Dita Von Teese (Sunday Times Magazine Feb 14, 2016)
At her house – a mock Tudor cottage in the Hollywood Hills – Dita Von Teese greets me with ultra politeness. She’s suprisingly composed – and rather perky for someone who’s just arrived back from a two-week stint at the Crazy Horse in Paris – the world’s most famous erotic cabaret venue. Von Teese doesn’t do jet lag.
The interior of her home is exactly what you’d expect from the world’s most famous burlesque star. It’s a playhouse with lots of feathery things – a stuffed peacock, a black swan and a white one wearing a little diamante crown – as well as a stuffed tiger, a leopard ‘welcome’ mat, pictures of pin-ups, chinoiserie, lace lampshades with fringes. Pinkish walls and an emphasis on side lighting ensure that everybody who enters will automatically look their best.
Dita is wearing her lounge outfit of black capri pants, form-hugging vintage sweater and black ballet pumps. Her alabaster legs complement a white velvet complexion; her look is completed by black glossy hair in a chignon and her trademark crimson lips. She’s soft-spoken – shy even – or is she just checking me out? We’ve met briefly the day before at the photoshoot, for which she was all plumped up and corseted. When I took a picture of her on my phone, she told me off. But that’s forgotten now: we’re here to talk about her latest project, a debut album called Soundtrack for Seduction.
It’s quite a beautiful thing – a limited edition vinyl record made in partnership with 12 on 12, part of the Cutting Edge group. A shrewd choice: the Cutting Edge Group are known for providing music for film and television, and this year have two of the five Oscar nominated soundtracks (Carol and Sicario). Von Teese’s album will be the pioneer for a series in which artists – sports stars, actors and others – will collate the soundtrack to their life. And it will be available only for a limited period of one month only, therefore assuring instant collectability and investment potential. Another shrewd choice.
The first side of the album is the retro Von Teese; songs from her burlesque shows, and the soundtrack she uses when she bathes in a giant martini glass. She actually sings on some of these tracks. The second side is modern; ultra contemporary moody tracks, again with some including her own singing. It’s all very bedroomy, and her singing voice – a kind of Peggy Lee on ice – is purring and kind of sweet.
Sweet is, of course, an adjective that you would never use for Dita Von Teese the artist who is all about being super-confident and commanding. Weirdly, her real name is Heather Sweet. Born in West Ranch, Michigan, with mousey blonde hair, she somehow manages to span both personas with ease.
These days, you can’t tell where Heather ends and Dita begins – part of her power is the dichotomy of encompassing traditional values in a bad-girl body. When she wears red lipstick, she can rule the world; without make-up she is uncomfortable and even vulnerable. Apparently, she does a make-under for Halloween, with beige lips and a natural golden glow, and finds this look “interesting” but “difficult”. If Von Teese has any insecurity today, she has painted over it immaculately. As I slump into her velvet sofa, she sits perfectly upright with the posture of a ballerina. Only her eyes move when she starts talking about Soundtrack to Seduction.
“I like the word ‘seduction’. A lot of people think that seduction is going after someone and deciding you’re going to make them yours – but to me seduction means something totally different,” she says. “The way to properly seduce someone is to be living on your own terms and make your world a place that other people want to be invited to.”
I’m assuming she means not just a world filled with ostrich feathers and lace. The subtext is plain: she means creating a persona that is so enticing and self-assured that you couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to be with her.
She continues: “Seduction is about creating a poetic space at home with lighting, with fragrance, with music, lingerie. But I don’t put something on because he is going think it’s sexy – I wear things that I think are beautiful and make me feel good. And I wear them all the time so that I am living my entire life in a seductive way, because it seduces me and it’s easy to seduce others.
The album is about capturing a mood and setting a tone. It’s a nonchalant seduction because ‘nonchalant’ is top-level master seduction: you sit back and wait for them to come to you.” Has she always been like this? Super-confident, waiting for men to come to her? “Well…no…I’m a 43-year-old woman; it takes time to arrive at that.”
