From Groat to Glamonatrix
If her ancestors hadn’t left their homeland for America, wee Heather Sweet might have taken up Highland dancing instead of ballet, and be treating her audiences to a Strip the Willow as well as a striptease when she takes the stage as Dita Von Teese with her Glamonatrix show.
But the biggest name in burlesque, the vamp of vedette, model, costume and lingerie designer, entrepreneur, actress and author grew up in Rochester, Michigan, of Scottish, English, Armenian and German heritage – “the Scottish is on my mother’s side, her maiden name was Groat” – where she excelled at classical ballet.
“I would like to have been a ballet dancer, but I wasn’t ever good enough. I realised that around 15,” says the performer, who often dances en pointe during her graceful routines.
Always fascinated by the Golden Age of Hollywood, the glamour of actresses like Betty Grable, the art of burlesque and vintage clothing, she loved dressing up, encouraged by her manicurist mother.
When it came to her first bra, however, the serviceable white cotton one her mom produced was a crushing disappointment compared with the lacy lingerie she’d seen in her father’s Playboy.
Becoming Dita Von Teese
However, around the time she gave up ballet, she secured a job in a lingerie store and its world of corsets, basques and thongs, and always feeling plain between her two sisters, discovered Revlon’s matt red Cherries in the Snow lipstick. She went on to dye her hair blue-black, put winged black eyeliner across her lids and press kohl on the beauty spot high on her left cheek. Slipping on silk, leather and lace corsets, suspender belts and stockings, holding boa feather fans aloft, she combined her passions after training in historic costume, and stepped onto a stage as burlesque performer Dita Von Teese in 1992.
“I chose an alternative name when I started because it was what people did and it seemed very Hollywood. All the movie stars; Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, they had their given name then their chosen name.”
Her chosen forename name is a tribute to silent film star Dita Parlo, and the surname courtesy of Playboy who needed a surname for their cover girl and misspelled Von Treese, which she had plucked from the phone book. She laughs at the slip, but appreciates the appurtenance.
“But Heather Sweet would work as a stripper name as well,” says Von Teese. Unlike many artists who construct and project an alternative persona in public as a vehicle for their work, she doesn’t see any separation between the glamorous lingerie-loving burlesque performer Von Teese and the perfectly made up lingerie-loving businesswoman Heather Sweet. She’s perfectly at ease in her own alabaster skin, revelling in every facet of a brilliant-cut skill set that takes her from stage to catwalk to business meeting, from working with fashion legends John-Paul Gaultier and Philip Treacy, to sitting down with her lingerie brand’s Australian design team or applying her own stage and photoshoot make-up.
“Why pay somebody to do that?” she says, displaying a thrifty streak, combined with a confidence in her own abilities.
Burlesque and business
Burlesque is as popular as ever and at 47 Von Teese is now a very successful entrepreneur, worth millions and with a best-selling brand that adds significantly to her income. A self-confessed lingerie lover, she’s put her early years in the store to good use along with her design skills and when she’s not on the road with her shows, she’s designing new ranges and liaising with her manufacturers.
“We get together four times a year and work on the collections, new styles, fabrics, colours. My designs go up to a 40 H cup so there’s something for everyone. I spend a lot of time on it. Besides creating the show and touring, that’s what keeps me busy. There’s designing, photoshoots and promotion, keeping up with the buyers, seeing how it actually looks on the floor…”
On the floor?
She laughs. “The department store floor, not actually on the floor.”
Von Teese is big on the idea that everyone can be glamorous, whether or not they’re beautiful, with the aid of make-up and clothing, the affecting of an air of elegance. It’s not always about what you take off, often it’s about what you put on.
Daring to be different
For her the whole point is that people buy nice underwear for themselves, because it makes them feel good.
“I’ve always just loved wearing nice lingerie because it’s a moment of glamour in your everyday life, something that is functional but also can serve as a moment of beauty, you know, these days we don’t have to choose lingerie that is … you know, you don’t have to choose between your beautiful lingerie and plain, you can have it all. The lingerie designers don’t make the same separation as in the past between your everyday and things that are beautiful.
“Some people link beautiful lingerie with sex, but it doesn’t have to be that way, whether you dress for other people or for yourself.”
Dressing for yourself is important to Von Teese, whose sartorial inspirations include the unique style of Isabella Blow, Luisa Casati and Anna Piaggi.
“I like eccentricity in people. You have to be brave to dress differently and I always liked people that dress and wear their make-up in an eccentric, unique way.”
Celebrating the individual is centre stage in Glamonatrix which Von Teese is committed to making inclusive and diverse. Male, female and gender-fluid performers add up to a celebration of the body, swathed in glamour then undressed to reveal its endlessly beguiling variety.
Now the superwoman of stripping is excited to be bringing her performers back to Scotland, her favourite place to take her clothes off on tour.
“Oh yeah, Edinburgh was my favourite stop on tour last time,” she says. “I just love it. It’s somewhere that still feels mysterious to me and I enjoyed it very much. And I’m tartan crazy, so…”
Von Teese doesn’t know anything about the Groat family and how or why they went to America. “Like a lot of Americans I have a very complicated family lineage. I wish I knew more about the Scottish side. I had a very Midwestern, classic American upbringing and don’t remember ever hearing much about my family’s heritage. I don’t know why,” she says.
Von Teese went on the hunt for a family tartan last time she was here and sought advice as to the nearest clan colours for her.
