SuicideGirls.com Interviews Dita Von Teese

SuicideGirls.com: Dita Von Teese: Strip Strip Hooray!
By Nicole Powers
Apr 30, 2012

In May of this year Dita Von Teese will embark on an 18-month major North American tour that is the culmination of her 20-year career as a burlesque artist. In line with her passion for presenting the art in its purest form, her “Burlesque: Strip Strip Hooray!” shows will feature a diverse cast of authentic characters alongside four of Dita’s most dazzling sets.

SuicideGirls caught up with the Queen of Teese to talk about her show, her inspirations, and her philosophy on glamour and self-invention.

Nicole Powers: I caught your Strip Strip Hooray show at the Roxy in December of 2010. How’s the new show going to differ?

Dita Von Teese: We’re really working on refining our support talent and working toward trying to be able to show all of my biggest production numbers. This time I have four of my biggest production numbers in it, whereas before I think I did maybe one of the bigger shows. I really feel like now we have the perfect, diverse, wonderful cast. Every single act brings the house down. Also we have a lot more additions to the production in general like the staging, so it’s just a more fleshed out show.

NP: Can you talk about some of the people that are going to be in the show?

DVT: We have our MC Murray Hill, which I’m sure you remember, who, for me, is the best MC in all of burlesque, and really understands how you translate that bawdy humor that used to exist in classic burlesque [and make it] relevant to the current times. I also have Dirty Martini. She is a legend in burlesque and is this amazing, beautiful, larger than life performer. I love having her in the show because not only is she a wonderful person, she’s a great role model for the more voluptuous women and a great star for burlesque. This time I’m being reunited with my partner in crime who originally I used to perform a lot with named Catherine D’Lish, who is also responsible for creating three of my four costumes in the show. All of these big extravagant Swarovski crystal costumes are all her handiwork. She is a wonderful performer in her own right. We also have Selene Luna, who I am sure you saw. We have one of my favorite boylesque performers, Monsieur Romeo.

NP: I love that you have boylesque.

DVT: That I picked up in France. We have Lada, who is one the great stars of the Crazy Horse in Paris. This time around we actually have her performing one of the acts that the Crazy Horse is known for. So if you can’t go to Paris, we’re going to bring a little bit of Paris for people to see here. [And we have] Perle Noire. She’s a beautiful, African-American girl that does a great Josephine Baker that really brings the house down every single time.

NP: I know that you’ve been wanting to do something on this scale for a while now.

DVT: Well, thanks to Live Nation and thanks to everyone that’s working on my management team and production we’re managing to do it. Because you know a show of this size, with this big of a cast and this kind of production value, doesn’t come easy at a $35 ticket price. But that was really important to me, that we keep the ticket price accessible. I could have said, yeah, let’s go up to $100. A lot of people would pay $100 to see a show like this. But I wanted to make sure that everyone that wants to see it could see it. Live Nation definitely made that possible. It’s really amazing to have the support of them. They’re helping us get lots of really great press for the show and I’m really excited that they’re just in general getting behind burlesque. They’re responsible for so many of the big concerts and I think this is the first time they’ve gotten behind a burlesque show.

NP: That’s what amazed me when I saw the show at the Roxy; for a $35 ticket price you had a full-on Vegas production in there almost.

DVT: Yeah, it’s tough. The four numbers I’m doing, it’s $1 million worth of my money put into this show. I’ve made them over the course many years. These are my best offs. That’s what you’ll see basically, the past 20 years of my work all coming to its zenith I think. I’m not going to say it’s the last chance to see my shows like this. But, certainly, I really have been putting my all into people seeing these shows as I originally meant them to be seen in the next year and a half, doing a full tour of these shows.

NP: So far you’ve just announced the West Coast dates, but they’re just the start of your 18 month plan.

DVT: Basically, because I have so many other commitments, I’m doing it in little sections. I’m not like a rock band where I’m just going to go for a year and a half. After this West Coast [run], we’ll soon announce the Midwest and the East Coast dates, and then we’ll go to the South. I’ll be on tour for a month and a half and then off for a month or two months. We’re just taking it slow.

NP: Are there going to be international dates?

