At Tease-O-Rama 2002 I had a front row seat for Dita Von Teese's performance with her giant moon prop, and you may well resent me for that. It was a gorgeous performance, with Dita obviously having a good time, and at the end of the number a cannon shot a shower of silver mylar stars over us, hundreds of which I carried in my camera bag for at least a year after the show. In her book Burlesque and the Art of the Teese, Dita describes Liberace as the ultimate showman, whose art "is creating spectacle and inspiring dreams." She surely succeeded in her goal that night, and I'm sure on hundreds of others. 50 years from now, people will still be talking about the stupefying glamour of Dita Von Teese.
Dita in a costume by Catherine D'Lish.
Click the image above to view larger and swoon with envy and delight.
All photos in this article courtesy of Dita Von Teese and dita.net
Whenever someone tells me they're a Dita fan, or they're fascinated by burlesque costumes, but they've never joined Dita's website for even a month, I am completely baffled. I doubt that they are truly fans. Even if they join for only a month, they'll get to see amazing video, spectacular photos, read her archive of journal entries, and can ask Dita herself for tips on how she does what she does.
One of the things I find most fascinating about her is her entrepreneurialism and her ability to make perfect decisions. In many interviews she talks about how carefully she selected her jobs, her costumes, even her lighting (she has even begun bringing her own lighting gels with her). And she has run the business of being Dita in a way that makes me think of the career of Gypsy Rose Lee, while her style onstage refers perhaps more directly to Lili St. Cyr.
But really, knowing there's an interview with Dita coming up, do you want to hear any more from me? No? Smart cookie! Let's get to it.
When you began modeling and performing, there was little if any burlesque community and not much notice of burlesque in the media. Did you ever expect your career to take off like this? Was there ever a point at which you thought your career might be based in anything else?
I never , ever expected any of this to happen. And it was a very slow climb, a snowball effect of sorts. I feel like one thing led to another since I was in high school. Well, maybe even before, if you get into my childhood and being a middle child that went unnoticed, blah, blah blah... but that's one I should tell while lying on a sofa in therapy maybe! Anyway, let's not go back that far for now! My first job was as a lingerie salesgirl at age 15 at a chic little boutique in Orange County, California. I had been obsessed with lingerie my whole life. To me, it was this secret among women, like the most feminine thing that existed, a rite of passage. I was always sneaking into my mother's lingerie drawer and secretly wearing her bras from a young age. And so when I was about 15, I was desperate to work in this little pink and black shop that was near the beauty salon where my mother worked, so I just kept on going in there and offering to do any kind of work they had for me in that little shop. When they finally gave in and let me work there as stockgirl, I immersed myself in the job, and I got really into learning about lingerie, and even the history of it, and that was one things that sparked my interest in vintage style lingerie. Of course, I became a sales girl, eventually a buyer, and a few years later, I managed the lingerie department of a big department store. So, anyway, in all this, I started collecting vintage lingerie, and also vintage clothes, and sometime around then I found the "holy grail" of lingerie... a corset. Someone directed me to a fetish shop. So seeing all all the fetish magazines and talking to the people that worked there gave me the idea of being photographed in the same kind of retro spirit of Bettie Page, because, you have to understand, that this was about 1989-90, and it wasn't being done even in that scene yet, so I had a this idea about that I thought was pretty cool, I was going to get to show off my vintage lingerie, and maybe get some free corsets in exchange! And meanwhile, at this time, I was a go-go dancer in the LA rave scene, and around OC in the best clubs, so I was also making up costumes for that, buying cheap vintage girdles and covering them in sequins, adding bows, etc.... making things to wear for that. And I did this performance art piece that was quite known in the club scene at that time, it was a really neat big high tech prop that was very space-age... it was this techno-y cage with bars filled with water and there I was inside it, and the whole machine with me in it would rise up about 20 feet in the middle of the dancefloor and I would pose and have these high-powered spotlights on my hands to add to the light shows in the clubs. This was at the height of the Los Angeles rave scene, and it was exciting and I was known for this, and I was at all the big parties. It was pretty cool! And I had long blonde Barbarella type hair, still the same cat-eye red lip makeup I'm still sporting, and I wore a black thong and my friend Ava Garter would wrap me in a thin layer of plastic wrap and artfully arranged electrical tape. But looking back, that contraption was a hazard! All that water, all that electricity.... Ava and I go way back. We were the girlfriends of these big rave DJs and so, of course, we were the gogo girls! We met around 1989 and were inseparable.
