Dita Von Teese talks about being shy, stripping for Playboy and why she doesn’t feel objectified on stage.
There is something doll-like about Dita Von Teese. Perched on a chair in the library of The Dorchester hotel in west London, her hands folded in her lap, the burlesque beauty is the epitome of femininity.
She’s wearing a figure-hugging black dress, her hair coiffured in her trademark 1940s style and her make-up topped off with blood-red lips, but confesses her bold style hasn’t always matched her personality.
‘I’m in a very different package now,’ says Von Teese, who recently turned 40. ‘When I first started dressing extravagantly and dyeing my hair black, I was really shy and going for an unapproachable look was a way of counteracting the shyness.’
It’s hard to imagine she was ever a wallflower. This is the woman who has made the art of burlesque (performances in a variety show format, which included a form of tongue-in-cheek stripping, that were popular from the 1860s to the 1940s) so mainstream that it seems every gym in the country offers classes in it.
She has a formidable reputation as a seductress, with roles ranging from fetish porn to a stint on America’s Top Model, and was previously married to US shock-rocker Marilyn Manson. But when you meet Von Teese, her soft, gentle voice hints at the blonde girl-next-door she once was.
Born Heather Renée Sweet, Von Teese grew up in the farming town of Rochester, Michigan. As the daughter of a machinist and a manicurist, she lived a quiet life but says ‘it was a charming way to grow up’. It’s no secret her image is based on the vintage Hollywood movies she watched as a girl but she admits this isn’t the only reason for her dramatic look.
‘I’m the middle child of three sisters and when I was growing up I always felt like I would disappear,’ she says. ‘I felt like the ugly duckling. I make jokes about having classic middle child syndrome but I definitely think that has a lot to do with why I am the way I am today.’
Whatever the formula for her success, it’s working. Von Teese has become a brand – besides acting and modelling roles, she is also an author, a clothing and lingerie designer, and a style icon. And she does look good, which is why her shows always sell out. Last month, she gave a performance for 60 people at The Dover Street Arts Club to rave reviews. Now there are plans to bring her show Strip Strip Hooray! to Britain.
‘We’re just planning the logistics,’ says Von Teese, ‘but we’re looking at theatre-style venues with a 400 to 600 capacity. They need to be glamorous and have good staging ability to hold my biggest sets and props.’
Her stage career hasn’t always been so glamorous. Von Teese started out in a strip bar in Orange County, California. ‘I was an 18-year-old girl and lived my own life,’ she says. ‘I worked six days a week for hours a day and I paid my own rent.’
So how did her parents feel about her taking her clothes off? ‘There wasn’t a lot they could do about it,’ says Von Teese. ‘My mother always had faith that I was doing the right thing and taking care of myself. She trusted that I would be professional and make the right decisions.’
It was during these shows that Von Teese started building her burlesque routine. Although there’s some debate over the difference between burlesque and stripping, she maintains they are the same thing. ‘I love the word “stripper”,’ says Von Teese. ‘From the beginning, my goal has always been to change the way people see strippers. I think there’s an amazing history of striptease and entertainment, especially in America. I’m a stripper and I’m proud of it.’
Von Teese got her big break in 2002 when she was asked to pose on the cover of Playboy. ‘At the time, it had a real cache,’ she says. ‘So many great women had graced the cover, such as Drew Barrymore, Sharon Stone and Naomi Campbell. It was a great era of Playboy. There weren’t reality stars on the cover.’
That was when Heather Sweet became Dita Von Teese. Having adopted the stage name Dita (after silent film actress Dita Parlo), she was asked for a surname for the Playboy cover. She searched the phone book and chose the name ‘Von Treese’ but the magazine misspelt it.
All eyes may be on her half-naked body when she’s on stage but she denies feeling objectified. ‘My audience is about 80 per cent women, the other 20 per cent comprises husbands and boyfriends of those women, and gay men, so it’s hard to say I feel objectified,’ says Von Teese. ‘I feel more objectified when someone comes up with a camera phone and takes a picture without asking, or introduces themselves while I’m mid-sentence in conversation or eating my dinner.’
Despite reports of Von Teese claiming she will strip until she’s 70, she says she was quoted out of context. Although there’s a few more years of striptease in her yet, she says the comment was about a hologram made for a Christian Louboutin show. ‘Don’t worry,’ she laughs, ‘I won’t be on stage in a G-string when I’m 70.’
Dita’s party tips
Dita Von Teese loves to entertain. ‘I don’t like parties where everyone sits around doing nothing, so I have these parties we call “garden arts” and everyone brings an artistic project,’ she says. ‘One of my friends is a great mixologist, so she showed us how to make the perfect cocktail.’
Cocktails flow in abundance at her parties and Von Teese enjoys mixing up a MargaDita for her guests. ‘It’s a glamorous spicy rose twist on the classic and I drink it straight up or on the rocks,’ she says.
Von Teese has recently launched the vintage-styled My Cointreau Evening Bag, which has removable compartments containing everything you’ll need to whip up the perfect cocktail. It includes a bottle of Cointreau, spices, mixing spoon, measuring cup and cocktail book with Von Teese’s secret recipes.
£559, available from Selfridges.
Make a MargaDita
25ml fresh lime juice
Dash of Monin Rose Syrup
Pinch of chipotle spice
Shake all the ingredients with ice in a shaker. Strain into a coupe glass.