Inspired by the stars of yesteryear Dita Von Teese single-handedly reinvented the art of burlesque. She reveals her style secrets to Alison Kerr
In a sea of bland, tanned blonde celebrities, one woman stands out. International burlesque queen Dita Von Teese is a poster girl for old-fashioned glamour. She may not be a movie star but her look is pure Hollywood circa 1947. With her carefully coiffed, raven hair, creamy skin and ruby lips, she is all the great screen sirens of the Golden Age rolled into one petite package. Rita Hayworth? Check. Elizabeth Taylor? Check. Joan Crawford? Check. Jane Russell. Er, double check?
In just a few years, Von Teese has gone from being famous by association with her ex-husband, freakish goth rocker Marilyn Manson - about whom she politely declines to talk - to being universally known by her first name, which is often used as a form of shorthand to refer to her distinctive look. Her signature style, which fuses fashions from the 1930s, "40s and "50s, has made her an icon and, in addition to being hailed as a patron saint of vintage chic, she has become a fixture on the fashion circuit, with designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier throwing open the doors to their archives and inviting her to borrow whatever she likes.
Meanwhile, her one-woman revival of the art of striptease - performed in spectacularly lavish shows of which MGM would have been proud - has spawned a surge of interest in burlesque. Her fans include the cr'me de la cr'me of the pop and fashion worlds: the Beckhams, John Galliano, Marc Jacobs, Roland Mouret, Jade Jagger, George Michael and Elton John have all enjoyed Von Teese"s stylish retro routines, which are more balletic than bump-and-grind, and which have drawn inspiration from the work of such diverse figures as Hollywood choreographer Busby Berkeley and Art Deco designer Erte.
Von Teese has injected fantasy, femininity and flirtatious fun into stripping, whether she"s disrobing atop a glittery pink carousel horse, bathing in a giant martini glass or patting her barely clad bod with an oversized powder puff. With her elegantly choreographed moves and her luxurious costumes and sets, she"s done her damnedest to banish the association with unimaginative pole dancing routines and tawdry clubs. Indeed, so far is the Von Teese image removed from the world of neon thongs that the 35-year-old was signed up by Wonderbra to design a range of typically glamorous, retro-inspired lingerie.When we meet, in a suitably sumptuous London hotel suite, it"s immediately apparent that, although she may be a sex symbol, Von Teese isn"t in the least bit intimidating or overpowering. Close-up, you can almost glimpse a mousy, slightly buck-toothed blonde lurking behind the porcelain, doll-like face - which recalls both Snow White and her wicked stepmother.
Although she refers to her appearance as cartoon-like onstage, her physique does resemble Jessica Rabbit"s, thanks to her Vargas girl curves and teeny waist (16 inches in her tightest corset) Von Teese doesn"t have the freakish, exaggerated, cartoon qualities that many of today"s glamour girls have. Not for her hair extensions, ludicrous cleavage or a tango tan. Dressed in a hot pink, leopard print silk dress (slightly unbuttoned to reveal the teeniest hint of a black bra) by Moschino and black patent peep-toes, Von Teese exudes sex appeal, but in a wholly unthreatening, tasteful and ladylike way.
"I like the double standard," the softly spoken star says, coyly. "I"ve always loved the idea of not being what people expect me to be. I"m not an exhibitionist that"s not why I do what I do. Day-to-day, I"m actually quite shy. I like my hemline below the knee. I would never bare my belly. I"m a little conscious about how much cleavage I"m showing. I feel like I don"t really need to show my body, and I like the mystery about not showing it I prefer the idea of someone wondering what"s underneath the dress."
Von Teese"s eyes light up as she plunges into girl talk - about clothes, make-up, hairstyles, men and movie stars. She exudes excitement as she relates how she became tongue-tied when she met Elizabeth Taylor a few years ago, and how her jaw dropped when Lauren Bacall swung by her table at a Manhattan restaurant to say hello to shoe designer Christian Louboutin. "She was walking towards us and Karl Lagerfeld bumped into her. She shot him a look that would kill, and said: 'Excuse you!" and then turned to our table to talk to Christian. She"s terrifying!"
There"s an openness about Von Teese which recalls the vulnerable aspect of Marilyn Monroe"s personality - and which makes a female star as appealing to her own sex as she is to men. Indeed, she is thrilled by the fact that the majority of her fanbase is female. "It"s mostly women who are having fun with glamour instead of trying to fit into the mainstream version of sexy," she says. "If you look at what"s considered sexy most of the time, it"s natural - no make-up, a really healthy-looking tan, running along the beach in a bikini - that"s what we"re fed as sexy. But that"s not an easy image for a lot of us to attain. I certainly couldn"t fit into that image. So I"m offering an alternative. I wanted to get in touch with what I thought was sexy - which is the opposite of the blonde bikini babe."
Von Teese prides herself on her "artificial glamour", which she believes is more easily achievable than the natural beauty that women are encouraged to aspire to. "I"m a big fan of movies of the 1930s, "40s and "50s and it was the look of the stars of those eras that appealed to me: false eyelashes, red lipstick, lots of blush, blue eyeshadow. Those stars had a commitment to glamour. It appealed to me not just because it was beautiful to look at, but because I thought: 'I can make that." I don"t think I can look like Cindy Crawford or Gisele but I can certainly paint my way to look like the stars of the past - and I thought I could be more interesting looking like that than I ordinarily was."
