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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dita Von Teese - Naked Ambition

DITA VON TEESEIt’s not just the way she twirls her nipple tassels that has made Dita Von Teese the world’s most celebrated stripper. Burlesque’s steeliest entrepreneur talks fetish, Forties films and frilly knickers.

In a darling drawing room in a Paris atelier up a discreet Montmartre alleyway, the fancy-pants stripper is showing me her new knickers and bras. There is ornate stitching and clever cantilevering; a removable rose affixed between the cups; showgirl-style nipple tassels. Ten pieces in all, in colours including butterscotch gold and blue-grey. They’re manufactured by Wonderbra and have been designed by Dita Von Teese. She’s the burlesque performer hitherto most famous for taking her clothes off in elaborate routines, and for being married – briefly – to Goth-rocker Marilyn Manson. Her own vital stats: height 5ft 6in, bust 32C, waist 23in (or 16in when strapped into the corsets she wore five days a week, every week, during her ten years working in a Los Angeles strip club), fortune considerable.

She’s come a long way since her strip-club days. After 2006’s book, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese/Fetish and the Art of the Teese – a coffee-table guide to burlesque and fetish – this autumn brings the latest extension of Dita’s world: the Europe-wide launch of her Wonderbra range.

Dita has flown in from her home in Los Angeles to launch the undies in Paris, which feels like a very Dita city. She’s very proud of her creations, she says, as she sits bolt upright and poised in a chair. Her complexion is porcelain-creamy, her naturally blonde hair dyed raven-black and sculpted into a perfect chignon, her surgically enhanced cleavage plunging. Her heels are by Louboutin (“of course”) and her dress by Dior. Even her manners are old-school rarefied. Dita the diva is about detail. Yes, she titters with an arch of spindly eyebrow, she even colours her hair downstairs. Would she ever revert to her natural state? “I think there are enough retro-styled blonde modern women,” comes the reply, “like Gwen Stefani or Christina Aguilera.”

Of course, there are plenty of sexy women who are willing to get their kit off in front of crowds or cameras (and sure, Dita’s done Playboy). But none has parlayed her disrobing into lucrative partnerships with spirit label Cointreau, cosmetics line MAC, various fashion designers (Jean Paul Gaultier supplied Dita’s wedding dress) and now Wonderbra. “All of the brand associations that I’ve ever had have been strong and really well thought out. And things that I’ve waited for.”

How has Dita Von Teese accomplished all this? Laser-brained dedication to her craft, that’s how. You might say that craft is just stripping for middle-class folk, but the young girl who dreamt of being a ballerina is now a 35-year-old who understands the art of performance, and drama, and music. “I believe one of the secrets of my success is getting nearly nude and wet in every show.” So Dita never takes off all her clobber. Always leave them wanting more.

Her most famous routine involves stripping inside a giant cocktail glass, which led to the Cointreau partnership. “I always knew that I should have a collaboration with a spirit brand, too. And I’d been approached by lots of them. It was never sophisticated enough. And finally Cointreau came along and they had really great ideas and they wanted me to build this great show, and make a signature cocktail.” She beams peachily. “And it was perfect.”

Dita Von Teese is a body and a look and a brand. She built it from scratch, with an eye to the future. Even in her first proper job, as a dancer in an LA strip club, she was assiduously investing $1,000 per month in mutual funds. “And I still have all that money.” Even then, 15 years ago, Dita could earn $6,000 for two minutes’ performance, so she still had enough money left to buy a Thirties Chrysler.

Since then, she’s worked hard to build – and protect – the brand. She’s a steely-eyed entrepreneur who discovered a niche in the market, and worked hard to fill it with her own shapely curves. “At the time the whole fetish world was about shock – tattooed, pierced, hardcore, serious bitches with whips. I set out to be the best darn retro-fetish model since Bettie Page.”

