She’s the chic face of the sex industry, this generation’s Bettie Page and was once married to the cadaverous-looking Marilyn Manson. Speaking to Dita Von Teese, she is so softly spoken, reserved and polite that it’s difficult to reconcile the icon as her sexually-charged stripping stage persona. Penthouse caught up with Von Teese to discuss her upcoming 2018 Australian tour – The Art of the Teese, burlesque feminism and why she got banned from performing in a church.
Dita! How are you feeling about coming back to Australia?
I’m very excited to be back, we had such a wonderful time last time.
Do you plan to do any sight-seeing while you’re in Australia this time? Or will you be pretty head down into the show?
I’ll be pretty much focussing on the show. I have been to Australia many times. I usually like to take a good rest on my days off and see people I know in Australia and work on my lingerie collection. My business partners are based in Melbourne so I have a lot of friends I’ve made down there. Between those two things, I stay pretty busy.
How will your show differ from the last time you were in town?
It’s a totally new show that we’ve been touring in the United States. There are new versions of my champagne glass act. There’s a Swan Lake striptease, which is a ballet themed striptease act, with two princes instead of a swan. As well as an act called Lazy that I restaged with new costumes, sets and choreography this year.
Is there a particular act or moment in The Art of the Teese that’s your favourite?
The opening number is always very exciting. We always come out strong out of the gate. We never really have a warm up. I come out with a very strong act to begin with. But really, I just like hearing people’s reactions to each number because they’re all so very different to each other. Plus of course, it’s always very exciting for me to hear the audience’s reactions to the other performers because they’re all very talented.
What’s something you do before a show to get yourself in the sexy performance mindset?
Being in a good frame of mind is the most important thing. For me, it’s really about creating an atmosphere backstage. I spend a lot of time by myself ahead of time just listening to music that I like and having a glass of champagne. It’s important for me to really just relax, feel good and feel confident about what I’m going to do on stage.
Do you have a favourite stage in the world where you have performed?
I’ve performed in a lot of big, beautiful theatres, and I’m performing on New Year’s Eve at one of the most glamorous theatres in Los Angeles that was built for Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. It’s a beautiful backdrop for burlesque.
How do you stay so continually creative and motivated?
It’s not hard. I always have ideas that I want to do that I haven’t brought to fruition, so it’s not that hard to think of new ideas. I feel I have a strong signature of what I think makes a good burlesque show and I kind of stick to a formula, but I think of different ways to present that. I like to explore clichés and sexual fantasies, and a dash of humour always comes into play with every one of these acts.
Where do you see burlesque going in the future and do you anticipate any new elements being brought to burlesque that haven’t been seen before?
I think burlesque is evolving in a really interesting way. I think the most wonderful thing about burlesque is really that most of the audience is female, couples and the LGBT community, so it’s very different than what burlesque originally was in its so-called heyday in the early 1930s and 40s when it was really just entertainment for men. I think it’s really interesting that you have this atmosphere that’s kind of turned into an alternative, feminist movement. I feel very fortunate to have that as an inspiration.
I read that you were banned from performing at Bette Midler’s Halloween party this year by the church. What was that about?
Yes, I was. I knew I was going to be performing in a church. I’ve performed in lots of churches that have become event and performance spaces. I had been booked for the better part of a year. I arrived and was shown to my “dressing room” and I suddenly started noticing the church robes hanging there… and the staff… and the bibles. My crew started unpacking my show costumes amongst the priests show costumes and I started to feel… not good. The Bishop walked in and started gathering up his bibles and then left. I went to go have a meeting and while I was gone, I started getting all these text messages saying there was a change of plans and that someone had shown the Bishop what my performance was like and he had said there was no way he was having a burlesque show in the church. I honestly don’t blame them at all because it’s a different thing to be performing in a functioning church. With that being said, it was also a Halloween party and there were at least five Satans walking around the church. The theme of the party was “Garden of Earthly Delights”, so as you can imagine, you had people coming in wearing just flowers and leaves, lots of creatures with horns, Satans and other characters like that. It was a bit of a funny situation but I couldn’t have asked for better headlines the next day. Dita Von Teese banned by the Bishop. It was great publicity.
Did you still go to the party?
Yes, I did. I almost got banned from the party as well. I don’t know why. That would have been really outrageous to ban me from the party because I’m an elegant partygoer. I’m elegant in everything I do but I can sort of understand why they don’t want elegant striptease in a church.
In terms of your career, what was the moment in your life where you realised that everything had changed for you?
I’m not really one to think about my status but the moment where I felt like things were not going to be what I thought they were, was when I got a divorce from my ex-husband (Marilyn Manson). We were living together in a big house in the Hollywood Hills and then we got a divorce and I thought I was just going to go back to my normal life and nobody would really care about me. I rented a little house and suddenly I had paparazzi outside my little house every day and I remember thinking… I probably need to move again to somewhere more private and secure. I think that was the moment where I realised that things weren’t going to be as they were before that.
