The Art of the Teese
Watching Dita Von Teese perform is a magical, sensual experience. Like a flickering candle, you are drawn into her graceful movements, mesmerized. It’s no wonder why her performances attract sold-out crowds.
The queen of burlesque lives a full life, traveling on a whirlwind Europe tour with her burlesque revue and designing her latest lingerie collection, which is on sale in Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom.
“I’ve created a show called ‘The Art of the Teese,’ which we have toured with successfully all over the United States, Canada and Australia,” Von Teese told the Irvine Weekly. “While performing in Europe, I have been working with some of my cast members on their new acts for the New Year’s Eve Gala.”
You can catch Von Teese on the small screen too, as she recently appeared as a ghost named Vivienne on Netflix’s goth baking series, “The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell.”
Lucky for Irvine Weekly readers, Von Teese is back in Southern California to host her annual New Year’s Eve gala, held in downtown Los Angeles at The Orpheum Theatre.
The burlesque icon works on every aspect of her epic performances, everything from the sets and costumes, to the overall production, music and lighting. Describing her vision for this year’s gala, Von Teese admitted she’s always fantasized about a mythical New Year’s Eve that evokes the Golden Age of Hollywood.
“Last year’s event created a stunning atmosphere of opulence, with the sold-out audience dressed to the nines, creating that New Year’s scene I always dreamt of!” she said excitedly.
“This year, I decided to up the ante, so I chose one of the most glamorous theaters in the entire country for the 2019 gala. The Orpheum has a rich showbiz past, a stage made for vaudeville and burlesque shows, so it’s especially exciting to invite the audience into this historic space. It’ll be a night you’ll tell your grandkids about!”
With her delightful visual stimulation, Von Teese takes great pleasure in planning her glamorous shows.
“It’s a lot of fun to build a new show for New Year’s Eve. I usually create a couple of brand-new acts,” she said. “And sometimes, I really like to pick something from my older repertoire that I don’t perform that much anymore. I like to think of ways to make the performances bigger and better.”
People that have been asking when she would do a burlesque performance again are excited to see it onstage, Von Teese enthused. “Also, people that didn’t go to my shows five to 10 years ago, get to watch something they’ve only seen in photos or video.”
When she’s not on tour, Von Teese spends time looking for new talent to put in the show.
“I enjoy doing the auditions and seeing what other types of variety acts we can add to the lineup. I often like to visit the Magic Castle and their secret little off-site members-only theatre, which puts on shows that are for performers only,” she said.
Her most recent audition announcement on Instagram back in August attracted over 80,000 likes.
“We are seeing dancers of all abilities, from professional dancers, burlesquers, to strippers and variety acts,” Von Teese wrote in the post. “One of the things that I find compelling when I am watching a performer is not necessarily fancy footwork; I honestly love performers that convey sensuality and elegance, and a certain kind of ease.”
She continued: “Not being able to follow choreography doesn’t discount anyone for me. In fact, some of my favorite performers are not technical dancers. … Truth be told, even at the height of my ballet dancing, I was just a flower or a snowflake in the back, just trying to keep up! But where there’s a will there’s a way, and here I am, burlesque dancer.”
The Savvy Marketeer
Von Teese is one smart cookie, extending her brand outside the theatre space.
In addition to her renowned, live burlesque shows, Von Teese is a self-styled fashion legend, always on best-dressed lists all over the world. Featured on Vanity Fair’s International Best Dressed List 2013, she has expanded into her own distinctive brands. Her lingerie collection debuted exclusively with Bloomingdale’s in the U.S. in March 2014, and has expanded to other iconic retailers such as Nordstrom, barenecessities.com, the designer lingerie company, Journelle, glamuse.com and the Australian fashion retailer, Myer.
She has a luxury gloves collection, a signature hosiery line and launched the world’s first-ever striptease candle as well as her latest fragrance, “Scandalwood.” Recently, DITA Eyewear announced they were collaborating with Von Teese on an classically styled eyewear line.
“The cat-eye is a well-worn style, a silhouette that rarely transcends the era in which it was created,” she explained. “My goal was to keep within the spirit of the 1950s, but to craft our version in a slick, new way as a secret weapon for the modern Femme Totale,” she said.