“From my mom’s family name the store came up with Mackenzie as the nearest thing, so I bought a tartan plaid yardage and had a beautiful dress made. I’m going back to the same place this time to buy some more yardage to have another made.”
Has she thought about including tartan lingerie in her signature line?
“Yes, I did have some in my collection,” she says.
Of course she did.
“But not at the moment. Yeah, I think I’ll do some more.”
So watch out for Mackenzie tartan knickers and bras, folks.
A year in the making, the latest show, Glamonatrix is a lavish production. There are new numbers from Dita and her cast, joined by burlesque performers Dirty Martini and Zelia Rose, costumes created by corset-maker extraordinaire Mister Pearl, designer Jenny Packham, couturier Alexis Mabille, burlesque icon Catherine D’Lish and Brooke Brothers, finished off with Louboutins. And props include a massive cake, giant sparkling lipstick, and a vintage circus caravan complete with big cats for Dita to tame with a crystallised whip. There’s music from her album by French artist Sebastien Tellier and Australian electronic dance artist Andrew Armstrong, along with a new twist on old favourites such as her giant martini glass.
“It’s new numbers, and some done in a new way. The martini glass is always in the show, but in a different way and in this show it’s reinvented.”
Is the huge Swarovski crystal and acrylic martini glass in which she reclines her most troublesome prop to move around the world on tour, travelling by boat in containers along with her own curtain rig and lighting?
“We’ve had so many different ones over the years and definitely had glass issues. It has to be to the right scale and size, which I’ve stuck to for about ten years now after a giant triple-sized one didn’t work so well.” She laughs. “They’re definitely heavy.”
In a world of 24/7 explicit internet porn, there’s clearly still a market for Von Teese’s body-positive, old-style elegant undressing, with its satins and feathers, elbow-length silk gloves and perfect make-up, where what is worn gets equal billing with what is taken off. Her last tour, The Art of the Teese, sold out in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia and on its UK leg sold out five nights at The London Palladium. This tour has taken in New Zealand too, with Von Teese’s eyes fixed on wider horizons in future. But who is watching this sophisticated stripping?
“My audience is mainly women and I have a big LGBTQ following, so lots of other genders in between,” she says. “But when I first started out I had more of the straight male fan base. That has changed a lot over the years, particularly when I wrote my first book, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese.
“I told my story about why I like vintage style, why I love burlesque, and how it gave me confidence, and I think that resonated with other women. I think that was where my fan base shifted and the audience became more female.”
Celebrating an art
Von Teese has a laidback husky drawl, punctuated by laughter ranging from throaty to tinkling, and is a straight talker. When I ask what the difference is between burlesque and stripping, does she think one classier than the other, more arty or more elevated for instance, she is very clear.
“I don’t distinguish between the two. I worked in strip clubs in the Nineties, and you know, the thing is stripping is part of a burlesque show. People keep saying burlesque is not stripping, but it is. Burlesque is the term for the show that stripping is in.
“I don’t feel I have to tell people I’m doing something fancier than stripping. I love stripping. The word stripper comes from the 1930s and 1940s, and was slang for the girls that were dancing in the burlesque show. Striptease was part of burlesque reviews, so it’s kind of an old-fashioned slang, it’s not modern.”
As for the politics of stripping, from her perch in the martini glass, crystal-bejewelled whip in hand, where does Von Teese sit in the debate of whether it’s objectifying or empowering for women?
“Well, I think we’re living in 2020 and we’re all going to have different ideas of what makes a show empowering or degrading so I think the real definition of feminism is to have a choice and to have as many opportunities as men. You can’t really just generalise any more. You can’t say it’s anti-feminist, because there’s an audience that’s predominantly female. Women don’t have to apologise for our sexuality any more, it’s a different time.
“I’m a lady boss making my own decisions and all the other burlesque artists work in the same way, a lot of us are running our business and so yeah, it’s a different time.”
Based in LA today, Von Teese has a partner of six years, an art director at Disney. While she admits to being “a little old-fashioned in some ways, I’m definitely romantic at times, who isn’t?,” she has clear boundaries in her relationship.
“He knew what he was signing up for, you know. I like to travel a lot and I like being with people who are independent in their own way too. “I’ve had relationships where I’m mismatched and they don’t understand what I’m doing, but generally I quickly move on if I’m dealing with somebody who is jealous. When I was younger I had more trouble but now that I’m playing legitimate theatres,” she laughs, “it’s a lot easier than it was in the 1990s when I first started.”
When she’s not lacing herself into a corset and working, Von Teese still has a glamorous edge, shopping with her partner or airport lounging, not swathed in sweatshirts and leggings, but wearing ballet pumps, full-skirted 1950s style dresses and that trademark red lippy. It’s not so much about keeping up appearances, as valuing herself and doing what makes her happy.
“I do love to just have a lazy day and do nothing, wander and meander, not have to be anywhere at a certain time. That’s my idea of a perfect day off. Or to go to the antique flea market, or have a party of friends over to my house,” she says.
Dress to kilt
With plenty of antique shops and tartan traders in Edinburgh, Von Teese is looking forward to spending time in the city again. Will she be packing her tartan dress and lingerie for her trip to the capital?
“The dress is a little hot,” she says. “Won’t it be hot in Edinburgh in April?”
“OK, great, I’ll wear it,” she says.
And if it is too hot, well tartan does look great on the floor.
Dita Von Teese: Glamonatrix, 28 April, The Edinburgh Playhouse. Other UK tour dates, and tickets from www.myticket.co.uk