How do you keep your life and love life out of the tabloids?
Living in Los Angeles is very helpful. There are way bigger fish to fry here than me in this neighbourhood! I also just think that for the most part, I present myself well when I leave the house so I don’t have to worry too much about what I’m caught doing or looking like. I keep my love life out of the media pretty easily. My partner works for Disney. He’s not in show business. I try to keep the focus on my work. You can choose to exploit your relationships, exploit your breakups and exploit the bad things that happen to you. We’ve all seen celebrities twitter feeds and feuds with each other after they break up. I just don’t engage with anything like that. I’m very private.
What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever read about yourself in the tabloids?
I think it was probably that I was at a restaurant that I’ve never been to and there was a whole long drawn out story about somebody who apparently saw me send a drink to Bradley Cooper. First of all, I would never do that. I would never spot a man from across the bar and send him a drink. It’s just not my style. I had a boyfriend at the time so it was a strange rumour. It was also an Italian restaurant that I’d never go to I have this thing where when people ask me to go for Italian, I say I only eat Italian when I’m in Italy. So it was especially funny to all my friends that I apparently was spotted in this Italian restaurant trying to make a move on Bradley Cooper. Those kind of things bug me because I wasn’t even there. The other weird rumour was that I travel with my own sunscreen curtains. That I have them in big boxes and I make them put them up at the hotel for me. That was a weird one…
What’s your most beloved piece of clothing or costume?
I mean all of the costumes are very important for me, so it’s very difficult to name one. There are so many stories behind each one; what they mean to me and who made them. One of the costumes I’m bringing with me for this show though is a very special one. It holds a lot of memories for me because I had it made by my friend Mr Pearl, who is like a really famous corset maker. He has made all the most beautiful things for Alexander McQueen, Christian Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier, and he’s a very good friend of mine. He made me this beautiful canary yellow dress, which we spent about two years in fittings, while I was living in Paris. It holds a lot of really special memories for me of him pinning it and drinking champagne together and working on this costume.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received that was formative in your career?
I feel like I’m not really someone that people advise on things. I feel Iike I have to figure out everything on my own. I would say that I like to get advice from old grand dames that I know, that have seen it all. Like Mamie Van Doren, who’s a famous 50’s movie star and pin up and who’s still around. She told me to always look at my money even though it was not pleasant to do, but that you can’t trust anyone with your money and you have to look at everything.
Why do you think beauty is important?
I wrote a book on beauty called Your Beauty Mark. It’s not just a traditional beauty book though. I really wanted to explain to people how the power of beauty can transform and give confidence. It’s my firm belief that there’s no such a thing as an ugly or boring person; just someone who hasn’t harnessed their power of being who they want to be yet.
Other than burlesque, what kinds of live performance do you personally enjoy?
I love to go to the ballet. I like to see really great world-class ballet with really interesting storylines. I also like going to concerts and seeing artists that I really like. I like immersive theatre experiences of the high level. I like pretty much any kind of entertainment that’s the best in the world. I just don’t like the stuff that’s existing in the mediocre.
Turning that around, do you have any tacky pop culture indulgences?
I feel like everything on the radio is shit… except Beyonce. I believe in the quote, “Everything popular is wrong”, especially when it comes to music. Whenever someone has the radio on, I’m like, wow, this is crazy. There is good music out there, it’s just that it doesn’t get promoted.
Do you collect anything?
Yes. My house is like a museum. I have two libraries. I collect antiques from the turn of the century to the 1950s. I have an art collection that features a lot of iconic famous pin-up art from artists like John Willie, Zoe Mozert, Fritz Willis and Peter Driben. I follow all of those auctions. I also collect Hollywood and burlesque memorabilia. So I have a lot of things from stars that I admire, such as Bettie Page’s favourite pair of fetish shoes that she wore for all of those bondage photos and videos. I also have the model release that goes with them too. I also have Gypsy Rose Lee’s performance dress and a chair that she did a needlepoint seat on. I have Cyd Charisse’s ballet shoes and some of her coats. I like to collect things that make me feel closer to the past and the things that I’m obsessed with. I collect things that connect to me and what I’m doing.
Is there a standout piece to you or one piece you feel particularly connected to?
I think the Bettie Page’s shoes are a pretty important item. They’re very much like the equivalent of ruby slippers for pin-up girls and burlesque stars. They’re the Holy Grail of real pin-up items. Those mean a lot to me and I feel like they were a great investment. I think about all of those collectors who bought all the Wizard of Oz memorabilia back in the 70’s for a couple of thousand dollars and sold them for a couple of million dollars. I feel like one day when I’m in my 80s or 90s, I’ll be glad I bought those Bettie Page shoes.
'The Art of the Teese' featuring Dita Von Teese will be touring Australia in February-March 2018. Buy tickets online!