11.11.09

American Striptease

Dita Von Teese talks to The Daily Beast about her sexy new flipbooks, why America can't handle her moves, and the secrets of old school burlesque.

Dita Von Teese talks to The Daily Beast about her sexy new flipbooks, why America can’t handle her moves, and the secrets of old-school burlesque.

America may have just lost burlesque superstar Dita Von Teese to Paris. The 37-year-old Michigan-born performer (née Heather Sweet) finished a run at Paris’ Crazy Horse and has purchased an apartment there (it’s also the home of boyfriend Count Louis Marie de Castelbajac). LA’s “mini skirts and UGG boots” style and permanent sunshine are part of what drove Von Teese to take flight, so she can “fall back in love with LA.”

She says she believes Europe gets her and her art in a way that some in her native country don’t. “Some people really think that all I do is wear red lipstick and dress in vintage clothes and cruise around,” said Von Teese while in Beijing, where she recently performed for a GQ China event. “In France and the U.K., they can show what I do on TV. The Jay Lenos of Europe all have me on. In America they’re obsessed with pop stars and maybe they’re a little bit afraid of having me on there because they think what I’m talking about and what I’m doing is too risqué.”

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Dita Von Teese Strip Tease (NSFW)

Her other gripe is that too much modern burlesque doesn’t pay tribute to its predecessors. “You see a lot of burlesque-themed nightclubs opening, where there are girls dancing with boas, then the curtains close and that’s it. Burlesque was about striptease, and especially in America, a lot of the mainstream burlesque acts are taking all of the important elements about the history of burlesque out,” Von Teese laments. “I’ve made it my personal mission to stay true to what burlesque was in the ’30s and ’40s and keep striptease in. Maybe that makes me a little bit dangerous for an American audience but it’s more important to me that I stay true to the big stars of burlesque, like Gypsy Rose Lee, Lily St. Cyr, and Sally Rand, the women who took their clothes off in front of an audience.”

Recently, she had a run-in with a photographer at an airport who reportedly called her a “bitch” to get a photo op. “When that was happening to me, I realized this is how they get Kanye West or Sean Penn or somebody beating someone down and just snapping. I thought, 'This is a test for me, I have to maintain my elegance because all they’re gonna see is the pictures of me being upset.'” (The photographer has since “nicely and kindly and wholeheartedly” apologized, in her words.) “I do a lot of performances and if something breaks or technically goes wrong, what am I gonna do, get mad and storm off? It’s about how you deal with the crisis. People respect you more for dealing with things in an elegant manner instead of having a fit.”

“You see a lot of burlesque-themed nightclubs opening, where there are girls dancing with boas, then the curtains close and that’s it. Burlesque was about striptease.”

Von Teese just released an elegant set of three flipbooks encased in a beribboned box entitled Dita: Stripteese, photographed by Sheryl Nields, featuring her famous martini glass striptease, complete with a saucy olive sponge, as well as an elaborate birdcage act and one of her up close and personal in a magenta corset. Of the latter, Von Teese says, “This is not a performance I do. I wanted to do something more intimate. It’s the idea that I’m dancing for one person.” The flipbooks were the brainchild of Nields, one of Von Teese’s favorite and must-trusted photographers. “I’m really protective over who I let photograph my shows because I’ve invested hundreds of dollars in these costumes. A lot of photographers just take the pictures—they take your heart and soul and think they own the copyright from that. Sheryl’s a great friend whose work I admire.”

In between acts, Von Teese, who was formerly married to Marilyn Manson, enjoys sightseeing (“I like to do all the touristy things, like visiting the Great Wall. If everybody likes it, it must be good”) and is active on microblogging site Twitter (@ DitaVonTeese), where says she’s happy to be able to correct misconceptions about who she is and stay in closer touch with fans. “I took a little hiatus there where I didn’t want to be too available to fans because you get opened up to really irrational criticism. I like that with Twitter you can control to a degree what you’re subjected to. I look at the block function a little bit like I’m a judge on The Gong Show and I can gong people whenever I want.” For the people who think all she does is “sit around and watch old movies, listen to vintage music, and reminisce about the past,” she encourages them to see that she also has a sense of humor.

Von Teese is known to many as much for her self-styled retro look as her striptease, and next year she’ll release an “anti-rules” beauty book for “girls who dare to be different” who hate being told to wear “tasteful” makeup. “My friends who wear natural makeup take longer to put on their natural makeup than I do to put on my unnatural makeup,” she says.

For the book, she’s documenting her makeup process with photos and writing down step-by-step instructions, but a prime directive is to at least wear lipstick and brush your hair, just in case. “I do not want to get photographed or even recognized with no makeup at all and my hair looking a mess. I really feel that it’s important and I’m standing up for what I believe in. I want to get the message out to women that you’ll inevitably feel better if you just take a minute for yourself and do that. I like to remind people that the day you go out looking like a full disaster is the day you’re gonna run into your ex-boyfriend or your ex-husband’s new wife or something crazy like that.”

And what can men to do impress women? For Von Teese, it’s as much about how they carry themselves as their looks. “I think it’s important for men that it seems nonchalant—not too much cologne, not too much grooming. But most of all what makes a man really sexy is a blend of confidence and humility combined.”

Something that may surprise fans is that Von Teese has a cookbook in the works. “I bake a lot—pies, cakes and cookies. I’d like to do a book about how to entertain at home and make things that are easy but really look impressive.”

Throughout our interview, Von Teese stresses that she’s not just the girl with the pretty face. Her favorite part of her job is brainstorming and then executing a show. “I’m not just the girl that steps into somebody’s idea of what the show should be. I produce shows and direct shows; there’s a lot of work and creativity that goes into what I do. Sometimes I don’t think people really understand that I actually have a job.”

Asked if she’ll be gracing the Big Apple with her presence anytime soon, Von Teese says she doesn’t have specific plans but would like to tour more next year. “What I really want to do is create a big full-scale revue, especially throughout America. I’d give anything to go on a real tour.” So perhaps we haven’t lost her entirely just yet.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the editor of Peep Show: Erotic Tales of Voyeurs and Exhibitionists, Bottoms Up and over 25 other erotica anthologies, and hosts and curates In The Flesh Reading Series.