Vintage Von Teese

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The world’s most famous burlesque queen. Marilyn Manson’s embittered ex. Stripper. However one chooses to describe Dita Von Teese, the labels are certain to fall short. One thing that cannot be denied, however, is her allure, which isn’t at all the sum of her fleshy parts, her sparkly stage gear or even her affinity for public sponge baths. There’s a mystery that surrounds the Michigan native. One finds, when speaking with her, innocence mixed with irony, self-confidence muddled in with a knee-buckling hint of self-deprecation. This reporter, obviously smitten, stutters and stumbles his way through an interview with the smoldering brunette — knowing full well that the voice on the other line is lying in bed, wearing a vintage slip. Gulp.

Is your show more about style or sex? If it’s one or the other, then it’s not really interesting. The fact that I’m doing a striptease is obvious, so for that, I have to think more about the sexual side of things, the sensual side. But when sexuality, style, humor and playfulness all come together, along with a bit of innocence, well, that’s when a burlesque show becomes great.

I saw you perform a few months ago in New York. I was so flustered I spilled my drink all over my shirt. How much of you, the real you, comes across on stage? My show is the real me. I never ever do a show and think about what character I’m going to create, who I’m going to be. I figured out a long time ago that I’m at my best when I’m comfortable and confident, rather than pretending to be sexy or trying to vamp it up for the audience. I’m just out there having a good time, and it’s all kind of a big joke.

I read an interview in which you said you’re not the blonde girl-next-door. But you were until you dyed your hair. Everyone hears my Michigan accent, coming out of this girl who looks like she’s from Germany. It was really confusing for people, and I certainly could have faked it all the way, but what I’m getting at is the way that I dance, the way that I move, and my personality — it’s not just a look. If it were just about looks, I probably wouldn’t be the most famous burlesque star in the world, because I’m sure that I’m not the most beautiful one.

When you’re at home, alone, are you a total mess? People always think I just hang around in jeans or a tracksuit, and I’m like, Well, no. I’m sitting here right now, having just rolled out of bed, wearing a vintage slip. I don’t have any makeup on, my hair is probably a disaster, but that doesn’t mean I’ll put on jeans and a T-shirt because no one’s looking. I mean, I don’t put on a full face of makeup, heels and a little black dress every time I walk out the door — I’m not an alien from another planet who doesn’t like to be comfortable — it’s just that, for me, the natural version of me, is only for people who are close to me. I don’t know why everyone wants me to wear jeans so badly.

Is burlesque still exciting the way it was when you first started? There are upsides and downsides. I sort of miss the old days when I walked on stage and there were no journalists, there were no cameras, CNN wasn’t there.

When you were in New York last, reporters were jotting everything down, and I remember thinking, Um, what exactly are they writing? I remember that day! When I walked out, there were three people with pads of paper writing down everything I was doing when I was onstage. I was like, Really, are you kidding me right now? You can’t just watch and remember what you saw without jotting down notes? That part sucks. I sometimes think, Wouldn’t it be great if I could go back to those moments when I could walk out on the strip-club stage and just let it all go.

When you were working at those strip clubs, were you satisfied? I had little ambitious moments where I thought, Okay, so now I’m this famous fetish model, I’m going to be the best fetish model I can be. And when I was working in the strip clubs I thought, I’m going to be the best headlining stripper that I can be. I didn’t ever think, Oh, I would really love to dance at a Louis Vuitton opening.

Is it difficult to negotiate the glamour and empowerment you feel during performances, with the suspicion that you’re being objectified? You always have that double-edged sword. You’re like, Well, I feel empowered because I’m independent and no men in my personal life can tell me what to do. I’m paying my own rent, and no one can tell me where to be. But then there’s the other side of things: Am I using my body? I’ve had a lot of arguments with myself over this, but I think that if I were Nicole Kidman, and I were in a movie, and they were negotiating over my body parts — what my tits are worth, what my ass is worth, how much extra money that’s going to get me — how is that any different?

You were married to Marilyn Manson at the Helnwein family mansion in Ireland. It was officiated by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Weirdest day ever? No, because you have two people who are very theatrical and are both from unglamorous places. So, it made sense that when we got married, it became a kind of performance.

You wore a stunning purple Vivienne Westwood. Is that your favorite gown? No. I mean, I enjoyed it, but I have lots of really great dresses. I still have it, of course. It takes up a lot of space in my storage.

Must be a big storage room. I go shopping in my own storage unit. And I have another room in my house that’s been converted into a walk-in closet and another one where I keep all of my big hats. I have a really big hat collection.

How do you feel about the burlesque revival? I think it’s great. I’m never threatened because I definitely have a specific brand of burlesque. How should I put this? I’m not really concerned by the competition, because I’ve already moved on to the next thing by the time they think they’ve caught up to me. I used to be the only one who did the fan dancing and now it’s like, Okay, that was a long time ago and I’ve already moved on. Then I made a martini glass. And now other people are making martini glasses, so now I’m making other things or making bigger martini glasses.

You must get really sick of that huge glass routine. Yeah, totally. Every once in a while, I tell people that the glass is broken. I have this big, beautiful birdcage, I have this opium den set, I have a big swan fountain — I have all these cool things. But it seems like no matter what I do, I’m the girl in the glass.

Let’s go back to before when you said that you’re a stripper, plain and simple. That seems a touch reductive. Yeah, it is. But it’s like, if I say it first, what are people going to say? It’s one thing I learned a long time ago: if you just agree with people then there’s nothing they can say. Everyone has the right to define talent and beauty. I’m not against the word “stripper.”

But critics use it to be hurtful. I guess I don’t want to be a holier-than-thou stripper, because I worked at a strip club and, 10 years ago, you could have paid $20 for me to sit on your lap any night of the week. It would be rude of me to say, I’m not a stripper, I’m a burlesque queen. I don’t think I’m better than the pole dancers.

Are you at all interested in contemporary fashion? Everything you wear seems to reference the past. Since I was 16 years old, everything I’ve done has been a little retro. I’ve gone through my phases where I’ve thought, I’m going to be really modern today. For years, I had this Diane Von Furstenberg black wrap dress, just sitting in my closet. I recently gave it to my mother. When I put on a really modern dress or jeans, it looks like a Halloween costume. Actually, every year I say I’m going to dress up as a normal girl for Halloween. I haven’t done it yet. One of these days, though, I’m totally going to get a bunch of spray tans and put on some jeans and get some high-heel sandals and see what happens. There’s something deeper in me that makes me like things from the past. I never ever wanted to be a little girl, ever. When a lot of friends were into the whole schoolgirl fantasy, I was always like, I wouldn’t be caught dead. I’m 35 years old. I’m not 19 years old anymore, playing around with different looks. I know who I am and I’ve known for a long time.

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