In honor of Women’s History Month, and inspired by the #5WomenArtists project led by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we are asking burlesque artists to share with us their thoughts on their art form. We’re closing out the series with an interview with burlesque superstar Dita Von Teese. Since starting burlesque in the early 1990s, Dita has gone on to be easily the most recognizable burlesque performer in the world. She has appeared on CSI, America’s Next Top Model, and Project: Runway; published two books, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese and Your Beauty Mark; appeared in videos for Green Day, Thirty Seconds to Mars, and Marilyn Manson; modeled for Jean Paul Gauthier, Vivienne Westwood, and Moschino; released an album; and launched her own fashion lines – all while touring around the world. In 2012, she was awarded BHoF’s Sassy Lassy award for her contribution to the perpetuation of the art of burlesque.
BHoF: Why did you choose burlesque as your art form?
I grew up in a very small town, a dishwater blonde, not very glamorous… my mother loved watching movies from the 1940s, so the image of the glamorous Hollywood icon of glamour was embedded in my mind from a very young age. When I was old enough to wear makeup, I started with red lipstick, and by the time I was 19, I was styling myself like the ladies I was obsessed with as a girl, and recreating 1940s and 50s style pin-ups. I became famous for this in the early 90s as a fetish model and then with Playboy, and decided to try to create burlesque acts, starting with a feather fan dance. I chose burlesque because, historically, many of the women that posed for pinup magazines were also burlesque dancers, plus I was an aspiring ballerina…but not very talented at that, so it was a great way to parlay my desire to be on stage into something unique. I headlined fetish parties and upscale strip clubs in the 90s, and eventually produced my own shows around LA, and started touring with Strip, Strip, Hooray!, then with The Art of the Teese, and this fall and 2020 with a brand new production.
BHoF: What do you want to get across with your work?
Originally, I set out to become the modern answer to Bettie Page with the pin-up images, and then Gypsy Rose Lee with burlesque shows; my first mission was to fill a void in the glamour modeling world… but it wasn’t until around 2002 that I saw a distinctive shift. My audience was originally predominantly straight men and more couples, but then it began to change to a female and LGBTQ audience. I think this happened after the release of my first book, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese, where I intertwine burlesque history with my own personal story of finding confidence through glamour. I think that the idea of creating one’s own myth and using glamour as a transformative power resonated with others that were also looking for a way to feel confident and glamorous in their own lives.
In all of my work, I try to convey everyday glamour as a path to confidence and I also try to showcase diversity in beauty by casting performers for my shows and models for my lingerie campaigns and touring shows that I think represent sensuality and femininity in various forms. My personal work is about fantasy and glamour, but in a way that reveals my secrets and shows people they can use the tricks of the trade in real life. (My 400-page book Your Beauty Mark, The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour is an example of that)
My aim has always been to evolve classic burlesque into something new and relevant, hopefully paving the way for other striptease dancers to be accepted in mainstream media. It was very difficult for me to explain to others why burlesque could be considered a legitimate form of entertainment when I was first starting out, so I think that’s begun to change and it’s one of the things I feel accomplished having a role in.
BHoF: What is your process for putting an act together?
Many of the acts that I do are created in collaboration with Catherine D’Lish, who was famously titled Miss Exotic World twice. Our process together has changed over the years, each act from the martini and champagne glasses to the carousel horse and the birdcage, each has its own story. I always remember where we thought of the idea and fleshed out the concept. The thing is, we never duplicated anything that was already done in past; we always wanted to think of ways to evolve burlesque acts to a place they were never done before, each act more extravagant than the last project. And with every new act, I create a new soundtrack, with charts made for every instrument. I don’t use synthesized or vintage music, it’s all done with real players and real instruments.
I also created a few acts utilizing state-of-the-art video mapping technology in Paris in collaboration with Ali Mahdavi and the Crazy Horse Paris, and then again for a hologram striptease with Christian Louboutin.
