When Dita Von Teese was navigating the art of burlesque in the early 1990s, her resources were limited. “I started making shows before there was the internet,” she says. “My only references were things that I read about in books, still photos that I had and a couple of different movies that glorified versions of burlesque.” So rather than cull inspiration from other performances, she was forced to come up with her own ideas of what to do on stage, making her approach completely unique. “I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been so successful,” she says.
To call her merely “successful” is an understatement. In her 20-year career, Von Teese, 40, has catapulted from niche performer to megawatt celebrity, cultivating the sort of A-list status normally reserved for actors or pop stars. She’s graced the cover of fashion magazines such as Elle, Bazaar and Marie Claire, is regularly spotted front row at Paris Fashion Week, counts Christian Louboutin and Kelly Osbourne as friends and is a regular fixture in gossip magazines and blogs. But her appeal stretches outside of the media realm, too — this summer, she’s traveling the country with “Strip Strip Hooray,” a 90-minute revue that stops at the House of Blues in Chicago July 11-13.
“I’ve been performing burlesque since 1991, and I finally managed to put all of my biggest production numbers into one revue, with a supporting cast of the best in burlesque,” says Von Teese. (Included in her Chicago lineup is Michelle L’Amour, a noted local performer.) In “Strip Strip Hooray,” Von Teese will perform a range of acts, including one set in an opium den and one where she works with a pink mechanical bull. For each seven-minute number, Von Teese does all of the original choreography and has a hand in every other element, including the music, props, lighting and elaborate costumes. She draws inspiration from everything around her, from old movies to ballet performances to fashion, and when it comes to pushing boundaries, Von Teese relishes the opportunity. “My favorite challenge is to blend the taboo and risqué with high glamour and beauty and elegance. The lines aren’t always that clear. But you can look at an image of someone who is clothed, and it’s sometimes trashier than someone who is completely nude.”
Her commitment to the art is part of what has made Von Teese a leader in the neo-burlesque movement. Burlesque is an art form that relies on the tease; in her acts, Von Teese slowly removes articles of clothing, artfully undressing though she’s never fully naked. It began in England in the mid-1800s and was popular in the United States through the 1940s, and though it fell out of favor in the mid-20th century, it has enjoyed a recent resurgence — with Von Teese at the forefront. “I feel like it has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve believed in it for so long and have been at it for so long, even when it wasn’t popular or cool,” she says. “I’ve got 20 years of creating these numbers. I feel like every once in a while the universe is watching and sees who is putting in the time and wants it for the right reasons, not because they want to be famous. Because I don’t really care about the fame aspect. I’m grateful for the recognition, but I feel a big responsibility among the burlesque community to speak eloquently about the history of it and stand up for it when media tries to commercialize it or turn it into something it never was.”
I’ve got 20 years of
creating these numbers. I feel like every once in a while, the universe is watching and sees who is putting in the time and wants it for the right reasons.
As burlesque has moved into the cultural consciousness, Von Teese has seen a shift in audiences too. “Now, the audiences at my shows are mostly female. You look in the audience and see women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages — you feel they’re embracing glamour and are happy to see a show that has different kinds of beauty. They’re getting the message that sensuality comes in different forms. I feel like that’s what the neo-burlesque movement is all about, and that’s really exciting to me.”
Von Teese, born Heather Sweet, grew up in Michigan until the age of 12, when she moved to Orange County, California. “I was an extremely shy little girl,” she says. “I loved ballet. I loved everything about it. I loved the costumes, the point shoes, pictures of ballerinas.” She danced religiously, but in her midteens she plateaued and was unable to reach the next level. “In a way, being a failed ballerina, being mediocre at dancing, made me who I am,” says Von Teese. “Sometimes when you’re not good enough at something, you take a roundabout way. It makes me feel good that I was given the challenge of not being very good, so I had to come up with another idea.” Armed with her extensive knowledge of and passion for all things vintage, she began performing.
A decade of Dita:“I’m not living in another era, it’s just that I love the beauty of classic, vintage style,” says Von Teese, who has become a fashion icon and a mainstay on best-dressed lists. “I used to wear head-to-toe vintage, but I don’t really do that anymore. Now, it’s a combination of eras and themes, and I like pursuing modern designers and clothes that have a classic, elegant feel.” Here are some of Dita’s standout looks over the last 10 years:
“When I first started, I was doing my show for people that remembered Bettie Page,” says Von Teese. “It was a very niche audience.” She garnered attention for her performances, as well as her pinup photos and for recreating vintage images, and soon she was headlining shows and posing for Playboy — a move that inspired her stage name. (She chose Dita in honor of silent film star Dita Parlo, then picked Von Treese as a surname for the Playboy spread. The magazine misspelled it as Von Teese.) Her 2002 Playboy cover shot her into mainstream consciousness, and since then she’s been everywhere. She has starred in multiple high-fashion ad campaigns, has been a spokeswoman for PETA, designed a lingerie collection with Wonderbra, has clothing and cosmetics lines and three perfumes, and she’s authored two books, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese and Dita: Stripteese.
While Von Teese has collaborated on a range of projects outside the burlesque realm, performing is what she loves most. “I have a lot of things I’ve done and I’m proud of, but doing this show really means a lot to me,” she says. “I’ve done all these fancy VIP parties for like, Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs. But it’s really nice for me when the curtains open [to see] real fans and ticket holders, people who are there because they want to be there.”
While in Chicago, Von Teese — who performed in smaller shows here in the mid-90s and at Ikram Goldman’s five-year anniversary party for her store in 2006 — expects to scour the vintage clothing scene, meet up with old friends and possibly take in a few shows from local burlesque performers. “I’ve always enjoyed Chicago,” she says. “It’s a really glamorous city. It’s funny because I’ve been world traveling the past 10 years, I lived in Paris for three years, but I really have a thing for the United States right now. It’s much more glamorous for me than London or Paris or Italy. I’m having a new romance with it.”
Story by Molly Each | Photo by Scott Nathan