As the Queen of Burlesque, former Las Vegas dancer Dita Von Teese once appeared at a charity benefit wearing nothing but $5 million worth of diamonds. The femme fatale glamour girl is an actress, author, singer, model, dancer, lingerie and costume designer and was the first guest star performer at the Crazy Horse cabaret club in Paris and at its outpost in our MGM Grand hotel.
The diminutive 5-foot-5-inch, 115-pound brunette bombshell measures in at 35-22-34 with one of the world’s tiniest waists at just 16.5 inches when she’s laced into a corset for her show. She claims to have put the “tease back into striptease” and has been credited with helping popularize its revival. She’s incorporated props and characters often inspired by 1940 musicals and films for her global touring show, “Art of the Teese,” that pulls in next Monday (July 10) at the House of Blues in Mandalay Bay. It’s a whole different time and world from when she danced here as an exotic dancer at Rick Rizzolo’s Crazy Horse Too strip club.
Dita is on a West Coast summer tour schedule that begins this week (July 5) in San Diego and runs through July 30 in Anaheim. She talked with me from her home in Hollywood as she wound down the final rehearsals for the tour:
“For me, Vegas isn’t a place where I usually do shows. I produce my own shows and it’s hard to compete with all those big billboards everywhere and such, so I decided just to come for one night only. I decided that it would be a good time to come because I know that the Cosmoprof beauty expo is happening at the same time; so it’s a little bit carefully calculated that way.
“I don’t tour across the country as much. I do things in three and four weeks at a time so this is the West Coast. We’re doing San Francisco, Anaheim, San Diego, Riverside, Los Angeles. And then decided to pop over to Vegas and Denver, too. I just do a couple of cities, a few cities near each other at a time.
Q: Is this a new show with new costumes?
A: I decided to restage “Lazy,” which you might have seen me do that at The Crazy Horse in Vegas way back when. I think you were at those shows but I’m restaging it with my male backup dancers and new costumes and new sets and that sort of thing. It’s an act that I just felt needed a big revival in a new way. Also, a number that I call “Swan Lake Striptease” that I’ve never toured with or ever even done in The United States. So, that’s part of the show. Creating a new glass act with my champagne glass this time with new costumes that haven’t been seen on tour before, as well. I have a couple of my other acts in the show with other performers doing them. For instance, I have this big red sparkling filigree, lead iron heart that my friend and one of the stars of the show, Ginger Valentine, is performing on and “Dirty Martini” is going to be using carefully.
Q: How do you describe burlesque at this stage of your life? You’re 44 so how do you define it?
A: I feel very lucky to live in a time and be performing in a time when burlesque means something very different than it did in its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s when it was really more entertainment for men. It was a chance for men to see a live, nearly naked girl on stage in front of them. I think what’s wonderful about now is that this is a very different audience. You know? The audiences are mainly women I’d say for my show especially. I’d say about 80 percent female and the men that are there are on the arm of the women that have dragged them there.
And then we have a very strong, LGBTQ community that comes to see the show so it’s very different than it was. I feel I’ve watched it unfold into something much different than it was even when I started in the early 1990s and it’s very exciting to see the evolution of it and what it means to people and how they are inspired by something like this.
Q: Has it progressed from a sort of variety form to an art form?
A: I’m not very quick to call myself an artist or call it an art form. I feel it always comes off a little bit snooty on paper I have to say. But I don’t mind if people want to refer to it as that. Someone said to me once regarding some kind of not-so-good show they said: “This must be art because it sure ain’t entertainment.” And I said, “You got that right, buddy.” It’s all about being entertaining and I think sometimes if you get too wrapped up in the “art” of it all it can be a little bit, a little too much if you know what I mean. First and foremost, I want to be an entertainer.
Q: But it is a long way away from comedians in baggy pants, slipping on banana peels.
A: It’s important to evolve, certainly. Burlesque, this kind of burlesque has truly evolved and Tempest Storm, who lives in Las Vegas was there the last time I performed at the House of Blues and she said, “This is so different than our burlesque. It’s evolved to such a wonderful place. The production values are higher. It’s totally different.” It was a big testament to how things have gone and it’s what I always wanted to do was evolve burlesque into something relevant, modern and fresh.
I don’t want to do replicas of what was done in the past. When I take inspiration, whether it’s fan dancing or bubble dancing or whatnot, I feel like I’m always thinking of how do I take it to a different place and show people something they’ve never seen before?
Q: Is burlesque on the rise in terms of audience reaction?
A: It’s definitely on the rise. When I was touring with this show before we were doing theaters of 700 and now we’re doing theaters of 2,500 and in Australia, I do theaters of 3,500. So it’s definitely grown. The fan base has grown. There are many more burlesque dancers than ever before. I remember when I first started in the burlesque revival, magazines would do profiles on all the burlesque dancers and there’d be maybe 20 of us, from all over the world. Now, you have hundreds and hundreds of performers at this point. Hundreds, all over the world. The burlesque industry is booming and there are shows everywhere from burlesque performers in China, Singapore, Australia, all over Europe. All over the world really.