All in all, the ideas come from many different places and the desire to my own mark on the history of burlesque. When I first started out, most of the inspiration came from vintage pictures, and ideas of what I thought burlesque might be like. I didn’t have YouTube – there was no Google to study actual burlesque dancers. I didn’t have much reference at all, except for a few VHS tapes with videos of Sally Rand.
BHoF: How do you know if an act is “working”?
There are always different phases of creating an act… there’s also the fear of throwing a ton of money at an idea and not loving it in the end. That is always a risk. There have been times when I’ve made an act that just didn’t seem to suit my personality in the end. There is often much trial and error; I have props and even costumes that didn’t really function the way I wanted them to. It’s one of the frustrating things about being copied, sometimes others just see the end result, and they don’t really realize or care how much trial and error went into the creation of something, and just attempt to adapt it as their own, rarely giving credit to the origins.
Sometimes it takes me some time before I know if it’s working. I’ve spent YEARS working on an act. Sometimes there’s a glitch or I’ll have a block of what to do to solve a problem to create the “climax.” I can be full of self-doubt; that’s the thing with totally new ideas… it’s hard to know what will resonate with other people. There was one act I created that I didn’t have any confidence in until I toured with it. I was doing it occasionally at fancy VIP events and it was lost on that kind of audience, but a major hit on my tour amongst burlesque fans.
BHoF: What makes you feel best about being a burlesque performer?
For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a ballet dancer. When I was a little girl, I had this 1950s-era vinyl record, and on it, there was a photograph of a ballerina with dramatic winged eyeliner, red lipstick, and she was wearing a pale blue tutu, flesh toned fishnet tights and blue satin pointe shoes. I wanted to be her! I took ballet classes all my life, even cleaning the studio bathrooms in exchange for lessons. By the time I was a teenager, I realized I was never going to be a good enough dancer to be a professional ballerina, no matter how badly I wanted it, or how much I practiced. My ballet teachers thought that I had great presence, elegance of carriage, nice feet and I was strong en pointe…but I just couldn’t remember choreography, and I couldn’t jump or do perfect turns in certain directions.
When I was 19, I started wearing that 1950s style winged eyeliner and red lipstick, and dressing in vintage style. It wasn’t long after that I began creating vintage style burlesque shows. A few years ago, someone asked me if there was a dream that I knew I would never realize, and so I mentioned my childhood dreams of being a ballerina. I suddenly realized that, in a way, I had been given everything that I REALLY wanted… I wanted to be that woman on the album cover. Truthfully, I never really LOVED dancing per se; I loved what ballet stood for. I loved the glamour, the femininity, the elegance, the drama…not to mention the sparkling costumes and pink spotlights. Showbiz. That’s what I wanted.
If I hadn’t been a lousy ballet dancer, I doubt that I would have pursued the obscure idea of being a 1940s style burlesque dancer. I believe that sometimes, our shortcomings can lead to greatness, because those of us that have intense desire but lack natural God-given talent sometimes find round-about ways of realizing dreams. I never expected to become famous for doing my little feather fans dances and for bathing in a giant champagne glass, but I strongly feel that with integrity and a real love for showbiz and burlesque, I’ve made my mark in a more significant way than I might have if I had just been a good ballet dancer.
BHoF: What has been your greatest challenge as a burlesque artist?
There have always been obstacles; starting off, it wasn’t easy because I had no real living examples of what I wanted to do. I had to try to explain to my family what I was doing, and so it wasn’t easy without other examples of burlesque dancers as legitimate performers, and then even when I became famous for burlesque, there were people trying to get me to move on and become an actress — as if all my work as a burlesque dancer was merely a stepping stone to something bigger. And then proving myself isn’t always easy. In big showbiz meetings, I’m met with some kind of selling power doubt, and I tell them I sold out five nights at the London Palladium, I’m met with disbelief that I play these big revered stages to sold out crowds. I’m always trying to prove that there’s an audience for this.