Q&A: Dita Von Teese
Dita Von Teese has been spent the better part of a quarter century advancing the timeless art of burlesque with stage productions that are as elaborate as they are seductive. From dressing beautiful performers in meticulously designed costumes to creating large-than-life props, Von Teese is in a constant state of evolution. The self-proclaimed “International Queen of Burlesque” recently spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Jacob about the challenges of casting, being a “glamour evangelist” and her decision to incorporate men into her latest show, The Art of the Teese, which stops at House of Blues on July 10.
You’re in the midst of a nine-city West Coast tour with The Art of the Teese. What served as the inspiration for this show, and what can the audience expect when the curtain goes up at House of Blues?
I wanted to stay within the spirit of my show that I toured with for six years called Strip, Strip, Hooray, because it was so successful. I wanted (this show) to have the same kind of energy and the very best modern burlesque performers, but I wanted to of course offer something new. So I have a few new performers, I’m doing some new acts myself, and I’m excited to (introduce) some new things that I’ve never before performed in the United States—things I’ve never taken on tour at all.
What was the most challenging part of putting together this kind of show?
The most challenging thing is always finding performers who know how to keep the energy high, because (the show) has to feel like a roller coaster. I’ve been to a lot of burlesque shows that aren’t mine, and sometimes they last too long or (performers) are onstage too long. So it’s important to find those acts who are so good that those six minutes they’re onstage are riveting and exciting—performers who are distinctive and have such strong personalities.
I’m not interested in putting on a show full of pretty little pinup girls. I want it to be something that changes your mind forever about what burlesque is and what sensuality and beauty is.
How do you go about finding such performers?
A few of them have been with me since the beginning, like Dirty Martini, who is a fantastic performer. I remember seeing her in the 1990s, and I think my 20-something-year-old self couldn’t really connect to her and some of the other performers, because I was kind of wrapped up in myself.
Eventually I realized how wonderful a lot of these other burlesque performers are and how important it is to show lots of different standards of beauty. In the early ’90s, I performed at the Crazy Horse (in Paris), and my whole thing was about all these beautiful, young French pinup girls. But I learned that’s not what makes a well-rounded show, and I wanted to have diversity in the lineup.
For this tour, you’ve added men to the roster for the first time. What inspired the decision to introduce the “Vontourage”?
For the longest time, when I performed onstage, I always had these French maid female backup dancers who picked up my clothes (as I disrobed). One day I thought, “Why am I not doing this with men, and having them pick up my clothes?” It just made sense.
Plus, it kind of changes the entire dynamic. I love the idea of having this stage full of women and there’s that woman power thing, but then there’s that simple gesture of having a beautiful tuxedoed gentleman take away one of my shoes. It adds a completely different element, is just a totally different energy, and it’s worked very well and gotten a great response.
I love keeping people on their toes by trying something a little bit different. It’s part of my evolution. When people start copying what I do, it makes sense to keep evolving.
You’re reviving your iconic Martini Glass and Champagne Glass routines in The Art of the Teese, but you’ve redesigned the glasses, including adorning the champagne glass with more than 250,000 Swarovski crystals. Was it just time to freshen things up?
Every time I do the glass, it’s a little bit like doing my hit song. But I always want to do it in a different way. Plus, every time I make a new glass, people imitate it, so I thought it was time to make another one that will be difficult to copy. … I work on the designs of the glasses with Catherine D’Lish, who has been my creative partner for the last 18 years. We woke up one day and said, “Let’s do the ultimate glass. It’s time.”
When and how did you come up with the original martini and champagne glass concept?
A lot of people will say, “Oh, the champagne and the martini glass were done in the old days.” The truth is you might have seen a (burlesque dancer) splashing around in a glass, but Catherine and I have very distinctive choreographies that have never been done in burlesque. So we took that idea of a girl in a glass and created a choreographed dance. That’s what’s very different about what we’ve been doing.
Catherine was one of the most innovative burlesque performers of all time. She taught me her choreography, then we expanded on it together. It started as a dueling martini versus champagne glass—I was kind of the hip, 1950s martini drinking girl and she was the elegant champagne drinking girl. So we did this dueling striptease that climaxed with both of us in our giant glasses onstage.
The glasses are hardly your only elaborate stage props. What are some of the others you’re most proud of?
I had a big birdcage. I had a big Chinese opium den. I have a big pink Swarovski crystalized bull that I ride. I’ve got a big toy box full of gigantic props!
Ginger Valentine, who is one of the performers in the show, is doing an act that I created with Catherine in the early 2000s—we’ve passed it on to her. It’s always fun for me to go into my space where all my things are kept and see how they can live a new life.
What’s the one idea you had that just wasn’t logistically feasible to bring from concept to reality?
Oh, gosh. I feel like every time I create a show, it feels like that for a little while. Then we eventually come up with solutions to solve the problem.
Catherine and I would get these exciting ideas and want to make these big, giant props, until we eventually realized it’s hard to fly them across the world without it costing like $20,000. So a lot of times I have to come up with ideas that I know will travel well, and that’s one thing about my glasses, they travel well for the most part.
But I’ve got a bunch of things in my arsenal. Probably the one (prop) that was the most arduous was a gigantic swan fountain. It seemed like a great idea, but I only performed it once—at an event for (British business mogul) Richard Branson—and then I changed the act up, which is something you’ll see in The Art of the Teese.
When and how did your interest in burlesque manifest?
My mother loved to watch old movies and she collected antiques, so I grew up with this imprint and obsession with women of the 1940s and ’50s cinema, and that just never left me. I remember plotting and planning for my adulthood and thinking, “I’m going to dress like that. I’m going to wear red lipstick.”
That obsession has always been with me in one way or another throughout my life. I mean, I worked in a lingerie store when I was 15 years old. I found that interesting because lingerie was symbolic of womanhood and femininity, so there’s been this ongoing thread of a time when women were ultra-feminine, and a lot of that comes from the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s.
I’m an ordinary dishwater blonde from a farming town in Michigan, so if I can create glamour, anyone can create glamour. That’s really what I’m all about. I call myself a glamour evangelist. I’m here to preach and hope it rubs off on some other women who will find their confidence the same way I have: with glamour.