’m always saying, “What is it for you?” I’m telling you that I love black lace and black lingerie and black stockings and red lipstick, but what is it for you? It could be white cotton underwear and there’s a way to own that and make that sexy and beautiful, too. It’s really about getting into what makes you feel good about yourself because if I’d looked to what the men in my life wanted me to look like or be like, it wouldn’t be like this. It wouldn’t look like this so I think throughout my adult life I’ve always had to make decisions about what I thought made me feel good about myself and what made me feel confident and just really stick with what’s in my heart regardless of what someone else says about me.
Everyone has a different view of what feminism is. What is yours?
It’s like setting boundaries for yourself and I think that’s the important thing. We all have those boundaries. It’s okay to respect each other’s and the idea of burlesque being a modern kind of feminism where woman are comfortable with their sexuality and they realize that indulging in playful, fun, glamorous, sensuality can feel good. The thing is we all have to repsect each other’s different definitions of what it is to be a feminist because ultimately it just means we all have the same opportunity to do whatever we want. It’s a very broad and very vast idea.
What do you love so much about burlesque?
I like that it creates a discussion. What one person finds degrading, another person might find inspiring. I started my career as a fetish model, a bondage model, like Bettie Page, and I found it empowering to be tied up and take these bondage photos. I loved it. I’m in a safe space to feel objectified if I want to and then I step out of it and I’m in control of my entire life. Knowing that play space versus real life. I think the same thing with burlesque. I turn something that someone could have perceived as being degrading to me when I was a 19-year-old girl working in the strip club – I turned that into something else. I’m not telling you that it’s for everyone to think burlesque is empowering. You can make your own judgments. I just want people to come and see what it’s all about.