Indeed it did. It took years of working in lingerie shops and as a stripper for Von Teese to discover her own sexy and pull the Dita out of the Heather. And it took a flamboyant marriage to goth rocker Marilyn Manson and a subsequent divorce to break her heart and set her on a new learning curve.
They married in a castle in Ireland in 2005 after being together for five years. In December 2006, she filed for divorce, dramatically packing all her stuff onto a truck on Christmas Eve, and moving into a rented home. She was no gold-digger: she left with nothing of Manson’s – not even a piece of furniture that they owned jointly.
A burlesque artist and a rocker may be the kind of people you’d expect to have an open relationship, but Von Teese and Manson did not. She doesn’t specify what went wrong but has said in the past that she didn’t support his ‘party’ lifestyle. In all probability, she’d made the classic mistake of marrying the man and wanting to change him – to normalise his craziness, to tame him.
“I still believe in marriage. I’m a very traditional person,” she insists. She claims not to be tainted by the experience, and is now in a full-time relationship with a boyfriend called Adam, who is a creative visual designer at Disney.
They share their home with Aleister – a Devon Rex cat with a curly, poodle-like coat who has 60,000 followers of his own on Instagram and an operatic voice. In her sitting-room, there’s a portrait of Aleister in an oval curly gold frame. She looks at it with a flicker of pride – her boyfriend drew it early on in their relationship. I guess that was his form of seduction.
A thought is obsessing me. If my cats were in a room full of stuffed birds, they would pull all their feathers off and play endlessly. “My cat is so well behaved. He’s not interested – he’s totally over taxidermy. He does only one thing that’s naughty – he likes to sit on the tiger’s back.” She laughs for the first time.
As for the album, it seems to be another tool in her constant search for reinvention. She wants people to know that she’s not a cliché: “I’m not just a girl who sits around listening to big band music, floating about in a marabou-trimmed robe all the time. I want people to understand that there’s more to me than the music I use on stage. Since I was a teenager, I’ve always liked two kinds of music [Retro and electronic dance] and not much in between.
“In my twenties, I was very involved in the electronic dance music scene in Los Angeles, from 1990 to 1994. I was dressing in my retro style and creating my burlesque shows, and then at the same time I was doing performance art in rave clubs. I’ve always liked the dichotomy.”
Dichotomy is a key theme. Sometimes, with her milky skin and questioning eyes, she looks very pure. And at the same time, very maitresse. “I’ve always loved the good girl/bad girl – the pin-up combined with the fetish, playfulness combined with sexuality,” she says. “It’s very interesting to me.”
Was she nervous about singing? The first track on the album is Lazy, which Marilyn Monroe sang in There’s No Business Like Showbusines – quite some act to follow. “I can’t control my voice like a singer,” Von Teese admits, “but this one was a good tone for me. I like the talking moments. It was definitely intimidating and challenging, which is why I worked with people that I am really close to.” She has lipsynced to the song in her show, but never let on that it was her voice on the recording.
Those few who do know it’s her voice have sometimes expressed surprise at the sheer professionalism of her sound. Something of a perfectionist, Von Teese has never had any interest in singing along to backing tapes. “When I’ve recorded songs for my burlesque shows, it’s one of the biggest expenses of performing. There’s no substitute for real brass and real drums and people playing real music and that’s not done inexpensively.
“Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love is one of my most used songs. I’ll use it when I’m in my martini glass or my black bathtub. I use it for fan dances. For the seven minutes that I am on stage, I am saying ‘let’s all fall in love,’” she enthuses.
She may strip in giant martini glasses, but she is not a martini drinker herself; she hates the idea of having a hangover. Occasionally, she’ll have a tequila. “Mescal is my preferred; I drink it neat and sip it slowly. Two drinks maximum. One glass of water, one booze.” That’s very self-correcting. ‘Yes. I’ve found my head in the toilet no more than five times in my life.”
