Dita proves that for a burlesque performer, it's what's underneath that counts--like $5 million dollars worth of diamonds. And best of all, she didn't have to pay for them. As she said in the first part of this interview, however, she had her days of schlep while building her business.
Above: In Dita's Closet. Photos in this article courtesy of Dita Von Teese and dita.net.
Has your website been a relevant part of developing your career? Was it originally a lot of work and expense to create the site?
I started the site in the very early 90s, my boyfriend was really into this new thing called the "world wide web" and he had this idea that we would make a page and it would have pictures on it, and if someone sent us a check for like $10 or something, we would send them back a package of 3x5 prints of me in lingerie. So, gradually, as the web evolved, so did this little site. A the time, there were no fetish or pinup websites, in fact, there were about 20 of us nude glamour models with little websites. I regret that I didn't do like Danni Ash and make a big giant 1000s of girls website...she became a multi millionaire by studying how to build a site on her own and paid girls to appear and she pulled in about 5 million a year in profit. Amazing. And she was basically a stripper that bought a book and studied it and was brave enough to go for it!
My website now is more of a labour of love for me, and a source of income for those that work on it... the profit I make from it is significant web-wise, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to my other jobs. I keep it going because it's important to me to have this connection to my fans. I don't have time to shoot special things for it like I used to, but I take scrapbook pictures from my travels, I write in a journal, I email with members, I am always available on the message board to answer questions and I'm around now and then for chats, and I put all the video and pictures of my shows and photoshoots up there.
You are always so kind and generous with the members on your website--you seem very loyal to them. Would you like to comment on what it's like to have such lovely and devoted fans?
Well, I never thought that I would have so many female fans! I saw this big swing around and suddenly I realized one day how many women were getting into the spirit of pinup and burlesque, and that there was some kind of comaraderie amongst us girls that couldn't or didn't want to fit into that typical supermodel-beach bade natural kind of sexy. It really hit me once when I was doing a book signing at Harrod's a few years ago, and I stepped out to see thousands of people, and like an army of glamour girls with their red lips on! And I was fighting back the tears.... seeing that I had those kinds of fans, and that they felt sexy and glamorous and were finding the same kind of empowerment I did when I made myself up. It's amazing to me. It gave me a whole new outlook on what I do, and made me feel like I could do more to get across a good message about individuality. When I started working with The MAC Aids Fund and then Amfar, it really made me feel like I could turn this silly hobby into something that could make a little difference. I made $150,000 for Amfar's HIV research by doing a couple striptease lessons, and that felt terrific to be able to do something...okay, so maybe I am not a genius and I can't get in there and cure HIV, but at least I can help in my own way, even if it's in a ridiculous way.
What did you think of feature dancing? Did it help you learn to develop numbers? I remember that you were listed on Continental's website as a "novelty act"--do you think that's a signifier as to how different your style was from that of most features on the circuit at that time?
I think that it's not for everyone.... it's a hard life, and it's not glamorous. But yes, it did help me develop a grander show, and I did have fun seeing the country, and I am glad I did it. But there were some really tough moments, and it was sort of depressing, especially if you think all the clubs are big beautiful places and there are limousines and fancy stages... there certainly were some, but just when I would start enjoying and settling into these upscale clubs, there I would be, in the next city, in some hell-hole of a club, in the tiniest dressing room ever, in a gross motel. I would treck out to the department store and buy my own sheets and towels and bathmats to make a path to walk on the dirty stained carpets. But I had this "that's showbiz!" attitude that kept me going, and I knew that this was somehow going to be "character building"!! And I do have to say, sometimes I miss hitting that stripclub stage where there isn't a journalist, a camera crew, a paparazzi or even a camera phone in sight! It's so freeing to let loose and do a good show without worrying about all that other stuff. I just love being on stages now where there are no cameras. The Crazy Horse Paris is great, it's a real theatre, and no one would dare pull out their camera phone. They have someone at every single show watching the audience. I hate that people can't just sit and enjoy the show anymore, everyone has to document everything they see. When I see a show, I want to drink in every second of it and remember it as it really was, cameras can't capture that feeling you get when you see a great show. [I understand that! Sometimes I feel a little off when I'm performing and I can't see the audience for the cameras. But I'm super grateful for pictures of shows I wouldn't get to see at all other wise. And, of course, I love to take pictures. --Jo]
What makes up the largest part of your workday?
