Webster’s dictionary defines the word “burlesque” as theatrical entertainment of a broadly humorous often earthy character consisting of short turns, comic skits, and sometimes striptease acts. The term actually dates back to the 16th century when Italian poet Francesco Berni used it in the title of a work called Opere burlesche.
Burlesque shows reached America in 1868 and the popularity continued to rise until Prohibition was put into place and cities began to outlaw the shows. But in recent times, new interest has been generated thanks in most part to Dita Von Teese. Born in West Branch, Mich., Von Teese grew up fascinated by the Golden Age of Cinema, pin-up imagery and vintage lingerie. She began her burlesque career in 1992 and with the help of the corset, and her own fashion and beauty sense, Von Teese can be credited with putting the tease back in striptease.
She has also been featured in Playboy three times and was the performer of choice at events by designers Marc Jacobs, Christian Louboutin, Louis Vuitton, Chopard and Cartier, and was the first guest star in history at Paris’ famed cabaret The Crazy Horse. Von Teese, 38, has authored two books, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese and Dita Stripteese.
The Examiner was granted an exclusive interview with the iconic Von Teese, who will be performing a sold-out show at the House of Blues in Houston on Saturday, July 30. Burlesque: Strip Strip Hooray! is a 90-minute variety show and is considered Von Teese’s most spectacular to date.
She will perform with her new Swarovski Martini Glass that Von Teese herself describes as her “ultimate, most decadent, and dazzling martini glass ever.” This beautiful art-deco style cocktail glass is crystalized from top to bottom and features over 250,000 Swarovski crystals. Fans will also see Von Teese perform as “Rhinestone Cowgirl” dressed in pink Swarovski crystal, twirling sparkling guns and strutting around in custom-made Christian Louboutin cowboy boots complete with spurs. She then climbs aboard the world’s most glamorous authentic mechanical bull. Joining her on stage will be MC Murray Hill, along with a who’s who of burlesque, including Dirty Martini, Selene Luna, Monsieur Romeo (host of L’Effleur Des Sens), Lada (from The Crazy Horse in Paris) and Medianoche. Leading up to the first show on this tour, how long did it take to put together, including rehearsal time? Well, the shows I am performing are acts that I have been performing for different lengths of time, and even though it’s the debut for many of the cities I’m coming to, they are the very best of the acts I’ve been performing for years. Each of these three acts I’m performing took between two to four years to create, and upwards of $100,000 each to produce, so it been a work in progress to bring them all together in one show. With the expense of creating the music, the props and the costumes, it’s not like I make new shows every month ... although I would certainly like to. I have invested over a million dollars in my acts, so it takes some time before I get to make brand new ones, especially because this is the first time I have toured with these shows. If you could perform on stage with any band or musician, who would it be?
I’ve performed with many big orchestras, and that’s definitely the way to go when it comes to burlesque. The most important thing is to have a great bandleader who works in tandem with the burlesque dancer. The best ones would run the music according to what the stripper was doing — start the drum-roll when the gloves comes off, letting up if she stops or slows down. The best burlesque bands followed the performer’s every move! And the bigger the brass section, the better!
Do you remember what/when was the first burlesque outfit you put on, and your thoughts when you saw yourself in the mirror?
It wasn’t really like that. I started by making outfits to dance in back in 1990, and this was before the big burlesque revival. Back then, I was just a stripper who liked dressing vintage, so it wasn’t an “ah ha” moment. The only real moment like that that I recall was my discovery of red lipstick in the ’80s. I suddenly felt glamorous, and that sparked my interest in the creation of beauty, since I felt like a very ordinary blonde girl. From there, I set my sights on giving myself a classic Hollywood makeover. Twenty years later, this show is the result.
If you could go back in time, whom would you most like to seduce?
What if I prefer to be seduced? I would have liked to be seduced by Valentino. What’s the best piece of advice someone has given you?
Not to compromise my ideals for the sake of being popular or commercialized.
Who has been your biggest influence, both classic and modern?
My classic influence is Gypsy Rose Lee because she managed to be a household name as a stripper in the 1930s and managed to have a lifelong career that evolved with her age. She had female fans that admired her for being both a glamorous sex symbol and an independent single mother at the same time in an era where that was not the norm. Modernly speaking, I admire self-created women who dare to be different and have distinctive personal style. I love women like Carmen Dell’Orefice, who is absolute elegance, a perfect example of timeless beauty and sensuality that does not rely on youth or clichés of what beauty is. I also love Anna Piaggi, and the late Isabella Blow.
How do you relax before a show? Any pre-show music or ritual?
Well, I try to sleep in, which is not the norm for me, since usually I like to go to bed early and wake up early, so I have to try to switch to showgirl time when I’m performing. Other than that, I have specific times I need to eat my meals so I can corset down and feel physically good onstage in the heavy costumes. I arrive backstage a couple hours before the show so I can enjoy the ritual of doing my makeup and hair. I have a pre-show music list that has nothing to do with retro music, because by then, I’ve been hearing my show music so often, I can’t bear it anymore; I need something that is the opposite of it. My playlist is an eclectic blend of electronic music, ’80s and rap. We have all kinds of sing-a-longs in my dressing room before the show. Everyone that works backstage with me has to know both parts of “The Girl is Mine” so they can duet with me.
What’s next after the tour?
I’m going to visit a friend for a few days in the country, and then I’m back to work, shooting my new lingerie collection and my dress collection. The past few years, I’ve been taking the entire month of August like the Europeans do, but this year I’ve decided to stay in LA and work. I’m really excited about work right now; there’s a lot to do.
For more information about Dita Von Teese, visit her official site at dita.net.