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Thursday, December 20, 2007

A look at Dita Von Teese And The Spirit of Burlesque

Dita von teese burlesqueRaised in a small town in Michigan until the age of 12, Dita Von Teese grew up watching old movies, in a house filled with antiques. After moving to Orange County, the teenager got her first job, working in a lingerie store. Combining that love, with her fascination for all things from the 1930's and 40's, the seed was planted for her to become the most famous international burlesque and pin-up star in the world today.

Originating in the 1840s, early in the Victorian era, burlesque evolved out of music hall entertainments and vaudeville, and became a blend of satire, performance art and adult entertainment that featured striptease and broad comedy acts. By the 1930's, the striptease became the dominant ingredient of burlesque shows, and performers such as Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee and Lily St. Cyr continue to inspire new generations, looking to keep burlesque alive.

“I can’t say that I’m re-creating classic burlesque because burlesque will never be what it was in its heyday,” Von Teese tells MediaBlvd Magazine. “That was a time when people were more interested in seeing live shows and live entertainment, and burlesque was a spin-off of vaudeville that was not always acceptable entertainment in the mainstream. Burlesque was mostly the show for the regular working class male, who wanted to hear dirty jokes and see risque strippers dance. It was a real theatrical show, and there were a lot of major stars that came out of burlesque, who were famous for performing. My shows evoke that period and the spirit of burlesque, even though I don’t really create replicas of shows that were done in the past.”

“Also, I knew there was a real connection between pin-up modeling and burlesque. In the 1930's, the girls that were in the men’s magazines, posing for the pin-up pictures, were mostly burlesque dancers that were promoting themselves as stars that people would want to go see. They also weren’t shy about showing their bodies. The pin-up modeling came first for me, but when I saw that a lot of pin-up models from that era were also burlesque stars, I wanted to make that connection too.”

Those who may not be familiar with burlesque might be quick to describe such performances as strip shows. But, being called a stripper is not something that bothers Von Teese. “I don’t mind being called a stripper because I know the history of burlesque and I know that they were called strippers back then. A lot of burlesque dancers, or even people that come see my show, say ‘You’re not a stripper, you’re a burlesque artist, and what you do is art.’ And, I say, ‘When it comes down to it, we’re all related.’ What the girls are doing in the lap-dancing and pole-dancing clubs now is just what burlesque has evolved into. It might be different and a little less risque then modern stripping is, but not necessarily. Back in the day, burlesque even had full nudity in some of the shows, and women flashed. They weren’t all great artists, like Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand. It wasn’t all feathers and rhinestones. People were going to see girls nearly nude because they wanted to see girls nearly nude. When it came down to it, that’s really what it was all about. There are always going to be people that will take it to a different level and give it a little bit of credibility, and it’s great when there’s something for everyone, but I don’t expect everyone to want to see a show like mine.”

Born Heather Sweet, Von Teese says that the name change occurred when she decided to work in a strip club. “I wanted to have an excuse to wear my corsets and stockings outside the bedroom. I was just up for an adventure. I was 18 years old, having fun with my fashion and style, and dressing in vintage and being different. I visited a strip club and saw all these blondes in bikinis, and I thought, ‘I’m so different than everyone here,’ so I thought it would be a fun experiment to work there. The name change came about because that’s part of working in a strip club. That’s the first thing you do. One of the reasons people do it is to have an alternate identity. It’s like acting, playing dress up, and all those things little girls like to do.”
Von Teese says that, even though her family didn’t always understand her chosen career path, they did support her desire to be self-sufficient and follow her dreams. “When I started this, I was also holding down a serious job, working and taking care of myself, and going to school. I was very together. I wasn’t just a party girl. I didn’t tell everyone I wanted to be a big burlesque star and pin-up model. I was doing it because it was fun, but I was working at the same time, and I was very level-headed about everything that I was doing. My father didn’t really understand what I was doing, but I was always very up front about it. I’d show my mother the pictures I was taking, and she could see that I wasn’t an ordinary stripper, just by looking at me. I think she thought it was a phase I was going through, but I don’t remember her ever being upset by it. And, frankly, I was 18 years old. I was putting myself through school, paying for my own car payments and paying my own credit cards, and I never asked for a dime from my parents, so what could they say to me? When I was on the cover of Playboy, that was probably when my father finally accepted it. I can’t really blame him for not understanding what I was doing. It’s difficult to try to explain to your parents that you like to take pictures wearing lingerie, all tied up. But, being on the cover of Playboy validated me, in my father’s eyes. And then, when he saw me perform, it was all okay with him.”

