DITA VON TEESE, the world’s most famous burlesque star, says she’s just here to entertain you. She spoke with RICHIE BLACK ahead of her new Australian tour.
”I want people to just, like, let it go and have a great time for three hours.”
So says American cabaret artist, burlesque dancer, model, costume designer, entrepreneur, singer, and actress Dita Von Teese.
But, of course, there’s more to that statement than meets the eye—aptly enough, for a performer who’s mastered The Art of The Tease.
“It’s been a long hot [American] summer of working it all out—but I really can’t wait to hit the road with this show,” she tells the Star Observer.
Her latest spectacular is filled with original acts as well as fresh takes on classic hits.
Not only does she engage in a collaborative tête-à-tête with the likes of British designer Jenny Packham, French artist Sebastien Tellier and Australian electronic dance artist Andrew Armstrong of the band Monarchy—she’ll be joined by burlesque stars including Dirty Martini and our own tease queen, Zelia Rose.
But this will be defiantly Dita’s show. Yes, she’ll be appearing in a champagne glass. Yes, she’ll be riding a giant bucking red lipstick. No, of course, she doesn’t take herself seriously. Or does she?
Well, yes and no. ‘Cos sex is serious. Except when it’s very funny. Capiche?
And without wishing to state the bleeding obvious, sex is essential to burlesque—and Dita is burlesque— with judicious portions of glamour and humour in the mix.
“One of the great things about a burlesque show,” she says, “is you don’t have to apologise for being sexual beings.”
Apologies aren’t part of Dita’s milieu. Her art is an expression of power and control—unapologetically itself (and frequently rude).
“At one of my shows, [director] Tim Burton came backstage,” she recalls. “With the crazy hair. And he’s like, ‘You’re the Mick Jagger of strip-tease! You drop a strap and you’ve got 3000 people just going crazy!’”
These claims to female empowerment might subvert the expectations of those who associate stripping with the opposite. But subversion is key here. It’s pivotal to her process: one way through what she refers to, with a self-deprecating laugh, as artistic “stripper-block”.
“I always think, like, what amuses me? What do I think that’s funny? What’s a sexual cliché that needs to be uncovered? What would be completely absurd and fantastical and over the top?
“That’s the kind of stuff that flicks my switch.”
But she’s also serious about this subversion—she’s on a mission to flick your switch too.
In particular, she’s keen to let the world know that sexual practices involving a little consensual punishment are no bad thing.
“I really wanted to glamorise fetishism and show it in a new light—together with super high fashion,” she says, of her latest work.
“I’ve always loved that idea of taking something that’s risqué but making it really sophisticated and elegant and glamorous.”
There’s a lot to talk about here, as you can imagine—sexual politics, never more so than in the wake of #metoo, are complicated.
“When we’re talking about fetishism we can talk about this for hours,” she says, almost wearily.
Consent, she makes clear, is the operative word in this territory and yet, “People are afraid of it and don’t understand it.”
People have often misunderstood Dita. When she was a young girl growing up in small-town Michigan, obsessed with the glamorous icons of yore, they thought she was weird.
Back then, her name was Heather Renee Sweet. An ugly duckling with dishwater blonde hair (her description).
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to grow up to be just like Rita Hayworth’—but it didn’t really occur to me that that was not normal—you know, in the time that I grew up, so I got made fun of a lot,” she reveals.
“I still do sometimes. ‘Why are you dressed like that? Why are you so dressed up?’ That’s been happening for me for 25 years.
“[But] I feel like I didn’t really come into my own confidence and power until I started giving myself that big Hollywood makeover.”
The same thing that happened to the ugly duckling happened to Heather Sweet—with an embrace of glamour nostalgic for the ’40s that is so quintessential to Dita’s personal style.
The transformation gave her power, let her own an identity that took beauty to an extreme, where nostalgia, pastiche and subversion all had a place.
“The idea of becoming hyper feminine appealed to me,” she says,
“Corsetry made me more hour-glass than I naturally was; high heels made me stand a certain way; long nails painted red, lips painted red … ”
Like many others, she found belonging in difference—not least with the LGBT community, with whom she has always had an affinity. As she explains, “My first experiences in the early ’90s, I was big into rave culture in Los Angeles—so I was going out to all these parties and met all these drag queens … and it was being accepted into this world where you could wear whatever you wanted.”
And so, girl became icon: along the way there was the 2002 Playboy shoot which broke her in the US, adult (erotic) films, celebrity endorsements, a marriage to Marilyn Manson, a spot in the Eurovision Song Contest, authoring of books, her own lingerie ranges, and so on.
Dita’s history, thus uncovered, is a little complicated (like sex, as previously mentioned). But it’s also underpinned (like sex) by simple impulses. Like the desire to claim an identity.
The desire to not “feel like a meek little dishwater blonde from Michigan”.
“I can be whoever I want to be. And if I decide I’m going to style myself like Hedy Lamarr and go out into the world—well, that’s who I’m going to be.”
Australian audiences will have a chance to discover, or rediscover, who that is this summer. But be warned—audiences are encouraged to (re)discover and celebrate their own particular fetish.
“It’s a scene,” she says, “It’s not just what’s going on that stage—but what’s happening in the room too. And that’s what fuels me.”
The Glamonatrix tour, starring Dita Von Teese, will tour Australia and New Zealand in November and December, 2019. For tickets and further information, visit tickemaster.com.au.