The collaboration with Wonderbra is a natural extension of all this. Dita Von Teese has been obsessed with lingerie, especially the vintage kind, since landing a job in an Orange County underwear shop named Lady Ruby’s when she was 15. She’s been collecting undergarments for two decades, and is something of an expert on different eras’ different shapes. Her Wonderbra collection is “designed to actively encourage women of all ages to harness their inner glamour and beauty”. With regards to the bra with the magnetic clasp, it’s perhaps designed to let sausage-fingered men do some easy unharnessing. Not that Dita Von Teese is thinking about men. She’s all about women. For a stripper, this is interesting.

“I’m really fortunate that a lot of my fans are women who are taking the inspiration of burlesque and pin-up and getting in touch with their inner bombshell,” she says. “That’s something I did long before I was a performer. I just enjoyed it in my real life. I like the idea of being a natural seductress, so it doesn’t seem contrived. In the same way that I think a great burlesque, a great striptease, is always about when it looks natural and easy and effortless. I feel the same about one-on-one seduction.”

Dita Von Teese was born Heather Renée Sweet in small-town Michigan, the middle of three daughters. Her mum was a manicurist, her dad worked for a company making graphite. “I was a very quiet, painfully shy person. They used to try to send me to speech classes ’cause I was afraid of speaking. Terrified if I was called on in class. All I did was take ballet class. And play dress-up.” She’s always loved clothes, fashion, as an agent of transformation. “The way that they can turn you into whoever you want to be.” To this day she feels insecure if she hasn’t dressed up, or hasn’t applied her warpaint.

The family moved to California with Dad’s job when Heather was 13. Shortly afterwards, her parents divorced. Aside from ballet, young Heather had a passion for old films, which she’d watch with her mother. She’s previously said that, “Dita Von Teese is someone I always dreamt of being when I was little.” Explaining this now, she says that this dream revolved around these silver-screen icons.

“When I watched an old movie and I saw those images on the screen, it just changed me. I wanted to be surrounded by all that beauty. I looked at these Forties women in Technicolor with the red lips and the rosy cheeks and high heels and these incredible shapes – it was really mysterious and fabulous. And I noticed, they’re all painted – it wasn’t the real thing. I realised that I could make that. I loved this artificial, contrived beauty. And I never felt very special or interesting,” she admits, acknowledging that being the middle sibling, and the plainest of the Sweet girls, left its mark. “So I thought I’d turn myself into what those Hollywood studios turned those women into.”

Soon, in her mid-teens, she was working in Lady Ruby’s. She threw herself into this world, learning about the history of lingerie and how to advise and fit the shop’s clientele, ladies who ranged in age from their twenties to their fifties. “I was an expert,” she says. “I think people were sorta stunned. But I wanted to be the best at everything I did. So I was the best lingerie sales girl there ever was.”

While still in her teens Dita became a star of the strip-club and fetish scenes in LA. She assumed her nom de strip and translated her love of scant costume into a kind of performance art. Of her early DVD films – Tickle Part 2, Bound in Stockings, Naked and Helpless – she says, “I don’t regret any of those. There’s nothing hidden. It’s all on my website – I sell the stuff. It’s part of who I am. It’s how I got here.” She also has no problems discussing her plastic surgery – both the breasts and beauty spot are fake. As she once said, “Everything I have is manufactured.”

“Pretty much,” she concedes. “I haven’t had any other plastic surgery, or any Botox. But I will always admit to everything I’ve done. Whatever I have, if someone else wants it, they should be able to paint it on, too. I’m not trying to pretend that I’m practically perfect in every way,” she says in a singsong voice, “and I’m naturally this way and oh no, I never have to work out and I can eat whatever I want… This drives me insane when I hear this! And I’m sure it drives other women insane too. I’m telling the truth: I work out really hard, I eat what I want to eat to a degree without dieting, and…” A Stepford smile. “I’m manufactured, and proud of it. I’m proud of what I created – ’cause I feel like I’m my own canvas, my own art piece.”

