by Jessica Price -
SGN A&E Writer
DITA VON TEESE
STRIP STRIP HOORAY!
Dita Von Teese (born Heather Sweet in the unassuming town of West Branch, Michigan) is a fascinating study in the art of becoming who you are: unflinchingly, unfailingly and 100% authentically. There's no catching her on an off day in sweat pants and a ratty t-shirt. The lady has standards, and she is true to them in every aspect of her life. Her passion for old-world Hollywood glamour and bewitching burlesque beauties started young, taking root in the film classics she watched with her mother. What grown woman wouldn't want to have a ball getting dressed every day? Or what man?
As artfully as she's channeled the person she is inside into the person we recognize on magazine covers and editorials, she's also embraced a hefty amount of projects many a pretty face wouldn't have the dedication or head for business to master. She's designed her own lingerie line, published two books (plus a third 'flip book' just for fun), released a suite of perfumes and various sundries, as well as a line of enviably luxurious high-end gloves. All this while actively working with HIV and AIDS-related campaigns for amfAR, MAC and H&M/Fashion Against Aids, and popping up at public and private performance engagements all over the world. This showgirl gets around.
But as Dita told Seattle Gay News back in 2012, no photo shoot or private show can top the unbridled release of connecting with a live audience of her own kind: the left-of-center ladies and gentlemen that 'get' what her performances are all about. Glamour dialed up to larger than life dimensions, outrageously giant props, and pounds (literally) of crystal-studded costuming. The second iteration of her Strip Strip Hooray! tour - featuring Dita and some of the top male and female burlesque performers in the country - lands at The Neptune April 24-26. Dita chatted with the SGN by phone last week just before the tour opened in Los Angeles:
SGN: You just returned from your second time as special guest performer in the history of the famed Crazy Horse in Paris, which is historically an all-nude, highly stylized nightclub. How did you choose your acts to perform there?
Dita: Well, it's totally different than Strip Strip Hooray! The Crazy Horse is a very specific type of show; the stage is very small, it's an intimate theater of 200 as opposed to the Strip Strip Hooray! venues with big stages where I can bring out all my big props and things and do the kind of shows that I'm known for. I did some numbers with the girls and did historic Crazy Horse numbers&. I definitely have to adapt my own performance style to the Crazy Horse stage.
SGN: They remind me of a sophisticated, all-nude version of The Rockettes. All those long legs&.
Dita: The Crazy Horse has a specific body shape that they have always been known for - the girls are the same height, the same body shape - whereas [stylistically] in a show like Strip Strip Hooray! we really celebrate diversity in beauty and that's something that has always been very important to me; showing the way burlesque has evolved into this amazing thing where people of all different ages, shapes, sizes, and ethnicities are creating show-stopping acts that really let their character shine through. I think that's different than something like the Crazy Horse where the effect of having these 12 girls that are exactly the same...it's a really amazing effect&.
SGN: Both great for different reasons....
SGN: This will be the second incarnation of Strip Strip Hooray!, with some familiar friends that were with you last time, plus a few new ones?
Dita: I really thought it was the end of Strip Strip Hooray! a couple years ago when we did it. Then I thought, oh god, it's such a great time, and people kept asking for us to come back. I thought what if we come back and make some changes&like some of my favorite performers in the show - Dirty Martini and Perle Noire and Catherine D'Lish - I thought, let's have them do something a little bit different, and then let's bring in some new talent. So I brought in two people that I've always loved their shows: Jett Adore from Chicago is one of the best male burlesque performers, and he has an act that I've been obsessed with for a long time. I always wanted to put him in a show. So we're bringing him in and then another lovely lady named Ginger Valentine who I've always thought was just a show-stopping performer as well. Also, I am usually backed up by two female performers - my little Von-tourage - who back me up in most of the numbers, but I decided to hire some new performers for that, some boys. I thought, wait a minute why don't I have more boys in the show? (Laughs). I've been restaging most of my acts with these male backup dancers so I'm very excited about that. It adds a whole different element to my performance, I think.
SGN: How did you meet your emcee, New York City comedian and drag king Murray Hill?
Dita: I guess I met Murray when I was performing&I want to say it was Seattle. I was performing there and I had actually just come from Paris again, from the Crazy Horse, and I remember being backstage and hearing him and I was like WHO IS THAT? I remember hearing him before I met him and I also remember being in my hotel after the show and kind of peering out the peephole and watching him making out with a showgirl in the hall. I thought, that guy is super showbiz, I need to work with him.
SGN: You said in your first book, 'I advocate glamour every day, every hour.' Do you find that loving the art of makeup, and practicing glamour in a very immersive way, has transformed you into not only the person you wanted to be, but the person you were inside all along?