DVT: It’s really important to me to start in America, because I’ve done so much in Europe and a lot of people have had a chance to see my show there. I feel like I’ve neglected the US. It’s not by choice, it’s just because I think it took a lot longer to get people behind me to do this.

NP: Do you think that Americans are less comfortable with nudity in entertainment than Europeans?

DVT: I think it’s really interesting the way that classic burlesque is an American invention. This whole idea of striptease to music in a theatre with feathers and rhinestones is American style. I often wonder why people still don’t really understand what I do here. I think there’s still a lot of people that think that I just dress up in vintage clothes and drive old cars around, and that I don’t do anything and I just take off my clothes whenever I feel like it. They don’t realize there’s actually a real career in it and a lot of work that goes into my production. But I think one of the reasons it just hasn’t gotten as much mainstream attention here in America as it has say in the UK, France and Germany is because here they can’t really show exactly what I do on TV. A lot of people are living by the TV, and when I appear on a TV show or something they really can’t show what I’m doing.

NP: I know that you split your time between your homes in Los Angeles and Paris. Are there any new couture creations from your Parisian friend Mr. Pearl for this show?

DVT: Yes, in fact I’m debuting a new Mr. Pearl creation. I just had a fitting the other day, our maybe tenth fitting. He’s created a special lingerie set that is going to be debuted with my new martini glass for the opening of the show. I also have a really wonderful designer named Alexis Mabille, who shows in Paris. He made a beautiful tuxedo that I’m going to be wearing with the Mr. Pearl corset. We’ve been diligently working in Paris [doing] fittings between the three of us since last summer.

NP: While drinking lavender Champagne at Mr. Pearl’s fitting room.

DVT: Oh, yeah. Mr. Pearl is really a magical creature.

NP: How did you first come across Mr. Pearl?

DVT: Mr. Pearl is a legend in the world amongst people that love corsetry. I’d known about his name for a long time and I’d seen pictures, and I guess maybe about eight or nine years ago American Vogue did a story about me, and [International Editor at Large] Hamish Bowles wanted to do a story on me and Mr. Pearl together. So a meeting arranged between the two of us. In my mind, I felt like I heard about Mr. Pearl, he’s elusive, he doesn’t use computers, he won’t be interviewed, he doesn’t meet people. He’s just into his art. That’s what he does. He’s very private. I think I would never dared try to contact him, knowing about his mystery. So I had this meeting in Paris with him at The Ritz, and he brought me a little bunch of violets and it was like an instant attraction to each other. We were crazy about each other. We became really, really close friends and have been ever since. It was amazing to lose my perceptions of what kind of person I thought he was. Really, truly, nobody on the face of the planet can do what Mr. Pearl does. You could sit down with every designer, Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, Christian Lacroix, and Alexander McQueen if he were still alive, and they will all say that what Mr. Pearl does is an absolute mystery and no one can do it. It’s crazy. I’m very lucky to know him. He’s made so many iconic pieces for all of those designers. I’m completely astonished by him and his brilliance.

NP: What makes a Mr. Pearl’s corset so special?

DVT: It’s really magical. You look at it, there’s such a difference in the shape that he creates, and what he manages with very thin, thin fabrics. The corset he’s making me to wear on stage is made out of one layer of very, very fine tulle, yet it pulls my waist in beyond what any other corsetmakers can do. I wear other corsets, but nobody can make that shape that he does. Also, when you have a really close look at his work, the extent of the perfection of every single stitch – I’ve shown these corsets to other corsetmakers and they can’t even comprehend it… The corset he has made for me that I’m wearing is really a special one. We just had a fitting the other day and even he stood back and went “Oh, wow!” It’s so sheer that you can actually see my skin underneath and the shape. It’s like you’re looking at a corseted body, but with x-ray vision. In all of these years of making corsets, he was stunned by the effect that he had created with this new corset.

NP: This is for the martini glass, which is your signature set, which you say you’re reinventing. That seems almost like re-inventing the wheel. What made you want to re-imagine it?

