Dita Von Teese might be offended when we call her the Founding Mother of Modern Burlesque, but the shoe fits. Teese spent the 1990s dragging striptease back from the grimy brink of tawdriness, recovering a lost, pre-war world of fan dance glamor. So if you’ve enjoyed a burlesque show in the last 20 years, you should be slipping a 20 of appreciation into Dita Von Teese’s psychic g-string. Teese has now crossed over into the fashion world, with her own lingerie line, and a coveted spot on Vanity Fair’s International “Best Dressed” List. She’s back in New York with a new show, “Burlesque: Strip, Strip, Hooray!”–a 90 minute piece, performed at the Gramercy Theatre from Sept. 30th to Oct. 4th. It features some of her most talked-about acts of the last few years: the Rhinestone Cowgirl (she’s head-to-toe in pink Swarovski crystal), the Gilded Cage, and the Giant Martini Glass (her signature, with a few new twists). We sat down with Dita to talk about body-modification, mysterious Parisian dream girls, and why letters from prison can be just delightful.
OK, you’re washed up on a desert island, and you can only take ONE outfit with you. Go.
I’m going to go for a one of my 1950s Hawaiian sarongs. I have an excellent one that comes with a matching cape.
Practical. You’re one of the best-dressed people on the planet. Does it ever get exhausting, the sartorial demands you place on yourself?
I sometimes get overwhelmed. You could make a great parody short film of me being swallowed by my clothes. I have a huge archive of vintage, but at this point I have so many things that I’m never going to wear that I buy just because I love it or I want to fantasize about wearing it. “Ooh, this will be great when I’m riding an elephant in India.”
Nothing is more embarrassing that inappropriate elephant-wear. The public sees you as so immaculately put together, all the time. Are you ever, like, in sweatpants?
No, but I have my own version of a casual look. Maybe ballet flats and a ’50s dress. I just have a different point of view: jeans and sweatpants aren’t comfortable to me. They’re itchy and tight and involve more thought process than zipping up the back of a dress and running out the door.
What part in your upcoming show are you most excited to show crowds? What’s really blowing your hair back artistically right now?
One of my favorite numbers is now in the show, where I’m in a big gilded bird cage. My favorite moment of the night–because usually there’s not a hair out of place on my head–is when the cage rains water on me, and people see me completely dripping wet. People don’t usually see me that way.
Hoo boy. Anyway. Any person who watches your show sees the incredible focus you bring to it. How do you get in the zone for that kind of performance? Talk me through the last five minutes before you get onstage.
I have a cocktail. And I have to be in a good mood. There’s a rule, in the two hours before I go on, I’m never wrong about anything. No one is allowed to tell me I’m wrong, no one is allowed to say anything shitty to me. I am the Queen of the fucking universe for that hour or so before I go onstage. So I don’t talk to journalists then either.
We can ruin anything. What’s the cocktail of choice?
Clean liquor. A little Cointreau on ice with a Perrier and lime.
Are you still tightlacing? [The practice of wearing a tightly-laced corset to achieve extreme modifications to the figure and posture.]
I don’t sleep in corsets, or do any official corset training, much to the dismay of my official corset trainer, Mr. Pearl. But I’ve been wearing corsets since I was 18. I don’t have the quest for the smallest waist anymore. At my very smallest I was down to 16 inches on a very good day, but generally onstage I lace down to about 19 inches.
I’m doing the opposite: loose-lacing. It’s a demanding regimen of quesadillas and ham.
Oh god, that makes my stomach hurt more than a corset does.
Last we heard, you were in a relationship with a musician (Theo Hutchcraft of Hurts). Is that still true?
No, I’ve been single for the better part of a year, and I’ve had about six boyfriends since that last episode. I’ve been really good at keeping my love-life under wraps. But I’m currently single.
Why do you love musicians?
I’m still a sucker for musicians. The creative element, I guess. It’s not a groupie thing. It’s about admiring it, because I’m not musical at all. I’ve been a muse for a number of musicians and it’s pretty great to have a song written about you. That whole tribute-muse, artist-muse thing is very appealing to me.
I bet you get a lot of fan art. Best and creepiest, please.
People get me tattooed on them a lot. Women, mostly. When they’re really big, prominent tattoos of my portrait, and when they’re really beautiful, I find it a massive compliment because of the relationship between pin-up art and tattooing, I see it in a different way–I don’t think it’s crazy. And for someone to choose your portrait is a big tribute. I’m always very honored.
Any facial tattoos?
Nope, and I’m glad.
Strangest piece of fan art?
I get the occasional letter from prison, which I really enjoy. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but they’re always really polite. And they never ask for naked pictures, because they’re not allowed to have them in jail. So they ask for nice photos.
You don’t live in Paris anymore. Why?
I left my apartment there about a year ago. There was too much pressure having two home bases to keep up with–there and L.A.
Has any part of you become permanently French?
I guess I became even more of the mythical French girl that I always read about in books when I was young, the one that wears berets and is mysterious.
I grew up in England. The mythical French girl was very important to us.
Have you ever actually seen her? The only mythical French girls I’ve ever seen were always imported, sadly. The ones I saw walking around Paris are from different parts of the world, except for the grand dames who are over 60 years old. The young ones are all wearing black tights and jean shorts, no makeup except thick black eyeliner and smoking cigarettes.
That’s a poor excuse for a mystery dream girl. She should be leaping onto a tram in Chanel, and you see her for five seconds, fall in love, then she’s gone forever.
I saw one mystery French girl. Just ONCE. I was walking along, and suddenly this 50s Porsche convertible cruised past me, and I saw a flash of red lipstick, and long white scarf, and she just threw me a little wave. Then she drove away.
She might have been English.
Was she chewing gum? Because if so, she was.
Thanks for talking, Dita.
Dita Von Teese’s Burlesque: Strip Strip Hooray! is at the Gramercy Theatre from Mon., Sept. 30 to , Oct. 4th (tickets).
Tom Cowell is a comedian. Follow him @mrtomcowell, or at mrtomcowell.com.