Von Teese has worn some exquisite costumes during her decades of performing. An array of Von Teese’s own haute couture, Swarovski-embellished costumes from designers like Catherine D’Lish, Jenny Packham and Elie Saab, will be showcased at the theatre.
“I’ve been putting some of my most extravagant costumes on display in the lobby, so people can have a look at them up close. Some of them weigh more than 65 pounds, and have hundreds of thousands of Swarovski crystals on them, so they’re quite something to see up close!”
While performing at a sold-out show recently, Von Teese had one of those unforgettable, career-defining moments. On Instagram she posted: “Last night in London was one for the books! This is what I worked my whole life for! I met someone last night that saw me feather fan dance at a strip club in North Dakota more than 20 years ago. Every single show, big and small, is what led me to this moment; so grateful for this ride, all of it!”
For $20 a month, supe-fans can sign up for the Dita Von Teese Archives, which has over 30,000 studio and performance pictures, personal scrapbook pictures, videos and interviews from her decades-long career.
Writing and Music
Von Teese is also a prolific writer. Her New York Times bestselling book, “Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour” (Dey Street Books/Harper Collins) is 400 pages long and has been printed in numerous languages. It’s a delicious read for any fan.
“I think that writing my books has helped me to have a voice. It means a lot to me to be able to inspire others to embrace their sensuality and beauty,” mused Von Teese.
“I enjoyed writing about the things that first sparked my love of glamour, the reasons why I became a pinup girl and burlesque star. Finding my confidence is something I always wanted to share, in hopes that it could inspire others.”
She is currently working on her next book, to be published in 2019.
Von Teese’s alluring vibe attracted the attention of a French musician. Earlier this year, Von Teese’s self-titled debut album was released via the Parisian label, Record Makers. A collaboration with singer/composer Sébastien Tellier, the album conjures up a modern-day Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg feel.
“I’m not a professional singer. In fact, I’m quite uneasy about recording my voice,” she noted in the album bio. “But I do enjoy the thrill of doing things that are outside of my comfort zone, so in the past, I’ve collaborated with artists I admire that have invited me, such as Monarchy and Die Antwoord.
But nothing compares to this project with Tellier, she acknowledged. “Having been a fan of his music for a long time, I would go to see him play live in California. And when I performed for the first time at the Crazy Horse in Paris, I invited him because I was such a fan, not daring to imagine that someday he would compose an entire album for me.”
When the duo began recording, he offered to let Von Teese write some lyrics.
“But I preferred the feeling of letting go, of making a Sébastien Tellier record. … To describe the album is difficult; perhaps it’s me with less make-up. At times, there’s a certain vulnerability which stands in contrast to my stage image of a confident and glamorous woman. I would never dare say such things in real life.”
Tellier has long imagined creating music for a woman. “I was looking for someone both beautiful and unique. When I saw Dita dance to a piece of music I had written for her, I had a feeling that her physical presence and her personality were a perfect fit with my music and I started to compose only for her.”
Tellier said that Von Teese reminded him of Snow White, because she has the “freshness” of a cartoon character.
“But when I saw her arrive at the studio in her black Mercedes, I understood that she was a ghost. Observing her, always smiling, available, I thought of mermaids, shells, mother of pearl objects and of marble. My wife, Amandine de la Richardière, wrote some sexy pop lyrics to balance the melodrama of my tragic vision that love always ends – in my songs – in bitterness and regret.”
After having worked with her, Tellier describes Von Teese as a fantasy factory, “In the sense that when you think that you’ve finally pierced her mystery, she turns out to be more than ever, a creature of dreams, totally out of reach.”
Orange County Memories
Born Heather Sweet in West Branch, Michigan, Von Teese grew up enamored by the Golden Age of Cinema, pin-up imagery and vintage lingerie. This naturally blond, mid-western gal redesigned herself into a glamour girl, similar to those women she adored.
Performing striptease since 1992, Von Teese is the biggest name in burlesque in the world since Gypsy Rose Lee and is greatly admired for bringing this vintage artistry back into the spotlight, with a new sense of style and inventiveness.