She also loves to cook. “I love comfort food, and I make slow-cooked things like pot pies. I also make a lot of vegan dishes, very healthy things. I’m one of those daytime vegans; I find I have so much more energy when I don’t eat meat during the day.” And then she has a pot pie at night? “Yes, maybe. Not every night, that’s for sure.”
Is it true that she wears corsets every day? “No, when I was 19 it was my thing for a while. I would wear it every day but it was never my intention to achieve a smaller waist; I just loved the look. These days, everyone is on the corset bandwagon.” I glance at her to see if she’s raised a disapproving eyebrow, but her face is as still as her body.
She goes on to talk about the song A Guy What Takes His Time, originally a Mae West song, which she performs on the album with Chuck Henry. Is that what she likes – guys who take their time? “Obviously,” she says. “I really hate fast movers. And I love that moment when you get to the point when you really know someone, and they know you, and you can spend hours and hours… That’s when you can really get involved in the details of love-making, not just the ‘ahhhhhh-ahhhhh’. I think fast is fake.”
Really? “The longer you spend, the better the payoff is at the end.” Some women, I tell her, prefer multiple orgasms and not just one pay-off. She tries not to look shocked. “I hope you get to move with the fast movers and I get to meet the slow movers. Slow and meticulous.” Is Adam slow and meticulous? “Yes. He’s from Chicago. He’s not interested in showbiz at all. We’ve been together two years and he’s slow and steady.”
Does she think she’ll get married again? “I think about all the pros and cons of marriage all the time; I have a list going. The pros are: I love ceremony, ritual, promises, symbols. What I don’t like are the business and financial sides of things.” At this point, Aleister wails at the top of his voice. She continues: “I also don’t like divorce, I’ve been divorced and I really don’t want to do that again.
“And I also have a list of the pros and cons about children. A lot of people have great experiences of having children and others, dreadful ones. I get anxiety about the state of the world – and it’s hard to have a child when you’re working. Sometimes I wish that I’d had a child in my twenties, and now I’d have some amazing adult child that I like hanging out with. But that kind of slipped through my fingers.”
Given that her business is all centred on her body, wouldn’t having a child present difficulties? For instance, how could perform with an obviously pregnant body? She nods. “All the travel would be difficult, too. It’s not like I’m a pop star that takes a couple of years off and puts on five pairs of tights to go back on stage and everyone says: ‘She looks amazing’. I’ve just got the spotlight.
“Perhaps I don’t need to be on stage so much. But then again, I love my freedom. It must be great to have a child before you realise how lucky you are to have your freedom. People get caught up in it all – they fall in love, have a baby and they don’t know any difference.” She doesn’t seem tortured by the idea she may have missed the baby window. But part of her, the part that loves tradition, isn’t ready to completely let it go. Perhaps that’s why one of her favourite tracks is Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is. “It’s very dark,” she says brightly.
The album, she tells me, will come in pink vinyl and if you want to pay extra, you can have one that she’s kissed with her vintage red lipstick. The flipside is the moody electronic side – she describes it as sexy Depeche Mode. And the first track is by Bryan Ferry, Jonny and Mary – “My boyfriend discovered that song for me. We share our Spotify playlists.”
How cute. She also sings on the Blur track Girls and Boys, performed by Monarchy. “Andrew surname?? – who is Monarchy – is a close friend,” she says. “We met in Paris and he asked me if I’d guest-sing on a song, and I said: ‘I don’t sing.’ He said: ‘No, it’s going to be great’ – and we recorded it at my Paris apartment two years ago. It’s a cool song. I wish it wasn’t my voice on it because I would enjoy it more.”
Insecurity about her voice is perhaps the only chink in her supreme confidence. Or perhaps it’s not that; perhaps, because she really does have impeccable taste, she genuinely thinks someone else could sound better.
Otherwise, she is supremely confident at self-presentation. The sitting-room, for instance, has been subtley bathed in her signature scent, called Erotique. “Perfume is one of the stepping stone to glamour,” she says. It’s certainly another layer in the creation of her persona as a seductress. As we go through her album track-by-track it’s a slow peeling off, layer-by-layer. But even when she strips, she never reveals everything; an aura of mystery remains. Perhaps the songs are as close as she’ll ever come to revealing her naked self.