Dita: I think it's really something that has been with me since my childhood. For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be like my idols of the Golden Age of Hollywood, because that was my first experience with women on TV. My mom liked to watch old movies, so I remember I thought that when I grew up I was going to dress like that, and wear my hair like that, and wear makeup like that, and it didn't really occur to me until later that was from a different time, that women don't really dress like that anymore. But that image and those ideas stayed with me my whole life and I've never been able to shake it. I mean I've watched people come and go, you know, people get into burlesque and retro-glamour and later they get tired of it and want to go get a normal haircut and start wearing jeans (laughs). It's a really deep-seated obsession for me.
SGN: We live in a very ageist culture in America. In some of your most recent photo shoots, I'm struck by how your face has come into its most breathtaking beauty now, as a fully grown, fully realized woman; even more so than in your earliest pinups and first fetish pix. Do you find that women hit their beauty stride later in life, as they mature inside and out?
Dita: Thank you! Well&I think you definitely develop more potent erotic weaponry. (Laughs). Sometimes I think&oh god, I think of everything I've learned in the game of seduction. You can't really arrive at that when you're very young. I mean you can work at it, and you can learn about it, and you can try, but a lot of people don't really put their focus on that. They think too much about how they look, and I think that once you start realizing that what makes somebody sexy isn't really just about what they're wearing or having the newest shoes or all these things that we tend to put focus on&once you start cultivating your wisdom that's where it becomes interesting, you know?
I think a lot about some of the things that I do onstage, or the things I do in life, like designing my lingerie line or producing a show - there's a lot of things I could never have done when I was 20 years old, you know? Nobody who's 20 wants to hear that of course (laughs)...but&pay attention to older people, there's a lot to learn. I think it's great to go through life's changes and it's great that we get to experience different stages of beauty. Sometimes I see pictures of myself when I was 22 years old and I drank soda and didn't give a care in the world about what I put in my body...I think it's amazing to evolve and to accept yourself in different ways.
I'm often a victim of ageism, of course, because I get asked a lot in interviews 'Oh, what are you going to do when you don't look good anymore?' No one would ask me that question if I were a man. Also, I feel very strongly that - especially now - it's a question that people would ask only if they don't understand what a burlesque show is about, or who is going to the burlesque show. Because it's not like a bunch of frat boys coming to ogle girls. The audience is predominantly females and gays and I don't feel as judged as I might if I had a different kind of audience. I'm happy to watch people grow with me you know, and see me as I am.
SGN: It's great that you can throw the rulebook out these days.
Dita: When I was just at the Crazy Horse, it's really interesting& I was the first guest star in the history of that place. And, of course, that's a place where they weigh the girls in and they analyze their bodies all the time, and it's like when you don't look good on stage anymore, if you don't fit into their ideals, then you're DONE. But I went there, and there I am - I'm 43 now - and there's a girl I've danced with there since the first time and she had a baby, came back, and she's amazing at 38 or 39. Things are changing. She's one of the most iconic Crazy Horse girls of all time. It used to be that once you were like 26 you were done. It's not like that anymore. We have to stop judging age by numbers and just think about what brings us confidence and how we're being good examples for other people that are celebrating sexuality and sensuality at all ages.
SGN: When you first started, when you and Catherine D'Lish were doing acts in the strip clubs - with more elaborate props than most - did you have an idea of where you wanted to go, and what you wanted to do? Did you ever think your life would take such an interesting turn?
Dita: I never anticipated anything like that. When I think back about what my thought process was, or sometimes I'll look at my old journals (laughs). I collect all my old journals that I had from when I was in my 20s, and it's interesting, I had a really different perspective. I thought that I'd made it...I remember being in Indianapolis, Indiana and I was on this billboard on the side of the freeway for a strip club and I was like 'This is it, this is my life, I'm gonna always remember this moment as long as I live, I've made it!' (Laughs). I never really looked forward so much. I think one of the things that I'm good at is being grateful in the moment, not what's going to happen next. I never had a moment where I was like 'I'm going to be a star one day, I want to be famous.' I just thought, wow, this is so awesome that I have an ad in the newspaper (laughs). All these little things that happened to me I felt really grateful for in the moment, and I still feel that way.
Even now when people ask 'What's your next goal?' I think I never even had any goals, except to be as good as I could be, and to do things that I thought were fun - I guess I just didn't have a lot of pressure. I just wanted to do a good job and I just wanted to be my best self and put on my best show and work hard and have integrity in what I do. I didn't have big intentions of becoming famous. (Sighs) I just thought I was going to do my little strip show, and it was really awesome that I'd get to do it in a strip club, and then it was really awesome I'd get to do it in the Feathers club and then, you know, I don't know&
SGN: One thing led to another&?
Dita: Yeah! It did. (Laughs)
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