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Monday, October 1, 2007

Dita Von Teese - modern day queen of burlesque

Dita Von Teese, BurlesqueDita Von Teese is a name you either know. Or not.

The burlesque performer and designer muse is a rising star as the face, body or spokeswoman for a number of high-profile companies, including MAC Cosmetics, Cointreau liqueur and Frederick's of Hollywood.

This just might be her biggest moment yet, even though she's been doing what she's doing for more than a decade, channeling a bygone era when it was corsets and silk stockings that gave women power.

Part Vargas girl, part savvy businesswoman, Von Teese has a carefully cultivated image that could grow beyond cult status in the coming months as lingerie and lace steps to the forefront of fashion and pop culture.

"I don't really care about Hollywood," she says of the industry's current taste for thin, blond, cookie-cutter starlets. "I always want to go against that tide."

Von Teese was in San Francisco earlier this month as the star attraction at the 25th anniversary gala of Macy's Passport. The snow-white beauty is also the new face for Viva Glam, a line of lipsticks that MAC, one of the show sponsors, produces each year to raise money for AIDS research.

"She's sexy, she's provocative, she's our generation's Ava Gardner and Gypsy Rose Lee," said MAC president John Demsey in a CNN interview this summer. "She's a style icon."

Von Teese sat down for a backstage chat right before the Passport show on Sept. 20, wearing a new red MAC lipstick shade called "Hot Tomato," a short, strapless Marchesa dress with a fluff of feathers at the bust and signature Christian Louboutin stilettos.

"See?" she says, kicking up her left foot to show the telltale red soles.

A recent favorite of designers such as Marc Jacobs, Stefano Pilati of Yves Saint Laurent, John Paul Gaultier and Giambattista Valli, her dramatic, doll-like presence is mesmerizing: black hair, pale skin and perfectly painted features. Her petite hourglass frame is famous for its 21-inch waist.

She's outrageous only because of her throwback sensibilities. She's a little goofy beneath the perfectly powdered porcelain nose. Asked about her penchant for old-fashioned glamour and disdain for denim, she throws back her shoulders and says, "I dress exactly like this around the house," before bursting into a giggle.

Seriously, her idea of dressing down? A white T, pencil skirt and ballet flats.

"It's as easy to dress casually elegant as it is to wear sweats . . . and I don't own any," she says, firmly.

Von Teese, 35, who grew up Heather Sweet in West Branch, Mich., still considers herself a Midwestern gal, even though her taste is now honed to French couture and European travel. Her nearly naked routine that sometimes ends with her bathing in a giant champagne glass of bubbles or straddling a giant lipstick might make a few of her hometown's old-timers blush.

"I'm a Michigan girl. I love the way I grew up with a strong family and four seasons," says the current L.A. resident, who, just days before had been photographed in Paris, where she attended a Christian Dior event.

Von Teese's link to the boudoir started in Orange County, where she took jobs selling lingerie and performing in SoCal strip clubs. Her early retro look was something between rockabilly chic and Bettie Page pinup girl, and she chose her marque name after Dita Parlo, a German actress in the 1920s and 30s.

In 2002, Playboy took notice, featuring Von Teese on the December magazine cover. Most recently, she became the ambassador for Cointreau, a French liqueur company. She also will appear on the cover of Frederick's iconic holiday catalog.

Although she doesn't consider herself tabloid fodder, she did grab a few celeb magazine headlines with her marriage to and divorce from goth-shock rocker Marilyn Manson. Her wedding in a Vivienne Westwood gown was featured in the March 2006 issue of Vogue.

The author of "Burlesque and the Art of the Teese/Fetish and the Art of the Teese," ($39.95, HarperEntertainment, 2006) she's working on another book on beauty.

"I do my own hair and makeup, and the book is about how to create a '40s glam image by doing things like painting your lips in the right way," she says.

Women often ask her how to be sexy, and she says her advice is to "play up what makes you unique" - a mantra that's taken her this far.

"When I'm performing, I have a playful attitude that makes it fun - for me and hopefully for those watching," she says.

For the Macy's Passport show, Von Teese emerged on the runway in a blinding Swarovski-studded costume and glittering Louboutins, peeling off skirt, gloves, corset and stockings. Stripping down to a flesh-toned sparkle of thong and bra, she popped a bottle of Veuve Clicquot before climbing into a bubbles-filled giant champagne glass to frolic with a beach ball-sized strawberry prop.

No jeans or sweats in sight.

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