Von Teese first developed the desire to wear a corset after watching wild west films from the 40's, that were set in the turn of the century, and she saved enough money to finally buy her first corset for her 18th birthday. Now, she wears beautiful and elaborate ones in the shows that she has developed, and which she performs, all over the world. “The hardest part is making shows that I think people will understand. I could make some really interesting, artsy shows, based on things that I know about the era, but other people wouldn’t get them because they probably haven’t read the books that I’ve read, and seen the movies that I’ve seen. I don’t really want one out of 5,000 people to understand what the show is. I want it to be universal. I want them to just think it’s pretty and enjoy it, rather than try to figure out what my message is.”

“I’ve got a lot of new shows in the works, but it’s a complicated process to make a show and to make the new costumes. It can be expensive too. I’m just a girl with my own checkbook. There are no other shows, even in Las Vegas, that have the quantity of Swarovski crystals and feathers on the costumes, as I do. You’re not going to see any one person who’s got the kind of stuff I do, except Liberace.”

With an audience that ranges mostly between the ages of 18 and 35, and a website that pulls in 70% of its membership from women, Von Teese, who performs for audiences of all sizes, all over the world, admits that she rarely gets nervous before a performance. “I get nervous at the times when people wouldn’t think I would get nervous. The times when there’s thousands and thousands of people, and there’s famous people in the audience, are not when I get nervous. I get more nervous when it’s a smaller audience. I don’t even know what makes me nervous, but being nervous is part of what makes it good. When you get nervous, that’s a good energy to have. When you’re just relaxed and non-chalant about it, that’s when you don’t have as good a show. It’s the people that start believing that they’re so good that they don’t have to work at it that usually screw up and disappoint people. But, I don’t get nervous in a way that I’m scared to go out there. I want to go out there. I get nervous in a sense that I’m ready to go, and I want to do the show.”

Having discovered a love for ballet at the age of 5, Von Teese says that, even though she knew she was not a great ballerina, her training was really helpful, once it came time to teach herself how to do her stage shows. “As much as I tried, I could not find any footage of women, like Sally Rand, feather fan dancing. I had to learn on my own, which I think is good. You should just interpret it in your own way, and then it comes out unique, original and better. I’m not saying I’m better, but I know the girls that have studied Sally Rand’s footage exactly, and they’re trying to copy what she did, and it just doesn’t translate because they aren’t Sally Rand. What I imagined in my head I should do, with the feather fans, is what I actually did. Even with burlesque, in general, I never studied authentic burlesque footage. Once I finally got my hands on some, I had already been performing it. I watched it and thought, ‘Well, I kind of like my way better,’ because it suits my personality, which is key. You shouldn’t copy what somebody else is doing because it should come from a real personal place.”

As burlesque made a more visible resurgence, Von Teese became a sought after model by the world’s top designers, fashion magazines and photographers. “I can’t believe that I’m here and this is happening. I’m enjoying it and appreciating it, but there are times that I think back and remember being 18 years old, working in the strip bar. If somebody would have told me then, I wouldn’t have ever believed them. In 1994, I had this psychic, that I still know, tell me that I was going to be on the cover of Playboy, and I didn’t believe her. I said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be on the cover of Playboy. I’ve already posed for Playboy and they told me that they don’t want me to be in the magazine. I have six rejection letters. It’s never going to happen for me.’ She still laughs about it. She said, ‘I told you so.’ Even now, I don’t expect things. I love every moment and do every show as though it’s my last chance. I’m going to enjoy this now because who knows what’s coming tomorrow. I could be yesterday’s news.”

Although she’s not setting any specific limits on herself, as far as when she’ll hang up her performance hat, Von Teese says that she does know that she won’t still be dancing completely nude onstage when she’s in her 70's. So, taking that into consideration, the 35-year-old beauty has been looking at the bigger picture and branching out into publishing, with one double-sided book already published.

Burlesque and the Art of the Teese is my career in pictures, over the past decade. From my story, you can learn about the history of burlesque, which is intertwined with my own history. And then, when you flip it over to Fetish and the Art of the Teese, you can read about fetishism, and see that it has a lot of history and that there’s things that you don’t have to be afraid of. It just sheds a new light. Fetishism isn’t just about dominatrixes, boot-licking, and whips and chains. I want people to see that it’s beautiful, elegant things as well, and it’s about exotic clothing, and celebrating beauty and women. It’s just an entertaining, fun read. That’s all I wanted to do with the book, and that’s all I try to do on stage. I just want people to see something they haven’t seen before.”

Looking ahead to the future, Von Teese has ideas for other books that she hopes to have published, and even has her sights set on her own full-length burlesque review. “I’m working on a book that’s going to be a real how-to guide to retro beauty. I want to take it a step further and teach people how I do it. There aren’t really any current books that show girls how to get a retro, nostalgic, classic look. There are reprints of old books, but the technology is better now. There are easier ways to do it than there used to be. And, I want to do a major multi-million dollar review that is not just a copy of a burlesque show from the past. I have an idea for a show that I really want to make happen, so hopefully that will come to fruition, exactly the way I want it to.”

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