Q: Dita, I’m not being sarcastic or fresh so don’t take it as that but how many different ways are there to take your clothes off?
A: So many ways. I’m always thinking of the most advanced stripteases I can come up with and sometimes it’s not so easy to actually do it. It’s like a Houdini trick and it takes a lot of practice and trial and error before I figure it out but that’s one of the things I think about. It’s like, “How can I striptease out of something that nobody else would dare?” You just have to be very focused and well-practiced and you can’t be too upset if it falters a little bit until you get it right. A sense of humor is very important. Sometimes, I’ve had someone — an assistant on stage with giant scissors — to cut out my corset strings if I don’t make it. I think it’s happened twice. I think we’ve used the scissors twice.
Q: In between touring your show, personal appearances and fashion modeling you’ve managed to write two books?
A: The most recent one is called “Your Beauty Mark.” It’s a 400-page beauty bible with all of my beauty secrets and every tip that I have for creating vintage-style glamor in modern ways. Every beauty secret I’ve ever had is in that book. The reaction has been great. One of my favorite things about it is watching all the pin-up girls and fans. I can see them wearing my hairdos and they’ve just gotten better and better. I can actually see the effect. I see how it’s actually affected my fans and other pin-up girls. They’re wearing what I taught them in the book.
Q: Everbody is amazed at just how tiny your waist is on that hourglass figure It’s incredibly small but what does it measure?
A: I haven’t really measured in a long time. I feel like I remember when I was in my 30s to mid-20s and 30s and I used to be really obsessed with the number but I haven’t measured in a long time. What I care about is the illusion. I’d say it’s probably around 19 inches now but I’ve been measured at a 16 before. I’m not in a race anymore. When I was younger, I was in a race with myself. Felt like how I could have the smallest waist of all and now I’m a little bit like, “I’m not wearing a corset every day anymore.” It’s not worth it.
Q: So age even catches up on burlesque superstars.
A: It’s not even that because I still wear the same corsets and things but I just … I can wear all the same clothes. I haven’t gained even a millimeter but I have a couple of corsets that I wear, for instance, when I was on the cover of Playboy — that corset, which is touring with the museum, now. That was really the smallest, smallest my waist has been and so there’s corsets in different sizes and there’s ones that I have worn just for photo shoots and there’s ones that I actually perform in. That’s what it is more than anything.
Q: Was it dangerous to be that tiny?
A: I don’t think so. I have a very pliable waist. The great corsetiere, Mr. Pearl — he was always commenting on the fact that my waist …. it kind of just goes there. So, I can still corset down really low. I used to be obsessed with wearing them under my clothes 24 hours a day and I’m just not anymore. I’ve proven myself already.
Q: What’s next for Dita after this West Coast tour? Does burlesque work overseas?
A: I’m working on some other tours next. We’ve been getting a lot of interest in bringing the show back to Australia and to the U.K. We’ll do some more U.S. cities as well and Canada. I plan on touring a lot the next year. It’s very exciting. I feel like I had a moment where I was going to retire myself and then I thought better and decided to evolve the show.
Q: Will the day come when you retire or will you keep on going like Tempest Storm?
A: It’s hard to say. I’d really love to work with proteges and really see some other people do my shows and see how they breathe new life into my life’s work. I feel like I’d love to keep directing a show and presenting a show but I don’t know that I’ll want to keep performing but if you’d have asked me when I was 25, if I’d be performing at 40 I would have said you were crazy so never say never.
Q: You proudly reveal your age as 44 but there’s one thing I’m more curious about than anything other than your age and your measurements and that’s your porcelain skin.
A: I’m very lucky. Last time I was in Las Vegas, my mother and grandmother came to see the show. My grandmother is 90 and she hardly has any wrinkles. I’m very lucky to have my mother’s side of the family’s skin. I believe in staying out of the sun as you know. Staying out of the sun and I guess, eating well, being happy, being grateful that I have good skin. Having a positive attitude. The secret is a good attitude. I think when you stress about it — sometimes, there’s the moments in my life where I’ve had stress and my skin has been affected. And I’m like, “OK, don’t stress. Don’t fester. Don’t have bad things in your life.” Because it can affect your health and the way that you look.
Q: What’s No. 1 beauty secret in your life?
A: I told you I wrote a 400-page book about it so it’s hard to choose just one. I’m not minimalist when it comes to beauty, I’m maximalist. Like I just said, “Use sunscreen, don’t smoke cigarettes.” Those are pretty good ones. And also part of being beautiful is your inner beauty. Don’t judge other people’s beauty. That’s one thing that makes somebody ugly real quick is to criticize someone else’s appearance. I’m very happy in my own skin whether it’s covered up or showing on stage.”