Dita Von Teese: "In My Sexual Fantasies, Things Are Not Politically Correct"
Anyone that has spent more than few nights carousing Fort Lauderdale's retro-centric bars has undoubtedly encountered one of the area's many burlesque troupes. In 2014, the style of striptease popularized in the '40s is hotter than ever. For that (and the barrage of secondhand glitter you may experience at a show), you can thank model, actress, designer, and most importantly, burlesque star Dita Von Teese.
Von Teese was at the forefront of the neo-burlesque movement in the early '90s and has since developed into the form's greatest champion, conservationist, and performer. The curvaceous brunette idealizes the glamour and panache of burlesque. She appears like an actualization of a Vargas painting or the nose art of a B-52. Von Teese has earned the adoration of fans the world over and will be bringing her critically lauded variety show, Strip Strip Hooray, to Revolution on April 10 and 11.
New Times spoke with the charming Von Teese about everything from originality in burlesque to what defines feminism in her line of work.
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New Times: You were certainly on the cutting edge of burlesque's resurgence in the '90s. How do you feel about where it is headed in 2014?
Dita Von Teese: Well, I feel like having lived through all of the different eras of it so far -- not all of them -- but, the neo-burlesque scene and watching how it's evolved in the last 20 years, it's incredible! I think right now is a great time because I think it's really evolving where there are so many people doing it, and I think we're going to see even better performers than we ever have, like the stakes are getting higher.
It's going to get really competitive, so I think it's going to force people to think of new ways to reinvent the spirit of burlesque without copying each other -- because nobody cares if you're a copy of something, you know? So, now it's got to like really evolve and I think that makes it exciting and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens!
On originality: Where does one draw the line between being a copy and being a tribute?
Hmm... That's tricky because I've definitely dealt with that a lot in my life! It's really tricky. A tribute, technically, should be really vocal about being a tribute. Like, every time they go on stage, they should be like, "This is a tribute!" So, it's a little like a fine line because at whatever level you are at as a performer, you're still a person and you still have feelings about being ripped off. I think sometimes people forget about that, and you've got to tread lightly just because it's not right unless you've made a decision to be a tribute and claim that.
With the proliferation of burlesque in recent years, are there any performers you admire these days?
I think they're all in my show! I basically sought out all of my favorite burlesque performers from all over the world and put them in this show! I have Lada Nikolska, who is one of the great stars of the Crazy Horse in Paris where I've performed many times, and I just fell in love with her, and I just felt like people should see a little piece of that historic cabaret, so we've managed to put that in our show.
Catherine D'lish, who is a long time collaborator and best friend of mine, who is also in the show and does an amazing act that she's been doing for a long time that has been copied the world over several times. But she's an incredible performer, devoted performer.
Dirty Martini, who has also been around since the beginnings of the neo-burlesque movement and really represents a voluptuous brand of beauty that I completely admire and I think she's a show stopping performer. Perle Noire, who brings down the house every time. I always put her up right before my finale number because her energy is incredible, and she's a great performer.
For me, it was really important to choose burlesque performers I think are diverse and who are doing their own, distinctive thing, and they didn't just look at what I did and say "Oh, I have to do that if I'm going to be a famous burlesque performer." They've all gotten in touch with who they specifically are and they carry their own. Every single act that's in the show, I'm super proud to be along side of.
It was no small feat because there's a lot of people that just see other burlesque acts and copy them, but there's a lot of people that didn't have anyone to really watch to copy. There's a whole collection of us that started early on that had to just decide what we were going to do that suited our personalities instead of just saying, "Oh, that's what a burlesque act looks like."
When I started making a burlesque show, I had nothing to watch. I had Gypsy with Natalie Wood on VHS to watch, and I had books to read. So, I had to make up things. And I think that's one of the problems with the modern burlesque movement is that people see things and then they don't really know what to do other than to do just what they saw.
It seems to me that most creative fields these days suffer from people that have a hard time taking influence without taking intellectual property.
It's hard because it can be fairly true that everything has been done before, but I think there is definitely ways around it, and there's amazing performers in the burlesque scene that have managed to capture the spirit of what burlesque is about.
Who says that burlesque has to be set in the 1940s? Who says that is has to be? I think that's a big thing that in the evolution of burlesque, the very wise ones will get very deeply into what burlesque is and they won't be thinking, "Oh, it's this era, this aesthetic," and they'll start thinking: Why is a burlesque show is great to watch and what are the base elements of a great burlesque show. And they'll start making things based on that instead of just the aesthetic, so I think that would be exciting.
You've certainly done a lot to preserve burlesque.
Yeah, and that was really important to me. Especially when the movie Burlesque came out and the Pussycat Dolls -- who I performed with, of course -- but, the whole commercialization and sanitization of burlesque, when all of that happened, there was a big risk. I remember reading in the press when Burlesque came out, they interviewed somebody in it and she said, "This isn't that stripper burlesque like Dita Von Teese." And I was like, hold on: First all of, it's fine; you can insult me -- I don't mind that much -- but, there were ladies that were still alive at that time that were burlesque stars on the stage in the '40s, there were a few of them that were still lingering around and they were strippers and they were upset.
