The queen of new burlesque, Dita Von Teese has always worked controversy in her favor, making a name for herself as a dancer, fetish model and spouse of Marilyn Manson. Shes attained enough celebrity cachet to perform ever more infrequently while focusing more on endorsements for Wonderbra, lingerie lines and now a high profile promotion with Cointreau, which is sponsoring two shows (9 p.m. Mon.-Tue., July 19-20; House of Blues) at the opening of Tales of the Cocktail.
Gambit: You say you dont draw a distinction between burlesque and stripping, but youre the queen of burlesque. Whats essential for an act to be considered burlesque?
Dita: For me, and according to factual history, American burlesque queens always incorporated a striptease and a degree of nudity. It upsets me that with the commercialization of burlesque, the strip is being removed. Burlesque never was just about retro dancing girls, or just about the tease or seduction. It was about a reveal, and always, always, always incorporated striptease. The greatest star of all, Gypsy Rose Lee, who went on to make films, write books and become a part of mainstream Hollywood took her clothes off to music onstage, and it sickens me to see modern Hollywood trying to rewrite history and make striptease a bad word, all the while using the term burlesque.
Its my personal mission to explain to people what burlesque was, and to remind people that striptease, when done properly, can be beautiful, creative and legitimately entertaining. Those of us that know and understand the true history of burlesque know that the art is in performing something as risque as a strip, yet somehow maintaining elegance and sophistication. Perhaps that is too much for some people to grasp, or too much trouble to go to in order to achieve this effect so they just take away the strip, maybe add some feathers and sequins, and talk about how classy they are compared to strippers. A great burlesque act is more than merely striptease, but its also much more than merely corsets, feathers and red lipstick, and there is no need to explain to people how classy you are because you dont strip. My intention is to be true to the history of burlesque in America, and to honor the legends of burlesque that came way before me by keeping the striptease in burlesque.
Continued after the jump...
Who are your favorite vintage burlesque performers?
Gypsy was my favorite. She was unique, creative, very intelligent, and she sort of fell into burlesque by accident, and made the most of what she had, with her creative sense and intellect. Her sister was actually the talented and beautiful one, and Gypsy overcame her challenges and became a greater star than her sister, who seemed to be meant for the stage. I love the stars who transcend and become, in spite of their shortcomings. Theres something about the magic that happens when ambition and creativity become more important than God-given talent. I find that most of the entertainers I admire were the ones that worked and learned their way to the top rather than just being naturally gifted. Its a little bit like how people always said about Madonna, Oh, she cant really sing. I would take a small fabulous dose of Madonna over someone being boring and doing vocal gymnastics any day!
Which contemporary burlesque performers do you like?
I have to admit that I dont often actually get to see other performers. Im usually backstage during these shows getting ready for my show. But I have seen a few standout acts, like the ones I am bringing to New Orleans with me, and girls like the fabulous Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz and Catherine DLish who are all girls I know from way back when, before the burlesque boom happened.
In an age of (unintentionally and intentionally) leaked sex tapes, youve become more famous and built a brand out of glamorous frills and a retro tease act. Did you figure out the key to managing sex appeal?
I think that it is interesting that in America, its OK if you make some sex tape, and then make it seem accidental, and then the next step is to apologize profusely. But if I intentionally make a highly stylized erotic or fetishistic film, or perform a striptease where I am in control, and it has no relation to real sex, or even revealing my personal sex life, it is still frowned upon, especially in America. Its such a weird way of thinking, and odd double standard. I am in total control of what I show people, and I find it odd that there is this strange phenomenon of sex-tape stars, yet I am considered the risque one. But I refuse to apologize, and I stand by my choices throughout my career. In my opinion, sex appeal is about confidence and being in control of your own sexuality, and that is a lot of what burlesque is about. I love burlesque because every star back then and most of them now are self-created and self directed, self-taught. Historically, burlesque dancers are creative, strong women who are unabashed in their choices, and make their own way and a career as entertainers on their own terms.
You used to do a lot of fetish modeling. Is that too controversial for you now?
No, but you know, I started doing that almost 20 years ago. There was really nowhere for me to go with it at a certain point, and I have no real desire to work in that realm anymore, because Ive done it. And furthermore, to be completely frank about it, there isnt any money in it, and after all these years, Ive paid my dues, and I am more interested in my evolution and in creating and developing my future so I can take care of myself and not rely on anyone else. I know its terribly uncouth to talk about money, but there are many other projects I would rather do, and that I do do for no financial benefit, but being tied up and letting someone film it is not one of those things I do anymore. It was fun at the time, and served a purpose because I was doing something unique at that time in the fetish world by making fetishism glamorous and retro again, and thats what made me known, but its not 1991 anymore.
You currently split time between Paris and Los Angeles. What do you like most about both of your homes?
I love the challenges of living in Paris, like learning a new language, for instance. I love being able to walk the streets of Paris, enjoying the lifestyle and, of course, I love the beauty of the city. I love strolling through gardens and museums, riding a bicycles in the streets stopping on a whim to see a beautiful building or a garden. And of course, its wonderful to be in Paris with my boyfriend who is French. But I also love returning to sunny Los Angeles where I have all these fabulous conveniences, like stores open on Sundays, and the best of everything found in one amazing food store! You dont really have that in Paris, and if you do, it is never open on Sunday or in the evening! I love driving my cars in L.A., and I love the health-minded lifestyle. Its great to have the balance of both places. Its a great balance; just when I get tired of one, I flee to the other!
What will you be doing in the upcoming New Orleans show?
All of the acts I am performing will be new to New Orleans, and actually, have rarely been performed in the United States at all. Im bringing my most opulent act, The Opium Den, which took me four years to conceptualize and create, and its by far my most elaborate show. And Im bringing my Be Cointreaversial act too, which is the grander version of my martini glass number that Im known for. I am also doing a third act, but still trying to figure out which one to bring, but it will be new to New Orleans too.
Youve done the champagne glass act and an absinthe cocktail number as well. Do you have a new drink in mind now that you are representing Cointreau?
I reinvented my martini glass act and made an all new costume that represents the classic Cointreau colors, all done in 350,000 Swarovski crystals. Its my most extravagant Swarovski venture ever! As for the cocktail, its a giant Cointreaupolitan, and sometimes its a giant Cointreauteese which is my signature cocktail.
Can you offer a preview of who youll be performing with?
I have a lineup of favorite performers: Murray Hill, Selene Luna and Duke Lafayette.