Dita Von Teese is perhaps the world's classiest—and most successful—stripper. The self-styled "Queen Of Burlesque" has tailored a career from feathers and pearls, leading the "burlesque revival" of the past few years and becoming the thinking person's sexual icon along the way. A lifetime aficionado of classic films and pin-up girls, Von Teese is featured in Indie Sex, a four-part miniseries examining the history of sex in cinema, airing this week on IFC. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Von Teese about celebrity skin, old-school glamour, and, of course, sex.
The A.V. Club: One of the main points of the Indie Sex series is that explicit sex is nothing new, in film or real life. So why do we have this perception of people 50, 60 years ago being really buttoned-up about sex?
Dita Von Teese: People have always been interested in sex. There have been periods where there was more censorship, but you can find explicit hardcore pornography from the invention of the camera. People haven't changed—even though sometimes there have been periods in film where they haven't shown much sex, or they would use innuendo to put the idea of sex into people's heads, you can find sex scenes or love scenes in the '30s. Then maybe in the '40s and '50s, there were a lot of rules about what they could show in film. People have always been interested in seeing sex and in seeing the female form, and obviously that was what burlesque was about.
It's interesting that there's a big burlesque revival right now, but we're seeing a really commercialized version. We're not seeing the strip. I perform the strip, but a lot of the commercialized, mainstream burlesque clubs and people that are trying to bring this back don't really understand the history of it. They forget that there was a past to it, and even the big stars like Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr stripped down to pasties and G-strings back in the '30s and '40s and '50s. So it's really important to me to remind people that that's really what burlesque was. It wasn't about singing "Fever" and dancing around in hot pants and fishnets and calling it burlesque because there's a retro vibe to it—it was about the striptease. People went to see burlesque shows to admire the female form and to get the idea of sex into their heads, because they couldn't see it in a lot of films at that time.
AVC: A lot of people try to politicize the burlesque revival, making it about feminism or sexual politics.
DVT: I think that's fine if someone wants to use it that way. Me personally, I want to entertain people above all. When you look back at burlesque in history and the real golden age of burlesque, those entertainers were there to entertain, and there wasn't usually some big political message behind what they were doing. They were there to make people forget about their problems, and I want to uphold that tradition. I've been accused of putting political messages in some of my shows, and I'm always surprised to hear someone's take on it. But for me, it's all about being entertaining and being true to the history of striptease and reminding people that striptease had a great history. There was a time when these stars were somewhat respectable and mainstream, and the people appreciated that what they were doing was as artistic as anything else you'd see on the stage.
AVC: Another perception of the burlesque revival is that it stems from this idea that our culture is so sexually permissive that the only direction left to go is backward, to a more innocent, glamorous time. But it seems like the old days weren't necessarily that innocent.
DTV: There's a really great book and movie that Liz Goldwyn wrote and directed called Pretty Things, and she has these interviews with some of the old burlesque stars. The funny thing is, you have some of them saying, "Yeah, we flashed, sometimes I didn't want to wear a G-string, sometimes I didn't want to wear pasties, and sometimes I went with men for money." There were all kinds, just like there are all kinds now, and I think it's great that we have all kinds of options. It wasn't a kinder, gentler time back in the '30s and '40s, they weren't all Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr and Sally Rand.
AVC: You grew up in a small town in Michigan. How did this stuff make it onto your radar?
DVT: When I was a little girl, I watched all old movies. My mother liked old movies, and she loved shopping for antiques, so I was around old things all the time. We'd go antique shopping and I'd find a hat or a pair of gloves or a vintage dress, and my mom would let me have those things to play dress-up with. So it came from there, and from watching old movie stars like Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe and Hedy Lamarr. I saw the glamour of them and the way they were painted and coiffed and styled, and I thought "Well, I can turn myself into that. That's not natural, it's all very contrived and created."