Her album comes out on Valentine’s Day – is she a Valentine’s Day kind of person? “I’m not. It’s very much a Hallmark holiday, isn’t it?,” she says disparagingly. “Don’t buy lingerie for your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day – [a woman should] buy it for yourself.”
I find it intriguing that a woman who basically strips for a living is actually the ultimate feminist . She’s rewritten her life on her terms, and created a character who provides her with confidence and direction. She sighs. “Ultimately, women should be able to do whatever they want – that to me is what being a feminist means, as well as having the same choices and opportunities as men have.” Perhaps her take on feminism has been to reinvent what she believes to be the essence of womanhood. She laughs – she likes that idea.
Does she feel sexy? “Sexy is not about how much skin you’re showing. It’s usually about how much skin you’re not showing and what you’re not saying. It’s about breaking standards and not feeling you need to be sexy for a man. Right now, for instance, I’m wearing my own-label bra and underwear – it’s Toile de Jouy, with a little bit of bondage going on.” She likes the juxtaposition of a pattern that could be on the curtains of a French cottage with something that’s actually pornagraphic. You can buy her lingerie in Harrods – I’m sure it’s a very good pick-me-up.
“I worked in lingerie from the age of 15 and I segued into cosmetics, “ she goes on. “I feel naked without colour on my lips. I like a matte face, red lips, mascara. If I do a photo session, I like to do my own make-up – it shaves off so much time.” This is typical Von Teese: one of the girls, practical, controlling. “Red lipstick was a life-changer for me. It was in the Eighties and everyone was wearing peachy frosty lipstick. When I got my hands on my mother’s red lipstick, I didn’t see why I would ever use anything else.”
Does she feel beautiful? “No,” she says, after a pause, as if she’s never asked herself that question. “But I like to put my lipstick on to face the world, for sure. I wear it even to the dentist – wipe it off and put it back on. It takes so little time for a lot of pay-off.” Would she be insecure without it? “I don’t know – I just do it and I enjoy it. It’s like brushing my teeth.”
Her old friends still call her Heather, as do her relatives. Is she still Heather? Is the red lipstick all about stepping into Dita? “No,” her voice trails for the first time. “There’s definitely a vulnerability that comes when I’m not wearing make-up or nails. When I am I think: ‘Here I am’. People think I must be Heather Sweet from Michigan and a really great actress, but I am not acting. I get my confidence when I get my make-up on.
“It might be the same for a person who loves to wear her jeans and beige lipgloss – if she was forced to wear my gear, she might feel a bit weird. I don’t feel I have an alter-ego or anything like that. You can still see Heather Sweet on stage if you look for her – if you know what to look for.” And what should we look for? “A girl saying: ‘This is hilarious, I’m getting paid to ride this mechanical bull’ and sit inside a champagne glass!’”
One of her favourite performances is when she steps out of a giant powder compact. “It’s very classic, based on Evangelina, the Oyster Girl, who in the Fifties did an act where she comes out of the oyster shell and mates with a pearl. She’s still alive and still teaching it to different girls.”
Her balletic poise finally dissipates when she talks about the history of burlesque, lingerie and the pin-up. Suddenly, she seems to become fluid and relaxed.
She sees herself as inextricably linked to those pin-up girls from the 1930s and 40s, who also worked as burlesque dancer
“I liked that look. I liked that I could create that look and be different to what I was. To me, this was art. Becoming a pin-up wasn’t something that was being done very much in the early Nineties.” That’s when she created Dita? “Well, Dita came from the strip club. I was working in a strip club as well as selling lingerie, and I was also a go-go dancer at rave parties because my then boyfriend was one of the biggest rave promoters here in LA.
