Dita Von Teese, performer, The Art of the Teese
I would reckon to say that we have it really great right now and we’re positioned in a way to call this an alternative, feminist movement and we’re not just on the stage under the male gaze ...
For most, the name Heather Sweet wont ring any bells, but if we mentioned Heather’s alter ego Dita Von Teese then we’re certain that we’d pique the interest of a fair few of you. Dita Von Teese is synonymous with modern burlesque performance, responsible for popularising the art form throughout the late 90s and 2000s with a mix of sensuality and elegance. Renowned for her mesmerising haute-couture costumes and unforgettable acts, Dita has helped take burlesque from a fringe performance outlet to a bona fide global movement. In March, Dita will be bringing her brand new show Dita Von Teese – The Art of the Teese to Australia, featuring some never-before-seen acts and a host of other acclaimed performers. Before she hits our shores, we took the opportunity to chat to Dita about her love of vintage style, her journey to burlesque superstar and how the industry has changed in the decades since her arrival on the scene.
To start, I wanted to touch on your iconic style! Where did you first fall in love with the vintage glamour that has become an integral part of your look and act?
Well, my mother really loved old movies, so I kind of grew up watching classic films – mostly from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. What really got stuck in my mind were these big technicolour musicals of that era. It always stayed with me, and when I was a teenager I was dressing in vintage clothes because I couldn’t really afford the cool jeans – the blue jeans and sneakers – that others had. So a girlfriend and I just started dressing in vintage early on and wearing red lipstick. That was kind of my solution for not having fancy things that my friends had.
I understand you trained as a ballet dancer before finding burlesque, but how did you first come across the world of burlesque dancing?
I was a ballet dancer, and then in 1990 I also became involved in the underground electronic dance music scene where I met all these club kids. I became a go-go dancer on that circuit, where I started creating performance art and it kind of started there. I was a go-go dancer but I was dressing in vintage style and corsets and things. At one point I went to a strip club – my first strip club – and there was nothing vintage style about it, but I kind of put together what I was doing with what they were doing – dressing in vintage style. I thought, “Hey, this looks like a fun place to work”, it looked to be a very unique kind of moonlighting situation for me. I was also at the same time posing for pin-up photos. I had this idea about becoming the next Bettie Page – there wasn’t really anyone filling that space – so I set out to recreate those vintage photos of her and it evolved from there. It slowly but surely became a real career over the decades.
Burlesque has seen a huge mainstream uptake since you started your career. How has it changed from your point of view?
I’ve absolutely experienced the evolution of it. When I first started, my audience was predominantly pin-up fans – a lot of men, a lot of couples and actually a lot of fetish fanatics that loved corsetry, stocking and opera-length leather gloves. That was my first kind of audience and there has been a definite shift over the years.
Was there a point where you noticed the definite shift taking place?
I noticed the biggest shift took place around 2000 when I released a book and was on the cover of Playboy. I started to get a bit of mainstream recognition for what I was doing. That’s where I felt a difference and also that there was a new mission statement for me to be very forthcoming about why I started doing this in the first place. For me, it was not having enough role models of sensuality and beauty that I could relate to, and it was also about creating my own mythical character. I started thinking more about why women were coming to see me in a burlesque show. It was fewer men and more women and more of the LGBTQ audience, so it’s been an interesting shift. Because of my Playboy appearances early on I have had a fan base of men and then it really shifted. I’m really grateful for that and that I’ve experienced both sides of it.
What are your thoughts on burlesque performance and its importance today?
We’re living in a time where burlesque is much different from the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the 1930s and 40s. I would reckon to say that we have it really great right now, and we’re positioned in a way to call this an alternative, feminist movement and we’re not just on the stage under the male gaze. I’m very grateful to the women that came before me – it must have been much more difficult for them in a lot of ways than for me, where I have this different opportunity for longevity than maybe some of them did when they were performing as part of an area of entertainment that was geared towards straight men.
We’re really excited for your visit in March for Dita Von Teese – The Art of the Teese! What can audiences expect this time around? I’ve heard that there is going to be some never-before-seen stuff …
Yeah, I wanted to make a show that still captures the feel of what made my other show Burlesque: Strip Strip HOORAY! – which I toured with for seven years – so successful. I wanted to maintain the spirit of that but make sure I had all-new visuals for people to see. Not only are there new acts for me but I have a new host, I have a few new solo performers and I also have three of my favourite performers stepping into acts that I’ve always done. I have a couple of performers that I wanted to see put a twist on classic acts that I’ve done, so I’m very excited to present them doing that. I’ve always wanted to share my knowledge and experience with other people in a way that I feel respects what I do and also bring to light their own personalities and characters instead of having someone mimic me. It’s a variety show still, but very different to the last one.
How do you personally go about pushing boundaries and making things new and exciting for yourself when creating new routines?
I always work very closely with my long-time collaborator Catherine D’Lish, and we’ve created acts together for a very long time. We don’t really have a lack of ideas or concepts – we have pretty endless ideas! With the level that we do these acts, it’s a big undertaking. It takes months – sometimes a year – to build a new act and it’s expensive. I usually take my time, but I’ve been very inspired lately thinking about shows I’ve done in the past and how I want to evolve as a performer and the new ways I want to challenge myself. I keep thinking about making acts that are less girl-ish and that’s been on my mind – making things extremely sophisticated and womanly and glamorous and not so much about things that I would have done 15 or 20 years ago. I’m thinking about what I want to convey now and embracing my sensuality in different ways and phases of life.
In terms of the feeling you get when you walk out on stage, do you still get the same sense of excitement that you did at the beginning of your career, or has the sensation changed over the years?
I have a lot more confidence now. It feels more like a rollercoaster ride now – it’s so much more high stakes now than when I started. I feel like I have a definite obligation to bring my very best to the stage and not disappoint people. It always feels a little bit like a rollercoaster knowing that there is a few thousand people on the other side of the curtain. I get nervous, but it is that feeling of ‘you’re going up, you’re going up, you’re going up and here you go’ and then it’s happening and everyone is looking and everything I do, all eyes are on me. It’s very exciting and it can be a little bit nerve-wracking, but mostly in that rollercoaster way where you’re just doing it and there’s no going back – but that’s the excitement of it.