Dita von Teese, burlesque superstar, author, actress, costume and lingerie designer, and formidable businesswoman, is idolized by many who might not otherwise fancy themselves enthusiasts of burlesque, let alone openly admire a star of “adult entertainment.” She has revived both an early incarnation of her art (even the “tease” in “striptease” seems charmingly antiquated by standards shaped by Hustler and the Internet-driven ubiquity of porn) but also an aesthetic, a mode of comportment that harkens back to a time when women went to finishing school and learned to dress, pose, sit, walk, gesticulate, speak, and even laugh with a certain delicate restraint. It’s an aesthetic wherein a woman’s dignity is an integral part of her sexual allure, rather than a thing to be sacrificed in pursuit of sexiness.
Von Teese’s burlesque performances and her vast body of work as a model (for which she has maintained both artistic and financial control, designing and copyrighting the images) are marked by a playfulness that never gets sloppy, a sensual and sexual openness that never succumbs to the crass: in her most outré moments one can’t quite imagine her doing anything “obscene.” This juxtaposition of the high and low art, the very artfulness itself, has made Von Teese the most celebrated burlesque dancer in the world, and gained her fans of both sexes, even made her an unlikely feminist idol.
The Rumpus: How do you rehearse? How much of what we see onstage is improvised?
Dita von Teese: It depends on the act. Some are very precise and more tightly choreographed than others. Others are not so much apart from hitting certain marks and parts of the song, because the sizes of my stage vary so much that I have to be ready for anything, to work with a new space. Plus with the complexity of most the costumes and the way they come off, there’s got to be a little leeway in the choreography.
Rumpus: One thing people often remark on regarding your work, and the “vintage” burlesque it harkens back to, is that it is so elegant, playful, and even innocent compared to many of today’s forms of titillating dance performance and stripping. Why do you think “adult entertainment” has diverged from the ladylike to this much more overt (perhaps even humorless and literal) and pornified manifestation? Or is it a mistake to even analogize today’s adult entertainment with burlesque?
von Teese: It’s all relative. To relate adult entertainment to burlesque, because that’s what it originally was in the 1930s—titillating entertainment for adults. I \ don’t romanticize the past much when it comes to this subject, because one could buy hardcore porn, heavy bondage and fetishistic erotica from the time the camera was invented. It’s always been there, and some people have always wanted it; it’s just that nowadays it’s easier to find it. People are people and have always had these urges and fascinations with sexuality and even extreme sex, so I think it would be a mistake to say things are so different now. It’s only different because we are freer to be how we want to be publicly. We also have more access to erotica due to the way technology has changed.
Rumpus: There are ways of moving and posing that many erotic dancers engage in that are hard to imagine you doing. What defines a move—or a pose or gesture—that you won’t do?
von Teese: I respect strippers of all forms, because I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t wandered into a strip club and wanted to know more about striptease history. I got my start in strip clubs, and I’ve always been able to admire what makes a dancer an individual, whether it’s really raunchy or tame, and at this point I guess I just have my own set of rules for myself and what I think works for me and what doesn’t. It’s not really easy to describe it in a way that is about a specific move or gesture. One thing I would never do is that thing some dancers do when they hold their hand to their ear to get applause from an audience. That’s just about the least chic thing I have ever seen a performer do! In my opinion, elegance has nothing to do with “how much” is shown and far more to do with the way one presents herself. I’ve seen beautiful, highly erotic nearly pornographic shows that are more elegant than some burlesque acts. You can’t equate the degree of nudity or suggestion, it’s all about the overall way it’s done.
Rumpus: Your burlesque practice—which is obviously very much your unique expression—is strongly rooted in the erotic performance art of the past. Yet your presentation of yourself on stage (and that of your predecessors) seems utterly empowered; it’s hard to believe that your burlesque has been criticized as a sublimation of women or anti-gender-equality, although I’ve read that it has, occasionally. On the flip side, today’s stripping and erotic dancing can sometimes seem very much a degradation and objectification of women, despite our improved status. If you agree with this assessment, why do you think there is this inverse relationship between women as portrayed in erotic dance from previous eras to now?
von Teese: I’ve really only come under fire when it’s someone who doesn’t know that my audience is mainly women. But I can’t agree with the assessment about erotic dancing or porn, because even if you step into a typical strip club, you don’t get to decide for someone else what is degrading. In my opinion, we all have a right to be objectified if that’s what we want. Listen, in my wildest sex fantasies, no one loves me for my mind! But for me, as a woman making a living the same way great showgirls of the past did before me, I don’t pay any attention to the argument of what I do, I know what I do and why I do it and what people get from seeing my shows.
Rumpus: You’re a great advocate of glamour and the power of “putting some effort” into one’s appearance, and you successfully combine glamour, discretion, and “classiness” with sexiness. A lot of women have trouble combining those things, feeling they have to choose between dignity and sexiness. What advice do you have for women who want find that balance you maintain so well?
von Teese: It’s a bit like what I said above about combining charm and elegance with a playful sensuality. It’s 2012; we can have it all. It’s no longer a choice between dignity and sexiness. If you really get to the essence of what makes one sexy, if you get past just what you see in magazines and such, you can see that true sexiness has many facets. The elements include things like confidence, strength, intelligence, and humor. The great seductresses in history knew that it isn’t just about trying to look sexy or pretty; it’s an art and one becomes skillful in it when she realizes that there are all these conflicting elements that all come together to make something magical. So, what I’m saying is that you don’t need to choose, you just need to understand that all these different things come together to create sexy, and your mind and your personality are a massive part of that.
Rumpus: In your book Burlesque and the Art of the Teese/Fetish and the Art of the Teese, you talk about glamour not being inaccessible—that it’s about being creative, taking care, and making the most of what one has. Do you think of this as enhancement of what is there, or the creation of illusions? Is there a point past which personal myth-making becomes sinister or self-destructive? What are your thoughts on the lucrative cosmetic surgery industry?
von Teese: It’s mostly about enhancing what you have, while spinning a magic spell. Glamour is about creating illusion. I’m clearly all for the illusion, partially because I also love to strip it all away at times and reveal my vulnerability to those I want to. It’s not about hiding.
Regarding cosmetic surgery, it’s nothing new. After all, the first nose jobs were done in the 1700s, so I think the taboo should be lifted by now. But what I also want for anyone who wants to utilize these dramatic forms for beauty enhancement is that they learn how to use it properly and know when enough is enough and when to stop obsessing over things like one tiny wrinkle. The problem is that a lot of people don’t know how to use it gracefully.
Rumpus: Where did you learn your business savvy. Do you have business advice for artists and performers?
von Teese: I think I’ve always had it in me. I’ve always been a saver and planner. I’ve always been concerned for my future. Even when I was working in a strip club in the early 90s, I was saving 15 percent of every dime I made. I was also investing, even though it wasn’t much. I have always told myself it doesn’t last forever. I’m very sensible with my money.
Rumpus: Where do you see yourself professionally in 20 years?
von Teese: In twenty years I will be turning 60. I have no idea what’s in store for me. But I would like to imagine that I will be more focused on designing my lingerie and dresses full-time and also writing my autobiography.
Dita von Teese will be performing at the Fillmore in San Francisco on Monday and Tuesday nights, May 21 and 22, at 7pm. Tickets here.