Being from Michigan, I wanted to experience a little glamour in my life, because all I saw was what I saw on TV and in the movies. As I got older, I always felt like I was very plain and ordinary-looking, and I wanted to take what I learned from watching these women and seeing pictures of Marilyn Monroe, who was a very pretty girl, but no one remembered her as that pretty girl. It was when she underwent a full makeover and her hair was bleached blonde and curled and her lips were painted and her eyelashes were a mile long—that image was really created, it wasn't natural beauty. And let's be honest, we wouldn't have remembered her for being Norma Jean, we remember her as the icon that was created. And I thought, "Well, since I don't feel very pretty, I can do my best to use what I've got." And that's what I did, I taught myself how to paint and how to curl my hair.
AVC: How did the sexual aspect come into the picture? When did it turn from fashion to fetish?
DVT: When I was old enough. I was surrounding myself, reading old movie-star biographies and dressing a little off-center, dressing vintage when I was a teenager. Then in the early '90s, when I was 17, 18 years old, I started looking through books of pin-up models from the era. I discovered Bettie Page and I started looking at the magazines she actually appeared in. I wanted to recreate those pin-up pictures. One thing leads to another. I wanted a corset, I was obsessed with lingerie. I worked in a lingerie store, and I wanted to buy a corset, and when I finally found a place that sold them, I walked in and it was a fetish store. So it all kind of came together at once for me, this '40s fetishism, this severe look of a John Willie painted girl. Those things all really appealed to me. A light bulb went on in my head, and I thought, "Why shouldn't I be recreating this stuff? No one's really doing that." The fetish scene at that time was about piercings and tattoos and girls shaved bald and really severe images of bitches with whips, and I wanted to bring this elegant fetishism back into the mainstream.
AVC: A lot of people are still intimidated by the word "fetish." Why is the idea so scary?
DVT: They don't understand what it is. Some people might say, "Oh, I have a fetish for shoes, I like high heels, I like wearing them and I like looking at them." That's not having a fetish. A fetish is when you get a sexual turn-on from that object itself or from the act, from something that isn't normally sexual. I've always been intrigued by it, but it's easy to be afraid of it when you pick up a fetish magazine and you see someone in a gas mask on the cover in full rubber holding a riding crop. But once you get into it, you realize what it's really about, and that there are so many kinds of fetishes, and some of them are quite sweet, actually. I think it's very interesting, but it's very easy to be afraid of what you don't know. I think that's why people are afraid of it. But boy, I would love to have a boyfriend who had a fetish. It's really fun to indulge someone's fetishes.
AVC: Someone in Indie Sex jokes that sometimes the only difference between Hollywood and pornography is lighting and costumes. Is burlesque just stripping with better lighting and costumes?
DVT: It's something I say a lot, and it upsets a lot of burlesque performers, because a lot of them are so busy trying to explain how they aren't strippers. But I've always said it, and as much as other burlesque performers hate me for it sometimes, we're strippers. I'm not ashamed of being a stripper. Gypsy Rose Lee was called a stripper; it's not a bad word. It's where modern-day striptease started. It's the same thing, it's just a different kind of styling, and maybe there were a little more theatrics involved, a little more glamour.
It's great that we have lapdance clubs, it's great that we have pole-dancers running around in bikinis, I think it's really hot. I think it's great that there are different kinds of sex being presented out there, from pole-dancing to lap-dancing to burlesque dancing. I just think I'd be doing a real disservice to strippers everywhere if I sat there and tried to explain why I'm better or different than a stripper, because I am a stripper, I'm proud to be a stripper. I've done lap-dances, I've worked in strip clubs. I don't like to candy-coat it, and I know a lot of people do, maybe because they don't want that stigma of "stripper" attached to them, so they use "burlesque dancer." I kind of feel bad for people who feel that way, that they have to constantly validate what they do by saying they're better than someone else. A lot of people get upset with me because I'm at the forefront of this movement of burlesque, but I've been a stripper since 1990, and I don't need to prove to anybody that what I'm doing is okay. I've been through it all, I've been fired from jobs because I was a stripper, I've had my family upset with me. I'm gonna stand by what I am and what I do.
AVC: Even though you're proud of having been a stripper, most people probably wouldn't label you as one any more.
