With one of the most scandalous acts in Hollywood, burlesque star Dita Von Teese turns out to be a good girl off stage
By Kelsey McKinnon
Photographed by Ruven Afanador
Imagine waking up, beneath a crystal chandelier in a mirrored, gray satin boudoir, and putting on matching lingerie and seamed stockings…every morning. For Dita Von Teese (née Heather Renée Sweet), it’s the only way to start the day.
“That’s my gear. That’s what I’ve done since I was 16 and worked at a lingerie store. I just like it,” she says in a soft, almost mid-western twang. In the introduction of her first book Burlesque and the Art of the Teese, she writes: “Sweatpants (at least spiritually) chafe me. If I am chilled, I nuzzle a fur stole…glamour is a way of life.” Step inside her home within a gated community in Los Feliz, and there’s a delirious display of exotic taxidermy, chests filled with china tea sets, marabou robes and memorabilia.
If anything, in a business that some categorize as “loose,” Von Teese is an incredibly disciplined personality. The natural blonde, who dyes her hair jet-black in her bathroom, says, “I don’t have a glam squad. I don’t have a stylist. I don’t ask people to do things for me. The glitter on my bathtub [for the show]—I did that with my two hands. You know, I just like to do things myself because I feel like all those little things come across on stage.”
Like the flashy gold bathtub, her tricks are full of gusto. Von Teese has spent the past 20 years choreographing original routines, reviving the lost art made famous by idols Mae West and Gypsy Rose Lee. As the centerpiece of the neo-burlesque movement, she’s the force behind a roving mélange of feathers, corsets and tassels. She has performed in more than 15 countries and picked up sponsorship deals along the way (including a five-year post as the global ambassador for Cointreau). She is currently penning her third book to help fund new shows: It costs her around $80,000 to produce each seven-minute act and there are currently 10 in rotation.
She’s in control of the whole process: the elaborate, embellished costumes, music, makeup and props. And she’s resourceful, having imported a mechanical bull from Murtaugh, Idaho, that’s now swathed in pink-velvet with Swarovski crystal covered steer horns.
“I’ve had to try harder at everything I’ve ever done in my whole life except for being me. I’m not the youngest. I’m not the best dancer. I’m not the tallest. There are a lot of things that I’m not, but [that’s why] I feel people want me to win. We like to watch people who are slightly flawed.”
Against public opinion, the majority of Von Teese’s fans are women, which she credits to the concept of manipulated versus natural beauty. “I know the effect I have on people when I’m stripped down without my tricks,” she says. “On Halloween, I put on jeans and paint my nails beige, wear beige lip-gloss and a blonde wig. I never get a second look.”
Heather (a name reserved for the closest kin) attended high school in Orange County—her parents relocated the family from her native Michigan. “I didn’t have the money to buy designer clothes and things my friends were buying—Jordache and Guess jeans. I just felt really ordinary and boring and was incredibly shy.” She found a curling iron, started wearing makeup, transformed flea market lingerie into dresses and relished the sudden attention.
After her stint at Lady Ruby’s lingerie shop in high school, she was working at a makeup counter by day and by night, had landed her first gig at a Tustin strip joint called Captain Cream (which she left in ’98). Von Teese’s stage name was a tribute to the silent film star Dita Parlo, and when Playboy required a surname for a lingerie shoot, she chose Von Treese from the phone book. The magazine misprinted it as Von Teese, and she just decided to stick with it. It’s also not a secret that in her twenties she got breast implants and had a beauty mark tattooed next to her left eye. And after years of wearing corsets, Von Teese is able cinch her waist from a size 22 to a 16.5.
One day shy of her 40th birthday, she is elegantly perched on a blue velvet chaise in her library. A team of workers is in the process of covering the backyard in two feet of rose petals (she insists they are only helping for the party). “The theme is disheveled formalwear. Exiled aristocrats.” Hardly showing her age, Von Teese performed her signature Martini Glass number just a few weeks prior at the opening of The Ritz-Carlton, Vienna. It’s not a family show, in nothing but a G-string and pasties, she swirls and strips around the rim while bathing herself with an olive shaped sponge. “When I’m up there, I’m not like, ‘Oh my god, everyone thinks I’m so sexy.’ I’m thinking, ‘I hope people like this. I hope it’s funny. I hope they get the joke.’” By and large they do—and her sex appeal is not lost on anyone, either.
Since her divorce in 2007 from musician Marilyn Manson, plus another three-year relationship, she has been single for the past year. “I’m a grown-up now. I definitely feel differently about trying to let people know more about who I really am. I’m not trying to intimidate people,” she says. The real Dita Von Teese seems to be an honest woman who’s still looking to buy her ’50s dream house, takes dressage lessons in Griffith Park and enjoys throwing parties. She’s laying the groundwork for a future off the stage, recently launching her first fragrance at Fred Segal, the international ARTDECO cosmetics collection, Von Follies lingerie (available on stylebop.com), and a dress collection at Decades on Melrose. She’s quick with a compact—but deplores superficiality: “Someone asked me the other day if I ever feel objectified on stage. I’ve never felt objectified on stage, but I do when people just want to get my picture. You know they just want their Facebook picture; they want to Tweet. They don’t even say hello or introduce themselves.”
Or worse, “When I pick up a magazine, I don’t want to read a story if the actress or actor doesn’t say something racy or vulnerable or interesting. I don’t want to hear about their character or their makeup line. No, I don’t care.” But only if it’s the truth. She refers to an embarrassing story her family read in Vanity Fair that claimed she was in a triple X-rated gang bang (which was actually a Czechoslovakian girl using her name).
“How could they get that wrong?” she wonders. “It’s not like I’m hiding anything.” [C, December 2012]
Tagged in: ARTDECO cosmestics, burlesque, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese, Decades on Melrose, Dita Von Teese, Fred Segal, Los Angeles, Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation and Ace Hotel, Los Feliz, United Artists Theater, Von Follies lingerie