Dita Von Teese’s lifelong dream has been to be the next Bettie Page, a well known, 1950s burlesque model.
“When I saw the pinup pictures of Page with her jet-black hair, pale skin and classic ’50s style, I was enamored,” she told InStyle. “Even when she was filming something really risqué, she always had an air of playfulness and fun about her.”
Teese owns a pair of Page’s fetish heels.
Bet you didn’t that know that Teese once lived in Orange County!
“When I first moved from Michigan at age 12 with my family, we lived in an little apartment in (Irvine’s) Woodbridge. My mother began working as a manicurist at a beauty salon in a shopping center. I would spend a lot of time in that mini mall, and became enamored with a lingerie store there.”
Eventually at age 15, Teese began working there. “That was where my knowledge of lingerie came from,” she said proudly.
Von Teese went to Lakeside Middle School, and then later, to University High School in Irvine, where her older sister went.
“It was all a shock for me,” Von Teese acknowledged. “Arriving in California for the first time ever, and straight to Irvine! I remember a lot about living there. It wasn’t easy for me at first. … California girls my age were so much more advanced compared to me, a dishwater blonde from a farming town in Michigan.”
For several years, Von Teese just kept to herself, took ballet classes and had a high school sweetheart for four years. After living in Irvine for almost seven years, she was ready to move.
“When I was 18 years old, I moved to various areas of Orange County, from Buena Park to Huntington Beach, and then to Costa Mesa, which is where I lived for several years before heading to Los Angeles in 2001,” she said.
Most of the places Von Teese really enjoyed going to in the area — like the legendary Sid’s Steakhouse in Newport Beach — are all gone now.
“I have very fond memories of the swing dance scene in the ‘90s, and weekends at Disneyland. Back in those wonderful days when the lines for rides were never long, you could just simply park in the Goofy section,” she reminisced.
Of course, Von Teese owned a vintage car: a 1939 Chrysler New Yorker.
“I used to drive that beautiful classic car all over Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. It was my very first vintage car, and I would dress up in my vintage clothes and take it out to the swing dance clubs. Swing dancing and posing for pinups was my entire life back then; I’d dress in head to toe 1930s and ‘40s clothing, and go to all the big dances from the Brown Derby, to the beautiful deco era ballroom on Catalina Island.”
She added: “It was a really wonderful time. … I was getting a lot of recognition as well, appearing in music videos for bands like Green Day, and becoming noticed for my burlesque shows that I was performing at strip clubs and fetish parties.”
Von Teese still keeps a couple of her vintage cars in Orange County, but her family has left the area. “Only my immediate family lived there, and everyone relocated to different states.”
With the #metoo movement, one might wonder if this vintage theatrical entertainment has been impacted by recent events.
“I certainly can’t speak for everyone, but it’s hard to think of the ways that it has affected burlesque from my point of view. Unlike burlesque of the 1930s and ’40s, the neo-burlesque world isn’t it really driven by men, so I think the industry of burlesque isn’t really subjected to the same kind of issues as, say, the movie industry,” she noted.
“Men aren’t the most powerful icons in burlesque anymore; that’s just one reason why the revival is much different than it was in the old days. Women are in charge in modern burlesque! That’s not to say that they might not be in #metoo situations stemming from women in power.”
Von Teese is a fearless feminist; she once spoke at the Oxford Student Union in England, where other elected speakers have included the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Tony Blair and Anna Wintour.
An advocate in the fight against HIV and AIDS, Von Teese was MAC Viva Glam Spokesperson from 2006-2008 and in 2009, and participated in the H&M/Fashion Against AIDS t-shirt campaign. She has also performed and appeared at several events for AmfAR and was honored with their Award of Courage in 2008.
“I am still with AmfAR and the MAC AIDS Fund occasionally,” said VonTeese. “Being a spokesperson, it was amazing to see what a difference their work has done in the fight against AIDS. So whenever they ask me to be present for something, it’s a pleasure to be involved.”
What’s next for Von Teese? “I’d like to take more vacations. Right now, at the top of my list is a nice tropical holiday, on the beach, under a big hat, with a coconut drink in my hand!” she quipped.