I don't really have a typical workday... it all depends on what I have going on at the time, sometimes I get to work on shows, like making new ones, or rehearsing, and sometimes I am in full press-mode, doing days and days in a row of interviews. They work you like a machine. I did a few 17 hour-long days recently for all the press for Wonderbra, and there comes a point where no amount of flowers, champagne and free shoes and clothes and fabulousness that comes your way can help! Sleep is all you want! I know it seems impossible, but believe me, it's like my eyeballs are going to fall out and I can't even talk answer one more question about how I got my start or what burlesque actually is. But one good night of sleep and I am ready to go, go, go again! It's not a complaint, it's just that you can't imagine how crazy it can get, and I can see why some celebrities snap. I haven't snapped yet, thank goodness. I would say that when I'm not performing or doing appearances and press for my projects, I'm at home, answering emails, talking with my manager about what's going on, taking meetings for possible projects, and doing pilates and taking ballet classes, reading books or watching films that inspire me, and just doing the day to day stuff. I love just being home and wearing no makeup and washing the dishes and doing the laundry and hanging out with my animals... they never ask me what burlesque is and how I define it!
Your style is one of decadent glamour and lavish indulgence, and you always have a look in your eye onstage that indicates you have a great sense of humor about all the to-do as well as a great sense of style. Obviously all your rhinestones and giant props have been good investments. Do you ever find yourself up there thinking, "Can you believe this giant lipstick I'm about to ride?"
Yeah, that's the whole point! It's all quite absurd, and the second you take yourself too seriously, forget it! The more ridiculous the show, the better. That lipstick is hard to beat. Catherine and I were pretty proud of that one.... we had all these real cowboys around, showing us how to run this mechanical bull that we put a giant lipstick on, and they thought we were out of our minds, and we had trick ropers and gun slingers in teaching me all this stuff, and it was hilarity. We were actually terrified of the monster we created at first... it was a $60,000 prop venture, and when we fired that thing up and watched it start bucking and spinning, we really didn't know if I was going to be able to do it, so it was a bit scary to risk that much money for something that may have been impossible. I had to sign all these waivers saying I wouldn't sue the manufacturer since I "modified" the machinery.
Below: Dita rides the ponies. You can see great quality video on her site, dita. net.
My latest show is an opium den, so naturally, I went to China and I smoked some opium in the traditional way, and I have been watching tons of chinese films and operas, which would probably be more fun if I smoked the opium at the same time. And for my Cointreau show, I practically had to be carried out after testing all those signature drinks they invented for me! I love the research that goes into a new show. Most of it might be useless but it's totally entertaining for me to leave no stone unturned and go beyond what's required just to do a show. I like having good stories to tell!
Above: Dita with her costumes at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Costume and fans by Catherine D'Lish.
What do you think you'll do with some of those incredible costumes when you retire some of the numbers? They are some of the most amazing things I've ever seen, absolutely museum-quality.
I don't know, I guess I would find someone to take care of them and make sure they get seen. The work on these gowns is incredible, and it's beautiful even up close without the stage lighting, and although it's great to see them under the stage lights and in motion, I think people would enjoy seeing them up close. My friends make jokes about the museum they are all going to run and work in someday. They have big plans for the merchandising!
What advice would you give to would-be burlesque performers who are also business-minded?
I would say that your best assets are the things that make you different from others... don't fall into a trap where you think there is a "formula" for success. Don't base your show on what you see everyone else doing, there are no rules. If you have something unique and different to offer, you have no competition. But above all, do it with integrity and conviction and because you love it, not because it's cool right now or because you want to be rich.
I could have interviewed Dita about her business for endless hours, but she's already been more than generous in this interview. I'm very happy to present it because I believe in following your passion, just like the heroines in Judith Krantz novels (yes, showing my age with that reference). I am thrilled that there is, in my lifetime, a stripper as famous for what she wears as for what she doesn't, a stripper who has made a career out of celebrating the art form of burlesque without having the dilettante's compulsion to insult table dancers or pole dancers, a stripper who inspires both imitators and originals to aim higher, work harder, and dream more vividly.
Dita will be appearing at the Crazy Horse in Paris in February--follow the link below for more information! She has helped to develop the numbers and trained the dancers. Again, Gypsy Rose Lee and her troupe come to mind....
Crazy Horse Paris
Just a shout out--Dita and I also have the same publisher. Harper Collins, who published Burlesque and the Art of the Teese, and also published Liz Goldwyn's "Pretty Things," has definitely displayed a affinity for burlesque! I love my publisher!!! HC Forever!
However, I have to work very hard on my manuscript for the next several weeks, which means I won't be posting many interviews or articles (if any) for a bit. I have some beautiful interviews I've done for the book that'll just have to wait to see the light of day. However, I'll do my best to keep blog subscribers entertained with choice photos and tidbits.
Posted by Jo Weldon, Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque, for burlesquedaily.blogspot.com.