By Brian Feinzimer
By Charles Lam
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Joel Beers
Men never understood Von Teese's style. "I had a boyfriend for five years starting at age 15," she says. "He was a real typical surfer guy and definitely wasn't encouraging me to dress like a maniac. He'd be like, 'Wow, are you gonna go out wearing that?'"
The answer was always yes.
"I remember walking by myself somewhere, and some guys were making fun of me," she says. "I'm very pale and was wearing some extravagant hat. I remember just looking at them and the way they were dressed and thinking, 'This is a very fine compliment that these people think I look crazy and ugly. It's great if they don't like me. This is a compliment.' I have always believed that."
After high school, Von Teese started posing for pin-up magazines and dived into the Los Angeles rave scene. One day, a friend brought her to the legendary, now-closed Captain Cream's in Lake Forest. She had heard the club was hosting an audition night for new showgirls and decided to sign up.
The girls who took the stage before her danced in itty-bitty neon bikinis while rock & roll tracks blasted through the sound system. Then it was Heather Sweet's turn. She emerged in a pink corset, long black gloves, stockings and black boots. The crowd was confused—but liked her.
Afterward, the manager pulled her aside and said, "You're different. I like what you do. But you're hardly showing any skin."
He hired her, anyway, and told her to pick a stage name. Having just seen a movie with German actress Dita Parlo, she chose "Dita." (Von Teese got tacked on when Playboy's lingerie edition required a last name. She plucked "Von Treese" out of a phone book, but when the magazine came out, it was misspelled as "Von Teese." The typo stuck.)
The Captain Cream's gig was an "elaborate game of dress-up." It was the job that kicked her life into gear—she had been doing drugs but stopped when she began performing because she "needed to be focused and centered."
"I really enjoyed it," she says of her role. "I became more and more known. People would come from all over because they heard there was this strange girl wearing fetishistic, retro-style clothing. I'd save my money to get new costumes and kept building a little more of a show."
One day, the manager announced the club was going topless. Each girl had a choice—she could be either a topless girl or a bikini girl, but she couldn't be both. Von Teese became a topless girl.
"I didn't have a problem with it," she says. "I've always felt very comfortable with my body. I didn't see what the big deal was with breasts. I still don't. Maybe it's the European part of me. I don't remember feeling nervous or anxious. I don't remember feeling anything about it."
She adds, "There was always a very distinctive separation between what I do onstage and what I do in front of people in real life. I've never been an exhibitionist. I don't get a thrill from showing my body. I get a thrill from creating shows, portraying glamour, portraying a different version of sensuality that is pretty far removed from who I am in the bedroom." With real-life intimacy and seduction, she says, "there's a different kind of vulnerability."
Von Teese started performing shows away from the strip club as the face of Versatile Fashions, an Anaheim company that made fetishistic clothing. She toured fetish clubs in Long Beach, New York and London, bringing a pin-up element to a world of whips, chains, spikes and heavy tattoos. "People would say, 'I don't get why she is here,'" she says. "It took awhile before people understood what I was doing."
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The neo-burlesque movement shimmied into big cities across the globe in the 1990s, some say out of a growing desensitization to society's in-your-face-sex culture. Performers wanted to re-create classic burlesque dances, but it was difficult because there was no video footage from back then. So they invented their own acts. Their craft focused on the "tease" more than the "strip," though there was certainly a good amount of clothing shed.
Von Teese wanted to live out her "most glamorous fantasies" in her shows, which meant designing a dream world with opulent sets, over-the-top costumes, dramatic music and sensual lighting that illuminated her curves. Her productions attracted audiences of mostly women, many of whom told her that watching her strip made them feel empowered.
Being in the scene for so long, Von Teese now sees herself as an ambassador for burlesque. She hates when people use the term to describe a booty-shaking dance style, à la the Pussycat Dolls. She believes one of the biggest setbacks for the burlesque community was the 2010 film Burlesque, starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, which, she says, "had no real burlesque in it."
"Burlesque was not about dancing girls," she says. "It was not about singing. Burlesque was a striptease show. The history exists. I feel a strong commitment to keeping the real essence of burlesque alive, to keeping it risqué, keeping it titillating, keeping it true to what it was in the '30s: G-strings and pasties. It's adult entertainment."