May 9th, 2012, 8:15 pm · · posted by KELLI SKYE FADROSKI, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Dozens of super-tight fitting corsets, custom made stockings, a mechanical bull decked out in thousands of Swarovski crystals and a giant bathtub-sized martini glass. These are just a few of the elements needed for burlesque star Dita Von Teese to put on nearly a dozen of her most popular acts in her latest show “Burlesque: Strip Strip Hooray!” which comes to the House of Blues in Hollywood on Friday and Saturday and the Yost Theater in Santa Ana May 30-31.
It takes a semi truck to haul around all of the elaborate, yet essential, props and costumes for this full-length revue, Von Teese says in a recent phone interview. The variety show marks the first time that she has actually taken her act on the road and been able to pack all of the fan-favorite numbers into one evening.
“I knew I had to do my martini glass act but I reinvented it in a new way for the show,” she says, speaking softly and attempting to recall all of the sets she had included. “I wanted to do some of my old numbers that people really love and my two most elaborate ones which are when I ride the big Swarovski crystal mechanical bull and the other one is the Opium Den. It’s basically my most lavish, expensive numbers that are hard to travel with but we’ve gotten on some bigger stages and we’ve been able to work it out so it’s possible to do all of these in one show.”
Von Teese, who was born Heather Renee Sweet, says that she’s excited to return to Orange County to perform. The current L.A. resident moved to Irvine from her small hometown in Michigan after her dad took a job transfer when she was 14. There was always an interest in dance, she says, as she is a classically trained ballerina and danced into her mid-teens.
While attending University High School she started to get involved in the underground L.A. rave scene and began doing performance art pieces and developing a live act. She also worked at a lingerie shop and became obsessed with recreating retro pin-up art and style and the history of lingerie. In 1991 she worked at a strip club in the area, but she was more interested in the art of the strip tease, which would eventually lead her into burlesque performances.
“For me it was the art of self-creating and creating glamour,” she says. “These burlesque stars of the past, they were self-created. They weren’t the product of a team of stylists and all of that kind of madness that we have now. It wasn’t something where you were given the costumes and steps – you had to create it. I always liked that idea.”
Von Teese says burlesque pioneers like Gypsy Rose Lee, who went on to have a lucrative feature film career in the ’30s-’60s, were a great influence on her.
“To imagine a time in America where a strip tease star could be on television and in movies and be a mainstream star, that’s incredible,” she says. “Even now it’s hard enough. There’s such a sigma attached to strip tease. Me, I grew up in a small town and I have naturally blonde hair and really I’m quite an ordinary looking girl and I basically gave myself this big Hollywood makeover and created something that didn’t exist for me. That’s one of the things that I love about this.”
Even while working as a stripper, Von Teese put a lot of thought and effort into her stage performance. She would dance around in tightly-cinched corsets – at times creating a mere 16.5 inch waistline – with garter belts, large feather fans and stockings covered in sequence, not fully realizing that she was well on her way into the world of burlesque. The first time she says she ever put on a true burlesque show was in the mid-’90s when she performed at a fetish event in Long Beach.
“That was really the first time I did something with a prop and a costume and did a strip tease in front of an audience that wasn’t at a strip club, so I guess that was maybe my first real time,” she says.
Growing up as a ballet dancer, Von Teese says she never had any real body issues or concerns about how much of her body was or wasn’t showing. As she got older it was much less about being naked and much more about learning the history of show girls and the idea of creating a fantasy live on stage.
“What I’m doing up there is so far removed from what reality is,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like it does when I take my clothes off in front of someone when I’m not on stage. There are so many factors that I’m controlling when I’m on stage when I’m under perfect lighting, when I have 10 layers of body makeup on and I’m wearing a $50,000 Swarovski crystal gown that comes off in layers, but it’s not reality. It’s all a fantasy and smoke in mirrors, it’s not the real naked me. The real naked me doesn’t wear all that makeup and is just naked under normal clothes. I’m not an exhibitionist at all, that’s the most important thing to know is that I don’t get a sexual thrill from being on stage. I didn’t create strip shows initially because I had a need to show my body, in fact that is all quite secondary to me for some reason.”
After facing some tough critics early on in her career, Von Teese, who turns 40 this year and still manages to look absolutely flawless, says that now, after 20 years, she feels validated in her success.
“I had people giving me a hard time and questioning me or telling me that I was stupid or that burlesque and strip tease was never going to come back into fashion,” she says. “People would say that I looked like I was just playing a game of dress up and there were a lot of detractors along the way so I felt a little validated by it (Playboy features and other various milestones). There were a lot of people who thought I couldn’t do it or that I was wasting my time and I should go and get a real job or dye my hair back to blonde if I wanted to be a real glamour model.”
- Von Teese shared a very public relationship with goth rocker Marilyn Manson, whom she married in 2005 and divorced a year later. She says that she is currently single, adding that it’s just as difficult as being in a committed relationship.
“I’ve seen lots of problems arise because I travel so much and I’m really devoted to my work,” she says. “A lot of sacrifice goes into that and having to stay home on Friday and Saturday nights, so it’s hard on relationships. Every relationship has its pitfalls and there’s aspects of my work that might have been hard for someone – maybe someone would feel insecure and wish that they were the only ones to see me with my clothes off or they’re fine about having my clothes off but they miss me too much because I’m gone so much – every situation has been different. There have been men who are jealous, like ‘Look at you, you have it so easy.’ It’s complicated. Right now I’m happily single. It’s great to be free and see who you want and talk to whoever you want and I just like the adventure of it. It’s exciting.”
Von Teese is much more than just the “Queen of Burlesque.” She’s also a model, a clothing and lingerie designer, actress and an author. She has her own perfume and has been spotted on runways and in front row of the fashion shows of such designers as Christian Dior, Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul Gaultier. She has graced the covers of numerous national and international magazines and considers it a great honor that she was the first guest star asked to perform at the avant-garde Crazy Horse Cabaret in Paris in 2006.
“I’ve had a lot of really great moments,” she says. “I think in general what really means the most to me is that burlesque has seen this big revival all over the world and that there’s other mainstream success and that a lot of people are understanding it finally after all of this time.”
When she’s not performing – which can range anywhere from one show per month to multiple performances per night during a residency – Von Teese says she’s very much a normal girl. Due to her old rave days she’s still in love with electronic music and during our phone chat she mentioned that she was brushing up on the acts in the dance music tent in preparation for her three-day weekend at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio.
“I still like to go dancing in electro clubs when I have a chance and on the weekends I like to go to flea markets because I collect antique and vintage things,” she says.
Her other passion is vintage cars, which is one of the big reasons why she continues to visit Orange County – her most trusted mechanics are based in the area.
“My ’53 Cadillac is my favorite,” she says. “I had always driven cars from the ’30s and ’40s – like big ol’ gangster cars and when I got this ’53 Cadillac with power steering and power windows I was like, ‘Wow, I get it now.’ I was never into ’50s cars but I totally understand it now and I drive that almost every day. I love being behind the wheel.”
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