Although imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it also means you have to one-up yourself before someone else does. Let too much time go by and too many tribute acts add their own flourishes—soon you’ll look dated rather than groundbreaking.
It’s a lesson burlesque performer Dita Von Teese knows all too well. Nearly two decades ago she began developing her strip routines with lavish costuming and a perfectionist’s attention to detail. Eventually, she unleashed today’s burlesque revival, and fellow dancers began imitating her classic routines, including her signature performance in a giant martini glass.
Now she’s come back with more, more, more in her new touring show, Burlesque: Strip Strip Hooray!, which stops at the House of Blues on May 17-19. “After doing small, VIP events for the last few years, I really missed the big, extravagant numbers,” she says. “And, sadly, the great Las Vegas showgirl acts are disappearing. This will bring it back—with more crystals and rhinestones than the Strip has seen since Liberace.”
What went into casting this show?
When I started putting the show together, I thought I’d assemble the most beautiful, most perfect girls out there. And I had my own brand of what that type is. Around the same time I started going to Korean spas. I’d never really seen women so free with their nudity, and I realized how beautiful we all are under our clothes. I realized my focus was wrong, that I needed to find the most talented dancers and women who are powerful in their sensuality. So this show has a lot of variety in terms of body types, ethnicities, styles. There’s even a great representation of boy-lesque. Very chic and intelligent—no fireman costumes here.
You got your start imitating pinup girls. When did you switch from imitator to innovator?
Around ’93, I was at the fan event Glamourcon, and I was imitating Bettie Page. I met the artist Olivia (De Berardinis), the painter of pinup art. She was really interested in me, and we talked awhile. Then she said, “I’d love to paint you, but I already have.” And she just walked away. It struck me that I could become someone that someone else wants to imitate—that one day they might hold look-alike contests for me. Suddenly I realized I had to develop my own style.
How did you find that style?
I didn’t find it overnight. I started experimenting with all the decades and mixing and matching. At one time, I had red hair in a flip. Then I had a ’60s beehive. I started to narrow it down to my favorite things, and that became my look. All my obsessions became who I am.
Your new lingerie and dress line for the Australian market is called Muse. Why that word?
A muse doesn’t try to fit in. She finds whatever it is in herself that is fascinating, or daring, or eccentric. I’ve been a muse for other people—performers, designers, boyfriends, a husband. It’s been wonderful to be someone’s muse. But you can also be your own muse. You can create yourself through your choices.
I’ve never seen one of those celebrity-sighting photos of you in grubby clothes grabbing a coffee. What do you wear at home?
I wear beautiful robes around the house. My casual look is trousers, and when I’m selecting them, I ask myself, “Would Marlene Dietrich wear these?”
Every year for Halloween I wear “normal girl” clothes. I take off the red nail polish and lipstick and put on a blond wig. It’s odd how many things a regular girl has to think about: jeans, a blouse, a sweater, a jacket, maybe a scarf and socks—the only socks I own are for traveling. And I get no pleasure out of jeans.
Sometimes publications want to photograph me like that. It makes me feel very uncomfortable. There’s a certain vulnerability in being portrayed like that—wearing other people’s clothes.
How has burlesque changed over the years?
In the ’30s and ’40s burlesque was entertainment for men. Now my audience is predominantly female. As I put the show together, I wanted women to see someone they can relate to in some way and be inspired by that.
You’ll turn 40 in September. How do you feel about that number?
I’m not exactly afraid of 40, but it does seem odd. The other day I had a Playboy playmate come up to me and say she grew up watching me. I thought that was weird and then realized, OK, she’s 20, so I guess that’s true. But still, there are things you shouldn’t say to an entertainer, or a woman in general.
When you’re young, you think you’re already at your best. You don’t realize that it can come when you’re 40. I’d put my ass in a G-string today up against anyone’s—except maybe a Brazilian’s. Then I’d have to step off.
Jean Paul Gaultier has cited you as one of his muses. How did you meet him?
I met Jean Paul Gaultier about 10 years ago. As we were talking, he suddenly realized I was the girl in some pictures he had for inspiration. At the time I was just starting to go to fashion events. And I didn’t have any clout of any kind. He was the first to dress me. He likes people who have their own sense of personal style. Eccentric, different women. He opened up the archive of haute couture to me. You can’t even call them clothes, because they’re museum pieces. They cost more than a Mercedes. I was really astonished.
How much do the costumes cost?
They average $35,000 to $60,000 each. One of my finale numbers has a $100,000 worth of extravagance. And it’s not just the crystals—I’m sponsored by Swarovski now, so that’s not the issue—it’s the manpower involved in sewing them.
What are your favorite items in your closet?
Jean Paul gave me two dresses to be the keeper of, both from the 2005 winter collection, which was Russian-inspired. My other prized possession is a 1954 Christian Dior New Look era suit. It’s the real thing, made in Paris, with red labels and serial numbers. I found it in a vintage shop in San Francisco. It was my finest moment of shopping.
Your drive some beautiful classic cars. Which is your favorite?
I love my 1953 Cadillac Fleetwood. It’s a dark-green metallic. I’ll never get rid of it. I also have a 1946 Ford convertible and a ’39 Packard.
Are there advantages to getting older?
Being older is actually helping to build my following, especially among women. I mean, imagine how annoying I’d be to other women if I was 19 and coming into Las Vegas to tell them how burlesque should be done, how to be sexy. Men and women both love me a little older.