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.
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."
* * *
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."
"Anyone can throw on a feather boa and call themselves classy because they don't take their clothes off," she continues. "That's not the challenge. The challenge is to change people's minds about striptease. There was a time when striptease was actually a legitimate form of entertainment and not a bad word."
"Strip Strip Hooray!" is a revue that was two years in the making. Von Teese says that over the years, the production values of her shows have evolved, as has her performance style. Her acts have become more "womanly and sophisticated."
While she says she's in better shape than ever thanks to Pilates, ballet classes and following Kimberly Snyder's Beauty Detox Solution as if it were a religion, the 39-year-old claims, "This is it for me," in terms of performing.
Von Teese currently splits her time between Los Angeles and Paris, and she has her hands full with other projects—putting the finishing touches on a new beauty book while working on a dress collection, a perfume, and lingerie and cosmetics lines. She does want to create more shows, only now from the director's seat.
"I would like to step aside," she says. "I think it's very important to know when it's time."
No matter where she heads next, glamor will always reign in her life. When asked if she does anything that's un-Dita Von Teese—lounge at home in sweat pants? Walk outside with chipped nail polish?—she pauses. "I leave toothpaste in the sink," she says. "I had a boyfriend who was like, "Man, if anyone knew how much toothpaste you leave in the sink . . .'"
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She smiles, reveling in her confession.
"I was like, 'Whatever,'" she says with a laugh. "Nobody's perfect."
This article appeared in print as "The Return of the Striptease Native: Dita Von Teese brings her latest (and last?) burlesque extravaganza back to where it all began."