DVT: Well, some people do, and I think it's really funny when people think they're insulting me by saying "I don't understand what she does, she's nothing but a stripper," and I'm thinking, "That's totally okay for you to not understand what I do, I take it as a compliment, you're not calling me anything I haven't called myself." If you ever watch the movie Gypsy with Natalie Wood, the whole ending is her talking about how people might be making fun of her for being "nothing but a stripper," but she's the one having the laugh on everyone.
AVC: You mention in Indie Sex that there's something especially intriguing about seeing sex in the movies, even though it's easy to go out and get a porno. Why is there such an aura around Hollywood sex?
DVT: I think one thing that's really interesting about the series is, you see all kinds of sex, and I like that in the movies you can see really romantic, glorified sex, and then you can see dirty, raunchy sex, and then you can see boring sex. The fact is, we all have all three of those in our lives, and it's not always going to be any one thing. In a porno, it's given to you one way. But there are pornos that are geared toward women and a little more romantic and stylized, and they go a little slower, and then there are people that like their amateur porn—so I think now I have to disagree with what I'm saying. [Laughs.] We see all kinds, there's something for everyone if you look hard enough. But I think it's great that in these independent films, you have a great storyline to go with the sex.
AVC: Could it also just be that we like seeing celebrities naked?
DVT: That's one thing I think is really interesting. I get asked a lot about how what I'm doing is different from being a prostitute: "You're getting paid for your body," or whatever, or "It's anti-feminist!" Listen, when they get these famous actresses in sex scenes, they negotiate like you wouldn't believe over how much is a nipple worth, how much is full-frontal nudity worth. It's really a serious business. Of course we want to see our favorite stars nude, we want to know more about them, we like to imagine that maybe that's what they really look like when they're having sex. I have my favorite stars that I would love to drop in on them having sex to see what it's all about, there's a fascination to that.
AVC: So it's a voyeurism thing?
DVT: I think for a lot of people, it's a voyeurism thing, but for me, I'm curious to see who's willing to go that far for the film. When I see an actress or an actor who seems like they wouldn't go there, and you see them going all the way with the sex scenes, to me, it seems really brave and exciting, like that's the kind of person I'd want to hang out with. Someone who's willing to go the distance for the film.
AVC: You got a lot of publicity this past year for your marriage to and divorce from Marilyn Manson. How do you feel about what he's been saying about your relationship?
DVT: I think it's unfortunate that he's had to exploit our divorce for the sake of record sales, but you do what you gotta do, I suppose. I think most people at this point understand what happened and what they're dealing with when he's doing interviews drunk and offering journalists cocaine. It kind of tells you what I might have been up against. I'm just trying to put it past me, I'm happy to be a single girl and have that drama out of my life.
AVC: So you're taking advantage of being single?
DVT: Yeah, I've been taking it slow, because I didn't feel the urgency to go out and find someone to make me feel better or to make me feel sexy. I'm lucky that with what I do, I get to get dressed up and do my shows, and people tell me how great it is. So with that part of my life, I didn't feel like I needed to go out and find some boyfriend really quickly. I've just been taking it easy with dating, and I'm trying to stay single as long as possible, because I've gone from relationship to relationship, and I want to enjoy the single life for a while and see what it's all about.
AVC: Besides your shows and website, are you working on any new projects?
DVT: I'm working on my second book, which is about glamour and eccentric beauty. I felt like there are a lot of beauty books out there that tell you the right way to wear your makeup, and I want to tell people how they can create glamour in their lives, and that breaking the rules is sometimes the best way. I don't work with a stylist, I don't work with a glam squad to get me together for the red carpet, I really enjoy the time it takes to do it myself, to choose my clothes and do my own makeup and my own hair. I think that I have a lot of female fans who want to know how they can create '40s waves and paint a perfect cat-eye themselves. You look at the red carpet and say "Oh, it took 12 people to get them there," and it did, but they didn't need to have 12 people. If you really set your mind to it, you can do it yourself. I want to remind people of a different kind of glamour, a different look, and breaking the rules of fashion. I wanna break the rules. [Laughs.]