DVT: I’ve done it a lot over the years and so I’ve made different costumes and different sized glasses. This time, part of my motivation was that there’s a lot of people that started copying the design of my original glass. Even though I know it’s supposed to be flattery…It’s strange because it’s so close to me, and something I’ve done for so long. You’ve got to always evolve and one up yourself. I’ve made a few glasses in the past few years, this time I wanted to do something beautiful and extravagant, and that looks even more like a glass than my original one that I made all of those years ago. This new one is a really beautiful design and is entirely covered in Swarovski crystals, which was no small feat…One of our goals, between me and Catherine D’Lish, who has designed and made these outfits, was how can we just make it blindingly beautiful and do something just so dazzling that people think that it’s plugged into the wall it looks so brilliant.

We’re also really big fans of Liberace. If you know anything about Liberace’s story, the way he arrived to the extravagant level that he did was that he told himself every time that he went on stage that he was going to do something more over the top. It started off as one simple piano concert; he wore a white jacket and it caused a stir. Next he changed one little thing, put a candelabra on the piano, and that cause a stir. So we always had this idea that we have to make every costume more exciting than last, and that’s how we arrived at what you’ll see in Strip Strip Hooray.

NP: Are you going to extend that concept and put a martini-shaped swimming pool in your backyard any time soon?

DVT: [laughs] That’s a good idea. I don’t know, I’m pretty happy with just a normal kidney-shaped swimming pool. My house is kind of an extension of what you would think, although it has nothing really to do with my stage life. People always walk in and say, “Oh, wow. It’s not what I imagined, but it’s exactly right.” My house is a combination of a lot of different things, but there’s not really any feathers or rhinestones laying around really.

NP: I’ve always associated you with exceptionally good taste. Liberace made a career out of outdoing himself to the point where taste went out the window, but there’s no way that’s going to happen with you.

DVT: I’m thinking about Liberace’s house now. Yeah, my house is definitely not like Liberace’s.

NP: I went to the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas. Have you ever been there?

DVT: Many, many times over the years. Catherine D’Lish and I used to before we’d make a costume. We’d go out there, make a pilgrimage, and put our hands on the biggest rhinestone in the world. I’m very familiar with the Liberace Museum and I’m very, very sad that it’s gone.

NP: I know, it’s exceedingly sad.

DVT: It’s a sad state of affairs if you ask me. It’s, in a way, an end of an era. I feel like it’s not the Las Vegas I used to go to anymore. I don’t know what I’ll do if the show Jubilee ever closes. That’s the last great Vegas showgirl review. Without the feathers and the rhinestones and the topless showgirls – that’s it…It just feels like there’s such a commercialization and sanitization of Vegas happening. I feel like people keep going, “Let’s get rid of the old, in with the new. What about another Cirque du Soleil show?” And to me, I love the Jubilee show. It’s funny, it’s beautiful, it’s classic Las Vegas.

NP: Could you ever see yourself maybe producing a show like that?

DVT: I would absolutely love to. I would also love to be a guest star there at the Jubilee or try to do something to be involved in something like that. I would love to be involved in the creation of a real showgirl show and making it accessible and enjoyable for modern audiences too. That would absolutely be a goal. I think especially in Vegas there’s not really any representation of authentic burlesque in any of the casinos. All these pseudo-burlesque clubs are exactly that, they’ve taken away all of the good elements of burlesque, they’re trying to get rid of the striptease and make it a family show. They’re trying to do what they did with the Burlesque movie, which is not really doing any favors for the great, daring women of burlesque that came before me and actually did perform a striptease.

I don’t really agree with rewriting the history of burlesque for the sake of commercializing it. Since the beginning of my career, with every new phase of my career and new chapter, I’ve had choices along the way that I don’t have to really do the striptease. But I feel like what’s really the point if you don’t? This is a historic art form in America, and I like the challenge of making something that is risqué, sophisticated, beautiful, and elegant. If you take away all of the risqué parts, what do you have? I’ve always liked the idea of bringing things together that maybe people find taboo or difficult or too racy. I love changing peoples’ minds about things like that, whether it’s fetishism or whether it’s striptease. I like the idea of changing peoples’ minds about what it can be and what it should like.

NP: For most people, the closest they get to maybe understanding the original, authentic art of burlesques is perhaps through the Gypsy movie or something like that. But there were so many more burlesque stars back in the day. People know Gypsy Rose Lee’s name because of the movie. If you could make a biopic about one burlesque star, who would you want to make it about and why?