“I discovered pictures of Betty Page, so I decide that I wanted to be a retro-fetish star. Then I started doing bondage videos and things like that. In one, I got captured by cannibals and they tied me up and put me in a pot – kinda old-fashioned.”
How hard was it incorporating her work into her own life? How did the people around her react? “My parents were, like: ‘What’s going on?’ My dad was disapproving. But then my dad was disapproving when I worked at a lingerie store. I just thought the lingerie was pretty but my dad was sexualising it.” She insists, however, that her father, a machinist, and her mother, a manicurist, are both very proud of her today.
Growing up, she didn’t pay much attention to their disapproval. “I was very independent, working full-time since I was 15; I had my own credit cards so I was very much: ‘No one tells me what to do’.
“Looking back I was very pro. I was super-strict. I wasn’t a party-girl. I was always sober and professional, because I liked controlling situations.”
How difficult was it to incorporate bondage and boyfriends? “It was fine. I mean, there were moments, small moments when it might not have been. My first boyfriend, the rave promoter, was the one who took me to the strip club and said ‘you should do that’ and he was the one who said ‘let’s make you a webpage’. The next boyfriend would tour with me to make sure I was safe. If I started dating someone new and they were jealous of what I did, they simply wouldn’t last long. All my love affairs have been for five or six years at a time. I’m kind of a homebody and I like monogamy.”
I also heard that she had enjoyed same-sex relationships. “I wouldn’t say many. I worked in a strip club, I had dalliances, I experimented. I had girls that were really close friends. But unfortunately I would call myself fully hetrosexual. I wish I were bisexual.”
“I find bi-sexuality super evolved. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could just love whoever you meet if they just loved you? Wouldn’t it be great to feel sexual with a man or a woman, if you didn’t distinguish? I think that’s just supercool.”
When she says she’s a girl’s girl, she doesn’t mean in a sexual way. “I love women who are interesting and talented. I am not intimidated by them at all. There are girls who walk into a room and they are sexy and commanding and their shoulders are back and their heads held high. Those are not the ones you have to worry about. The ones you have to worry about are the ones who are hunched in the corner, the ones who seem unassuming. Those are the schemers. The ones you don’t think could steal your man. Those are the ones figuring out how they can.”
Are these conclusions from experience? “YES!” She’s soft now. Her laugh is vulnerable yet sure of itself. Is she intimidated by anyone? “Every time I talk to Madonna I’m super intimidated. Same with Prince. But I love being intimidated by people whose talent I really admire.”
Does she think she’ll ever be blonde again? “I have to dye my hair every two weeks. I do it myself from a box at home. You can see my dishwater blonde roots. It’s a major process to get rid of black. If I could go back and forth, I would. Black hair dye is really bad for you. I would love to be free of it but if I change my hair colour now, I’d be considered a traitor (by her fans). My fantasy is that one day I will be a great silver fox.”
It’s hard to imagine a silver fox burlesque artist but it’s not something she’s worried about. “Lighting is everything. I guarantee that I could take any woman and light her with pink spotlights and beautiful side lighting and make her body look amazing. I hate it that everything is so retouched right now. You make a beautiful sacred space and if you’ve got pink walls you can look amazing naked in every room.” She gestures to her pink walls and I briefly imagine her patrolling naked among the stuffed birds.
Was she always so confident in her body? “When I started I was 20-year-old and i just didn’t think about it. I didn’t mind it at all. I was raised in ballet. I was used to being in front of mirrors with very little clothes on and noticing how I could change how my body looks according to which posture I’m in. I noticed how to pay attention to carriage. You can totally manipulate how your body appears.”
It seems that Von Teese, or Sweet, is pretty good at manipulating not just her body but everything. She has recreated a whole person. It’s not just performance art, it’s living.
SOUNDTRACK FOR SEDUCTION will be available to purchase for $20 on www.12on12.com/ditavonteese from the 14th February – 14th March. These vinyl albums will be made on a bespoke, limited edition basis – after the 30-day order window, each edition will only be available on the re-sale market, making them the ultimate collector’s items.