The American queen of burlesque, muse of famous fashion designers and photographers, Dita Von Teese is a woman of many talents. Born Heather Renée Sweet, she is the incarnation of glamor and femininity. Dita opens up to Narcisse about the beginnings of her career and the secret of being the greatest burlesque dancer of our time.
1. Dita, you started training in ballet at an early age. How did your passion for dance begin and how has it influenced your performance as a burlesque dancer?
I did start taking ballet lessons early on, but you have to understand that I grew up in a small farming town in Michigan, and so it wasn’t formal training by any means. It was a little ballet studio, the only one in the town, and I would clean the bathrooms in exchange for ballet classes. As a teenager, I’d sometimes be accepted into summer dance programs, but we couldn’t afford the tuitions, and at the same time, I wasn’t good enough to get a scholarship. I always LOVED ballet, and all it stood for, and that’s what I wanted to do, but unfortunately I just wasn’t good enough. That being said, I believe that my failure as a ballet dancer is exactly what paved the way for what I do now. I had a love of performance, a love for the elegance as well as the femininity and the glamour of ballet and I parlayed all that into something unique. That sparked a resurgence for elevated striptease, and I guess I’ll be remembered for that. I’m sure I would have never been remembered as a great ballet dancer!
2. How did you first discover the world of burlesque and who were the burlesque dancers that inspired you?
It’s a long story. I was dressing in 1940’s style in the early 1990’s and I began recreating vintage style pin-up photos. I had the first-ever pin-up website, and I became well known in the rockabilly and fetish scenes, and I was also famous among Playboy fans in the mid 90’s. At that time, a lot of the men’s magazine models were touring upscale strip clubs as headlining stars, so I started making elaborate vintage striptease acts that I’d tour with. This was a time when being a glamour model in the States was big, and everyone knew about Playboy Playmates. These big clubs would advertise in newspapers and billboards to « Come see Playboy star Dita Von Teese live onstage! » and that’s really the way I became well known. Then I was booked to perform at parties in London and Paris for Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Chopard and lots of other brands. I was also the first guest star at the Crazy Horse Paris, and I got a lot of mainstream attention for that in France. The first dancer that inspired me was the fan dancer Sally Rand. Gypsy Rose Lee also inspired me, or I should say the depiction of her in the 1962 Gypsy film starring Natalie Wood. I soon discovered Lili St. Cyr, and then around 2000, I met a performer named Catherine D’Lish, who became my best friend. We created together super lavish costumes and props and that really changed the way burlesque was done. She’s the one who encouraged me to go beyond referencing the. past. I’m proud to have had her by my side during the creation of so many of the acts that I have been recognized for - from the martini glass to my Swan Lake striptease.
Photographer GREG SWALES // Make Up Artist LLOYD SIMMONDS @GREENAPPLEITALY // Hair Stylist MARC ORSATELLI @AGENCEAURELIEN // Florist THIERRY FÉRET // Talent DITA VON TEESE @TRUEPUBLICRELATIONS
3. How do you define femininity?
I remember as a little girl I just loved lady things, things like perfume, lipstick, lacy lingerie and such. So later when I saw these things fetishized I based my career on this idea.
4. What’s the secret to being the greatest burlesque dancer?
Making it look effortless. The worst thing to watch onstage is someone that is trying too hard to dance and trying to be sexy. One has to have a true understanding of what it really means to be sexy. But honestly it has to appear natural. You can’t decide what kind of burlesque dancer you’re going to be by watching someone else’s performance. I had to imagine what burlesque might be like, and I’d tap into my own dance style and ability. I took cues from classic films and would try to emulate Cyd Charisse’s most simple movements.
5. You were guest starring at the Fashion Freak Show by Jean Paul Gaultier in Paris this spring. Can you please tell us how you first met Jean Paul and about your long-time friendship?
I think I met him around 2002 or 2003 in Paris. There was a circle of friends I’d made in Paris, and one of them, Suzanne von Aichinger was working with Jean Paul at the time, and she introduced us. I’ve admired Jean Paul for so long; I used to scour the vintage stores in the 90’s for bullet bras to emulate the things he was making. His work has always been a big inspiration for me and being a part of his fantastic show is like a dream. The show is a perfect reflection of his incredible life and career.
6. Having a big social media presence is very important today. How do you get the time to keep your fans updated?
I love social media for many reasons. It gave me a voice when I seemed to be just kind of a mysterious pin-up girl. When Twitter started, it gave me a way to communicate in a new way. I love having the power to set the record straight about things. I love being able to tell people when I’m performing or when I have a new lingerie line out, and I also love to know what interests my fans. It’s not easy to keep up with it all sometimes, but I take breaks. I’m not constantly posting and I’m definitely not a selfie-queen.
7. Today the fashion world is celebrating difference and diversity. Has the movement affected the choices you make when selecting other performers to appear with you on stage?
I have always hired transgender performers, drag artists, performers of colour, and dancers of various ages and body types. Personality and character is what makes someone worth watching onstage. I’ve always cast my show with people that have the ability to change people’s minds about what it is to be a burlesque performer. And I certainly understand the meaning it has for the audience to see performers that represent different types of beauty.
8. When you’re not busy on stage or modelling, what are some of your favourite things to do in LA?
I love going to the big antique markets in the LA area, it’s really fun hunting for treasures. I’ve been working on the decor of my house, the gardens, and I like to spend time in my little vintage log cabin in the woods up in the mountains.