DVT: I would say Lili St. Cyr. I think she was really thrilling and really, she would make a beautiful subject. She had a pretty great life. But let me also say, I keep dreaming of them doing the real story of Gypsy Rose Lee. Because her life was not what you saw in that pretty little musical. She had all kinds of exciting things happen in her life that she never wanted really to talk about. There’s a few books that expose what her life was really like. There were gangsters involved, there was murder, there was a lot of really crazy things that happened around her. If we could see the real story of Gypsy Rose Lee, I would love to watch that.

NP: What books would you recommend people read?

DVT: There’s a really great book called Stripping Gypsy that I liked a lot. Speaking of the Lili St. Cyr movie, there’s one called Gilded Lili, which is really great too. There’s a lot of books about Gypsy. I have pretty much read all of them.

NP: What about Lili’s life inspires you?

DVT: She was a lingerie designer and had a mail-order lingerie business that was actually open here in Los Angeles until I think the ‘80s. A lot of these glamorous women had really interesting and sometimes tragic stories. It’s great for people to see that behind these glamorous images they had a hard time, they had a lot to live up to. Also, Lili St. Cyr famously was a heroin addict in her later days. It wasn’t a very happy ending, but it was an interesting story.

NP: And I guess society also judged these women. We’re in strange times now, especially with the War on Women and the politics of sex in America. As a society, we’re almost coming full circle with these very puritanical views of female sexuality.

DVT: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s really interesting the way that originally burlesque back then was geared toward men and now there’s definite a shift in that most of the burlesque audiences comprise of women that are finding inspiration from it and empowerment from it; from either doing or watching and finding ways to bring it into their own life, seeing a show like Strip Strip Hooray and seeing other women that they can relate to.

I was really trying to put lots of different kinds of performers in the show so that a lot of people could walk away relating to them and being like, ‘Yeah, I could do that too. If she can do that, I can do that.’ Not to say that everyone needs to get up on stage, but to embrace your sensuality and understand that you’re most sexy when you’re having fun and you’re free. You can create your own glamorous world. You don’t have to wait for someone to give it to you. There’s a lot of things that I really love about burlesque, and all of the people that are fans of it and that are performers too. I just think that we’re women that are saying we like this, we feel good about this, we don’t have to be natural-born beauties with little pert noses and blonde hair and look great in bikinis to be sexy. There are other ways around it. There are other ways to do it other than just what we see on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. I could never relate to that at all. That’s why I started styling myself and learning how to create glamour. I think that a lot of people are embracing burlesque for all of these factors – it’s self-creation.

NP: One of the joys of your last show was looking at the audience. It was the most glamorous crowd I have ever seen in LA. It must be quite gratifying for you to look out at your audience and see the effort people make, and to know you inspire that in people.

DVT: It is. It makes me feel good that other people feel the same way that I do about it, and that they discovered what I discovered a long time ago too. This is what makes me feel good about myself. Not everybody has to like it, but this is what makes me feel good. It’s not about trying to fit into a stereotype of sexy…

I remember really vividly the first time I saw this shift. I have been around performing for many years, since the early ‘90s, and I’ve watched my audience change. I remember really well the first time I ever really went “Oh my God, my fan base has totally shifted.” I felt like I had a different responsibility to live up to. It wasn’t anymore me just doing shows in strip clubs or for guys that were fetishists or for people that remembered sneaking into burlesques houses when they were little boys. Suddenly, I realized that I need to think of who my fans are now and think about what my message really is.

NP: And what do you think that message is?

DVT: It’s a lot of things. I think mostly I just keep trying to tell people what my story is and how I felt. I’m a natural blonde from a farming town in Michigan, and the truth is I am a very ordinary-looking girl. I know, because I’ve been there. Through learning the art of glamour and the art of self-creation and believing in it, and doing what makes me feel good about myself, I’ve been able to build a whole career around it and also to learn who I am as a woman, and it doesn’t really rely on someone else’s stamp of approval.

For more on Dita Von Teese visit dita.net/. For more info on her Strip Strip Hooray tour go to: ditasdomain.com/ssh/.

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