Was she born in the wrong era, then? "No," she says categorically. "I like having my cellphone. I like the internet. I like being different. I always wonder: "If this was 1945, would I be dressing in turn-of-the-century clothing - because I might still want to be different from everyone else?" Plus, being born when I was born, I have my pick of the fashions from the past."
THE FASCINATION WITH MOVIE STAR glamour began when Von Teese was a child. Back then, she was a natural blonde named Heather Sweet (she took her stage name from the German film actress of the 1930s, Dita Parlo), living first in Michigan then, from the age of 12, in California"s Orange County. Watching old movies on TV with her mother, she became obsessed with some of the musicals made during the Second World War, especially Cover Girl, with Rita Hayworth ("all these tilted miniature hats that sit on one side, and the suits with brooches, and the gloves," she gasps), and those with bubbly pin-up Betty Grable, who, despite her peroxide blonde hair, has proved to be Von Teese"s ultimate style icon.
Relishing the chance to talk about her heroine, Von Teese enthuses: "One of my favourite, favourite movies is a Betty Grable one called The Dolly Sisters. To me, it"s just the best hair and make-up of the 1940s. I love all of her films but those Technicolor movies where she"s a showgirl are the ones which inspire me most, especially in terms of hair styles. People say: 'Oh, I love the old black and white movies," but it"s Technicolor, glorious Technicolor, that really gets me. Nothing compares to the beauty of Technicolor - that"s what I always want to look like, and these movies have really influenced my shows."
Betty Grable is not often cited as a style icon, and, indeed, her name isn"t even very well remembered these days - which is pretty shocking, given that she was the most popular star of the war years. Perhaps now her time will come - at least, it will if Von Teese has anything to do with it. Clearly the 21st-century burlesque queen identifies with the 1940s pin-up girl, and not just in terms of appearance.
Von Teese says: "Betty was a real girl"s girl. She had a reputation for being fun and great to work with. She never wanted to be a serious actress - she just wanted to be Betty Grable and she was totally happy in those showgirl roles. She was made to do serious roles a few times, and she said: 'I don"t want to do that - I want to sing and dance and do what I do best." She knew that about herself, and I love that.
"I think that there are only a few people in the world who are that way about their career now. Pamela Anderson, for example, is great. She doesn"t take herself too seriously.
"I like when people know who they are, know their limitations and what they want to do. It"s the same thing for me. I want to be a burlesque star. I don"t want to be a singer. I don"t want to be an actress. I want to be known as a great burlesque star, a great stripper, and that"s what matters to me the most. I want to be known for what I"m really good at, not something that I"m just OK at."
The fascination with Grable was underpinned by another fixation. "All these scenes of showgirls backstage getting dressed, tightening their corsets . . . I became obsessed with lingerie and how it was a secret code of women, a sort of ritual - I never thought about it as something to seduce men. I was obsessed with the idea of 'when do I become a woman and get to wear this stuff?"
Appropriately, given her new role as designer and model for Wonderbra, Von Teese began her working life in a lingerie store, while she was still at high school. "I was enthralled by lingerie and immersed myself in it. I wanted to learn about the history of lingerie, the way the shapes changed, and what women wore in different eras." She bought her first garterbelt at the age of 15, and since then, tights haven"t had a look-in.
After she left school, Von Teese, who was by now dressing in a retro style - right down to the undies - was studying fashion design and the history of fashion at a local college by day, and working as a go-go dancer by night. Her career as a pin-up began when she decided that she"d like to be photographed wearing some of her vintage lingerie - and recreate the classic pictures of such fetish stars as Betty Page.
Von Teese was fortunate to be going out with a computer nerd at the time: "He told me about this new thing called the internet, and he set up a website for me - this was one of the first adult pin-up websites and certainly the first-ever retro one. At that time, you could only have one page. People would order photos and send us a cheque."
College and a potential career in costume design went by the wayside as Von Teese became focused on "bringing back the glamour to the fetish world". That led to stripping, and a fascination with burlesque which, with characteristic zeal, Von Teese has studied in great detail - reading every book on the subject, watching every documentary, even tracking down old burlesque dancers and interviewing them about their careers, finally producing a book on the subject.
She may be genuinely coy, but Von Teese clearly has an inner confidence which, along with her savvy business sense, has served her well. She was barely out of her teens when she launched her own, unique, take on burlesque. "Fetish magazines were really hardcore," she explains, "but I thought: 'I"m going to make it soft and pretty and elegant." Then, when I went to a strip club and I saw blonde girls swinging around poles in bikinis, I thought: 'There"s a goldmine for me because I"m different and I have something to offer that nobody else here has." I"ve always thought like that.
"Somebody else might have thought: 'I don"t fit in here, how can I fit into this?" I"ve always seen the opportunity. I still can"t understand why people don"t get that; that what makes you different is what makes you good. Don"t try to be like everyone else."
• The limited edition collection Wonderbra by Dita Von Teese goes on sale on Tuesday. For more information, visit www.wonderbra.co.uk/dita