So I'm skipping around, but it's all intertwined.... when I turned 18 I posed for some French and Australian men's magazines, and that photographer took me and Ava out to check out a "bikini bar" in OC, and we were totally intrigued, and especially excited about how much more money we might be able to make than we did dancing at rave parties, so we tried it out. Our reasoning was that those girls weren't doing anything racier than we were, they weren't even stripping, just walking around in bikinis. So, I took that job, but at the same time I kept up the department store job, the gogo dancing job and the little fetish modeling jobs all at once. To me, it was never, ever a plan to become a full time model, or dancer, it was all a big adventure and an experience, and that was it. I was having fun and I was just trying to be the best fish in that little pond. And having all kinds of things going on gave me the power to decide what I was going to do and what I wasn't going to do, so I felt very nonchalant about it all. It was a hobby for the most part, and for years and years I felt like it was all just temporary. I saved and I invested my money from the very start. I never thought of it as "easy come, easy go". I figured I would get married, have some babies and look back at my wild days and that was it. In the mid 90's, I started posing for the Playboy newsstand special editions, and became quite known for that, and as a star in the fetish scene, and that's when I started touring across the US from time to time as a feature dancer. Catherine D'Lish and I met around that time because we had the same booking agent, and everywhere we went, people told us we should meet because we were both doing burlesque style shows, and most of the other circuit girls were porn stars that were much racier than we were onstage. So anyway, we had sort of a "blind date" and decided to meet up and come together and do shows together, and so we did that for years. We were in it all together, and she did the costumes for my Playboy cover in 2002, and all my big show costumes. To answer your question about what else I thought I might have been doing, well, I also had a brief stint at college and I studied pattern making and styling and historic costuming, so I thought at one point I might do something either in fashion or in film as a stylist. And at one point I was making hats, so millinery was of interest too. But my shows and modeling jobs and the opportunity to travel kept me from pursuing that. I never, ever in a million years thought that I would be doing what I'm doing to this extent. I never had any plans of being a star or whatever, I was just having fun and making memories and trying to be the best I could be. In my mind, when I started, it was a hobby, and then maybe a way to make some extra money. I honestly thought I was just going to marry my boyfriend, have some children and reminisce about that short time in my life when I was dancing and posing for pinups.
You have said in interviews that you maintained other jobs besides modeling so that you could choose only those modeling jobs you liked. What were some of your favorite early modeling jobs?
Oh well, I liked all the fetish jobs and the Playboy jobs. I liked coming up with ideas for shoots and doing all the styling and getting satisfaction from the end result, or seeing the mistakes and learning from them. I liked the silly fetish videos, especially Dita in Distress, which was a real effort, but worth it in the end, and I used to make these custom fetish videos. I just loved getting these letters and sometimes I would make these funny short films for fans to make money on the side... one favorite was one where Catherine and I are taking ballet class and she gets annoyed with me and puts a big cream pie right in my face. It's priceless. And then there was a guy who paid to get a video of me walking through a forest all dolled up.... throwing trash out of my handbag.....littering fetish! This stuff always entertained me to no end. I kept every script, every letter! And I thought it was all very funny, with little or no nudity required. For some reason I had these really gentle fans that were more interested in the silly and cute fetishes than the hard ones.
And I liked all the Playboy photos and videos and events I did, it was funny to be completely different than all those other girls, it was always a real novelty for the photographers to work with me on those shoots! And it was exciting to be in Playboy, it was a real thrill to go from the fetish world to the Playboy world like that. I tested to become a Playboy Playmate, but I got rejected over and over after each test, so obviously it was crazy to be on the cover years later.... I still have a hard time believing that really happened!
You seem like the ultimate entrepreneur. You have several revenue streams--modeling, performing, and your website. Do you recommend this approach for new performers with long-term goals?
I think that the best goal is to do it because you have a genuine love for it, and not to be doing it for the wrong reasons. I'm a firm believer that good things come from good intentions.... when a person isn't ego and money driven, things work out the way they should. And you have to work hard. You have to pay your dues! Make no mistake, I suffered! I stayed in the worst of the worst motels, I did manual labor. I definitely wasn't demanding champagne and fancy dressing rooms and making people treat me like a star... I've seen girls do it, and I discovered early on that when you don't ask for all that and you just do a good job, well, they want to do nice things for you, you know? But I sort of take the same approach that actors take, you do the research, you do your homework, you do all that stuff and for some reason, it all comes across onstage, even if it doesn't seem like there is much relevance. Working out five hours a day to have a perfect body isn't what makes someone have star quality, I think it's all these layers of depth and genuine interest in what you're doing that makes it good.
To be continued! Dita was so generous with her time and information that I've split the interview into two sections. In the next section we'll be discussing Dita's website and showing more astonishing images of her and her costumes.
Dita's website, with her scrapbook photos, journal entries, and more.
Posted by Jo Weldon, Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque, for burlesquedaily.blogspot.com.