Less up for discussion is her former husband. She and Marilyn Manson (real name Brian Warner), a hardcore ghoul with an interest in death and Nazis, hooked up after he cast her in his video for his 2000 single, The Fight Song. They split in late 2006 after a year of marriage. Seemingly he cheated on Dita, had an “inappropriate relationship” going on and wouldn’t damp down his party lifestyle; soon after they split he was revealed to be dating (then a teenager) actress Evan Rachel Wood. Another source of tension was his suggestion that Dita give up her work. I suggest to her that her former husband really, truly didn’t understand her. Dita’s work, after all, is Dita, and vice versa.

“It’s funny, I’ve gone through the past year and a half not even thinking about it, then somebody brings it up again…” She sighs ever so slightly. “But I’ll tell you: my entire adult life I’ve had a very strong sense of my own style. And I’ve been performing burlesque and creating pin-up photos since I was 18 years old. And of course I’ve had my share of different kinds of men that felt different ways about it.

“And you know, some of them were casualties and they didn’t last. But I always knew it was important to follow my heart no matter what. And certainly there have been times in my life where I’ve been asked to quit what I do and settle down and have a baby… And I just thought, it’s not right to ask someone to stop following their dream.”

But you said a couple of years ago that you didn’t want to have children. Because being pregnant would mess with your look?

“No. At the time that I said that, I was married to someone that could not be a proper father. I don’t know what is next for me. I know that my biological clock is not ticking. I’m more interested in the romantic idea of finding a real partner who makes me want to have children with him.” This, she says, has not happened yet, by which I think she means she’s single right now (or, having learnt some bitter lessons in the Manson flame-out, she’s being purposefully coy).

Did your marriage and the manner of its ending damage your brand?

“I don’t know,” she says in a quiet voice. “I never thought about it.”

“NO MORE MANSON QUESTIONS!” shouts someone. Dita and I both jump. It’s her manager, Melissa Dishell. Unbeknown to me she’s been sitting behind a curtain, earwigging. Dita laughs, then murmurs, “I’m just trying to say in a polite way… Let him go and get his own press!” she laughs again.

We move on, and discuss her plans for films. In advance of appearing in the lead role in a biopic of Mata Hari, she’s taking lessons from the acting coach who helped Charlize Theron and Halle Berry. It’s to be directed by Martha Fiennes (sister of Ralph and Joseph). Unlike the 1931 Greta Garbo version of the life of the doomed dancer-turned-spy, they’ll show the death-by-firing-squad scene.

“I don’t have this desire to be a great actress in the sense that that’s my calling. I enjoy being a showgirl. But Mata Hari is a story that I’m really interested in. It has a lot of similarities to my own career and life. And I like the idea that my idols, like [legendary burlesque dancer] Gypsy Rose Lee, made films, but they always showed her doing what she did best in the films.”

And has Dita planned out at what age it becomes unseemly for her to be taking her clothes off in public?

“I don’t know. I remember being 20 and thinking there’s no way I’ll be feather-dancing when I’m 35! And I can say with conviction that I’m in better shape now than I was then. I don’t wanna predict for myself or make rules for myself about that. I think I’ve been really good at evolving and making the right choices. And I’m pretty sure people don’t look at me and say, ‘Ooh gosh, should she really be doing that any more?’ I don’t think that’s happening.”

It’s time to psychologically sum up our conversation. I put it to you, Ms Von Teese, that you’re an insecure, plain Midwestern girl who vowed to emerge from the shadows of her sisters, and who, hiding behind all that fashion and cosmetic armour, has a fear of intimacy but the brain of an accountant…

Dita giggles. “A fear of intimacy? No, you can leave that part out. But I’m a good accountant. Although I do spend a lot of money on shoes and feathers and rhinestones. What is it they say? The girl with a head for business and a body for sin? Is that me? I think so.”
By Craig McLean.

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