I just felt like there's a responsibility when you're going to use that word and make a little movie and call it "Burlesque," since you can't call it cabaret, there was a skewed version of what burlesque is, and I feel like I have a responsibility toward the women that did perform striptease in the 1930s and '40s, I feel like it's important to say what they did and live up to what they did and perform striptease in pasties and g-strings the way that they did, instead of saying it's song and dance or it's cabaret: It's not, it wasn't. So, yeah, I definitely feel like I've had to stand up for it and I definitely took a little heat for that in the press and I probably didn't make any friends with people who were making movies like that and making faux-lesque. But I didn't really care because I know some of those old ladies that were still around and they were hurt by it, you know?
I have to assume it's difficult for people to be terribly progressive in modernizing burlesque without towing the line of a common stripper. The focus always seems to be on the vintage aesthetic and history
Right, but it doesn't have to be so! When I went to the Crazy Horse Paris a month ago and saw a new act that they just made, there was nothing about it that was retro. And it was incredible, it was mind-blowing! It was my favorite act of the night! And there was nothing retro about it! So, I think it's really just about polish, and also technology. Think about using technology in shows. There's a lot to be done! If I weren't already settled in my own style that I developed, and I hadn't already invested my whole life into my own brand of burlesque, I can think of lots of things that I would direct.
You have your hand in a lot of pots right now as far as work is concerned, but on that note: Do you ever see yourself becoming more of a consultant or director as time goes on?
Yeah, in a way. But, you know, the problem is people always ask if they can be my protege and whatnot. The thing is, I still believe in good old fashioned show biz: You can't arrive to greatness unless you did it yourself because the stakes are high. When the curtain opens on every single one of the performers in my shows, we created those acts ourselves. It's high stakes.
I've done that before: I've put beautiful, talented dancers in my costumes, in my show, on my props, and it falls flat. And it's not because they're not amazing -- it's because there are no high stakes to it. It's not their creation, it doesn't come from their heart. It's hard to become legendary if you haven't put your heart and soul into it yourself, is what I'm getting at. So, that's the conflicting thing I have about directing and showing people the way; it doesn't usually work out.
You have to have your own struggle, right?
Yeah! That's what people are buying into! When you watch a movie and you watch a great actor, you're watching a whole bunch of layers and I think that's what makes someone a great actor -- it's really about everything that character goes through. I think it's the same for burlesque: You're watching the curtains open on somebody's heart and soul right there and you can lose something very quickly when it's just a choreographed piece of work.
Do you feel you've found a way through your burlesque to progress feminism despite the fact that the specific style you portray is rooted in a time that was not exactly progressive for women?
I get asked about whether or not I'm a feminist all of the time and I get questioned a lot about things that I do on stage in my show and what it means. Of course, it's incredible when I do come under fire about being anti-feminist, like when people don't know anything about burlesque and point fingers and go, "Oh, she's a stripper this is objectifying women," and it's like wait; you haven't been to the show and you probably don't know that 80% of the audience is female and the rest is dates of the females that bought tickets, or they're gay men and lesbians.
Unless you have really done your research, people can't just point fingers and say it's anti-feminist. So, there's that. And, of course, I also feel like one of the last taboos to be liberated is to revel in being objectified, and I feel like indulging in taboos sometimes is a way to liberate them! So, when I put together a show and somebody says they don't like it or they were offended by something, it's like listen: What you're watching are my obsessions come alive on stage, my sexual fantasies, and in my sexual fantasies, things are not politically correct.
It always comes down to if you don't like it, don't watch it! We don't need people to come that don't get it. But, the neo-burlesque movement is so much different than what the burlesque movement was in the old days, and I'm super grateful to the women that paved the way and made this burlesque movement even possible, because it was much different for them. They were performing for a predominantly male audience and they were -- apart from some of the big stars like Gypsy -- a lot of them were looked down upon. It must have been much harder for them than for someone like me or the modern burlesque movement.
But, I wouldn't be where I am today if hadn't wandered into a strip club in 1991. That's part of what sparked my interest in doing this: I wanted to know the history of strip tease and so, I also feel like we're all relative and I know a lot of burlesque performers want to separate themselves from strippers because they want to be respected. But you know, ultimately, you can't talk someone into respecting you by telling them or explaining to them that you're not a stripper, you're a burlesque star.
At this point in your career, do you encounter more people that identify what you do as art?
Yeah, I feel like I've been through most of my years of being ridiculed for doing what I do and I paid my dues big time already by doing something that people didn't understand at all, pre-neo-burlesque movement.
I don't really come under fire that much anymore. Then on the other hand, when people start calling me an artist and all of that stuff, I just smile and say thank you, I would never use words like that to describe myself or anything. I Just do what I do and I'm not trying to act like I'm changing the world, I'm just doing something that I have been obsessed with for a long time and I'm very lucky that it's found an audience of women that are finding power in having a different kind of role model for sexuality and glamour and beauty. So I'm just feel very lucky that it turned out that way because I certainly didn't think it would.
Dita Von Teese with MC Murray Hill and Special Guests, 7:30 p.m., on Thursday, April 10, and Friday, April 11, at Stache, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $35 general admission, $200 for 2 top tables, and $400 for 4 top tables. It's an all ages show. Visit jointherevolution.net.
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