By Brian Feinzimer
By Charles Lam
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Joel Beers
It's customary for beautiful women in Hollywood to feel the need to prove how little they have done to become beautiful. They deny plastic-surgery claims with the intensity of politicians caught in sex scandals. (Remember when Kim Kardashian X-rayed her butt to ward off implant rumors?) They chirp the standard "Healthy meals and jogging!" when asked how they achieved bikini-ready abs just two weeks after giving birth. They attribute their pores-free, CGI-quality complexions to good genes and Pond's Cold Cream.
Dita Von Teese makes no such deflections. Wearing a sculpted black dress and a black blusher veil that casts a delicate shadow over her ivory face, the 39-year-old burlesque queen is a walking revival of Old Hollywood glamour, Veronica Lake mixed with Lauren Bacall—but she's quick to attest that the transformation took work.
"Back [at University High School in Irvine], my friend would call me and ask, 'Hey, do you wanna go out?'" she recalls as she sips on hot water at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, where she's performing later that night. "I would say, 'No, I'm gonna stay home and practice doing my hair.'"
There's very little about the Orange County-raised pin-up darling that hasn't been meticulously constructed. Her breasts are enhanced. (She once described plastic surgery as a "dramatic form of makeup.") The trademark beauty mark at the top of her left cheekbone is a tattoo. Her hourglass body is made even more comic-book curvy with tightly laced corsets. Her jet-black hair is a dye job, and her eyebrows are carefully darkened with a box of Just for Men.
In the world of successful stars, Von Teese is one who's proudly self-made. Faux-natural. And what she has created is a modern burlesque superheroine. Inspired by the likes of Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr, she has brought back the spectacle and dazzle of the old-time striptease, an art form that thrived long before girls twirled on poles under disco lights.
This month, Von Teese brings her new revue to the Yost Theater. "Strip Strip Hooray!" is her most lavish show ever—she dons a haute-couture tuxedo that costs more than a Mercedes, rides a mechanical bull decked out in thousands of Swarovski crystals, and splashes around in her signature bathtub-sized martini glass (now with even more bling). "Every act is a showstopper," says the international performer, who has charm-school poise and the posture of someone balancing a pile of books on her head.
"When I was 22 years old, I really thought I'd be done [by now]," she adds, reflectively. "I thought my pictures would be preserved, like, 'Oh, here's a moment in time when I was at my best and most beautiful.' I was so wrong."
* * *
Von Teese's metamorphosis began when she was a young girl named Heather Sweet. Her family moved from the farming town of West Branch, Michigan, to the slightly more glamorous city of Irvine when she was 12. She says it was a culture shock—other girls at Lakeside Middle School were kissing boys and having sex, while she was still playing with dolls, but the still-Midwestern girl was too focused on ballet to care much. She would clean the bathrooms at a local dance studio in exchange for free classes. "I wanted to be a ballerina," she says, "but by 14 or 15, I realized I'd never become one."
At home, she developed a fascination with lingerie and would sometimes steal bras from her mother's drawer and try them on. There was an alluring mystique about the dainty undergarments. "I equated lingerie with this rite of passage as a woman," she explains. "I never equated it with seduction."
A long-gone Irvine lingerie store, Lady Ruby's, solidified her fascination with unmentionables, and Von Teese began collecting vintage pieces—silky slips, intricate garter panties, lace-up corsets. Her interest soon manifested into a scholarly obsession with Golden Era glamour, with many afternoons spent in the library reading biographies of '40s and '50s stars and collecting vintage men's magazines with names such as Wink, Titter and Eyeful, poring over the pages of pin-up wonders such as Bettie Page. She'd watch Technicolor-tinted musicals starring her favorite icons, Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda.
"What struck me the most about these women is that they were created," Von Teese says. "It's very obvious that it's not about natural beauty; it's about the art of creating glamour. I wanted to give myself that big Hollywood makeover."
In doing so, Von Teese would spend hours perfecting her look in front of a mirror, teasing her long blond tresses into a full beehive, drawing cat-eye wings along her lash line and coloring her lips a bold scarlet. She and her best friend, Brooke, would walk through the halls of Uni High (the same school that was the alma mater to—talk about different poles of America's cultural tent—Will Ferrell, Zack de la Rocha and liberal blogger Ezra Klein) wearing retro-inspired outfits usually assembled from flea-market finds. They didn't have a lot of other friends, but they knew they were "admired from afar" for being different.